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Renegade Kid on Dementium and the limits of the DS

Last week, we spoke with Renegade Kid's Creative Director, Jools Watsham, about some of the more general challenges the fledgling developer faced when bringing survival horror to the handheld, and today we'd like to get a little more specific. Good survival horror on a handheld? Sounds like quite an undertaking, and from some of what Watsham told us, a lot of effort went into bringing a traditionally home-based experience to a portable format. From the look of horror to the sound of fear, Renegade Kid had their work cut out for them with Dementium: The Ward.

Do you think people are skeptical about the idea of a survival horror game on a handheld?

We knew we had to push the limits in order to grab people's attention with a handheld horror title. I mean, let's face it – the Nintendo DS is pretty much the polar opposite of scary, so players will naturally go into the game thinking they can't possibly be spooked by anything on that cute, little system. So we had to make sure that as soon as the player starts the game, they feel it. They feel the environment, they feel the suspense, they feel the music, and most importantly they feel like they're actually in the game. Our goal was to create a title that the player gets so immersed in, they lose themselves. I think people not being frightened by their DS is to our lulls them into a sense of safety and security. We think Dementium: The Ward is going to surprise a lot of people, and hopefully make at least a few close up their DS because they're too scared to go on.

How did you work with the graphic limitations of the DS to create all the creepy environments?

We knew we would never be able to achieve graphically what could be done on a home console, but we wanted to create a suspenseful enough environment to keep the player on edge. We realized that with the smaller screen size we didn't need to incorporate a ton of tiny details because players wouldn't be able to notice them anyway. So we focused on making Redmoor Hospital look dirty and long abandoned, and generally a dark and forbidding place. This way we tap into the human emotion of being uneasy about not knowing what is right in front of you, or in your immediate surroundings. One of the things we used to really make up for any limitations was the use of the flashlight. It allows the player to get only a limited scope of what is around him. So you keep looking all around, moving the light into dark rooms and corners, just to make sure there's no one there. This instantly creates a sense of anxiety.

The DS is known for a lot of things, but sound isn't one of them. What challenges did you face when trying to recreate the creepy, exciting sounds that make horror games so great?

Sound is extremely important when creating a suspenseful horror game. Unlike a home console, players on the DS do not have the luxury of blasting the volume on a surround sound system. For the DS you have these relatively small speakers that are competing with the noise of the surrounding environment. So we decided that we needed to create attention grabbing sound effects that would actually be noticed in loud environments, but still be appropriate in quiet places or if you're wearing headphones.

So you'll notice that our game's music uses a lot of slow-playing piano so players can hear the notes. Our environmental sound effects are generally louder than the music so it helps immerse you in your location. Each creature in our game makes a unique noise so you'll often hear them coming before you see them. When your health gets too low, you'll hear the thumping of your character's heart. All this combines to create stand out audio that can creep you out even in pretty loud places.

One of the things the DS is known for is, well, portability, and that can affect the impact of a game like this. What are some of the little tricks you used to create suspense for the gamer when they are sitting in the real world?

We wanted Dementium to be just as frightening while being played on the subway as it would be if you were playing at home in the dark. Besides the things I've mentioned above like the eerie sound effects and environments, we incorporated certain elements to make the game more engaging and suspenseful. One thing we really put an emphasis on was getting smooth movement when you use the stylus to view your surroundings. We knew even slightly clunky movements would take away from the times when you're desperately trying to escape a horde of enemies. Another thing we did was create a solid AI system for the enemies, and have plenty of enemy types for you to face. We don't want players to ever feel safe, and have them constantly on their toes from beginning to end.

We'd like to thank Jools Watsham for taking the time to talk with us, and the folks at Renegade Kid as a whole for putting so much effort in. We can only hope it pays off -- and it's not long now before we find out!

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