There aren’t a lot of genres across all entertainment media that are harder to nail than horror, and when it comes to psychological horror in particular, things can get even trickier. With the upcoming Ikai, developer Endflame is taking on that challenge, and so far, the signs are definitely encouraging. Their upcoming first person horror game looks unsettling and creepy in all the right ways, and with a feudal era story and setting steeped in Japanese folklore, it’s got an inherently fascinating hook as well. Curious to learn more about the game, we recently reached out to its developers with a few of our questions. Below, you can read our conversation with Laura Ripoll, producer and designer at Endflame.
"Japanese folklore has a whole world of mysteries, ferocious creatures and fascinating ghost stories appealing to any horror lover. It is just something that has always attracted us, a common interest between every member of the team. Not just as developers, but as players, we felt that there were so few games that had successfully brought to life such creepy J-horror tales, thus we decided to create our own approach."
Horror can be a difficult thing to implement properly, especially psychological horror, which is what Ikai seems to be focused on. Can you talk about how you’ve approached that aspect of the game during development, and how you’ve ensured that the horror is as potent as possible?
We’ve taken the approach horror movies take, indeed. Ikai follows a designed pace that keeps evolving in the course of the game, with its highs and lows, which makes it easier to guess what the player is feeling at each situation and plan the gameplay accordingly.
We didn’t want to fall into trying to keep a high level of tension during the whole game because it can get tedious and players would eventually get used to it, making the events lose their desired effect consequently. By avoiding this practice, we have been able to design Ikai more accurately. This lets us ensure the game is actually scary.
Ikai’s usage of Japanese folklore in its story and settings is definitely one of its more intriguing elements. Why did you decide to build your game’s story around that?
Japanese folklore has a whole world of mysteries, ferocious creatures and fascinating ghost stories appealing to any horror lover. It is just something that has always attracted us, a common interest between every member of the team. Not just as developers, but as players, we felt that there were so few games that had successfully brought to life such creepy J-horror tales, thus we decided to create our own approach.
How much of an emphasis does the game put on exploration? Additionally, what’s the approach you’ve taken to level design and the size of the game’s environments in light of that?
Exploration is the way throughout the story of the main character is revealed, so it is something of the game we really want to highlight.
The level design has been a bit tricky because we wanted the players to recognize the environment to strengthen their bonds with the place. However, it is difficult to make them remember a huge space interesting enough to keep exploring the same areas. That is why we have kept the main small scenario of a shrine, where the players will keep returning and, additionally, we have added other bigger exterior scenarios that will let the players explore very differentiated areas and prevent the monotony.
Ikai is focusing quite a bit on stealth, it seems, but will the game also have combat mechanics?
Ikai won’t have any sort of combat. Nevertheless, we did come up with a tool to purify evil yokais without involving direct combat and thus achieving a feeling of powerlessness.
The seal drawing is a double-edged mechanic, and that’s what makes it intriguing. The seal is the only thing which can defeat the evil creatures, but time and concentration are needed because drawing the seal involves real precise movements instead of just pressing a button. The player is found in a vulnerable situation while drawing, being completely unable to see what is happening around. It is up to the player whether to quit drawing and check if there is any threat, look for a safer place or to keep making the seal regardless of what may occur. Yet, at the end, the seal must be done anyway in order to defeat the creatures.
"We play with the same couple of simple mechanics to ensure that any player can master them easily. What makes them interesting enough, once the players know how they work, is not the mechanic itself, but the situation where it is required."
One of the most interesting things that you’ve said about Ikai is that every mechanic in the game is built to put further emphasis on its tense atmosphere and invoking a feeling of dread in the player. My question is, how do you ensure that that is being done effectively, especially without perhaps going overboard with things, which is a trap that horror games can sometimes fall in?
By trying to keep things simple. We play with the same couple of simple mechanics to ensure that any player can master them easily. What makes them interesting enough, once the players know how they work, is not the mechanic itself, but the situation where it is required. We break the pattern the players have gotten to know in past situations and that makes them feel tense and uncertain while, at the same time, they know perfectly how to perform because it is a mechanic they have already mastered.
Roughly how long will an average playthrough of Ikai be?
Ikai will last an average of 3 hours, but it can very likely last longer for people interested not only in the lore of the game itself but also in the Japanese folklore, since there is a Collectibles system that gathers the several yokai pages and hidden objects found in the game to convey the mysteries behind each of them.