The Safe Room: How Game Designers Create Horror

Resident Evil isn’t the first survival-horror game, but it’s probably the most quintessential. Its mansion’s dilapidated halls are fraught with danger, yet nestled deep amongst the hostile architecture are a few pockets of solace.

The safe room — a brief respite away from the horrors outside. Resident Evil’s first safe room is no more than a cupboard under the stairs. An old storm lantern illuminates the room and paints shadows against walls of bare concrete. It may be sparse and claustrophobic, but it’s a place to rest and recuperate nonetheless.

There’s more to these safe rooms than simple ambiance and the sorrowful sound of tinkling pianos. At the back of the room is a storage chest used to take stock of items and equipment. Sometimes there will be a clip of ammunition or healing herb to replenish. By the door sits a jerrycan filled with kerosene — something to burn away the darkness. Next to it, on an old table stand, is the most important thing of all, the typewriter. Resident Evil’s safe rooms are also save rooms, and the typewriter can record your progress and ensure that no mutant dog or crimson-headed zombie can wipe away the struggles of the past.

Resident Evil Remake

The Safe Room

I’m not the only person in the world fascinated by safe rooms. Dillon Rogers is an independent game developer and somewhat of an expert on the subject. He’s currently working on his own survival-horror game, Gloomwood, but he also runs The Safe Room on Twitter where he curates various video game hideaways and retreats.

It’s fair to say some of the collected games are unusual — Dillon is currently playing through Arkane’s oft-forgotten commercial flop Arx Fatalis. This taste for offbeat and quirky experiences is something consciously developed by Dillon. “Games have always been a part of my life, but I feel like most of the ones that define my current tastes I played after college when I started to seek out games that were more obscure or that I missed in my adolescence.”

Arx Fatalis

Whilst the weird and eerie play an important role in many of the safe rooms featured, it’s another kind of experience that really ties these games together. “Horror permeates most of my interests and work one way or another. Truly effective horror, the kind that keeps you awake at night staring at your ceiling, requires an eye for atmosphere, pacing and release that feels visceral and arresting. The safe room is one major component for how horror games achieve this.”

As both a developer and fan of horror, Dillon’s interest in safe rooms comes from the “level of craftsmanship that horror demands in order to be effective”. Safe rooms are part of that craft — an amalgamation of intensified mood and careful, purposeful design. Dillon is quick to point out that safe rooms aren’t exclusive to the survival-horror genre. “There are plenty of games that still explore the tension and release cycle that traditional horror game safe rooms established. For example, Dark Souls or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. aren’t strictly horror games, but they have elements that make them feel like one at times.”

Resident Evil 4

Rising Tension

It’s these ideas of pacing, tension and release cycles that appear to make safe rooms such effective tools. Dillon thinks the rooms “play multiple roles”, but one of the primary ones is their function as save rooms, as with Resident Evil and its typewriter. “They make great emotional releases, they’re good points to drop/pickup the game.” Dark Souls’ bonfires work similarly, adding to the games’ horror-like rhythm of rising tension and finally — *exhale* — euphoric release.

In this respect safe rooms play an important dramatic function in the overall structure of a game. They can be places of mental refuge, sanctuaries of reflection — a much needed pause or gap in the action “where new strategies or plans can be adopted”. Dillon states that “a large part of the drama of safe rooms is the hope they represent. The context that the player may actually survive this nightmare.”

Prey (2017)

Tension is important to any drama. As anyone who’s watched a Michael Bay movie can attest to, there can be such a thing as too much action. The relief a safe room provides is critical here. “Pacing is probably the most important element in making horror feel right. If the creator is pushing too hard and trying to elicit a reaction from the audience too often, they start to expect it and the tension is lost. Yet, if they’re not applying enough unsettling elements (through lighting, sound, composition, etc.), the audience may get bored and lose interest. It’s a balancing act that is notoriously hard to do well.”

If creating horror is like walking a tightrope, it’s easy to understand why shelter is so important, as safe rooms effectively pump the breaks on the pacing, ensuring things don’t tip over into an impotent extreme. Dillon uses the example of spreading things out when designing the pace of a game — resources, ammo, enemies, and of course safety — “the creator doesn’t have to do much more. The player will put themselves on edge by thinking that their current supplies won’t be enough to make it to the next safe room. An immersed audience will start to scare and doubt themselves.”

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

Connecting The World

Playing such an important role in the structure and pacing of a game means the location of these rooms is critical. “A good safe room has a large reach and keeps itself on the player’s radar even when they are far away. The player should be factoring in how they’re going to route to and from the room, and how that traversal will affect their supplies and status.”

Dillon suggests that the best safe rooms are those that form a kind of network with the rest of the level. These rooms shouldn’t just be sealed bubbles of isolation, but places that reach out and modify the player’s relationship to a game’s space. Perhaps this is why Dillon holds a non survival-horror game like Dark Souls in such high regards.

Dark Souls (Firelink Shrine)

“I think something like Firelink Shrine from the first Dark Souls is my all-time favorite. You have a space that reaches its tendrils into every corner of the game world. It’s also one of the only locations that has active music and has NPCs that are neutral or friendly to you (compared to everywhere else where things are just trying to wear your skin as a new jacket). After spending hours wandering the dark tunnels of the Catacombs or the swamps of Blighttown, it is absolutely euphoric to enter the sunlight and hear that soothing music again.”

Whilst it’s often the meditative calm of a safe room that is most memorable, it’s clear that these small, innocuous spaces reach much further. Their relationship to pacing, their dramatic function and ability to break-up tension, as well as the ways in which they connect to surrounding space to reconfigure how we play, shows the extent to which a single well-designed component can impact the whole. Perhaps the most important, and horrifying, element of these rooms is the fact that they’re never truly safe. Reaching one may bring temporary relief, but it is simultaneously a reminder that “eventually you will have to go back out into that dangerous world”.

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