Welcome to the Ward
Entry #3- The Challenge of Choice
So, as October approaches and the desolate halls of Coma Ward’s hospital creep toward Kickstarter, I suppose it’s time we discuss what make Coma Ward different from every generic piece of shlock horror media resting on DVD and book shelves across the world.
Unlike your H.P. Lovecraft novels, with their dreaded ancient horrors, and your Wes Craven movies, filled with shrieking teenagers and pillars of cascading blood, games are an interactive medium. I know, I’m obviously the first individual to make this astonishing revelation. Yet, I ask you to grasp this revolutionary concept to the best of your ability.
Folks play games to exercise agency. Yes, all games have a narrative, whether intentional or not. However, players choose games as an activity over film and book to have control and influence. That need to have choice and agency is troubling when it comes to horror. As I stated in an earlier Designer Diary, good horror features disempowerment. So, choice and control are often the antithesis of good dreadful horror.
How does a fledgling designer, who has obviously bitten off way more than they can chew, handle such a flustering dilemma? Aside from crippling alcoholism, chill your jets there Hemingway… Well, let me introduce you to Coma Ward’s Hallucination Card.
Well, Coma Ward’s Hallucination Card…back.....>>>>>>
As Players explore the eerily abandoned rooms of St. Dymphna Memorial General Hospital, Players will have to Focus through their Terror and Check if they hallucinating. If a Player is focused, they search the room and find something useful; like a Clue or maybe some clothes. If a Player is hallucinating, the Player to their left draws a Hallucination Card. Here’s where things get good.
Ya see, Hallucination Cards used to be called Event Cards. Generic and uninspired, I know. That’s why publishers exist, they make sure designers actually try and innovate. Also, they make the games real, which is a miracle in itself and you should think your lucky stars for publishers everyday…
Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, yeah, Hallucination Cards. Hallucination Cards are a nice little lapse in reality that cause all manner of freaky sh—stuff to happen. For instance, the lights of the room a Player is in might just start flickering violently. Well, now that Player has a choice to make. They can leave the room, enter further, or just listen for a second.
Depending on the choice they make, something special happens. Let’s say for example’s sake our hallucinating Player decides to just leave this flickering room.
Uh oh, looks like the door slammed shut. Our little hallucinating patient better try to muscle it open with a Strength Check. If they manage to power the door open, it looks like they’re able to get themselves an Item Card, which might be a Clue or maybe a weapon of some kind.
The Hallucination Deck, the creatively named stack of Hallucination Cards, holds a myriad of possible delusions for Players to experience. However, many of the cards have the same inciting event and the same choices to make. And, some insidious designer gave these recycled cards entirely different results for each choice.
So, if a Player gets the same Hallucination Card on a failed Focus Check while searching a room, and makes the same choice in reaction, the Player will get an entirely different result.
In an even more villainous twist, the Hallucination Cards don’t get discarded. Once a Hallucination Card is read, it is placed on the bottom of the Hallucination Deck. There are situations that will cause the Hallucination Deck to get shuffled, meaning a Player could encounter the same Hallucination Card multiple times in a game. All the while, never knowing what result each choice will get them. Thus, the Player is forced to embrace the futility of agency, yet still cling to the illusion of control.
That, dear and patient reader, is how you maintain the agency a game demands while still implementing the disempowerment of good horror.
Is it the most original concept? No, obviously not. Innovation went away when human beings invented the printing press. Also, I’m not designing in a vacuum, I know Dead of Winter has a similar mechanic with the Crossroad Cards. Anyone who has read a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel has encountered the “what do you do” narrative device.
What makes Coma Ward’s Hallucination Cards unique is the horrifying narrative. Honestly, some of these cards feature truly disturbing results. During one playtest session, a Player failed a Focus Check while Rummaging through a Room Tile. The Player hallucinated “A baby cries from inside the room!” The result of their choice caused the Player to leave the table. We actually had to stop the game so they could compose themselves.
September is coming to a close, which means as the leaves change and the nights grow longer, Coma Ward is coming to Kickstarter soon. As October’s Jack-O-Lantern glow over takes the calendar, be sure to Check your Focus (and your wallet) and back Coma Ward.
Also, for those that made it this far, here’s the complete Hallucination Card from the above example. Maybe this minute insight will aid you in your future hospital explorations...