Torn Over The Evil Within

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2014 by trivialpunk

Oh, hai! I know, I said we’d be talking about Alien: Isolation again, but I just finished The Evil Within. And since there’s very little structure to my release dates, I figured you wouldn’t mind me sneaking in a review in the mean-time.

I’ve got to say, I’m really torn. On the one hand, I enjoyed playing The Evil Within. It was frantic, gory and fun! At times, I’d go so far as to call it brutal. On the other hand, that brutality is almost meaningless outside of the context of gameplay… That being said, there are plenty of moments of high-tension and surprised yelping to be had. They just feel visceral, and emotionally distant. Let me see if I can explain by splitting my brain in half. Trivial will be a critical ass-hole, and Punk will be my survival horror fan-boy. ReadaaaaaAAUUUGGH!!!

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Trivial – Really? We’re going with that? The “original Japanese name”? It’s not 1996 anymore; everyone has Wikipedia. We’re not going to get cred points for that.

Punk – Dude, just… okay? Fine, THE EVIL WITHIN is a survival-horror game developed by Tango Gameworks, published by Bethesda and directed by the legendary Shinji Mikami!

Trivial – How legendary? He’s played a pivotal role in creating some of our favourite works of all time. He’s one of the progenitors of the Resident Evil series. At some point, he had a hand in creating Phoenix Wright, Devil May Cry, Aladdin (SNES), Vanquish, Dinocrisis, and Killer7. That’s a serious list.

Punk – Yeah, and survival-horror owes him a debt. You can really feel the influence of those past games in TEW. TEW… heh, I wonder if that’s why it was developed under the name “Project Zwei”?

Trivial – Heh… Although, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The influence, not the name… thing… Mikami’s stated goal in creating The Evil Within was to create a truly terrifying video game experience. To get away from the action. But, Mikami’s legacy is a stand-out stable of action-oriented gorror-games.

Punk – Cute typos aside, I kind of see your point. The bombastic opening with the high-speed get-away and the mid-air zombie-head-shot dive into the water were a little over the top.

Trivial – It’s not just that! The entire narrative is structured to high-light the gameplay. And the tone of the gameplay is intense, predatory action.

Punk – Yes! The gameplay was designed to create a sense of tension in the player. There’s a heavy focus on stealth. A focus that is encouraged by resource limitations and invincible enemies. Oh, and traps.

Trivial – The traps Are excellent. Not only do they help reinforce the omni-presence of our malicious antagonist, Ruvik, but they also encourage a cautious, thoughtful approach to gameplay, sometimes. When you’re not busy sprinting or blowing things up using their components.

Punk – I got a lot of good moments out of frantically disarming barbed-wire foot-traps, praying the hammer-man wouldn’t find me in time.

Trivial – You mean the safe-head guy? You kill like nine of him. And you don’t really need to disarm those traps; you can just shoot them. That’s how I feel this game is balanced: thrilling gorror over chilling horror. There’s a level-up system, a heavy arsenal, a precision-focused combat system and an incredibly competent protagonist. Not only that, you eventually over-power all of your antagonists. This is an empowerment fantasy.

Punk – Okay, I see what you’re saying, but it’s relative, isn’t it? Yes, he’s powerful, but the forces he’s arrayed against can control the fabric of reality. He gets tossed around more than an angry zipper in a tumble-dryer.

Trivial – True. The situations he’s in are horrifying, but the way those situations are brought across to the player keeps them at a solid distance from dread. Sure, there are a few stealth sections that leave you to wend your way through the jaws of death like a baby lamb, but those moments are usually followed up by having the player put those death-jaws in a reverse bear-trap, and then throwing the switch.

Punk – Yes, our hero usually overcomes the evil-thing, but they’re pretty terrifying creatures. The giant bizarro-world face-hugger Cerberus and the amalgamated end-boss are the sorts of creatures we could have only dreamed of facing when we got into survival-horror in the Playstation era.

Trivial – Which doesn’t change the fact that I’m playing a survival-horror game to experience horror. Not shocks. Not thrills. Horror. And there’s just nothing for me to latch onto emotionally. The main character barely exists. He has no flaws or emotions outside of being a hardened detective with a tragic past that drinks too much. He’s a walking stereotype.

Punk – A walking Bad-ass stereotype! Who else do you think could have faced this kind of challenge? He’s the perfect protagonist for a third-person shooter. His demeanor is reserved, but his aim is deadly. And he’s got all that great grit and detective determination. His character continuity is constant from cut-scene to credits.

Trivial – That doesn’t make him an interesting character. It also doesn’t mean he’s horrified. He goes from perturbed to actively being murdered. Those are his two primary emotional fear settings. It’s hard to empathize with someone who can take that much gore and death in stride. Now, Joseph, he shows some actual weakness.

Punk – Yup, losing his glasses, his struggle with the over-arching evil and his little I.A. mishap are all interesting elements of his character, but they also serve to flesh out our protag, Sebastian, a bit better. Remember, Sebastian’s struggle is literally the struggle of the game.

Trivial – But, again, the game is disjointed by design. You get knocked out and revived in more disconnected locations than a CoD player. There’s nothing to feel attached to, because the game makes it clear that anything and everything Could just be a hallucination. Floating between locations and into characters really reinforces the idea of being trapped within a hostile reality, but that context doesn’t inspire much fear when put next to the game-play, where you essentially warp in, kill everything, collect the treasure and exit at the next cut-scene.

Punk – You’re trivializing. The places you warp in to matter. Asylum, mansion, slaughter-house, doll-factory, creepy village… it’s basically horror’s greatest hits. Which was a little disappointing to me, because I was looking forward to something other than Resident Evil blended with Silent Hill, but I have to wonder how we’d feel about these locations and events if we weren’t already thoroughly inoculated against survival-horror tropes.

Trivial – We’d probably die a lot more. Thank the devs for the auto-save feature. But, regardless of our long history with survival horror, I have to ask, where does the horror lie? The monsters are horrible. The cut-scenes involve horrible events. The situation is horrible. The environments are nail-biting terror-halls. Despite all that, you win the game by hunting down and destroying all of your foes, and you do it without actually facing any of the evil within your main character.

Punk – That’s arguable. Ruvik does get pretty far inside your head. And, you do sort of discover the tragedy that brought your character to the edge. But, yeah, his jaded detachment –his only arguable weakness within the story-line– and drive to protect his comrades do end up helping him survive. It’s frustrating, because his tragic background is rife for comparison with Ruvik’s background. Yet, very little is made of it.

Trivial – Perhaps not openly, but there’s plenty to speculate on in the background details. You have to wonder, for instance, why your main character maintains his mental integrity so well. The more you learn about the game, the more disturbing that question becomes.

Punk – Yeah, when you put all the pieces together, they create an interesting picture. It’s a stark contrast to Alien: Isolation, where gameplay was designed specifically to create a narrative experience. The plot, characters and setting of TEW seem to exist solely for creating a framework in which the gameplay can continue. The gameplay being modern third-person shooting with corpse-burning and stealth mechanics.

Trivial – Yet, undeniably, the mechanics of the game are used to create some effectively tense moments. Even if the tone of the overall experience is over-the-top action, it’s juxtaposed with moments of quietly sneaking in the dark, avoiding the Minotaur until you get the chance to kill it. And you will have to kill it, because the set-pieces don’t give you the option to sneak past. Maybe it’s the order of presentation? Everything’s designed around a big end-of-game reveal and a well-spoiled mystery, so most of the early game is defined by that warp-kill-loot paradigm I mentioned. The inventory…

Punk – I miss my attaché case inventory!! It made for difficult decisions about loot! er… Sorry to interject, but… Yeah, having individual, upgradable slots for the items did feel a little too kind. Then again, later on, you’ll need to levy the power of your entire arsenal to take out the creatures you’re mashed against.

Trivial – My problem entirely! At the end of the day, the focus is on over-coming the challenge, not experiencing the fear. The goal of each section is to defeat the boss. Everything you find is either for killing, healing or upgrading your ability to kill/heal. Even the sprint function, which is also useful as an OH-SHIT-RUN button, is usually used to cover enough distance to blow your pursuer’s head off. The big-bads, the enemies set up to invincibly stalk you through the halls, are all eventually defeated, usually within their “Chapter”. Can you think of any way to undermine an invincible death-dealer more than by defeating it?! Zerksis, make a God bleed, etc. So, explain to me how this is any more frightening than Dead Space.

Punk – From our perspective, it’s not. It is undeniably over-the-top, frantically presented, constantly undermining its attempts at horror and far too visually campy to be considered frightening. The overall story resists immersion by holding back all of the details you might use to define and understand the world well enough to sink into it. And when you do, you’re bound to be pulled out of it by some bizarre set-piece, winking nod to the audience or instant-death. There are a lot of instant deaths. Still, the overall story and its elements are disturbing.

Trivial – True, but I’m cautious about including that as a good thing when I only sort of noticed them in retrospect while I was writing the review. As for the immediate experience of the game, it was…

Punk – …fun.
Trivial – …fun.

Not horrifying, but fun. It’s insane and twisted, but it doesn’t really do anything wholly new. If you can get into this game for the gameplay and art design, then I think you’ll enjoy it. If you’re an old hat at survival horror and you’re looking for something novel, then I don’t think you’re going to get it from here. However, The Evil Within is an interesting recombination of a lot of old elements. And I honestly ploughed through a lot of the game just to see what kind of weird creatures and scenarios the devsigners settled on. If you’re new to the genre entirely, then I’d suggest giving the gameplay a look on the tubes.

I’m interested to see what kinds of reactions this game elicits from survival horror newbies. For a lot of people, I think this game could get by on the novelty of the carnage alone. The situations are horrific, but I question if that will mean anything to the player once they’ve become accustomed to the world and the gameplay. That is, of course, unless they feel for Sebastian’s plight, because Ruvik’s right: Seb does suffer. Yet, as a player, I barely noticed that, because I barely noticed him. I was just a little id sitting on his shoulder, urging him forward, demanding that he pull the trigger. Ordering him to kill in the name of survival… so, what does that make me?

The Evil Within doesn’t get to walk away with a blanket recommendation, but if you, like me, are a Mikami fan, then I’m sure you’ll find plenty to like in this game. Just don’t go in expecting any carefully-paced introspection or mind-blowing mechanics. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before, but it’s good stuff all the same: it’s very well executed on a technical level. It’s a fantastic splatter-thriller and a very present example of our current approach to survival horror. For providing me with twenty-one hours of visceral satisfaction (so far), I’m giving The Evil Within Two Frothing Looters With Chainsaws out of A Lone Skull Frantically Playing The Saxophone. Enjoy your trip into the omni-mind! I’ll see you on the other side.

Alien: Isolation – A Love Letter

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2014 by trivialpunk

Let’s start with the obvious statement: I love Alien: Isolation. It’s the best Aliens game I can remember playing, and it’s the best survival horror game I’ve played this year. I don’t say that lightly, either. There are a lot of reasons I adore this game, not the least of which is that I loved the franchise growing up. I’ve been wanting to play something like this for most of my adult life, so there’s that bias to consider. However, anyone that remembers Colonial Marines, or that has ever played a shitty franchise game, will realize that a brand can’t carry a game on its own. Well, it will sell the tickets, but it won’t make the ride any more fun.

Aliens: Isolation, on the other hand, feels like a game that’s true to both its source material and its identity as a video game. The story, the characters, the aesthetic and the gameplay all reflect the Aliens franchise, and they all work in tandem to bring across the nail-biting, flame-throwing, adrenaline-fuelled bull-clap that is working for Weyland-Yutani. In fact, this game feels so well put together that I’m probably going to be talking about it for a while. So, today, I’ll give you the short and dirty, hot and flirty, and, next time, we’ll go a bit deeper. Where to even begin?

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I guess… Alien: Isolation is a first-person, stealth-heavy survival horror game developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. (That’s right; they’re back, And they have a vengeance.) The game has a strong narrative focus that’s built around the engagement of the core gameplay. That is to say that the game is about hiding from threats in an atmosphere of intense danger and so is the story. If you want to mow down aliens with an over-powered machine gun, then this game isn’t going to provide you the fix you need. If you’re looking for something to make you feel the visceral effects of fear, then step right this way and let’s see how it’s done.

In truth, every piece of this beautiful puzzle is important, but let’s start with its most visceral element: immersion. For me, immersion is an endlessly fascinating topic, because it relies almost entirely on the designer’s understanding of how people engage with video games. Every piece of a game is crafted to be used and understood by humans. Everything from the sound to the gamepad is designed to allow you to project an “agent” into the digitally expressed world. The more intuitively you can control your character and receive information from the environment, the more likely you are to simply sink into the game. Still, you could study intuitive game design your entire life –it’s directly related to several massive fields– so that doesn’t get us very far.

Okay then, let’s get specific. The first and most obvious example is that, after gameplay starts, you *very rarely leave your first-person perspective until the end of the game. This seems small, but it ensures that you are always “you” when you’re in the game. More than that, every action you perform on the controller has some sort of analogue in the game and vice-versa. This is true for most games, but it’s done particularly well in this one. Any action that requires a single button-press only requires a single button-press. Looking around and pivoting all use the right analog stick (Also, the RAS occasionally stands in for your right hand when pulling levers). Whenever you’re moving something’s position around, be it your character, your head or your blow-torch, you’re using the left analog stick. It feels very natural. But wait, there’s another layer to this.

Every action you perform in the game takes time. Duh. Every save point, hack point and locked door requires a different investment of time and the performance of a mini-game. Usually, I’d barely mention this, or I’d only mention it if it became annoying, but, here, spending time is an essential element of gameplay. Each action takes place in real time and many of them rely on some form of accuracy on your part. So the, “Come on.. come on… oh shit, I fucked uaaAAUGH!” happens directly to you, unless you keep a cool head in the midst of your panic-inducing struggle for survival. And let me tell you, it’s hard to work carefully and methodically when you’re being hunted by slavering creatures from the vents.

Speaking of things hiding in vents, you can crawl through the Jefferies tubes, as well! Sometimes, it’s a relatively safe method of travel. Other times, it’s an alien brunch delivery system. Don’t worry, you can tell the difference if you just listen for movement in the vents or use your motion tracker. Of course, there’s more than just the alien out there, so that dot could be anything. That’s not always difficult to verify.

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Still, it makes it worth doing a run-down of the potential threats you’ll face on Sevastopol Station. The humans are your least threatening opponents, but they’re still deadly. They’re the survivors of the Incident that went down before the game started and turned Sevastopol Station into the fun-house of horror you’re currently tromping through. You’ll have to forgive them if they shoot first and ask the completely unrelated questions from their limited dialogue pool, later. You don’t have a lot of health, and you’re completely unarmored, so they can take you down with a pistol pretty fast. They do have a limited ability to react to your actions with something other than bullets, but so few of them are friendly that I just ended up bludgeoning them to death from behind, most of the time. Which is probably why they’re so unfriendly to begin with.

The Seegson synthetic robots are the real unexpected treat. Their creepy, uncanny valley-esque design looks like exactly the sort of thing you’d mass-produce if you were more concerned with cost than comfort. With glowing red eyes and a stilted speech pattern that’s used to great effect, you won’t soon forget why you’ll never buy a Seegson again. Seriously, Seegson is –right behind you– every step of the way and isn’t that just terrifying. Unfortunately, they’re androids, which means they’re made of tougher stuff than the average human. They’ll break your neck before you can properly bludgeon them to death with a wrench. You’ll need to go hi-tech to take these guys out. Or, you know, just apply fire-power liberally. If you’ve got the resources to waste. Maybe it’s a better idea to just sneak by.

Then there’s the alien. If you’re worried about authenticity, then this Wiki-post‘s “Development” section should get you started. Personally, I’m a fan of the design they settled on, which is nice, because you spend a lot of time with the alien. It is your constant companion for large sections of this game. It’s the threat in the vents you think about as you slide your keycard into a save point. When you’re hacking a door, you’ll be listening for the “slunk” that means it left a vent somewhere in your area. And when you can finally fight it, that’s the last thing you’ll want to do. I didn’t realize how insanely effective the flamethrower could be for a long time, because I was far more comfortable avoiding the alien than fighting it. That’s not always the best idea.

If you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to fight. Equipment check!

Motion Detector – Way-finder and monster-tracker. It sweeps a conical area in front of you, ensuring the necessity of frantically spinning in a circle, looking for threats.

Access Tuner – Acts as an upgradeable door-key and sonic screwdriver. Used to structure your access to the environment and for playing mini-games on while you’re being hunted.

Plasma Torch – Like the access tuner, but with fire and a different sort of mini-game. Much louder than the tuner, and generally takes more time.

Revolver – Almost useless against everything, except the humans. Takes a few seconds to aim properly

Shotgun – I used this exclusively to kill synthetics with a Stun Baton – Shotgun combo. (Stunned Synths take more damage TMYK)

Flamethrower – Useful against everything, but especially significant for its ability to drive off the alien or to make it think twice about attacking. It goes through fuel very quickly — use sparingly

Bolt Gun – Incredibly powerful, but it has a long charge-time. Takes synthetics down with a single head-shot, but almost useless against more mobile targets

Stun Baton – EMP Mine on a stick. I never used it on a human for this very reason.

Crafted items List: Found or made using schematics.

Flare – Provides light. Distracts things… It’s a flare.

Noisemaker – Can be thrown to draw enemies to the source of its sounds. Can be planted on the ground for the same purpose! Now with inconvenient four-second timer.

Smoke Bomb – You won’t be able to use the haze to vanish if you’ve already been spotted, but you can use it to block visibility in a single area. Can be planted as a mine. (The Mine feature of many devices can be used to warn you when something enters an area)

Flashbang – Disorient your foes! Except the alien. It’ll just eat you. Good for taking out large groups of humans.

EMP Mine – Disables synthetics for long periods of time. Facilitates beatings.

Molotov – Fire is one of the few things that will scare off the alien. You can use this as a mine to provide you with some limited protection if you’re doing something that needs doing. Lights synthetics on fire, making them more terrifying.

Pipe Bomb – The Equalizer. It’s a pipe bomb. Works on aliens, synthetics and humans alike.

Medkit – Heals roughly half your health gauge. Keep your health bar topped off and you’ll be much harder to execute.

As you move through the game, your arsenal grows, improving your ability to take on the hostile environment you find yourself in. Yet, you’re never in a position to discount those threats. Yes, the flamethrower will cook all comers, but there’s only so much ammunition for it, and the alien is relentless. Even if you had unlimited ammo for the thing, you’d still have to keep your eyes and ears open, unless you wanted the next vent to be the last one you sauntered under. You could have all the coolest toys and a fully stocked ammo belt, and you’d still have to be careful. But don’t worry, it’s okay, you’ll never be THAT well stocked.

Even with my obsessive need to loot all the things, I started having to be precious with my resources as the game wore on. And that’s always nice to see, but, now that we have most of our pieces, let’s take a second and talk about how some of these items are used to reinforce the narrative of the game.

You start off with nothing. Eventually, you get what amounts to a giant wrench that you use to open doors and bludgeon things. (Pro-tip: Use it to hit the side of the ship to call an alien over for din-dins) That wrench serves very well against the humans, but as you start sneaking through maintenance tunnels, you start to be harassed by Seegson synthetics. These don’t respond very well to a decent bludgeoning. In fact, unless you do it correctly, they’ll just kill you. The Revolver you get is a little better, but it’s clearly no match for the Seegsons. Then, you meet the alien. If you get near it, it’ll eat your face. I’m being literal. That’s what it does. At this point, you’re the helpless mouse play-mate of a cranky, chitinous cat.

As you continue playing, you find the schematics for the different kinds of mines and equipment. Each one will give you the edges you need to survive, if used correctly.  Also, as you play, you’re getting better at playing. — Discovering the quirks of the A.I. — Figuring out what kind of things you can do with the different equipment. — Learning how to pin-point an enemy’s location using sound — By the time Amanda Ripley was ready to fight the alien, so was I! Of course, neither of us knew how to go about it, but that’s okay. That’s how it should be. Part of horror is going in blind. Acting in the face of the unknown. Occasionally, hiding in a cupboard and just not talking about the acid-dribbling thing outside.

The player’s gameplay arc follows, in large part, Ripley’s narrative arc; Alien: Isolation is a great example of “do, don’t show.” Yes, some of the things you do are slow and ponderous (a spiffy jaunt in space comes to mind), but they all serve the overall game. As a survival-horror-sci-fi experience, A.I. is fantastic. Of course, given its effectively rigid structure, I question its replay value. The alien A.I. may be organic, but the overall experience is not. I could see myself going back in for the DLC and a little play-time with my giant, black alien-kitty, but I don’t think it’s something I’ll play again and again. I got a great eighteen hour experience out of it, and it is an experience worth having if you love Aliens and/or horror, but your mileage may vary, especially with its AAA price tag.

Still, for having an incredibly thoughtful, engaging experience that was both fresh and authentic, I’m giving Alien: Isolation A Sack Of Leering Clown-Skulls That Was Hurled At Your Face out of A Quiet Dripping Sound In The Night. Good luck surviving the horrors of Sevastopol. And remember, be careful who you trust.

Addendum: I didn’t mention the stealth or go into any detail with the alien A.I. because I’ll be going into them in greater depth in a later post. For now, I feel that it’s enough to say that both of those elements are essentially functional and serve to create the atmosphere of ongoing oppression that defines large chunks of the game. Also, the sound design is gorgeous, and the art direction is painstaking, but this love letter is long enough. And there’s only so much time before the airlock closes… I’ll see you on the other side.

New schedule! Also, Where The Hedge I’ve Been!

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , on September 29, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! Yes, I am still alive! Okay, there are some changes going on, because there are always changes going on. I’ll announce those for you up here. That way, if you just want the new schedule, you don’t have to wade through my miasma of stammered excuses and questionable grammatical decisions. However, I will still be providing that afterwards. To the schedule!

I’ll be gaming on Twitch. It’s easier and faster. You can follow that link to my channel. Most weekdays, I’ll be casting by 18:00 MST. This semester, I have class Tuesday evening, so I’ll be stuck in the flesh-world. I’m going to try and schedule a long cast on Friday nights, but if that falls through, then you can expect me on Saturday. Should that fail, then I’m either being kidnapped, Helping Elderly-Looking People, or I’m on vacation. I’ll let you know ahead of time.

I’m re-purposing my YouTube channel. Since Twitch is handling my game-streaming, I want to start putting together video reviews and shorts for YouTube. It’s something I’ve experimented with in the past. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but it’s time to dip another toe in the water. What? No experimentation metaphor about tentacled monsters? Exactly. I’m pulling a serious-face on this one.

This blog, which I will spare you the link to, is going to switch to a bi-weekly release schedule. Once a fortnight is the current plan, but I’m hoping to get back up to a weekly Wednesday release as I get back into the groove of writing, attending University and doing all of the above.

That’s going to be the norm around here for a while. I look forward to seeing what the forthcoming deluge of game releases has to offer. Please be good, Alien: Isolation, please… Everything that follows is solipsistic bullshi… an in-depth look at this last month of silence.

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting recently. The reason why is worth a whole post on its own, but I realized that I didn’t want to spend a post on that, then write another post about the new schedule. I want to get back to the reason we’re here: games and horror, and the love thereof. You still deserve an explanation if you want one, though, so I’m going to try to condense the last month of my life into as small a space as possible.

I haven’t been doing very well, my friends. This last little while has been a time of great doubt. And when in doubt, I’ve always preferred to stay silent, observe and think. So, you can probably infer that things are going much better, because I’m yammering on again. Still, it’s not like I stopped writing.

I was ghost-writing for a business over the summer, and part of my job was to research ghost stories. One of those stories was the story of Lady Anne. She was a real person, but the ghost-story isn’t accurate. I know because I spent a long time researching her, spooling through websites and records to find the traces of her existence. While I was working, two things struck me pretty hard: the tenuous grasp we have on our legacies and the responsibility I have as a writer to record the truth and communicate clearly. It’s hard not to feel that way when you’re hunting furiously through foot-notes for the true traces of someone you’ve heard many vivid stories about. I had a lot of “I know you existed, where are you” sort of moments.

And you know how much I love existential horror, so I spent a while seriously considering what I’m doing here and what I should do here. I was silent for a while, because I felt that the lost life I had brushed up against deserved some serious reflection, not only for itself, but also for the billions of others that have gone, unrecorded, into the night. Then, in the Twitter-verse, the GamerGate broke. I wasn’t very active outside of the projects I was working on while I was thinking about all of this, so I didn’t hear about it until it was at least a week in. By then, it was a morphing mass of rhetoric and passion.

I dug through the evidence I could find and came to my conclusions about the whole thing. I shared the information I felt was relevant, but I didn’t want to propagate the hashtag. I couldn’t do it in good conscience while people were being so seriously harassed. However, I could only take that privileged position because of the individuals fighting for civility, clear communication and compassion. Those individuals have my attention for life. I’d put a list here, but I feel it would be tacky and you’ll see enough of them on my feed. As you’ll remember, a portion of that movement was legitimately concerned with journalistic integrity in games journalism. On top of the ghost-story business, it made me stop to consider what my responsibility was to my fellow gamers.

Okay, I know that word means a lot of things to a lot of people; to me, it means people that love playing games. There are plenty of adjectives you can stick on there if there’s a specific portion of the population that needs to be addressed. You can have a different definition — that’s cool — but when I say it, that’s what I mean. That being said, what do I owe people that love games?

Well, nothing more than my love of games, really, but that means something. That means that I need to push myself when I explore this medium. That means learning how to do things that both intimidate and frighten me. (Seriously, video-editing looks like sorcery, sometimes) And that means taking care of myself so that I’m not a miserable dip-shit while I do it. (I’m working on that.)

So, I think I’m ready now. I’ll start posting again. I have some hunches about kinaesthetic projection that I’d really like an excuse to research, but I don’t want to get too self-indulgent on my blog. It’s not all about me. In the spirit of that sentiment, to quickly summarize, I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I tried to work through the doubt. It seems pretty endless, though. Now, I’m just gonna use it as a compass for my curiosity.

Onwards, into the Sea of Doubt! I’ll see you on the other side.

A Lasting Federation

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on August 9, 2014 by trivialpunk

Have you ever wanted to role-play as the last member of a defeated empire attempting to mend fault-lines of political conflict in order to prevent the kind of genocide that wiped out your people? How about as a four-headed space-faring Hydra with hyper-advanced technology? Both at the same time? Well, I’ve got a game that will perfectly sate your oddly specific desires!

The-Last-Federation-Review

 The Last Federation is an inter-galactic politics sim with a smattering of top-down turn-based, click-controlled space-combat. Your goal, as a space-faring dragon-ambassador, is to form a lasting Federation from the most shockingly diverse spectrum of races I’ve ever seen in a single solar system. (Don’t worry, they all speak the same language.) Why is this your job? How do you accomplish this monumental task? It’s a funny story…

You see, your race has been space-faring for a while now, and it was using that technological edge to… well, to be a dick. So, someone launched a moon at your home-world and, long-story-short, you were away when it happened. (Was it a big anniversary? Why was everyone else on the planet? I don’t know) BUT, you weren’t just away selling Choco-melties from planet-to-planet, you were on a good-guy mission. Naturally, that means you’re a good-guy. And what do good-guys do?

No, not kill all the Peltians! Dammit! They were dive-bombing the Thoraxians because they ate an entire colony of… Let me explain a little more clearly. There are eight remaining planets in the solar system, so there are eight races. Each race has strengths, weaknesses, political agendas, a unique style of government, a preferred method of attack… These attributes aren’t just flavour, either, they’re expressed through the mechanics of game-play. Let me give you a brief description of each race and we’ll get into how they’re brought to life:

Thoraxians – These are hive-mind spider-people with a near-insatiable appetite. They can, and may, devour the entire solar system. They’re not the best in the air, but they’re incredibly strong in a ground-engagement and nearly impossible to dig out of the tunnels of any planet they inhabit.

Peltians – Furry, lovable owl people that will dive-bomb the shit out of you from orbit if you piss them off. They’re incredibly weak, so giving them space-faring tech first will actually provoke the more combat-centric races, but don’t count them out, because you never hear an owl coming.

Andor – The Andor are a race of Utopian robots that don’t have time for your shit. They abhor conflict, so they’ll start to hate anyone that starts a massive war that includes lots of death. They’re willing to fight for peace, though, and they’ve got the tech to back it.

Skylaxians – The Trade Federation. They’ll trade with everyone all day, every day. They love science and industry, and they’re very… persuasive. If you need a persnickety race forcefully pulled into your current Europe-esque powder-keg, then just get them trading with these guys. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

Evuck – Tribalistic monkey-people that don’t want your nose in their business. They’re paranoid, because they’re voyeurs, or was it the other way around? If you need dirt on another race, then just ask for some info from the Evuck spy-probes that totally don’t exist.

Burlust – The little Khanate that could. These guys are always fighting. Always. You’d think that would weaken them over time, but you’d be wrong. It only seems to feed their power. Trying to get them off a planet that they are resolutely on can be a long, gruelling and, possibly, futile task. Good luck. I hope that constant warfare doesn’t result in any Federation turmoil…

Boarine – A tribal race of boar-people that is headed by whatever ruler the race generated to deal with its current problems. They’re normally pretty isolated, but if things are going poorly for them, then they might just change their tune. Unfortunately, the longer they’re locked in combat, the harder it is to get them out of combat and the stronger they become. Heaven help you if they’re fighting the Burlust.

Acutians – Robotic capitalists that will continue to build as long as there is space to build. They’ll give you a fair deal, from their perspective, and they only really care about what’s popular with their constituents, but, let’s be fair, they’ll do almost anything for money. Of course, don’t think you can take them for granted in the political power-struggle, because they haven’t been building pogo-sticks with all that cash.

So, yes, these are the players in your little game of chess, but you can’t just make them dance whenever you feel like it. You have to gain influence over them: you’re the one dancing. If they like what you do, then they’ll give you big ups. However, if they don’t think your plan is in their best interest (like if it involves nuking them from orbit), then they’ll like you that much less. Of course, if you nuke a helpless planet from orbit, then you’d better have a damn good reason for it, because that ruins the environment.

No, seriously, that’s a metric. Each planet has RCI values (Residential/Commercial/Industrial) that define how things are going on that little ball of dirt, water and molten metal. There are four different metrics: Environment, Economy, Health and Public Order. These are the metrics that define how well the Boarine think things are going for them, in general, but each of these metrics has unique events and effects that will reverberate through your solar system.

For instance, if a planet’s economy plummets, then many of its inhabitants will take up smuggling to survive, so the planet will haemorrhage pirate armadas. However, if you’re having trouble clearing a planet of its population, then you can always dump poison into their atmosphere. That’ll bottom-out the Health metric, which starts affecting birth-rates and death-rates. Unsurprisingly, this makes a population far easier to annihilate. Then again, if you want to aid in a planet’s development, there’s nothing like investing in their Social Order or their Environment. That’s assuming that the other two RCI metrics are healthy, of course.

The RCI metrics are all important to a race’s health, and they allow you to predict how different races will behave, based on your understanding of how they react to their current situation. Playing with a planet’s RCI in order to effect a specific change is a delicate balancing act. That’s the whole game, really: a delicate balancing-act.

There are metrics that define inter-species relationships. Metrics for defensive strength, troop strength, planet-race compatibility…. there are so many freakin’ metrics, but the game’s tutorial introduces them at a friendly pace, so you’re rarely in a head-space where you’ll get completely over-whelmed by data. And all of these metrics are made meaningful. The Thoraxians don’t have a Public Order metric, because they’re a hive-mind, and the Andor are Utopian peace-lovers, so you’ll get a drop in inter-species relationships if someone starts a war. The ground-troop strength of the Burlust is really all you need to know about them.

You’d think this might get a little confusing, but the information is cleanly presented, polished with tool-tips and thoughtfully implemented. There’s even a log-book. All of this information will allow you to clearly understand why your solar system is on fire. You should probably do something about that!

But, what?! Well, you started this mess by crash-landing on a planet and giving them the technology necessary to build a kick-ass flag-ship, which you then stole, so maybe giving more people technology will solve your problems. Well, it’ll certainly make them like you more, but it might also turn them into Universe-spanning terrors. It’s hard to tell, sometimes. You’ve got to take chances, but what’s stopping you from just playing the same game over and over again until you get it right?

Well, the planet and the race placement is randomized. The race you start by stealing from is non-trivial, because it defines the order in which people enter the solar stage and who hates you, when. It also affects who starts fighting with who right away, especially if the Thoraxians are floating about space sooner than later, which seems to be the case more often than not. There are also events, based on the game’s current situation, that can really mess up your day, like the formation of an Anti-Federation.

Anti-Federations are a liiiiiiittle annoying, and they can be very difficult to dissolve, especially Federations of One. And the situation of the simulation’s Anti-Federation is beyond satiation: it does not like your rag-tag group of gadabouts one bit. Sometimes, you’ve got to undermine some inter-race relations in order to break a Federation, but some Federations are Fear Federations of One, so even if you beat them back to their homeworld, they’re not going to be friendly towards you, at all. As long as they exist, you cannot win, though, so the game forces you to start making some tragic choices. But, before you get to genocide, how do you “stop” an Anti-Federation, or even just a ravenous hoard of death, from controlling or cleansing your solar system?

Gain influence and martial the other races behind you. Research powerful technologies. Destroy their planetary environment. Call off wars using influence. Or, if your problem is space-based, get into your fighter and deal with the issue directly. The pieces of technology from your lost race, the Hydral, are amazing, and they’ll give you a huge leg-up in the turn-based RTS combat. Of course, you could always get someone, like the Acutians, to launch a moon at someone. Hey, wait a minute, didn’t a flying moon destroy your…

Oh, I haven’t talked about the combat at all, have I? Here’s a picture to help me clarify the almond-cluster-fudge that is fighting an armada with a single, hyper-advanced ship.

The-Last-Federation-Turn-Based-Strategy-to-Launch-on-Steam-for-Linux-on-April-19-437227-2

The top right is your map. Top left is your ship’s systems. The three primary colour-coded bars underneath that are the power you’re devoting to your Weapons, Shields and Engines, which can be manipulated in real-time. The bottom left of the picture is a quick over-view of who’s involved with the current fighting, and that colourful bar in the middle-bottom is your selection of special abilities. Everyone plans their route, weapon-target and system power-settings ahead of time, then a turn is played. Like a D&D character’s… every single day, it’s life in six-second Intervals.

There are different weapons and upgrades that you can find or research. The enemy fleets become more powerful and elaborate as their technologies improve. Of course, the same is true for your allies. And there’s not really much that I have to say about it that you haven’t figured out from that brief description, except that the auto-resolve button -in the bottom left-hand corner- will be your friend, if you’re too powerful to care about the current engagement. Don’t let it burn you, though.

 This is a really long, involving game; I’ve only begun to skim the surface of what can happen in your solar system. (And I didn’t even mention the black market) It’s fun to tinker with, and it’s made all the more interesting by the interactions of the races and their places in the solar system. There’s always something to do, or something you should be doing, and you’re never quite safe. One time, I thought I’d saved the solar system because I’d used technology from the Skylaxians and Acutians to buff the Boarines to the point that they could deal with the Thoraxian-Burlust Anti-Federation of Pain. Unfortunately, once that Federation had been “dealt with,” the Boarine realized that they now controlled half the solar system, so they turned into a Federation of Fear and attempted to “deal with” the remaining races. The Federation ended up beating them into the ground, but not before it had to kill every last Boarine.

At least, the remaining Peltians that were making a living as pirates got their world back. At least.

On Difficulty, Dragon Age: Origins And Streaming

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2014 by trivialpunk

As some of you may already know, I’ve started streaming on Twitch. You can find my channel here. Stop by sometime and game with me. I’ll still be putting out YouTube videos, but Letsplaying through Twitch is incredibly convenient. I used to spend way too many hours of each day editing and rendering videos. Now, my computer’s down-time has been cut in half, so expect more impromptu streams and a larger variety of YouTube videos.

A schedule? Well, I’ll be streaming Thursday nights with Boris and, occasionally, Squid. If we’re playing Skyrim, then that means we’re playing with Alignment Randomization. Every time we level, we roll a die and get a random alignment from the Lawful-Chaotic, Good-Evil scale, then we play for the next level as that alignment. We’ll be playing Captain’s Chair in FTL: Faster Than Light. One of us gives the orders, and the other carries them out. We’re going to try it with two Captains next… I’ll be gaming solo most nights of the week, otherwise. I’ll tweet about impromptu streams and start putting together a coherent schedule that I’ll post on this site. I’ll be playing Minecraft, Shovel Knight, Geneforge 5: Overthrow and anything else that strikes my fancy. Also, horror games. I’ve got lots of those.

I’ll have my tablet open next to my keyboard for chat. I’ve got microphone hot-keys nailed down and a few pre-made signs for BRBs and the like. Learning how to stream has been a lot of fun! I’ve been doing it for the last week straight. I slept and streamed and slept and streamed. I got kidnapped on Wednesday for socialization purposes. Then I streamed. That’s just how I’m going to game now. I like having people drop in to chat, and I like doing character voices. I do the voices when I’m alone, too, but then I feel weird. With that admission safely tucked away, let’s move on to…

 Valid And Sound

Oh, sorry, that’s our Twitch logo. I wanted to share it because Squid did the pixel-art. He’s mad-talented. I can’t wait to show you more from him in the future. Today, we’re talking Dragon Age: Origins and Difficulty.

Now, I know this is an endlessly reviewed game. There are plenty of reviews on Metacritic and if you’re looking for someone with a personal connection to the game, then look no farther than Simpleek. Many of those reviews will be better than anything I can put together without having finished the game recently or being immersed in the Dragon Age lore. Go check them out if you’re looking for a concise review of the game. I want to talk about what changed between the first time I played Dragon Age: Origins and when I began streaming it this week.

Let’s jump aaaall the way back to 2009 (is a sentence I never thought I’d write). At that point, I was living in a one-room dorm and writing about things on the internet. My computer was a clunky remnant from my broken engagement and my writings were tinged bitter-sweet by loss. It was in this miasma of despair and caffeine that I began playing Dragon Age: Origins. My computer chugged to render the game, but you’re damn right I played the whole thing. It was a beautiful mix of hopeless and triumphant that left me inspired to press on into the fog of the University and the ever-baffling expanse of human relationships.

Jump forward to this week. I’m renting a room in a house and gaming on a much nicer PC. Yeah, I just went through a break-up, but I’m not bitter about it. I’ve learned that you need to love for love and do what you can to accept that it’s not always going to be a thing. Sometimes, things don’t work out, but you press ahead, Dragon Age-style. This time, I sat down to play the game and decided to stream it on Hard-mode. I’ve already beaten it on Normal, so why would I start streaming it on Normal?

Well, the answer to that question came to me pretty quickly. I didn’t remember anything about the game. I knew some plot-points and where some armor was kicking around, but the combat mechanics were utterly alien to me. There was depth to it that I had never really looked for. Now, I needed to dive right into that depth to avoid the fireballs that were splashing across my wounded party. Oh geeze, no! DOGS! AUGH!. *ahem* I started to wonder why I was so bad at this game. I had beaten it, hadn’t I?

That’s a question that still lingers over me when I complete a game on Normal, especially when it seems too easy. Because, maybe it is. But, too easy for what? What does “too easy” even mean?

There’s something to be said for designing a game that everyone can experience and beat. It makes playing something like Dragon Age more accessible to those that just want to pick up and play one of gaming’s most epic tales. There’s a lot of whinging that gets done about games being too easy, but that’s why we have difficulty settings. They’re entirely adjustable. I don’t care what setting someone plays on; I care about how those settings change the game.

When I played DA:O on Normal, I experienced almost none of the depth in the game’s combat system: the game didn’t really require me to. I didn’t have to consider the stats of enemy types, because I just had to move my rogue into back-stab position. I built a really sloppy tank-build, but that didn’t really matter because the enemies didn’t do that much damage. I Never Ran Out Of Poultices. Now, I never HAVE poultices. I have elfroot, briefly.

Oh, I played well at the depth the game required on Normal. I believe you have to in order to beat the game. It’s not like it was easier, but it was simpler. And if you meta-game hard enough, then simple looks like easy. The game isn’t any harder to execute on Hard-Mode, but the decisions I’m making rely on more complex considerations. Does that mean it’s harder?

Or does that mean it’s a different type of game? The Dragon Age: Origins game I played on Normal was a Final Fantasy-esque real-time RPG with MMO controls. The Dragon Age: Origins I’m playing on Hard-Mode is more like an RTS with a pause button. The considerations I need to make to survive are different and the chances that I’ll die are far higher. Is that harder or just more complex?

I will definitely agree that DA:O would be a much harder game if I had to play Hard-Mode in real-time from the word “Go”. That’s not the case, though. The ability to pause the game and zoom out changes the player dynamic a lot. Being required to do so in order to survive alters it irrevocably. That’s not a bad thing if there’s something for the player to experience in that dynamic, though.

Switching to Hard-Mode changed the game, but that change opened the game up. It forced me to engage with its systems in a completely different way. It’s also made streaming the game a lot of fun. I’m learning a ton from people that come by the chat. Strategies and builds are rich areas of discussion, and helping each other survive in DA:O is part of what makes it a gaming community. Sharing knowledge is, well, it’s still sharing. Nothing brings some people together like a challenge we can work on. I mean, look at Dark Souls.

But, let’s focus. The depth of the game was unchanged between Normal and Hard. However, my relationship to that depth changed immensely when I switched difficulties. There’s a depth versus complexity trade-off that’s discussed briefly in this Extra Credits Video and it has interesting implications for what we’re discussing here. These differences led me to have to dive further into the game, but greater depth often leads to greater complexity. The question I’m left with is: how foreboding is that complexity?

Well, the game encourages you to start on Normal. The first time through, I’d guess that most people probably experience most of the game’s content in N-mode. If they’re looking for a little more bite from the combat system, then they can skip up to hard. There, they might discover, as I did, that there’s more to this game than an MMO re-skin. The story pulled me through the first play-through, but the gameplay is pulling me through the second one. That’s a damn good engagement curve, if you ask me.

Does Normal sell the depth and complexity of the game’s combat mechanics a little short? In my opinion, yeah, but it does so to make the overall game more engaging for more people. If you’re someone who knows they like a challenge, then Nightmare and Hard-mode are ready and waiting for you. If you decide that you fripped up, then you can always scale it down (at any point). That’s really thoughtful in a game as long as this one, especially if you want to bump the difficulty up later on.

It’s hard to define what makes something “Hard”. Execution challenges, decision-moments and reaction times are nicely quantifiable variables, but they’re meaningless without the human experience they create. After all, it doesn’t matter how strong your twitch-kill game is, I guarantee that a computer could do it better. The fact that a game is tuned to specific human reaction times and sensory modalities is part of what makes it difficult. The game asks us to push the edges of our awareness and pwn that much harder, but that difficulty is a reflection of the game’s interaction with the player. The game that emerges from a multi-player match relies on the players’ relative abilities mediated through the game, but the game considers those relative human abilities in its design. That’s why we have noob-toobs  for effpeaesses and a Pause function in Dragon Age: Origins. The games provide the tools you need to succeed.

You can go elegant, the way Dive-Kick did, or you can sprawl the way DA:O does, but you still have to be accessible. And while it could be argued that Normal is too simple to Require a deep understanding of the mechanics and Hard is too complex to invite newbies to engage with it (if you’re not already familiar with RPG mechanics, then it’s even more-so, because this shiz is relative), I think it’s an elegant use of the difficulty setting. Normal makes the game approachable. It lets people experience the story without having to spam F5 and F9, but, when you’re ready, the Darkspawn lurk in Nightmare. It’s a gateway I’ll pass through someday; I’ll see you on the other side.

Addendum: If you’re interested in Difficulty Scaling in DA:O, then check out: DA:O Difficulty and DA:O Challenge Scaling

Crafting Horror Mechanics and Mindsets

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2014 by trivialpunk

Last time, we were comparing the elements that create a jump-scare to the elements that create an entire horror movie. Today, we’re going to expand on that and talk about creating player mind-sets in horror games.

Finding primary sources for this is difficult, because horror experiences are so personal. I can tell you what I was thinking at a given moment of gameplay, but it might not be the norm. We can discuss what designers wanted their players to feel, but whether or not that translates to the player experience is going to depend on a lot of factors external to the design.

So, we’re going to go broad and stick with a few concrete perspectives. To do that, we’re going to start with Dead Space 3.

Now, we all know the crafting system in Dead Space 3 rocked our immersion with its micro-transaction frippery, but is that the only issue with it? I would argue that it also creates entirely the wrong mind-set in the player. When you’re crafting a weapon in DS3, what are you thinking about?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking about how much damage it’s going to do. I’m thinking about how many pieces they’ll fly into. Or, I’m considering the merits of perpetual-stasis ripper-saws against those of a glowing death-ball cannon. If you watched my Painkiller video of yore, you’ll have probably figured out my point already: in none of the scenarios I’m considering am I the prey.

I’m preparing for battle, so I’m preparing to hunt, or, at least, to take down a dangerous opponent. The dynamic I’m thinking in is that of a predator. That’s empowering; that’s the opposite of the way I should be thinking. I should be thinking, “I hope this will keep me alive, but I’m not sure if it will.” If I’m going to min-max, then it should be for all the right reasons.

But my question is, if you’re already thinking about your strength and how to combat an opponent, aren’t you already in the wrong mind-set? This is one of the things that makes horror RPGs so questionable to me: RPG elements are usually about growth towards success and away from dis-empowerment.

The way we usually employ leveling systems isn’t going to cut it; we need our level-ups to reinforce our position in the monster dynamic. There are several ways to do this. One way is simply to ensure that your growth never makes you equal to the monsters. This can be accomplished by simply making the monsters more powerful, but then it’s pretty hard to distinguish between standard monster progression and an atmosphere of oppression. Lulz.

Again, though, if we’re in that mind-set, then we’ve already lost the first battle. Let’s step back: what does our level-up system tell the player about how they’re growing? If you can grow in strength, then your ability to combat the enemy grows, as well. But, what if you grow in pivoting speed? I know it sounds silly next to Strength, but that’s why we just don’t include Strength.

Our character could grow in areas that reinforce its prey-like nature. The ability to pivot quicker or sprint longer would give the player the tools to escape enemies more easily, but it wouldn’t make the escape itself trivial. An ability that allows the player to sense their enemies seems like a good idea, but that also increases the player’s ability to combat the enemy.

Another thing to remember, here, is not to allow the level-up mechanics to interact with the puzzles or the challenges in any way that makes them easier. Doing that gives the player Avatar-strength, which is exactly what we’re avoiding in the combat. The message should be: your growth helps you survive, not succeed.

For example, let’s say we give players the ability to unlock an emergency u-turn button. That ability shouldn’t then interact with some puzzle that requires that you turn around more quickly, unless the speed with which you turn has no bearing on the challenge.

Let it be a convenience. What do I mean? Well, if you’re doing a riddle that requires that you pull on six hang-man’s nooses that are spaced around a room, then quick-turn lets you navigate to them more easily, if you’re in a third-person shooter. However, if there’s a timed-element, then quick-turn makes this portion easier by making the navigation easier.

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Now, this can be contextual, as well. If the puzzle is just a random timed puzzle for reasons, then it’s not really a big deal that your level-progression assisted you through it. However, if it’s a timed puzzle because the forces of darkness are slowly possessing your soul, then your level-progression has assisted you in fighting them, altering the dynamic once more.

Growing empowered doesn’t have to be a negative aspect of a horror game. It could always be shown to be an utter illusion, but, since it’s already an illusion, it’s difficult to experience the difference, at times. However, if progression leads you towards something awful, then we’ve altered the dynamic, again.

Think about Cthulhu. (but not too hard) As an entity, it is beyond grasping. However, in their studies of Cthulhu and the Occult, many adventurers find fantastic powers and strange, overwhelming artifacts. The deeper an adventurer quaffs, the madder it becomes. That’s another way to look at a power-progression.

Let’s say we’re in a house with a small ghost. Every day, that ghost grows slightly in power. In order to combat that ghost, we’ve got to learn about it and grow in power, as well. However, in order to grow in power, we must make sinister deals with Otherworldly creatures. These deals let a little bit of something slip through and we’re suddenly racing our madness with our intellect.

I envision this as a haunting-Occult sim that grows in insanity as you make deals with more and greater numbers of spirits. I’d include a Pact system that would eventually allow you to banish the evil from your house, but only after you’ve endured some messed-up shit and if you don’t die. However, it could also be a platformer that grows in complexity as you begin seeing more and more of the spirits populating the levels. You could probably get some funky level-replay value out of that. Remember the ! blocks in Super Mario World? Like that but with demons.

My point isn’t necessarily the gameplay: my point is the player mind-set. We must never stop asking: how do the systems we’re utilizing work together to influence how the player is thinking about their gameplay experience and, thus, their choices? That experience is where we need to concentrate our unnerving efforts: a frightening back-drop is nothing without it.

Speaking of backdrops, what about those environments and our relationship to them? Well, that usually depends on the systems in the game. If you’ve got a standard physics system, then you and the floor are well-acquainted. If you can swim, then water’s your buddy, guy! How about stealth mechanics? Shadows are your friend! And barrels. I like hiding behind barrels.

Think about how your relationship to the environment and the creatures changes between Outlast and Amnesia. Both of these games are about exploring the creepy-dark and finding baddies therein, but Amnesia has a stealth mechanic and Outlast has a hiding mechanic.

If you’re cornered in Outlast, then you can make a break for the next bed or locker and hide there. There aren’t really a lot of decisions to make about that: you just sprint and hide when you’re out of LoS. That’s about as much as you need to think about the environment, and that’s about as much as I did think about the environment.

However, in Amnesia, where every box might hide you and every shadow conceal you, you’re paying attention to the environment. You’re thinking about what the monster can see. You’re engaged with your surroundings. Yes, not being able to look at the creature helps, but only because you’re concerned about what the creature can see, so you’re thinking about the creature.

If you’re just thinking about avoiding the creature, then you’re not really threatened by it, because you’re not thinking of it as a threat. You’re thinking of it as an obstacle. You don’t think of its parameters, because they never come into play. You just react. See monster, run out of sight, hide, repeat. Or, see monster, stay out of sight, use sounds to avoid it, repeat.

A monster in Amnesia is an artificial intelligence to be played around. There are unknowns in its programming and risks you can take. You can successfully stack two boxes on top of each other and cower in a corner without knowing if that will hide you. That’s a qualitatively different experience to picking a locker to crouch in for a while before being found or not. One’s a coin-flip, the other’s a die roll.

For our player, the math behind it is not as important as the experience. That experience informs their mind-set, which informs their choices, which folds back in on their experience. Yes, that is a conceptual cluster-fuck, but we’re self-aware beings, so you weren’t expecting an easy answer, now, were you?

In any event, this is just a handful of perspectives. As I said last time, horror is like a finely-tuned melody. Any one of these elements that I’ve discussed, in good light or bad, can be part of a successful horror experience. The difference lies in how well the pieces fit together. It’s a difficult puzzle to navigate; I’ll see you on the other side.

The Jump-Scare Microcosm

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2014 by trivialpunk

Often, I get the urge to go back and edit my old posts. Usually, there’s a typo that’s bothering me, but sometimes it’s just the post itself that needs to be changed. You grow a lot over the course of a couple years, but you always start somewhere. Thankfully, I’m not regurgitating all of Yahtzee’s analogies anymore, but that doesn’t diminish the urge to go back and change the posts where I did.

But, that’s where I was at the time I wrote the post. This is a blog, so its integrity relies on its temporality, which is a ridiculous way of saying that I’d feel weird about editing old posts. So, I’ve just got to do better next time. I wrote a pretty glowing review of Titanfall, but I haven’t really played it since. And I hated Dark Souls, but I’ve got a Letsplay of it now, and I love it.

I’m going to learn from those experiences and do a Letsplay series on Clockwork Empires as it develops. For the people listening to my opinion, I feel compelled to back up my words. Also, it’s fun.

But we’re not here to talk about FUN, are we? We’re here to talk about FEAR. Well, horror, actually, of which fear is a principle component. It doesn’t matter what medium you’re working in, the important experience is the end-user experience. And when you’re talking horror, that means that you have to take things like lighting, stress-levels, pop-culture and interface into account.

But, that also means that you’re working with a complicated apparatus. Inducing the experience of fear is like playing a complicated emotional symphony. You know how those laughs that follow tense moments are always extra poignant? Part of the reason for that is that laughter is an emotional stress valve. The process of building emotional tension is also the process of building physical tension (stress). Striking at a point in the arc creates a related reaction.

This is one of the mechanisms that makes the jump-scare work. Whether it pays off for a viewer usually depends on their individual reaction; whether it will work on anyone usually depends on the designer.

But tension is not enough, even something as brief as a jump-scare requires a lot of thought to put together and relies on a lot of things going right. Even if it all goes off properly, it’s still being fed through self-aware systems of such sublime complexity and variation that no two will remember it in exactly the same way. That being said, they’re also creatures of such immense sophistication that they could still describe it in exactly the same way if they were asked to. That’s us.

I’m talking about the jump-scare because it’s like a horror-movie microcosm. It relies on most of the same elements: physiological reactions, context and timing. So, if we break down its elements, we can see part of the system we’re working with. Because, despite the fact that each person is different, the reactions they have are in relation to their steady-state, so you can still scare most people a little bit.

For instance, sounds can build physical stress. Let’s paint a standard late-night scene in a deserted park. Our character is walking beside a row of hedges as the wind whips up a little, shaking the leaves. Now, if we were watching a movie, you could start building a deep, subtle sound in the background that would arouse the attention of your audience and begin building some physiological stress.

You can start using restrictive camera angles to let your audience’s visual system know that it’s not getting enough data by using the auditory one, because there are sounds in the background that they’re hearing: strange, out-of-sight sounds. Cut the angle out to a wide-angle of our character walking beside the hedge, edging slightly away from it but clearly feeling foolish about it.

At this point, your audience knows from the music that something’s wrong. This is where people begin yelling at the character to get away from the hedge! It’s dangerous! I think that’s a stress-release valve that opens because the danger is apparent but unknown. This is where you need to be subtle, because your audience wants to get stressed out. However, if the character’s acting foolishly, then they might opt out of buying-in entirely.

We’ve all watched scenes that we thought might have been frightening but were completely ruined because the character didn’t act in a logical manner, right? We are, after all, relying on our audience to project into the mind of our character. If our character acts in a manner that they don’t understand, then our audience can’t really connect with them in any meaningful way. At that point, our character is no longer embodying our audience, so neither will they.

So, back to the scene… Our audience knows that there’s something up, because the music has aroused their attention. They’ve understood that the character feels creeped out by walking alone, at night, beside a hedge, but that the character feels silly about it. The background noises have combined with the camera angles to give the audience the impression that they’re missing some information. But, the wide-angle has communicated that there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong. Everything is benign, but it feels dangerous.

Now, what of context? We just painted a random park somewhere. Are we watching a slasher-flick? If so, then we know what’s probably waiting in the hedge. Or, at least, the worst thing that could be waiting in the hedge as far we know. That’s kinda meh, honestly. What if an unknown creature escaped from the Lab somewhere and our character doesn’t know about it?

Well, now we have another element of mystery. Not only do we not know if something’s wrong here, but we don’t even know what it could be. That’s not AS helpful as it could be, but it does do some work for us. What if we knew it smashed a cage? Then, it’s strong. How about if it melted its way through a wall? That’s pretty visceral. What could it do to our character?

Still, that might be a little too descriptive. What if we just know that it escaped, but it shredded the corpses of the guards on the way out? The more details we restrict, the more each detail increases in importance in the mind of the audience. However, we still need to give their imaginations enough to work with.

Let’s go back to slashers for a second. If he’s skinned two people so far, then we can imagine that he’ll probably skin his next victim. That’s a gruesome thought, but it only engages the imagination so far. If, on the other hand, he has only removed certain body-parts from each victim at random, then our audience might imagine what would be next.

However, we can encourage them to imagine that by introducing a pattern into the dismemberment. Buffalo Bill, for instance, was building a body-suit. If the reader was given enough details to be encouraged to imagine which ones he’d be after next, then we have further engaged their imagination, and, thus, deepened their immersion. Human curiosity and imagination are essential tools for creating horror.

So, that’s context. For variety’s sake, let’s just say that a creature escaped from a lab. It burned its way out of its cell, then it shredded the skin from each guard, absorbing their blood through the tears in their flesh. (If we want to get really specific later, then we’ll say that a guard who died from severe acid burns wasn’t drained, suggesting that their heart-beat aids the process) That’s pretty graphic.

Now, we have a colorful potential fate for our character. We’ve told the audience that something’s up, but we didn’t overdo it. Then, let’s say their cell-phone rings. If we did it suddenly, then it might act as a mini-jump-scare, relieving some physiological tension. That can be good if we plan to build it up again or catch our audience off-guard. However, if we wanted to build towards a single big scare, then it would build slowly.

Does it build up alongside a rustling in the bushes? Does our character notice something shuffling in the leaves, ignoring their phone to pay attention to the new thing in the shadows? Does our character answer the phone and end up getting stalked by a camera? Does our character not believe their friend? The next few seconds are crucial, and they’ll define the entire tone of the jump-scare.

For our single instance, let’s say that our character pulls their phone out of their pocket, the volume increasing slightly to show why it was initially muffled. Then, they look at the call-return, still walking as they go, putting the phone up to their ear, the camera cuts to a typical walking-talking-head angle, at which point something pounces from off-camera. Our sound-cue here is essential. The scene cuts to the other end of the phone, where we receive more of the plot and a small bit of information about what’s happening to the character we just left.

We want to catch the audience off-guard, but we don’t want to contrive camera-angles or plot-devices that will let them know when we’re planning on catching them off-guard. That defeats the purpose of contriving them, unless they’re a meta-contrivance, and that’s a whole other ball of wax: horror movies for people who love horror movies. (<3)

At the same time, we want to ensure that the angles and mechanics that create the jump-scare are still present. We still want to restrict their vision and menace them with sounds, but we don’t want them to feel like those things exist solely to accomplish the task of creating a jump-scare. That line of thinking runs through everything I understand about creating horror.

You want to create horrifying situations, but you don’t want your audience to have to think about the fact that you’re doing it. You’re not just creating a situation that’s horrifying for the character: you’re using your character’s situation to horrify your audience. It’s their physiology that you need to worry about. It’s their tension that is ultimately played-upon. It’s thrilling to experience when it all works out, because it was created to be experienced.

Games have a huge leg-up when creating horror because they engage the audience directly. However, the job becomes that much more complicated as you add elements, like volition. Creating truly great horror in a game universe means understanding and manipulating someone’s decisions in the same way that jump-scares use physiological tension: they must contribute to the horror in their own way.

Each decision should be part of a string of events that bring you to a horrifying moment. It doesn’t matter if the decision is to walk forward or to choose between two doors or to apply the lotion from one vaguely-labelled bottle instead of the other. The decisions should be themed around creating the experience of horror. They should engage the imagination.

You should have to think about what moving forward might bring. You should be worried about what’s behind each door. The consequences of the choosing a lotion should be frightening. Of course, you’re not always going to be able to do that with every game, so it’s just something to think about while you tackle the realities of putting together any piece of media.

Horror is a difficult thing to produce, and its personal effects are so variable that it’s difficult or impossible to create any piece of media that will engage everyone in the same way. But, that’s the beauty of horror. Strike out into the dark and try something new. Good luck navigating the shadow; I’ll see you on the other side.

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