Why don't more games have devious serial killer plots?

This isn’t actually a specifically IF question, and it’s kind of cynical. But I was just reading about Heavy Rain, where I understand that the main protagonist has to survive a bunch of challenges set by a serial killer who wants to test his blah blah blah because of blah blah blah traumatic childhood event.

And I wondered: Why don’t more games – not specifically IF games – use this kind of frame? The device of a sadistic serial killer who sets traps for his victims because he likes to see them squirm/meet challenges/prove their worth/make tough decisions/test his killbots is pretty common in movies (and somewhat in literature), and it seems like it provides a great answer to the eternal question in games, “Why am I surrounded by all these deathtraps?” It even provides a justification for multiple deaths – new life = new victim.

But I don’t know that many games actually use this frame. I can think of two games that use something similar: Mighty Jill Off (a platformer) has the PC going through absurd trials to please her dominatrix, and I Expect You To Die (an entry from the Jayisgames IF comp) is about a Bondian Big Bad who sets up wacky deathtraps. Still, it seems like an underused frame, given how well it would serve gameplay.

Thoughts? Am I missing some obvious games?


Ooh, good one.

Portal was my first thought, too. I can think of a few flash games that follow this format (not the names, of course, because I suck at names). I think part of it might be the end - somehow, for the story to be satisfying, there has to be a bit where the serial killer is caught/revealed/punished, and that can be a little difficult to match up with a gameplay that tends to be more reactive. You’ve got to go from reactive victim to understanding, making the villain vulnerable, and providing the PC the skills to exploit that vulnerability. The shift in tone is difficult to pull off in movies, too - which is why there’s often the hard-boiled detective character whose storyline runs parallel to the main protagonist victim.

That’s all speculation, though - I do think the end is the weak part of almost all the serial-killer games I’ve played, but I’m not sure if that’s why or not.

Now I really want to play a sort of rotating-character slasher game, similar to Scream. I think that would be hugely engaging. Having a roster of characters to play, and dying as most of them, and knowing at some point you’ve played as the killer . . . that would be fun. I’m not sure how you’d design it so that the appropriate characters died (and it was clear they were meant to die) while the others didn’t, but I’m sure there are Ways.

If you broaden things a little from serial-killer motivations to general you-are-gaming-because-someone-is-making-you motivations, there’s more. (Exhibit A: escape games. Why do you keep visiting your friend if he locks you in his restaurant/space ship/apartment/train station every time?)

It does seem like a genre that’s ripe for exploration though. And I’m surprised there’s no Saw-type opportunity to build your own death trap. It’s popular to drown your sims - why wouldn’t it be popular to set up a horrific gauntlet of traps and see who makes it through?

There are the Laura Bow games.

That last is the essential mechanic behind Lock & Key. I wouldn’t mind playing more games in this vein, but I can understand why authors might not welcome the comparison.

Unlikely as it may sounds, that is a pretty accurate description of the central “story” of Professor Fizzwizzle and the Molten Mystery. One suspects that it has been used by more puzzle games, but that’s not the genre I have most knowledge of.

The 2005 IF Comp game Snatches has something like this set-up.

It would play as a solution for the ‘why all the deathtraps’ conundrum, but not a good solution for it, because good solutions are plausible, and the plot you have described is entirely implausible, however common in the movies.

So, yeah, it is odd why more games don’t use it, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I wish they did. Really, this sort of plot makes very little sense and only works to the extent that you can substitute ‘serial killer’ for ‘insane person who can do things of great personal pointlessness that we don’t want to have to explain’. This plot element is useful for IF as an inevitable side effect of the fact that it’s useful for any storytelling that tends toward nonexistent character motivations (as puzzle games and two-dimensional crime thrillers, do). Being ‘useful’ to the writer, though, doesn’t make it any more believable for the reader, unfortunately.

Not my favourite type of villain, personally. Obviously. 8)


Oh, I agree Paul. Think of Speed; the only reason for the villain to design the bomb that way was to provide the pretext for some action sequences. That’s why my question was somewhat cynical. Though maybe games could get away with this as a self-conscious homage to that kind of movie (as “I Expect You To Die” does – its implementation is rickety but at the level of plot it’s quite charming).

Thanks for all the comments. (gravel: I’d say most escape games are plotless, and also deathproof so they don’t fit this genre, though there’s one rather horrifying series that does. Also, for design-your-own-deathtrap games, maybe Dwarf Fortress?)

Dungeon Keeper. The Citadel mode of The Wheel of Time. Dozens of RPGs with a trap-skill or trap spells.

And Lemmings, of course, even though it may not have been the intended play style.

It works for me about as well as “the prophecy says you must gather the eight shards of Ooga-booga!” or “your village has burned to the ground, and only you, a twelve-year-old with a stick, can overturn the evil king who did it!” Which is to say, it’s a pretext, and I can tolerate it as long on the grounds of suspension of belief, as long as there’s not too many other demands on that suspension. (Saw: yes, Saw IV: no)

Well, that’s another cynical aspect of the thought, which is that for a lot of games it seems as though one of the more ridiculous devices in movies would be a step forward in terms of plot. (Though I think the trap-devising serial killer may just be a genre convention, and excusable as such.)

At the risk of being a self-publicizing whore: tinyurl.com/se7en-if

Neurosion: I’d say, it’s very hard to immerse into a game where the protagonist is a serial killer. At least if the player is not a serial killer. He wouldn’t know what to do next, unless the game controls the player, e.g. by limiting his options or by spoon-feeding the characters “thoughts” to the player. Both options are a big annoyance.

Yeah, my first reaction to that proposed game was “I would quit it before the first command.” Too icky, and I actually liked Seven as a movie (though developments since then may have lowered my tolerance for torturey plots). The works that manage to transcend the absurdity of this plot device silly might be Seven and the various “People forced to fight to the death on TV in a future dystopia” books and movies (though see this comic and the first question below).

Anyway, that’s not really what I’m thinking of – I’m thinking of playing the victim forced to deal with the deathtraps, not playing the murderer. Lots of games cast you as serial killers of some sort.

Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto seem to be selling just fine, though.

Heh, yeah, that was a pretty preposterous concept for a movie. The advantage of a concept like that though is that I only have to get over the suspension of disbelief once. If I can see my way past the fantastical premise, and take it ‘as read’, I can enjoy the rest of the movie (well at least until the bus starts jumping gaps, Evil Knievel style; they should’ve just packed it in at that point).

Whereas, with serial killer movies, the killer usually constructs more and more elaborate killing scenarios every time and I have leap a little higher every time – anyway, they just don’t work much for me. Silence of the Lambs was good but if you think about Silence of the Lambs it is completely unlike most serial killer movies. None of the actual deaths that happen in the movie are serial killings. (Well beyond the first that starts the investigation.) They are all escape attempts by Hannibal Lecter, and then there is one victim that the actual hunted serial killer just threatens to kill for the whole movie. The movie has its own interesting structure, it’s not just: improbable gruesome death #1; even more improbable death #2; escalating death #3 – catch him before he commits another awesome death! – #4, #5, ad nauseum etc…

Well, the prophecy thing is better than the serial killer as long as you buy the one-time special plausibility offer of… the prophecy itself. The 12-year-old saving the world thing, yeah… typically much worse than the serial killer thing, but mostly because with some exceptions it’s for obvious reasons a ‘juvenile’ genre that dispenses with plausibility, etc.


Ok, you caught me by words. I wrote “serial killer”, but meant “pathologic serial murderer”. Like the plot Neurosion had described in his blogpost.

It’s not the prophecy that gets me so much as the eight shards. I can’t keep from noticing that ever since I read about plot coupons. Off-topic warning about that article:

[rant]“It’s only in the last few decades that serious fiction has begun to make serious reference to its own fictitiousness” is one of the stupidest things ever written in a smart article. You should be banned from opining about the history of fiction if you haven’t at least opened Tristram Shandy.[/rant]

Not that that “collect this set of magic items” can’t work as a plot – Harry Potter does a fine job of this, I think, partly because it takes a long time to get around to revealing that that’s what’s happening, and partly because there’s some motivation for there to be a bunch of plot coupons.

I’m thinking of the Horcruxes rather than the Hallows, and given their purpose it’s clearly in Voldemort’s interest to make a bunch of them.

But it seems like an easy and lazy hook for a game (one plot coupon per level!) unless it’s justified very well. Not that I haven’t enjoyed some games that do this.

(In fairness, Assassin’s Creed penalizes you significantly for killing bystanders. Not doing so is one of the core tenets of the eponymous creed.)