Archive for Dead Space 3

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.

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Horror, Asymmetrical Dementia and The Prisoner’s Dilemma (Soap Not Included)

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello ladies and gentles! Tonight, on a very special episode of Trivial Punk, we’re going to highlight an article that I think is hilarious to a certain point. It’s about the kind of personalities that can manifest when we’re thrown to the wolves. It’s a bit of a hard line to take, because we’ve all been “that guy” at one time or another. Don’t kid yourselves, girls can be “that guys,” too. Guy is hardly a gendered term any more. Where was I? Oh right, we’re only going to be spotlighting one blog a post until mid-terms and final papers are over, so I can maintain some vestige of conscious thought.

So, what’s in the news? Oh, right, there’s the whole Aliens: Colonial Marines thing. I know a lot of people beat on this game, and with good cause, but it’s a sign that gaming is still moving on up, as it were. It has been named as the next official step in the Aliens continuity, so that must mean something. Unfortunately, the small nation of developers that this game had seem to have been breathing in paint fumes during its creation. Oh well. Let’s hope that the next time a popular movie franchise decides to throw its IP to the critical gaming community, it doesn’t turn out so shit.

Moving on from that piece of gaming history, let’s move on to another of my favourite slow-moving targets fashioned from potatoes without ham-strings: Dead Space 3. Now, I know I’ve said everything that I needed to say about the game itself, but there’s still the multi-player component to spray down with Lysol. Up front, I’m going to say that I think it was an interesting idea. Adding a little multi-player to a horror experience may seem like a terrible idea on the surface, and the way they implemented it, it was, but there’s a flash of something shiny underneath. So, let’s start up our drills and dig until we hit diamond.

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Some might say, and indeed I have, that adding another player to a horror experience eliminates the feeling of soul-crushing aloneness that leaves one feeling over-whelmed and out-matched against impossible, alien odds. That’s true. It’s also hard to maintain an atmosphere when you can do things like throw a limb into a loosely re-assembled pile of body parts and get the “First Aid” achievement. This happened to me playing two-player Monkey-swap on Dead Space 2 with a room-mate. We laughed for about an hour of game play. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have laughed longer than a minute, tops. However, used correctly, another player can add something that no horror game can hope to match on its own: an unpredictable element. Sure, some games can be surprising, but nothing in the world will make you feel more alone than knowing that the only other sane being in the room may turn around to try and kill you at any point. Nothing is more difficult to cope with than another intelligence in indirect competition with you. It can be hard to craft a horror game, a primarily experience-based, narrative-driven genre, that is viable in both multi-player and single-player modes. I think Dead Space 3 should get props for trying to pull together two entirely different campaign paths into a unified experience. Here, they might have spread themselves too thin, but they also took a somewhat flawed approach.

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They introduced a mechanic called asymmetrical dementia. It basically means that your partner doesn’t see all of the same things that you do. This means that, to you, they may start behaving very strangely at times, without explanation. This is cute, and it’s a nice way to squeeze another player into the game while trying to maintain an air of suspicion, especially considering the largely illusory characters that made up the cast of the previous two titles. However, I have two problems with this approach. The first is the most obvious one. We know that asymmetrical dementia is a part of the game, so there’s really no reason to be weirded out by our partner’s unusual behaviors. If they do something strange, then it’s pretty easy to chalk it up to the mechanic. The second is related, but slightly different. There’s no reason to fear your partner’s behavior. There’s no distrust. In order to make a set-up like this effective, you need to combine unusual behavior with an untrustworthy situation or demeanour. I’m sure that the people who pull phishing schemes are suspicious, but there’s no reason for me to be afraid of them until I start making some rather unwise decisions concerning my chequeing account. Essentially, there’s no threat, and, for a horror game, that’s a pretty big problem. You need to give partners a reason to distrust each other, but, also, a need to cooperate. Given that DS3 has you working together against an overwhelming enemy while you’re both slipping slowly into hallucinogenic madness, it’s easy to see how the opportunity was well developed, if unexploited. So, how do we get people to work together to cut their own throats?

Let’s begin by looking at some other examples of hybrid-cooperation games that didn’t pan out. Call of Juarez: The Cartel included a sort of levelling system that relied on each player completing secret objectives while the others weren’t looking. It meant that your allies would be sneaking around on you to get upgrades to… assist you. Yeah, that’s where the whole thing sort of breaks down. Why wouldn’t you do your best to help your partner get that BFG? So, the problem was that there was really no level of competition. Sure, you were supposed to play within the rules of the game, but players will always meta-game, especially in cooperative games. So, as developers, we have to design games that take advantage of that tendency and forces them to compete head-to-head in the for-realsies world, while still wanting to cooperate. That’s how we fuck with heads.

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Speaking of, have you played Zombies Ate My Neighbours? It’s a great example of a game that requires cooperation but still stokes competition. At the end of each level, a score is displayed that shows how well each player did that scenario. Pick-ups are limited and enemy weaknesses varied, so items are always at a premium. Losing your lives, obviously, resets you with the starting gun, so you want to make sure that you get a share of all the loot in case your partner dies. In multi-player mode, the fast-paced, quick-decision type of game-play leaves you cooperating and competing at the same time. It’s a perfect example of the type of formula you need to ensure that players will work together, but also, occasionally, turn on each other, or vice versa.

That leads me nicely to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Illustrated here…

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma is classic game theory. Not for developing video games, but the kind that has been involved in everything from espionage to chess games. Basically, you and your partner in crime have been captured by the police and are both being interrogated in separate rooms. The time-frames and exact penalties vary a bit, but the basics of it are that there are four situations:

If you rat on your partner and they stay quiet: you go free and they get a big penalty. Let’s say, like the illustration, it’s 20 years in prison.

If your partner rats on you and you stay quiet: they go free and you get 20 years.

If both of you rat: You both get 5 years.

If both of you remain silent: You both get 1 year.

Essentially, by the numbers, it’s always better for you to rat, because you get an okay result no matter what your partner does. However, it’s optimal if both of you to stay quiet. BUT, you can’t possibly know if your partner will, and it’s devastating to you if you do and they don’t. So, you’re left to ponder your partner’s motives and your own decision. This is what it means to set two people who are better off working together against each other. Of course, we can’t just copy-paste that set-up, or the ZAMN one, into Dead Space 3, especially since everything uses AMMO-brand ammo, but we can do something similar…

Given that we’re giving each player slightly different information, and given the tendency for players to meta-game, then we just need to set up a few more caveats. First, we ensure that they are competing for something. It could be something as simple as weapon up-grades, but it could be plot-points, if we really want to make them hate each other. For instance, if both players perform a certain action, then they get a full ending, but if one does something else, then the other player is killed, while they get a personalized character ending. Then, we ensure that they can’t just save-scum that part, a’la The Cave. Even more dastardly, you could include some form of friendly-fire, while making life imperative, but with the same sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma-like result. If your partner kills you, then… etc. You have to make sure that one partner can’t just instantly murder the other, so there’s a point to staying on edge to give you that extra reaction time. The point is to get the players to distrust each other through the mechanics, while still making the play rewarding and challenging. If you make the co-op mode difficult enough, then they won’t want to hold their partners back. However, if you make the rewards tantalizing enough, then your players will spend the majority of the levels looking over their shoulders for big, soft targets in which they could, theoretically, plant speeding projectiles that blossom into blood-fountains.

This is just one way of thinking about it, but it makes a lot of sense considering the asymmetrical dementia approach. Under a regime of oppression and suspicion, unusual behavior becomes the most terrifying kind. It would really help to mechanically represent the distrust a psychopath might have for another murderous psychopath as they try to, carefully, navigate the murky waters of cutting each other out of their straight-jackets with only a single knife, literally, between them. If we’re going to begin introducing co-op into horror games, then this is exactly the kind of thing we’re going to have to master.

There are as many different ways to breed distrust as there are wants in the dreams of the most avaricious among us, so I’m sure I’ll end up discussing a few more in the time to come. If you have any ideas, then feel free to post them in the comments. I’m going to get back to stitching together what brief strings of sane thought I can into something resembling a cogent essay. See you on the other side!

SCP – Containment Breach: Survival Horrgasm

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

I haven’t written anything with this little rest under my belt in a long while. Thankfully, I don’t have to be anywhere for a few hours, so I’ll get a power-nap in. So, without further ado, let’s get to it! Today’s first article I’m putting under the spotlight is the beginning of a series that I think could prove quite interesting. It’s a look at different MMOs, an important topic to discuss given the amount of time that a player has to sink into one to really get a feel for the game. The second article comes from the hilariously named “The Second Breakfast.” I can’t help it; I love LOTR.

I know this blog isn’t the “Hate on EA and Dead Space Show,” but I think they’ve started deliberately trying to provoke me. I see what they were going for here, I really do. EA realizes that the micro-transaction model is here to stay, as well as a great way to make money. It might be a good way to keep games costs down (something I haven’t seen yet), but it has no place in survival horror. Although, given the seeming permanency of the financial model, I’m starting to wonder if that’s a bad thing. We’ll get back to that in a second, but first, I just want you to look at the quote, because it is a quote. If you think about it for a second, you’ll see the problem with it. If you’ve only ever played games on your smart-phone, then how could you be a survival horror fan? I’ll give you action games, because they’ve already started to incorporate MT systems into on-line play. That’s fine, but I’m not an action-game writer. I can assure you, with some authority, that there are no good survival horror games coming out of the App store. You can count the Slenderman port all you want, but the original is more immersive, if only because it’s not on a tiny touch-screen.

I tend to think of survival horror as an art-form; at its core, it’s about evoking something in your player. Throwing something as needlessly materialistic and fourth-wall-breaking as a MT system into a survival horror game is ludicrous. I know I said Dead Space 3 wasn’t going to be a survival horror game, but, please, EA, stop trying to defend your decisions. That or make better ones. Don’t, whatever you do, don’t call what you’ve been doing survival horror.  I’ll give Dead Space 1 a nod, because that shit was great. It got a bit dodgy towards the end, but was solid at its core. Dead Space 2 gave me more laughs than a barrel of monkeys in fedoras, and the Dead Space 3 demo was full of more cheap attempted scares than that same barrel of monkeys covered in marinara sauce, but far less disturbing. We’re not here to talk about Dead Space, though.

I only mentioned it because I like to try to stay topical (HA!) and it highlights an important point. I mentioned that survival horror, as a genre, isn’t really set up to incorporate micro-transactions directly into game play (until someone gets really clever), so the prevalence of the system might make survival horror games harder to come by than they already are. Of course, there are mounds to be made in DLC, but that’ll remain to be seen. Then, there’s the independents section of the market. Nowadays, when I want horror, I go to the internet. Things like creepypastas and Slender are making up for a lot of the content that the larger developers aren’t creating. I was listening to the very first podcast from Counter-Attack, and I realized that I was sitting on a hidden wealth of horror that I was selfishly keeping to myself. This summer, I sat down and wrote a horror game RPG system from scratch. During the process of its creation, I did a lot of research. During that research, I was fortunate enough to be  made privy to hidden gems like Uzumaki and The SCP Foundation.

Uzumaki is great, and I encourage you to read through the archives of the SCP Foundation, but we’re here to talk about games! Mostly. Much the way Slenderman gave rise to the Slender game (Did you know they’re working on a sequel?), the tales of the SCP Foundation gave rise to its own game; that, you can download here. Coincidentally enough, it’s free and the topic of today’s discussion. So, let’s get on our Reviewing pants and crack this baby open (not literally, please). If you’ve got some kind of Reading wear, then feel free to mix and match, but try not to clash.

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SCP is an excellent game, but its graphical fidelity reflects its independent origins. The characters are stocky and the sound-effects are pretty terrible. However, what its game designers lacked in financial power, they made up for in knowing how to put together a survival horror game. It is in the beta phase, so it has problems. More than once, I loaded through the floor. The levels are procedurally  generated ( an interesting addition to the horror genre that deserves its own article) and the save system is a bit creaky. BUT, if you can get past these problems, then I think you’ll see the potential this game has.

The story focuses on the daily activities of the SCP (Secure. Contain. Protect.) Foundation. During a routine test on one of the SCPs, a malfunction occurs that forces open the door. Depending on how far you get in the game, this seems like either an overly convenient plot twist or something far more sinister. As a result, the SCP you’re investigating breaks loose and starts rampaging through the building. Your goal is to survive long enough to escape… you probably won’t.

The look of the game is dark and simple. Obviously, there were graphical limitations that had to be considered, but it sort of gives the impression of being a rat in an underground maze. Off-putting at best. The music is slow and unnerving, with plenty of clash for the occasional hairier moments. The sound effects really help bring the world to life. While they do sound a bit tinny, the things going on around you add layers of depth and atmosphere to the environment. One time, I heard a guard commit suicide in the washroom. Disturbing. The procedurally generated nature of the game really helps here. It means that, despite having played it a few times already, I’m never really ready for the ambience. It’s a nice touch.

Let’s look at the interface before we shift over to the alpha antagonist. It takes place from a  first-person view. The controls are the standard WASD affair, with a menu controlled by the tab key. Escape brings up the Save and Quit screen, and left-shift lets you run. You interact with objects in the environment by clicking on them.  That’s it. Oh, and the space bar lets you blink. It’s a pretty simple interface, and if there is more to it, then I haven’t found it. “Wait, what? Blink?” Yeah, the game implements a standard sprint-meter, but also adds a blink meter. At regular intervals, you have to blink. That only makes sense. However, it becomes rather inconvenient as you try to progress through the game. If only you possessed the super-mutant abilities that other video game characters do and simply didn’t need to blink. Oh well… There’s also a gas-mask that changes your HUD and forces you to look through two shadowy lenses, making the environment darker, but letting you avoid gaseous hazards. It’s a nice visual touch.

You might be expecting some kind of “What’s behind door number 1?” joke from me, because the procedural level generation adds to the tension of trying doors and not knowing what will be behind them. But, no, I’m better than that. I’ll only subtly allude to it with smug superiority at having avoided such a lame joke. All the same, it does let me segue nicely into the creature designs. At its heart, The SCP Foundation website is a user-created database of creatures and items with horror-themed backgrounds. As a result, this game had a plethora of creatures to choose from, and I don’t think they could have chosen any better. If you’re a regular reader, then you might recall my previous few articles concerned with the timing elements of survival horror games. The gist of them was that a creature is more effective if we’re left to both wonder about it and dread it. The SCP chosen to be the primary antagonist of the first part of SCP – Containment Breach is perfectly suited to both of these requirements.

SCP-173, known colloquially as, “The Sculpture,” is an unstoppable living statue that compulsively kills everything near it. However, in the tradition of the Quantum Locked angels from “Blink” and the ghosts from Mario, SCP-173 cannot move while you’re looking at it. However, if, and when, you blink, it moves towards you with lightning speed. As a result, you never see it kill anything, so you’re left to imagine. After it breaks out of its cell and starts wreaking havoc all over the building, you’re trapped in a game of cat and mouse with it. This creature design is perfect because you can’t do anything to hurt it, so there’s no combat to mitigate the tension of the chase. At the same time, it also ensures that you’ll be looking at it when you encounter it or that your death will come so quickly that the viscerally resonant snap will catch you by surprise.

This creature has another effect on the player, as well. Part of how a games engages a player is through what it asks the player to do through, and in addition to, game-play. Amnesia asked that we be aware of our concealment and the level of light in the general area. Silent Hill asked that we be mindful of its metaphorical elements so that we could tackle its puzzles more easily (Think: the first boss in SH1).  SCP – CB asks that we keep our eyes searching, straining through a gas mask at, the darkness: looking for threats. Most importantly, looking for SCP-173. It’s not the only threat by far, but it’s the first one you’ll encounter, so it sets the tone for the whole piece. Aaaand, that tone is paranoia.

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They do a lot to create an excellent atmosphere. They’ll waste entire rooms just to help build tension. That is, in part, the work of the procedural generation, but realizing that it was good for the game is a thumbs up for its developer: Regalis. If you want to increase your level of immersion, then I’d recommend listening to some of the audio files on YouTube or reading through The SCP Foundation’s files on-line. I don’t want to say too much more because a good portion of the game is discovery under a repressive regime of terror, but I’ll conclude by out-lining something that will happen to you. When it does, it’ll be no less effective for having read this. That’s a mark of a good horror game.

You’re walking down a hallway. You’ve left the doors behind you ajar because they won’t do much to stop SCP-173, but they’ll waste precious seconds of your life as you try to open them. Up ahead, you hear the solid clunk of metal on metal as the door at the end of the hall slides open and closed. You slip into a side room and pull on your gas mask, just in case. You blink before you go out to increase your chances and, just as you’re rounding the bend, you see a giant, demonic Pillsbury dough-boy wrought from hatred and baked with malice. Panicking slightly, but keeping your head, you begin to sprint backwards down the hallway away from SCP-173. Going through the door, you close it in front of you. As you keep running, the closed door in front of you fades into the darkness, but, just beyond the edges of your vision, you hear the door open. Then, you blink. On the penumbra of your sight, an outline resolves.

You keep sprinting and closing doors, but your stamina is running out. As you slow down and run only intermittently, the outline becomes more and more solid every time you blink. Suddenly, you hit a locked door. You can’t turn around to open it, or you’ll be dead. You need to blink, though. You can’t help it.


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It’s not moving. It’s an absolutely solid mass, totally serene, perfectly benign. You feel your eyes begin to twitch…

No Time for Horror, Doctor Jones

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by trivialpunk

If you read my review of the Dead Space 3 demo, then you’ll know that I don’t consider it horror, least of all, survival horror. That leaves a big bloody, gaping question, “What is it?” To answer that question, we’re going to compare it to, surprise, surprise, the Silent Hill games. It’s not that I think that all games should be like Silent Hill. Indeed, later entries in the series attempted to copy the form of the game without understanding the subtleties. Silent Hill is just a convenient starting point, because we’re going to be taking on both series as wholes. So, without further ado, let’s get this rolling.
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As you may know, it’s getting harder and harder to address the genre of a game. Traditionally, there weren’t that many different kinds of games to choose from. However, things have complicated themselves as the gaming industry has expanded. Sure, we’ve been staying close to many of the original formulas in a lot of ways, but we’ve been reproducing and changing enough that some really unusual mutations have begun  to appear. It’s not enough to say that something is a first-person shooter, anymore. That barely tells you anything about the game. Fallout 3 is technically an FPS, but I’d hardly call it one to its face. Dark Souls is an RPG, but that’s not really the core of it. Dead Space 3 is full of gore and threat, but I’d hardly call it a horror game. If it were, then Max Payne and Painkiller would have equal claim to the title. They don’t, though. Even games that we tend to call horror games, like Alan Wake, feel a bit off. Look at the box, it bills itself as a “Psychological Action Thriller.” Here’s where the hands of the brighter gaming scholars in the class will shoot up and ask the burning question, “Doesn’t that pretty much describe a horror game?”
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You’ve got me there. Sort of. Like Fallout 3 and Painkiller, it’s all about how you approach the subject matter. Anyone familiar with sarcasm knows that you can answer a question, using exactly the same words as someone else, and mean something profoundly different. I’m going to crib off of Penny Arcade’s Extra Credits here and say that a game’s genre is defined by what you come to the game for. Using a little backwards engineering, we can look at how the game is affecting the player. After all, that’s the ultimate defining factor. I don’t know any people that watch “The Shining” because it’s a laugh-a-second thrill ride, or read Archie comics for their brilliant satirical deconstruction of white-bred suburbia. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t do that, but I just don’t know anyone like that. I’m going to guess that not many of us do. That being said, it’s going to get harder and harder to define game genres as time passes. That doesn’t mean it’s fruitless, though. Like all categories, they’re just general descriptors. There’s plenty of room to move around inside the box. There is a threshold, though, one I think that Dead Space 3 has hit.
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Of course, the game I’m talking about only released a demo, but if we look back at the other games in the series, we can see a pattern emerging. Even more telling, is part of the Dead Space 3 design philosophy. I’ll link you to my sources —> http://forums.aegis7.com/32-dead-space-3/2637-why-have-they-turned-dead-space-gears/page_4.html#post22344 via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Space_3
For those of you who didn’t feel like following the link, I’ll sum it up. They wanted to make Isaac more responsive. He’s able to take cover, combat roll, and move more organically. This was done because, and I quote, ” [they] want the horror to come from the terrible things that happen in the game; not from the horror that something is moving slowly towards you and you can’t shoot it because the game controls like a piece of crap.” Man, that’s discouraging. It seems like they’ve missed the point of the crappy controls like a champ. Then again, most people who are using cliff notes seem to. I wasn’t there in the planning room for the Resident Evil or Silent Hill games, so I can’t tell you the intent of the control scheme. It might have been a limitation thing, or even an accident, but the results were a feeling of limited efficacy and helplessness.
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If you’ve ever played through this fight in Silent Hill 2, then you’ll know what I mean. For most of the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series, the control scheme was such that you had to rotate your character, and move it forward and backwards, separately. In addition, the room for this fight was quite small.
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That’s most of the rest of the room. As you can probably tell, Pyramid head’s weapon is quite large. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but, when swung, it takes up most of the area. To fight him, you’ve got to run around him, with the clunky controls, get some space between you, and fire off a few shots in his direction. Then, you’ve got to wait until he drags that giant blade towards you, and, when he’s about to swing it, run around him. He’ll switch up the angle of his attack. He does an over-the-head swing that reaches most of the way across the room, as well as a quicker stab attack. This being a well-designed survival horror game, he will eventually leave, even if you don’t shoot at him. This takes much longer, of course. Why design an encounter this way? Because the point of this fight isn’t to shoot enough lead into a seemingly indestructible creature until it bleeds enough to fall over. No, that’s too easy. The point of this fight is to survive, and experience, the helpless claustrophobia. Between the movement restrictions, and the pace of the fight, you get just enough time to realize when he’ll be swinging his big ass sword at you, and that it’s going to kill you.

This goes right to the pacing of the entire game. Silent Hill leaves you room to consider the situation you’re in, and actually makes you dread it. If James Sunderland, the hero of Silent Hill 2, moved as freely as Isaac does in Dead Space 3, then the Pyramid Head fight would be laughable. Or, more likely, the entire fight would have to be re-tooled. Pyramid Head would probably move faster, and the arena would be larger. His attacks would be more varied, and you might actually have to whittle down a health bar. That being said, it would still be a tense fight. If you didn’t have a health bar to whittle down, and he still eventually left, it could actually be quite frightening. After all, there’s no indication that you’re actually hurting him. It actually makes a “Ting!” sound when you shoot him, like one of those inexhaustibly annoying kids on the playground that played Cops and Robbers with Superman-like invincibility. Of course, that kind of movement would mean a re-tooling of the whole game. As it stands, you can get good at moving with the clunky controls if, like me, you played it obsessively as a child. However, every movement still requires a certain level of planning. You’ve got to set up your angle and make a break for it when the time is right. This creates the perfect level of hesitation, because you’re well aware of the threat being posed, and your tenuous ability to meet it.
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In an earlier post, I mentioned that well-designed games tend to follow a similar arousal curve in all aspects of their game play. Fast-paced games usually throw you right into the action after brief moments of respite that give you just enough time to reload before the next wave . It’s up and down and up and down. Slower games do much the same thing, but the length of each portion of the pattern is different. How do Dead Space and Silent Hill differ in this regard? As my break down of the Pyramid Head fight illustrates, it holds true for combat. So, let’s look at Dead Space. Every Dead Space game has a token attempt to build atmosphere, but it never lasts. Before long, you’re slogging through Necromorph after Necromorph. Even the tension-building phases have walls covered in blood and bodies. The parts without it usually involve breaking open item crates, solving puzzles or doing quick-time events. It’s trying to keep you engaged and tense. However, as anyone who has watched a horror movie knows, the horrific moments are all the more salient for the snatches of respite around them. That’s why you’re thrown back to Regular Silent Hill after the climactic portion of every Dark Silent Hill section.

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Dead Space is all tension. As a result, you really don’t experience any of it. Sure, you might feel it, but that’s not really the same thing. Eventually, you habituate to it, like the clothes on your body. Even the gore gets tired. Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee pointed out that the scene from Heavy Rain where the guy cuts his finger off is far more effective than, well, any of the dismemberment that goes on in Dead Space, and I can’t help but agree. It happens so often, and so quickly, that there’s barely any time to consider the ramifications of it. Part of what makes horror so poignant is the degree to which we can imagine ourselves in the same situation. For a more clear example of what I mean, think about that one scene in the Lord of the Rings when Gandalf hits his head in Bilbo’s house. Whether you’ve smacked your head on a low-hanging arch or not, you’ll have a vague idea of what it feels like. Any thoughts about having your face torn off? Arm severed by a killer space scythe? No? Well, shit.
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The result of this is that Dead Space never really gives you the feeling of being horrified. It can jump-scare you, and leave you feeling tense, but real horror comes from the mind of the player. It comes from putting yourself in the place of the protagonist, and thinking about the ramifications of your actions. It comes from thinking about the world and the horror around you. From feeling the difference between the horrific, the sublime, and the banal. There’s no time for that in Dead Space. You’ve got to be shooting shit, now! Well, there are a few moments of considered terror. A fight in zero-g, from an earlier game, with a giant monstrosity was paced just well enough to leave me shaken. It was overwhelmingly, brain-defying huge. I actually got to think about the situation. Go Dead Space! There’s not much to the series like that, though. It’s mostly blood, and run-shoot-run-shoot-AUGH! As for the portion of the design philosophy that referred to “the terrible things that happen in the game,” all I have to say is that disturbing images aren’t scary if they carry no weight or consideration. I can’t stress this enough, you have to give us time to imagine, because imagination is the seat of horror. That being said, it’s not a straight-up action game, either.
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There may be a lot of shit going on all the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s in the same boat as a Call of Duty game. The type and tone of the encounters means that it’s not strictly a first-person shooter, but it sure wants you to fight like it’s one. You see, the pacing penetrates as far as the most basic layers. Isaac’s enhanced movement means that monsters need to be faster to keep up with him. As a result, you can’t really afford to run away from them. Hell, most of the time, the game won’t let you continue until you’ve filled everything around you with enough hot plasma to power a warp-core. This is a huge shift in tone. Survival horror, if Pyramid Head, and the controls, didn’t make it abundantly clear, is a game-type that relies quite heavily on the ability to run away. This makes the times you can’t all the more effective. Monsters in tight hallways have to be dodged, because there isn’t a lot of ammo lying around and your weapons are slow and unwieldy. This is aided by the speed of the main character, which the monsters are programmed in relation to. They’re slow enough that you can run, but fast enough that they’re a bitch to fight. Dead Space encourages you, through its movement and ordinance-heavy design, to fight. You Are The Reaper. In a way, you’re the Pyramid Head of the Dead Space franchise. If Necromorphs feel, then you can’t imagine they’re ever elated by Isaac’s appearance in their midst.

Now, let’s bring it all together. Dead Space, and games like it (Resident Evil 4-6, Silent Hill Homecoming, etc.), aren’t really paced for horror. Their engagement, mechanics, and story-line are geared towards more constant provocation. It’s all about jump-scares and a constant feeling of low-level preparedness. That’s the problem: preparedness. It’s great for keeping people tense, but if you’re feeling ready, then you’re not expecting to be caught off-guard. That makes the moments you are all the sweeter, but much less likely to occur. Silent Hill lets you relax to make you think and to make the moments of terror stand out. The series’ more recent releases have kind of lost sight of that subtlety, but either they’ll find it again, or they won’t. In my opinion, they could have made Silent Hill 3 and knocked off for the rest of time and I’d still be a fan. Yes, I’m also a Dead Space fan, but now I’m just going to go to their games for something other than being truly terrified. Instead, I’ll enjoy it for its bombastic gore and constant tension. There are no secrets in Dead Space, only outright disturbing splatter. In recognition of the shift of tone that the series has taken, and for the convenience of talking about games like it in the future, I’ve chosen to call this type of game a Splatter Thriller (Optionally: Gore Thriller). A toast, to this new(ish) and, literally, exciting genre!

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Dread Space Another One

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on January 18, 2013 by trivialpunk

Contrary to the words I wrote mere seconds ago, I’m going to be starting my penance next week. Right now, I’ve got way too much of a headache to focus on reading. Why am I typing, you may ask? Well, Dead Space 3’s demo came out recently, and I’ve got to say something about that shit! As my regular reader may know, I’ve got kind of a thing for the horror genre. If it were a lady, I’m pretty sure we’d be moved in, vowed and raising three li’l ones by now. However, recently I feel like most of my lovely courtesans have been getting bored with the shock-a-day lifestyle, and seem to be flitting towards the action-adventure genre. I worry, because we’re starting to have less and less in common. They’re out and about with slimy space-monsters wearing leather jackets and exploding their way over cool jumps, and I’m sitting here on the kitchen floor mournfully cradling a cleaver. It just feels like we’re both going to end up having extramarital affairs sooner or later. Either way, there will be blood, and maybe that’s enough. To that end, let’s peek into the diary of the Dead Space franchise and see what the little minx has in store for us.
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Things started off a bit worryingly when the snow animation looked a bit 1999. Not the sky-boxes, mind, but the snow trailing around my feet. My jealousy became aroused even more when a couple of enemies came screaming out of the door of a hangar, flailing their arms and praying for bullets. BUT, what really caught my breath in my throat, wrenching my heart in a vice-like fashion, was the weapon customization. Let’s break down why I’m jealous, then maybe The Note will make more sense when it shows up next to our bloated bodies.

Part of what kept Dead Space consistent was the level design. Not the way it was put together, but the aesthetic. It was all pretty samey and shippy, with the occasionally rocky mesa to spice things up a bit. As a result, there wasn’t much to worry about with regards to keeping all of the animation on the same level. With the introduction of snow into the environment, the programmers had to be very careful to make sure that its graphical and animation quality matched that of the rest of the environment. It did not. The whole thing almost pulled me out of the experience before I’d even got a chance to pick up my first stasis pod. I can only comfort myself with the hope that they’ll have improved it by the time the final product ships.

If that snow animation thing seemed a bit small to bring up, then I should probably back up a bit further. Horror is a genre that’s centered around creating an emotion, evoking a response. You’ve got to know your audience and craft the experience accordingly. Any little thing can pull you out of it. Of course, a tense, well-drawn story-line, and the rest of the bloody game, can make up for the odd quirk (see: Resident Evil… Survival Horror Voice-Acting), but that requires a considered approach. Dead Space 3 eschews that by throwing more over-baked bacon-crab monsters at us right off the bat. There’s no sense of build-up. There’s very little time for tension, because we’re too busy smacking them around with the God-Hand and Boot of Isaac. I know it’s hard to create tension when everyone already knows what all the bloody monsters look like, but maybe that means we’re done here. I’m sure you could use some of these monster designs in other games.

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Speaking of monster designs, Dead Space sort of packed it in for me with the troops. You fight soldiers. With grenades. Sometimes, they’re fighting you because a squid-baby nestled its way into their armor with all the grace and elegance of Earthworm Jim, but a monster should be disturbing on more than just a cognitive and visual level. Let me explain with an example from my favorite series: Silent Hill 2.
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This monster, shown here in high-definition, is the manifestation of the hatred one of the other characters has for her abusive father. The game makes this quite clear through dialogue, cut-scenes, and game-play. It’s just… strange. It makes unusual noises, it moves in a weird, languorous, counter-intuitive manner, and it leaves a thought-provoking corpse. However, it also represents something disturbing in relation to what it represents about the character’s past, a fact that is made more disturbing by its face-rape method of attack. Lastly, it’s either thrown in your face, or it hangs out, just out of sight, taunting you with its… sound. It’s a good creation. However, it only really shines because of how it’s presented.

Let’s contrast this to the mildly disconcerting baby-head squids. It shows you how they take over a soldier’s body, which, while mentally unusual, leaves nothing to the imagination. Here, imagination is your most powerful tool. I’m not left thinking, “Oh man, what’s he doing to me?!?” It’s more akin to shouting, “Oh fuck, I’d better kill this thing before it tries to use me as a host.” I understand that, and I’m not afraid of it. The whole game is about killing shit that wants to kill you. Oh, and we can go anywhere to fight soldiers. We know soldiers. We get grenades. That’s not going to turn any heads, or any dreams, into nightmare-vessels.

So, the monsters aren’t anything new, but the pacing doesn’t really give us a chance to appreciate their inherent creepiness, anyways. Of course, someone brought up that, being a demo, it’s probably trying to shove us straight into the action. If that’s the case, then what are they trying to show us? How much like Resident Evil 6 they want to be? Even if it is parachuting us in, in medias res style, then aren’t they giving a bit much away? No matter how it starts, I now know that I’m going to end up on some shit-cold mining world fighting soldiers. If part of horror is what you know, then I know too much now. I can only hope they’ve kept the best for the reveal. Some of the cut-scenes certainly let us glimpse gems of glinting potential, but I feel like the multi-player could seriously undermine the whole thing. Think about it. Isaac has always been alone, and that’s part of what gave Dead Space its feeling of oppressive desperation. Adding another character into the story, or even having to balance it around there being one or two players, is going to be difficult, and take an infinite amount of finesse. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but if they end up being another hallucination, then I’m packing this franchise in for myself. That’ll be the end of it. I’ll have to fold my arms and wait for “A Machine for Pigs.”

If it seems like I’m being a bit harsh, then it’s because I love this genre so, and this series enough to call it back for at least another sequel. However, I just don’t feel like it cares any more. I’m afraid it’s just going to start phoning it in. There are additions, though. Dead Space has always added something neat by way of movement mechanics, and this game is no exception. While it’s not zero-gravity, it does have a lot of potential. They put in a climbing-rope for you to belay down. I look forward to the giant pits it will ask us to climb down, and the quick-time events therein. Honestly, it could be neat. Dangling on the perspective edge of oblivion, with only a small rope holding you up, as the ground begins to shake, your grip-bar weakens, and you’re forced to fight for your life against the coming onslaught. Or is that Shadows of the Colossus. Either way, I look forward to seeing how it’s implemented.

Lastly, I want to talk about weapon customization. It looks deep, or at least complex, but I don’t think that’s really a point in its favor. The original weapons had elegant designs that fit well into the theme. Even the plasma cutter made some sort of sense, as well as being an awesome weapon for intersecting the perpendicular plane created by a monster’s flailing arms. In fact, most monsters are designed with that sort of mechanic in mind. So, either the weapons will have some constraints, to the point where it’s all just a bunch of cool-but-pointless faffing around, or the enemies are going to be so needlessly varied ( or more likely, so vanilla-chilla) that it’s hardly going to matter. Striking a good middle line will take some skill, and I’m hoping they’re up to it. Of course, the whole thing smacks of a change of tone. We’re not desperately searching for the closest tools that will allow us to survive, plasma-cutter-style; we’re actively building an arsenal. We’re confronting this alien enemy, and fighting it to the last. The minute that’s scary is the minute that I start exclusively reviewing CoD games. Hopefully, that’ll fall into line, too, but there’s an awful lot of “hopefully” in this review.

Oh, and if multi-player might compromise the experience, then throwing everyone’s favorite motion-peripheral into the mix can only make matters worse. I’m just saying.

I was a bit thrown by the demo. I really liked the series, even as it leaned towards a more action-oriented play-style. It kept just enough of its horror-theme to maintain a certain level of respectability. Now, though, I’m not too sure. I’ll have to play the game to form a full opinion, because there are cut-scene glimpses of superb competence, but I’m not sure. Maybe Resident Evil 6 has left me feeling a bit jaded, but I’m still going to try the game, so that should say something, too. If Dead Space wants to be a super-gory action game with bizzappy weapons, then that’s cool. It’ll do a good job! If we’re shooting for horror, then, well, we’re going to have to aim a bit higher, aren’t we?