The art of crafting the perfect videogame safe room
The calm in the middle of the storm.
I think it’s safe to say there are few inviolable elements in videogames. It can often seem like anything goes, as in the pure chaos of each new world, players are tried, duped, terrified and thoroughly tested—we play games, and they play us right back. It could be weeping as you repeatedly stomp an already dead jump-scare Necromorph, worrying about your heart rate as you face off against Ornstein and Smough yet again, or watching, transfixed, as the causality of your in-game decisions is brought to bear in the most tortuous manner possible. Games take their toll, whether through intensity, horror, emotion, or simply sheer visual noise. Enter safe rooms, the wonderful answer to the question, "How do we get players to take breaks if they won’t stop playing the game?"
But that seemingly simple purpose disguises their true depth. Safe rooms are utilised in all sorts of ways—they can represent an element of progression, a method of travel, or a hub for player interaction, like the bonfires in Dark Souls. They can be a place of trade and upgrading, as well a vehicle pushing forward an overarching community narrative, as with the Tower in Destiny. And yes, they can also be a respite from the chaos of the game world. But no matter how varying their function, most of all, safe rooms are a rare element of security in worlds where few things are sacred.
A common element in creating the atmosphere of a safe room is the musical score. You may remember Hollow Knight’s bench theme, Reflection; Darkest Dungeon’s camp theme, A Brief Respite; or Firelink Shrine’s melancholic string overtones. But few game series have perfected the art of the safe room theme better than the Resident Evil games—unsurprising, when you consider that for over two decades they’ve been putting us through hell. "We thought that having nothing but tension throughout the whole game would be exhausting for players, so we designed the save rooms as a safe place to take a breather from the horror," says Kazunori Kadoi, director on Resident Evil 2’s remake. "They were also useful to use as bases for exploring the game, so they added a strategic element." A room, a musical theme, and a typewriter—these have become the iconic elements of the Resident Evil safe room. But while each musical score has become synonymous with the idea of safety for many players, if you listen closely, they are actually far more insidious than you might have thought. "They may be 'safe rooms', but that safety is fleeting. You always feel like the moment you step outside the room, you might encounter some nightmare wandering the halls," explains Shusaku Uchiyama, composer on the original Resident Evil 2. "So it was indeed intentional for the music to be a mixture of peaceful and relaxing elements with a little touch of the uneasy about it."
This insidiousness, so often reflected musically, is a key element of the safe room dynamic—the unusual condition of being safe amid such a dangerous world, by contrast, can’t help but remind you of what is still left to face. "Effective horror is all about the balance and rhythm of tension and release; you can’t have all tension, all the time, or it just becomes tiring," reflects Uchiyama. "I think if you left the room silent or just had environmental sounds playing, it would actually play into the horror trope of the quiet moment before a shock, and players would be unable to relax because they would think something was about to happen." But even Resident Evil, as horrifying as it can be, understands the untouchable nature of safe rooms. As Kadoi reflects, "I don’t think we should ever break the rules as far as letting the player be attacked and hurt in the safe room. We’re supposed to establish rules by which you play and complete the game, and it would be unfair to break them like that just for the sake of a twist." Resident Evil’s iconic safe rooms and themes have undoubtedly gone on to inspire a large number of those we see in gaming today. But I still have a very important question to ask Kadoi: why a typewriter? "I recall that we simply thought at the time of original game that we needed an object whose function was to make a record of things, ie your progress, and which would not look out of place in an old mansion, and a typewriter seemed to fit the bill on both counts."