A Q&A with Justin Ross of Slender: Source

Justin Ross of Ethereal Entertainment shares his diabolical scheme to bring the terror of games like Amnesia and Slender to multiplayer

Update: Slender: Source has undergone two name changes since this very popular interview went up and is now called “Faceless.”

Slender: Source has had horror gaming fans talking since it emerged from the twilight woods of obscurity earlier this week mainly because it sounds almost too good to be true. Indie sensation Slender re-imagined as a co-op survival mod for Valve’s Source engine, Slender: Source promises to bring the single-player scares of games like Amnesia, SCP and Slender to a multiplayer audience, which as promises go it’s pretty bloody big. Opinion amongst gamers is roughly split between those who consider such a thing impossible and those who believe it could be the answer to all their dark, guttural, multiplayer horror-craving prayers.

I managed to distract project lead, Ethereal Entertainment founder and all round nice chap Justin Ross from his coding long enough to answer some pertinent questions via email.

Bitscreed: Thank you for agreeing to this little Q&A, especially given all the attention Slender: Source is getting right now. Speaking personally as a horror gaming fan it’s been great to see more “pure” horror experiences such as Amnesia and of course Mark J Hadley’s Slender gaining greater popularity amongst gamers, so when I first heard about Slender: Source I couldn’t help but be intrigued. What has been the overall reaction to Slender: Source from the gaming community?

Justin Ross: Thanks for that lovely comment, I’ll try to word this as best as possible. The reaction to Slender: Source has been kinda mixed, and we’re doing our best to take in all comments, criticism and whatever else people feel would make this game/mod great. People have been concerned that the mod isn’t going to be scary, considering you’ll have three of your friends jumping about and possibly making a variety of genitalia jokes.

Luckily, we’ve found a way to make the horror experience truly stand out, and we can’t wait to show off the finished product. However, all the good feedback is giving us that inspiration. If you would’ve told me five years ago that a game or mod I was making would be getting all this media coverage I wouldn’t have believed it.

B: Given multiplayer is generally associated with shooting things, whereas a lot of horror film and literature relies heavily on a sense of quiet isolation for its impact, it’s understandable some people might not see how the two could possibly gel together. One of the biggest hurdles I see Slender: Source facing is players’ inclination to reassure and support each other when things start getting spooky, such as by cracking jokes to laugh the fear away. Even single player horror games like Amnesia suffer somewhat if you’ve got a friend by your side giving moral and emotional support. Can you reveal anything about what kind of tricks Slender: Source has up its sleeves to counter or even subvert this?

JR: Of course. With Slender: Source, the sense of isolation is gonna hit players right away. You’ll spawn with a buddy nearby, but they may be a few rooms down (for indoor maps) and even a few yards away, where as the other two players will spawn together quite a distance away.

We feel that isolating the players in a co-operative environment should prove a little interesting. The other thing we’re doing to add to the isolation is that you’ll only be able to hear voice-chat from players whom are alive, and pretty much right beside you. The farther they get away, the more their audio gets quiet, eventually silencing them if they move on too far.

B: Do you have any methods to counter teams of players using third party VoIP programs like Ventrilo to get around that?

JR: Sadly, we can’t really control anything with third party voice programs, or even the built-in Steam chat. Hopefully players will still get scared when they yell over the mic in these third party programs. Still won’t help them much though. We’re gonna be evil.

B: It definitely sounds like it’ll be in the players’ best interest to stick together as much as possible, like in Left 4 Dead 2 for example. Now in Mark J Hadley’s Slender the antagonist was a still, silent, ominous watcher who teleported around when you weren’t looking but generally just sort of stood there. You explicitly state on Slender: Source’s moddb page that there won’t be any combat and Slender Man himself will be able to kill players with one hit. Does that mean players will be dealing with a more visibly-mobile antagonist in Slender: Source?

JR: Haha, yeah our version of the Slenderman is hopefully going to be a much more terrifying foe and we’re sort of working with our own take on him. We’ve gotten reports of people complaining that his “tentacles” aren’t showing in screenshots and I’d like to come out and formally state that they’re hidden in his body, which upon killing a player they’ll pop out and he’ll get some-what “upgraded”. However, the whole upgrade idea is still in discussions amongst the development team. No worries though, it’s not like he’s going to grow wings and fly about the map.

In Slender, the only issue I seemed to have when playing was that he always seemed to appear behind me only, and I just kept looking straight. With Slender: Source we’re giving him the ability to appear anywhere, and be more than just a “teleporting” entity. Open a door and he may just be standing behind it.

This could be the start of something beautifully terrifying.

B: I imagine there’ll be some nervous muttering between players as they debate whether or not to open a door. Speaking of players you mentioned on Twitter you were having fun coming up with social groups for the playable characters. Will the individual characters have their own personalities like – to use the same comparison again – Left 4 Dead? If so, will there be any mechanical benefits to this or is it just for flavour?

JR: Well, as the social groups go we have four right now and we feel they’ll work with the game we’re trying to produce by using quote “the most popular” groups, or they were when I was in school. I’ll reveal one which is going to be heavily based off of the Goth/Emo sub-culture (minus the whole wrist-slitting crap). We’re hoping to have each character have their own unique set of voice commands, and hopefully give them their own personality. For example, one of the characters is being based off of a great friend of mine who’s supported me with game design for the past six years. I think it’s a nice way to re-pay him; even though he may be getting killed in game numerous ways. Oops.

B: Moving on to the more technical nuts-and-bolts side of things now I’m curious as to what gameplay mechanics Slender: Source shares with the Unity version and what new ones it brings to the table. Will players flashlights be dying left, right and centre after ten minutes, swiftly followed by the players’ characters (and maybe actual players if they’re really unlucky)? Or will you be a bit more forgiving about things like battery life and sprinting in Slender: Source?

JR: I’m glad you asked about flashlights specifically. Each map will spawn with only one flashlight near a player, meaning not everyone will have a flashlight, and only one person will. However, it can run out of batteries but we’re gonna be nice and place batteries in locations around each of the maps. We feel this will not only add to the isolation, and hopelessness but really tell people “you gotta work together if you want to live.”

Luckily, if the guy or girl carrying the flashlight gets killed off it will drop and allow for someone else to pick it up, but will the players be able to in their panicked state? We’ll see. The flashlight is like your one life-line, it’ll help you see dark corners, and even some of the environmental hazards we have planned such as large drops, finding batteries, etc. We recently talked about adding traps but those have been taken out, we didn’t see a point for the traps.

You’ll still be able to see playing on the maps without a flashlight, but we feel it’ll add some sort of comfort. Wouldn’t you want one wandering around an abandoned hospital?

B: Before I ask some more about environments can I confirm which version of Source you are using and its pros and cons?

JR: We’re using Source 2007, a really solid engine that most mods using Source seem to use. It’s been done well with one of my favorite mods ‘No More Room In Hell‘ and it’s such a versatile engine that we can set out what we planned to do. The only con is that the environments can’t be extremely massive, but that’s okay. I think people would get tired after exploring a forest that’s miles wide without anything happening.

B: Wide open spaces do tend to be somewhat antithetical to horror anyway. Speaking of locations you’re planning to have a hospital and forest maps ready at launch. What other spooky locations do you have in mind, and do you intend to support community map makers that want to craft their own dank, claustrophobic ruin-porn nightmares for people to run around screaming in?

JR: Haha, yeah we’ve got some other ideas floating around in my head. I’m really fucked up, so something like this is like a candy store for me, pardon the language. I’d love to do a European style castle, you know with the creepy imagery, fog coming in off the moor, and those creepy suits of armor just standing there. I would hate to be in that situation!

And of course we’d love to support people who wish to make their own for Slender: Source. It might take away from the horror factor if someone makes a “strip club” but hey, creativity is awesome.

Bestow upon me a score of American currency!

B: A significant problem that afflicts many horror games is the more familiar with them you get the less scary they become, particularly in games like Dead Space that rely heavily on scripted jump scares. What ideas and mechanics do you plan to implement to make Slender: Source a more variable, emergent experience and keep people coming back?

JR: Random generation. We’re working really hard on getting the objects in the map to not be in the same spot they were on your last play-through, and the scares to be different every time as well. For example: Let’s say you and your friends are hiding out in a cabin out in the woods, and you hear a loud bang behind you, and childish laughter erupt throughout the entire room from one of children that Slendy murdered. You get a little edgy, and everyone gets freaked out.

You play the map again and head to the same cabin, and you’re expecting the child to laugh again but it doesn’t happen. We’re gonna fuck with people’s minds, and we think we’ve got a solid way to do it.

B: Obviously a huge part of what makes a horror game scary is its atmosphere. Amnesia and Slender were so particularly immersive and terrifying thanks to their use of sound and visuals to establish the right mood, even though both did it in different ways. Frictional put a lot of effort into getting a broad range of the correct sounds for Amnesia and they brilliantly capture the look and feel of being in a crumbling gothic castle. Mark J Hadley’s use of sound in Slender is comparatively minimalistic and a lot of what the player can see is limited to the dim glow of their flashlight. Both games are still equally terrifying. Where between those two points would you say Slender: Source’s sound and visual qualities lie?

JR: We’re definitely more on the Slender side of things; but that doesn’t mean we won’t be using a broad range of sounds to help immerse the players into the game. The thing I loved most about Amnesia was that I always feeling constantly tense, and the moments when I’d hear a monster groan, or somebody scream I’d be instantly on edge and ready to run from whatever came my way.

We’re working on a lot of audio and visual based effects to really make this disturbing and spooky. If you think kids laughter is spooky, we got that. Creaking doors, shuffling feet, you name it. The best thing we’re working with is something to do with mirrors which I can’t really reveal now. Since the Slenderman is known to mess with people’s heads you can expect some pretty messed up shit to happen. Think you’re seeing one of your buddies standing nearby? Only to approach him closer and find out he was never there in the first place and you’re still utterly alone.

B: You’ve had some flack from people who think you’re trying to “cash in” on the success of Slender, although I fail to see how you can cash in on something released for free with something else released for free. From your most recent public statement on the matter it’s pretty clear you have nothing but the utmost admiration and respect for Mark J Hadley and Slender. You’ve also made it very apparent that he is not involved with the project. Nevertheless have you had any contact with him regarding Slender: Source?

JR: We have had some contact and he’s expressed his “anger” at us for going ahead and producing Slender: Source without contacting him about the idea first-hand. To me, I didn’t see the point since we’re a completely separate entity and have nothing to do with his team and project. I’m not trying to throw him under the bus or anything, but there have been Slender games before his, and he doesn’t own the Slenderman creature. I can expect more creations to come out of this; and frankly I’d be happy if we could somehow contribute to the rise in Slenderman’s popularity.

B: In closing, what are your thoughts on the current crop of triple-A horror titles compared to the sort of horror experiences coming out of the mod and indie scenes?

JR: It’s a little lacklustre I have to say. Don’t get me wrong, I’m madly in love with the Dead Space, Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises, even though the last two could go without those shitty film adaptations, but whatever. However, I don’t like the turn that triple-A horror titles have taken. Dead Space 2 was a solid game, but for me it didn’t “scare” me as much as the original Dead Space did. Same goes for the original Resident Evil and Silent Hill games. Resident Evil was brilliant up until Resident Evil 4, and kinda lost all it’s charm for me after 5.

I’m still very much interested in Resident Evil 6, but I think the indie titles are hitting more at home with the horror aspect. Look at the success of Slender, SCP, DayZ and most specifically Cry Of Fear. They’ve redefined the horror genre in my opinion, and when I hear about a new indie horror game being made I’m instantly interested. For example, the upcoming Among The Sleep by Krillbite Studio. What they’ve shown looks incredibly scary and I’d pay $60 for what they’re offering.

I think the horror genre will only get better from here, in the hands of indie developers at-least.

You can follow the progress of Slender: Source at it’s page over on moddb.com or on twitter @EtherealEnterta.


About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.