Survival horror game fans are living in an exciting time. The explosion of fantastic, unique indie horror games is a heartening sight, proving that the mainstream stagnancy is little more than a bump in the road. Among those upcoming games, Monstrum aims to add much needed replayability to a genre that frequently suffers from longevity issues. Monstrum, the procedurally generated survival horror labyrinth game in development at Junkfish studios, uses the unease of uncertainty to create an experience that is never the same twice. We talked to Monstrum’s sound designer and head PR person Jaime Cross about how Monstrum’s procedurally generated approach set to keep the horror fresh and unique every time.

Traditionally linear survival horror games tend to lose their fright factor on subsequent playthroughs. Monstrum plans to overcome this shortcoming by adding a random element. Monstrum procedurally generates its location and randomises the enemy you encounter. This makes every playthrough unique – and scary. “We wanted to make a replayable horror game,” Cross told us, “as we felt that repeated playthroughs of linear games lead to their scares and set pieces being less impactful.”

Monstrum strands the player on an abandoned cargo ship in the middle of the ocean, and makes them prey for a lone creature. Cross hinted that the game will have some form of story, but that they’re keeping it “under wraps for now.”

Stacked containers in port

Fear comes in many flavours, and Junkfish know what feeling they’re trying to evoke, and how. Fear of the unknown and the fear for survival are squarely targeted, making you harried prey of an unknown enemy. “You don’t know where you are, or where you’ve to go, or what’s chasing you.” Cross told us. “And when you do, you don’t want it to kill you.” The experience can be quite intense, with some of the victims lucky enough to have played some of the game already at EGX and GDC getting rather terrified – especially on the Oculus Rift build. “[i]t may be a bit much for some people.” Cross told us. “Even when we’re testing it you still get the ‘oh crap!’ when someone’s been spotted.”

While each map is procedurally generated, the basic setting doesn’t change. Monstrum strands you on a (mostly) deserted ship, and the resulting maze that creates. “We wanted to do something that was a bit less traditional but still fit with the whole enclosed and being chased theme.” Cross told us. “I mean, asylums have been a fairly common locale, and if you were in anything ground-based you could just find a window and work on escaping that way.” Being stranded – truly stranded – is a rare experience in the modern world of phones with GPS, satellites, and omniscient electronic monitoring. Having the player stuck on a ship at sea reinforces the feeling of isolation – it’s a primal fear. “Also,” Cross admitted, “the designer has a fear of being stranded at sea, so that may have come into play too.”

Stacked containers in port

Ships, however, are not known for their locational variety. The team are aiming to get around this problem in a few ways. “We’re hoping to have a number of areas around the ship, and even the corridors might not ‘just’ be corridors, as there could be various obstacles in them.” Cross said. “There’ll be some larger, open spaces as well. In fact, the cargo hold and outer decks will be accessible.” Visually, the ship will have distinct sections that offer variety. “We’ve broken the entire ship down into areas, so hopefully they’ll all look, feel and sound quite different. The crew quarters may look a bit more lived in albeit rusty, but the underbelly or engine rooms might be darker, more broken down and have additional hazards to try and cross such as flooded areas, broken wires and machinery or fires.”

Horror games without combat aren’t uncommon these days, with game designers placing players in a hostile environment with no way to fight back. Monstrum puts a twist on this concept. While there is no combat, Monstrum does give the player an avenue for retaliation. This comes in the form of traps and distractions. Distractions require planning to use effectively, since, as Cross rightly notes, “you can’t really distract something that’s already chasing you”. Distractions can be simple, like environmental elements such as radios and TVs that make noise that you may be able to carry around, or more complex environmental fixtures that require a trigger, like turning a generator on or off. Traps are more dramatic, and consist of things like setting a room on fire or flooding a section of the ship. While some of these traps require the use of items together – like emptying a fuel can then using a lighter to make a fire – there are no plans for a complete crafting system. Not all traps are equally effective on each type of creature, though, and there’s always the possibility that you aren’t the only one on the ship who can set up traps and distractions. There will, of course, still be places to hide when you’re discovered, but Junkfish “don’t want Monstrum to simple be a ‘run and hide’ type of game.”

Stacked containers in port

In keeping with Monstrum’s procedurally generated nature, you won’t always be facing exactly the same enemy every time you play. Each playthrough will have one real, tangible pursuer – no ghosts here – that remains consistent for that playthrough. However, which enemy will be your foe is chosen randomly from three monster types. Creatures are AI driven and randomly placed, meaning they could be lurking anywhere on the ship, waiting to strike. They also don’t stay put, preferring to track you down the best they can. Each creature type also behaves differently, with Cross giving the example of the ‘Brute’ – “the ‘Brute’ that we have just now is very physical and will chase you down once he sees or hears you, but others, like I’ve hinted at before, might use your own tactics against you.” While it’s currently three monster types and one monster per playthrough, the developers are considering having challenge modes with more monsters, and plan to support the game post-release if it is received well, perhaps with more monster types.

Audio design is important for building atmosphere in any horror game, and, as the audio designer, Cross was more than eager to tell us all about how Monstrum’s soundscapes and effects will thrill and terrify. It begins with the environment, according to Cross. “I’m aiming to play off the fact that it’s a broken down ship quite a bit, so expect a lot of random shifts, creaks and things moving in the distance.” he told us. “As far as music goes, each monster will have their own sound design and musical themes.” Again, Cross used the ‘Brute’ as an example, translating his imposing physicality into “heavy and physical” audio. “Musically he’s very percussive and industrial, while others will be completely different.” Being near monsters could alter the audio effects too, with Cross telling us that “if something’s nearby it might affect how you hear things, or cause the player’s breathing noises to change.” The music follows this situation and creature dependent model too, with the standard ambient track that loops in the background changing when you get spotted, altering depending on who is chasing you.

Stacked containers in port

Cross and the team have had to rework some of the Unity engine’s audio systems to allow for what they want to do aurally. With the aim of making “the big corridors sound big and the small rooms feel quite enclosed”, the team have slotted a custom reverb engine into Unity. “A lot of people don’t appreciate that implementation of audio is a big part of making things sound good, and even more don’t know that it can be a sizeable challenge.” Cross told us. “I’m hoping to work some 3D audio implementation into it as well, but that’s a big task. If we’re able to have players hear the monster thumping around on the deck above them then I think it’d add a lot to the experience.”

Monstrum is being developed using v4 of the Unity engine. While the exact performance of the final game is still in flux, Cross told us that the framerate will be as high as possible with a scaleable resolution. Junkfish are currently devoting their time to the PC version right now, but Cross told us that the team would probably try to get in touch with console makers, “if the opportunity arose and everything panned out well enough”.

Stacked containers in port

Monstrum is currently in development for PC, Mac, and Linux, with Oculus Rift support, at Junkfish studios. It’s currently slated for a Q3 2014 release. It’s also been Greenlit on Steam, so you’ll be able to snag it on Steam. Thanks very much to Jaime Cross and Junkfish for taking the time to talk to us. We’ll keep you updated on Monstrum as it develops.

Lachlan Williams
Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

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