When The Suffering hit home last year, it came as an unexpected surprise. Here was the type of game horror fans were clamoring for. A game that earned every single bit of its M rating. It had it all! Buckets of gore, inventive creatures, a setting that oozed atmosphere, and a killer storyline. By the time you read this, the sequel to the horror hit will be on store shelves. How will it match the greatness of the original? Our very own Ryan Acheson had a chance to speak with Creative Director and Writer of The Suffering: Ties That Bind, Richard Rouse III, and the results will warm your black little horror loving hearts!
Ryan Acheson: We were big fans of The Suffering here at Dread Central. When looking back on the original, what are the major elements that stand out as having been truly successful, and what are the areas you felt needed improving in the sequel?
Richard Rouse III: We were quite pleased overall with how the first The Suffering turned out and in particular how people reacted to the game so positively. There are two major successes in my mind. The first is the freedom we gave the player in the gameplay. A lot of horror games previous to The Suffering had severely limited what players could do in terms of where they could look, how easily they could move their character, how aggressively they could play, and even how the story could resolve itself. We wanted players to feel they could do what they want, yet still be terrified. The second major success in my mind was in the storytelling. We were trying a lot of new things that we weren’t sure players would like, such as the morality system, the different layers of the back-story, and the historical aspect to the game. As it turned out, players got into the different moral choices in the game. They liked to concoct theories about how Torque got like he is, why he is able to turn into a creature, and so on. Players also seemed to enjoy reading up on the game’s universe through the archives, the notes Torque finds, the chatting companions he meets, and so forth. I’m pleased to say we’ve brought back all those popular elements for Ties That Bind.
In terms of what could be improved, the biggest thing for me was the gameplay balancing. The first game was far too easy, and this actually was detrimental to how frightened players could become while playing it. A big part of tension and suspense in a videogame is fear of dying and losing what you’ve worked so hard to achieve. If the game is too easy, that possibility for fear is taken away. We’ve made sure not to make that mistake this time around, so you’ll definitely notice the game getting significantly harder as you progress through it. And defeating the game on the “Impossible” setting is incredibly hard, to the point where only a few of the developers have managed to do it. I think players will really have their work cut out from them if they’re going to make it through on Impossible and achieve the most positive of the endings.
RA: What aspects of Ties That Bind are you most proud of?
RR: I’m really pleased that we managed to stay true to the tone and story of the first game. Through a lot of agonizing and rewriting, we built on the story of Torque’s life without having to invalidate anything that happened in the first game. We even managed to give players more choice in how the story unfolds this time around through our significantly more involved morality system. I’m also really proud of the way the new Insanity Creature turned out; Torque’s creature form is definitely the best weapon in the game this time around, and his change of appearance and the screen effects on him are incredible. And I’m really proud of the improved look of the environments in the game. The art team at Surreal pulled together and made some amazing stuff. The first game had great looking creatures, and Ties that Bind still has fantastic creatures but now also has amazing environments. It’s a big step forward.
RA: Being able to import your save file from the previous title is a really good idea for a sequel to a game that had a branching storyline, but did it make coming up with a storyline for the sequel even more complicated, and how many different endings did this one need?
RR: I’d say that the story for the sequel is not more complicated, at least not as far as the player is concerned. We toyed with various more complicated stories with oodles more characters, but we eventually whittled it down to something which is fairly simple and matches the complexity of the story in the first game.
However, as you suggest, this time around we’re not only supporting multiple endings, but also multiple beginnings. That did make the story quite a bit more complicated to write. Plus, we needed to have different versions of the endings based on the different beginnings. If you think about it, this makes sense because if you play with the beginning where Torque was framed for killing his wife, you’re going to need a different ending than if you started the game where Torque killed her in cold blood. The event changes Torque’s life so fundamentally, it’s hard to see how the endings wouldn’t have to change as well. The ending of Ties That Bind has two different stages with the first having six different ways it can play out, while the second has five. Furthermore, the writing was still more complicated because we really changed the story throughout the player’s play experience, not just in its ending. So significantly different events will happen in the middle of the game, which meant still more writing. This means the play experience is significantly more tailored to the particular player, so players will, to some extent, make their own stories based on how they play. To players the story won’t seem complicated; it will just seem personal. Which is what I really wanted to achieve.
RA: A lot of what made The Suffering stand out was its prison-based setting, but now that we’ve had a few other games with similar settings, was the decision to go somewhere else with the sequel a story-based one or did it have more to do with the fact that it had already been done?
RR: It wasn’t so much that other games had done a prison setting; it was more that we had already done a prison setting. When you’re doing a sequel, you want to keep your audience interested by setting the game somewhere new, but you also actually want to keep yourself as developers interested by varying up the scenery. While players may play a game over a course of a few weeks, developers are faced with the same game for two or more years. After two years of prisons you really do want to see something different in your digital environments, just to keep your creative spark going. Developers who are facing new challenges — whether new game mechanics, new technology, or new environments — are more likely to do really compelling work than if they’re just rehashing things they have done before.
Fortunately, going to the city of Baltimore also perfectly fit with the storyline we wanted to tell. Torque’s from Baltimore, so a lot of the places from Torque’s life that were mentioned in the first game actually come to life in Ties That Bind. So we knew we were doing the right thing for the game while also providing ourselves with a change of scenery, which is always nice.
RA: Was it difficult to keep the game tense going out into more open environments than those allowed by a claustrophobic prison? Which of the new environments do you think best fit The Suffering?
RR: It was a big challenge making open streets work for a horror title like this. In the first game some of the most intense and disturbing spaces were also the most claustrophobic, which is not what you necessarily think of with the streets of Baltimore. But since most of the game takes place after a cataclysm has rocked the city (whereby the monsters that were once on Carnate Island are now running lose on the city streets), we were able to force the player down narrow alleys, tight canals, and abandoned tunnels beneath the city to provide a mix of the more open and more claustrophobic spaces. In the end, my favorite environment has to be the streets of Baltimore because they look so authentic and they fit so perfectly with Torque’s past. But there’s also the Grand Theater, where Dr. Killjoy holds court and the player first has a real encounter with his new nemesis, Blackmore.
RA: Are people that know Baltimore going to recognize any of the city?
RR: I think so. One of our lead environment artists lived in Baltimore for a number of years, and he was dedicated to making sure we maintained authenticity. Baltimore is a very distinct and interesting city with a specific vibe and feel, whether it’s the omni-present row houses, the grand old movie palaces that are still operational, or the brutally run down poorest neighborhoods. As bleak as some of these places are, I think players will definitely recognize them. And there won’t be any doubt that they belong in a horror game.
RA: Given that so much was made of the Stan Winston designed creatures in the original, I’m surprised only a handful of them are being brought back. The new monsters are definitely on a par with anything in the first game, but was there any pressure to keep as much of what Stan had designed as possible?
RR: On the first game Stan worked as a consultant, looking over our creature designs and making some suggestions for how they could be improved and so forth. All of the creatures were primarily designed internally by our character artists, though Stan’s input was useful, and we came up with some really cool creatures because of it.
However, I wouldn’t say not that many are coming back. Of the seven primary creatures from the first game, four of them are coming back in Ties That Bind. All these creatures have had a significant facelift, but you’ll still recognize old favorites like the Slayer, Burrower, and Mainliner. There was no real pressure to keep the old creatures from outside forces, it was more that we wanted to bring back the old favorites to keep the game feeling distinctly like The Suffering.
As you mention, I think the new creatures really are on par with the old ones. That’s because we have our same creature artist designing the creatures this time around as on the first game. One of my favorite new creatures is the Mauler, which is a dog-beast with a human head who hunts in packs. Our character artist has been drawing dogs with human heads for years, and we felt it was time to finally put one of them in a game. And I guarantee you’ll be impressed with the results.
RA: The creatures in the original were based around the various ways in which we have executed our criminals whereas in Ties That Bind they’re based more on urban social ills. How exactly do you go about developing something like poverty into a monster?
RR: In a way, the new creatures are based around execution methods as well; it’s just somewhat more indirect. But at the same time, these creatures and their subject matter are even more evil and disturbing. For instance, the number of people killed by lethal injection every year is dwarfed by the number of people who starve to death. Certainly the number of people killed by drug addiction greatly outstrips the numbers executed by any means. So, if you start to really think about the creatures and their subject matter, I suspect you’ll find them even more disturbing than the ones from the first game.
Still, though, you’re right: Trying to capture some of those concepts in a creature design can be quite a challenge. Some topics, like poverty, we just avoided because we knew it’d be impossible to make a creature that could really got that across. However, something like starvation is a lot easier to do, and we made exactly such a creature with The Gorger. He’s got spindly little legs with a distended potbelly and a gigantic jaw. He’s also constantly feeding off of corpses, which ties in his appearance with his actions. We chose the subject matter for our creatures very carefully, so you get cool creatures who also tie into the themes of the game perfectly.
RA: Given that the game offers both 3rd and 1st person viewpoints, does that complicate things when it comes to designing scary moments, and what do you think each viewpoint offers the player in terms of tension and atmosphere?
RR: It does sometimes. We’ve definitely had situations where we had to do two different sets of scripting for a particular scare, one for when players are in first person and one for when they’re in third. It can be a challenge, but we think it’s worth it. The switchable views are not so much about tension or atmosphere as they are about giving players the choice to play the game however they want. That’s been one of our guiding principles from the beginning, and though it’s often easier to give players fewer choices, in the end players will thank you for being able to play the game how they want.
RA: The Suffering is most known for its horrific action, but can we still hope to see some of the creepy quieter moments leading up to that?
RR: Absolutely. Good horror in any medium is all about pacing. The first game we weren’t entirely thrilled with how the pacing turned out, particularly toward the end where it got a bit repetitious. I think Ties That Bind is paced a lot better, so you’re still getting quiet moments and the scares associated with them all the way until the end of the game, and right when you’re least expecting it, a massive battle will start.
RA: The monstrosities that Torque turns into are apparently much more useful this time. How do the three different beasts impact the gameplay, and are you making sure that they’re useful as opposed to just necessary from time to time?
RR: We spent a lot of time redesigning Torque’s creature form for Ties That Bind. We really liked the concept of the creature from the last game but felt we could do better this time around, in particular in terms of game balancing. Through our focus testing early on, coupled with what we’d read on the message boards, we knew not that many players actually used the creature that much. In point of fact, they didn’t need to use it to make it through the game because there was so much projectile ammo scattered around and because the projectile weapons were often more powerful than the creature. So our mantra this time around was to rework the creature and definitively make the beast the “best weapon in the game.”
And I have to say it really is a lot more effective and exciting to play. And with the way we’ve balanced the game, players will need to use the creature just to survive. We’ve also added certain creatures that can only be killed while in insanity mode and certain obstacles that can only be removed by the creature. But the best thing about the reworked creature is that it actually changes its form based on the player’s current morality path in the game. Throughout the game players are able to make key decisions that alter the story and steer the player toward one of our multiple endings. The creature is now tied in to that, changing both in appearance and in terms of gameplay. The attacks he can perform change radically based on the player’s moral path. This is really exciting because replaying the game and following a different moral path will have a substantially different gameplay experience. There are nine different states to the creature’s special attacks with the attacks increasing in power as the player trends toward the more extreme ends of the moral spectrum.
With the way we’ve balanced the game, the creature will definitely be necessary to playing effectively, particularly on the harder difficulties. With all those new features, however, I think players will really want to use the creature mode in Ties That Bind. I really do think we succeed in making it the best weapon in the game.
RA: Are there any games or films that have come out since The Suffering that were inspirational or served as a reference title for the sequel?
RR: Not too many, a few. I finally got to see the Japanese film The Grudge and then its American remake, both of which I thought were quite good.
There’s a great little-known independent movie called Deepwater that I saw at the Seattle International Film Festival. It’s really more of a thriller than a horror movie, but it had a great psychological spin and visual style to it that inspired what we were doing. We were actually fairly far into development when I saw it, but it encouraged me to put in some last minute touches that play into Torque’s dementia.
There’s also a great British movie called The Descent that is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a while, though this can’t really be considered an inspiration since it only came out when we were basically in bug-fixing mode. Certainly a great movie though, well worth checking out.
In terms of getting at the Baltimore setting, I had been a fan of the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street for years, but doing research on this game, I finally got to see The Wire, which is truly David Simon’s masterpiece. And a TV miniseries that was a great inspiration was Simon’s The Corner, an unsensationalized, authentic story of the life in an impoverished and drug ravaged Baltimore neighborhood. It’s really grim and depressing stuff, which made it ideal inspiration for a horror game, particularly something as disturbing and upsetting as The Suffering: Ties That Bind.
Big thanks to Tara Monahan at Midway Home Entertainment for her help in setting this up and, of course, Richard Rouse III for his time!