Paranormal – Developer Matt Cohen Talks Horror Genre, Game Development, and Indie Horror
A few months ago, I wrote an Indie Spotlight about this scary game that I found on IndieDB and Desura called Paranormal. A game that was inspired by the Paranormal Activity movies, Paranormal is a first-person haunted-house simulator that scared the pants off unsuspecting players. It wasn’t your typical horror game, in fact, the game has no combat whatsoever and instead focuses on slowly introducing creepy hauntings; chairs moving by themselves, unsettling sights and sounds, and even creepy mannequins creeping up behind you for those oh-so-mortifying boo scares.
I had recently met with game developer Matt Cohen (AKA MattDementous) to talk about Paranormal, the horror genre, game development, and indie horror. At 19, Matt is perhaps one of the more successful and daring indie developers in the scene today.
Check out our full interview with Matt after the break.
JTM Games: Hi Matt, thanks for taking the time to join us today. Could you tell us how you got started with game design and development?
Matt Cohen: It started at an early age; I played a lot of videogames and I also loved writing. The first thing I did creatively with with games was modifying a Star Wars game and adding my own storylines to it. Eventually, I learned to make my own game; I started off with a few weird ones like a Billy Mays platformer (kind of like Super Mario) and from there I started making scary games.
JTM Games: How did you end up considering creating a game in the horror genre? It must be hard since big budget horror is more action-oriented and less about the scare these days.
Matt Cohen: The fact that big budget horror games are more action-oriented has actually worked in my advantage because I offer something that less of those games tend to offer. I first thought of making a game like Paranormal when I saw the Paranormal Activity movies and Blair Witch Project; I looked for games like it and I couldn’t find any so I decided “I’m gonna make one.” And I did.
JTM Games: Many are saying that big-budget horror is a dying breed right now and that the indie scene is the future of the horror genre; do you agree or disagree? Why do you think so?
Matt Cohen: Unfortunately, I do agree. Every horror franchise that I’ve grown up with have successfully killed themselves by turning into full-on action titles. I don’t understand why they would do that. When you design a horror game, you should stay true to that vision, stay true to the very end despite the fails. The goal when you’re creating the game should not be to make as much money as possible. It should be make the greatest game possible.
You can’t do that if you make decisions completely based on money and that’s what indies seem to be the best at; not caring so much about the money, instead they care more about creating the game that they’ve always dreamed about making. That’s what I’ve done.
JTM Games: For yourself, how do you balance the need to make money and your need to be creative?
Matt Cohen: I make a lot of stupid financial decisions; I will pay $50 for one really good sound effect because it sounds slightly different than another but just enough to be perfect to me. I put my game on sale a lot; it’s part of tons of bundles. It’s never really been about making money for me. It’s been about making just enough to help me make a game a little bit longer. That’s all I really need.
If I wanted to be rich, I would get a different job.
JTM Games: If you had a chance to go on-board a project like the big budget horror games that you grew up with, what would you change about those games and how would you create it and stay true to the horror genre?
Matt Cohen: Remove weapons. No weapons, and no combat. The whole point of horror is the feeling of helplessness. If you do not have that feeling, if you give someone a gun, they have something to combat helplessness. It’s not about fighting enemies, which it is now, with the focus on action because it kills the hopelessness and that’s the complete opposite of what you should be doing with horror.
There have been successes, games that have done this right, I feel that Silent Hill to a certain degree had made the weapons terrible on purpose so you would freak out while you’re trying to use them and that works. But there was also a Wii and PSP Silent Hill re-imagining called Shattered Memories where they removed all the weapons and combat and all you can do is run; a really good idea but the execution wasn’t perfect but that’s the kind of thing that I would love to see from horror games.
JTM Games: Were you surprised when Paranormal received so much support from the gaming community?
Matt Cohen: Yes I was, when I launched my Kickstarter campaign, I asked for $800 while other games and projects were asking for around $100,000 so I ended up making $8000 and that for me was surprising.
JTM Games: Could you talk about why you chose to create your game on the Unreal Engine?
Matt Cohen: Unreal Engine has been my favourite because it’s so easy to use. I feel like I’m playing a game while creating one and that’s something I didn’t get from the Source and Unity Engines. The interface is very intuitive, it supports all kinds of file formats. I’ve never had any trouble working with it.
JTM Games: Paranormal – for myself – was effective because the scares were so random and the atmosphere kept you tense until it got too much. Where did you come up with the ideas for Paranormal’s scares and hauntings?
Matt Cohen: Other than some of the obvious ones that I took heavy, heavy inspiration from common ghost stories and the found footage horror movies, every scare in the game is a reflection of my inner fears and my insecurities about life. For example, the dog being dead and buried in the backyard is a reflection of my inner fear of my dogs not living forever.
JTM Games: Successful indie horror titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Penumbra Overture, and One Night Trilogy have linear stories and scares; why did you decide to go with randomized hauntings and unscripted storytelling over a straightforward storyline?
Matt Cohen: Because I am a crazy person that did not know what I was getting into. But I’m very glad that I did because nobody else really has created a game like Paranormal, so technically I’m doing it the best and I’m the only one doing it this way as far as I can tell. It’s really challenging because the whole point of horror is to build suspense, build suspense, have something happen and then go back to building suspense again. It’s tough to do that when everything is randomized; sometimes it works great, sometimes it doesn’t. I take what I can get.
JTM Games: You had mentioned challenges when designing the game, could you talk about other difficulties you’ve encountered during the work on Paranormal?
Matt Cohen: Early on in the development, sleep was a difficulty; my own games scared me. Now it’s so routine that the noises don’t even faze me but early on that was a problem I faced. I also almost lost ALL of my work when my hard drive failed. I learned to create plenty of backups after that.
Now, I’m looking forward to the future of Paranormal. I’ve got some very concrete plans but my budget isn’t quite there. That’s one of the biggest difficulties of being indie; you have these huge aspirations that you can never truly deliver on unless you’re funded like you have a publisher, which I don’t.
JTM Games: HD sound design one of Paranormal’s biggest strengths; could you walk us through the process of creating audio for a horror game? Was it difficult finding or creating sounds that create tension or a creepy atmosphere?
Matt Cohen: A lot of the sounds, especially the mic ruffling when the character is pushed to the walls, I recorded just by picking up my webcam, clicking the audio record and just switching up my hands. That was always fun. The best part of audio design is when you put all the different MP3’s together and they end up working in unison perfectly. The ambiance, the background, the loud noises that the player’s mind focuses on, and the more quiet noises in the background that they subconciously focus on, all really adds up. It’s a lot of fun because Paranormal has 7.1 surround sound and if the player has a surround sound set up its out of this world.
I play it with surround sound headphones so I never rest until it sounds scary enough to drive someone insane.
JTM Games: Paranormal also has an expansion called Paranormal: The Town in development right now. What can players expect from the expansion?
Matt Cohen: I can say that if you liked Silent Hill or just the idea of an entire haunted town with randomized layouts, events, you’ll like the Town. It’s a little more story-driven but not quite as linear as you would think. It will fulfill your expectations completely.
JTM Games: Including Paranormal: The Town, how long have you been working on the game? Do you see yourself making it into a franchise like what happened with Slender?
Matt Cohen: I have no plans to make it into an entire franchise, but I think I’ll be updating it for free for a very very long time. I don’t personally see a Paranormal 2 happening; I see new stories being told through free updates.
JTM Games: Are you considering developing and releasing Paranormal for other platforms?
Matt Cohen: Currently Paranormal is available for Mac and PC, but I plan on eventually launching it on iOS and hopefully Linux and Android.
JTM Games: As an indie developer, what advice would you give to developers looking to break into the industry?
Matt Cohen: Just do it, make anything you can. Just play around, go on YouTube because there are a lot of free tutorials on there to teach you how to do anything you want to know. And what they don’t teach you in school, you can learn on your own in a matter of days or weeks. I taught myself almost everything I know; It’s very easy if you set your mind to it.
All it takes at first is a really good idea or even a decent idea and plenty of free time.
JTM Games: Final question, what legacy would you like to leave for yourself a s a game developer?
Matt Cohen: The dude that made the scary games. That’s all I really need. Right now I’m living my dream and that’s all the vanity I need. If I’m ever thought of as a pioneer for this kind of horror game, I would be completely flattered. As long as I make my game and people enjoy it, then I’m content.
I’d like to thank Matt Cohen for taking the time to talk with us at the Games Without Frontiers event earlier this month and sharing his story on developing Paranormal. If you’d like to check out the game for yourself, you can find it on Desura for $10.22 (CDN). If you’re on Steam, you can also help Matt by voting for Paranormal on Steam Greenlight.