Archive for Dead Space

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!

Resident Evil Retrospective: From Survival Horror to Splatter Thriller

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

It’s that time again! Today’s reference letter for interesting articles come to us from my love for the Crysis series. I’m pretty in love with its design, and the first article of the day shows a ten minute clip of Crysis 3’s beta. Sweet Jesus, listen to those gun sound-effects! I know it’s a weird thing to mention with all the pretty bloom kicking around, but I really appreciate guns that sound like… well… guns. Halo 4 sort of kicked it for me there. http://whatsyourtagblog.com/2013/01/31/i-suck-at-crysis-3/
Next on the chopping block (?) is an article about the Top Ten Comic Book Movies (Without Superheroes). It seems pretty self-explanatory, but many of these movies are amazing, so I think the list deserves some (more) attention. http://houseofgeekery.com/2013/02/01/10-comic-book-movies-without-superheroes/ Oh, also, listen to Caravan Palace! It’s electro-swing, and it’s terribly addictive. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RaKSRU60bw&list=PLZh2pDMvoNNMFkxu5cOqJXq3F5M3ug0JL

With the introduction-introduction out of the way, let’s get down to why we’re all here: video games and video game accessories, Specifically, horror. I’m still playing Resident Evil 6, because it’s been a busy month, but, honestly, I could do the review now. The reason I’m not is because I want to address another topic first. I’ve been bashing Dead Space a bit for… well… go read the article “No Time for Horror, Doctor Jones” It’s the one immediately before this one. If you want to save some time, then I’ll sum it up thusly: the timing of a game affects how it engages the audience. Without time to appreciate danger, or any reason to fear it, then the game loses some weight. Putting your character in a scary situation will not chill the player down to their core. You need to think about how they’re reacting and being engaged. A big part of this is how fast they must react and what kind of commands they can issue. As well as the player’s level of kinaesthetic projection (I’d like to do a study on improving the rate at which this occurs someday, but…). It also helps to make them dread dying without being annoyed by the death. Silent Hill and Resident Evil were both games that could involve a lot of combat (you would also run away… a lot), but were able to use clever, albeit clunky, designs to engage the player in a way that demanded attention, but didn’t give them enough power to feel like they were cutting swaths through the enemy ranks. It was an uneasy balance that was bound to topple. I’m going to blow your mind here, because I really think Dead Space is going in the right direction. Despite my constant ragging on them, I think I see the problems they are trying to address. At the same time, I don’t think they’ve quite gotten the hang of it. It all feels a bit… obvious. Subtlety, though, comes from refinement and sophistication, and we’re just stepping up to this problem.

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I do a lot of speculation on this blog. However, today, we’re jumping on the speculation-train, destination: Nannerville. So, hold onto your shoes, or they’ll fly right off. Originally, I was going to do a side-by-side of Silent Hill with Resident Evil. I’m sure I’ll make mention of it, but I think, for the sake of brevity and not beating an undead horse, we’ll just address Resident Evil. Let’s go for a retrospective ride on the Resident Evil death-train! Chew-chew!!
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Let’s start with Resident 1, because it kicked the series off. If you were playing survival horror games around this time, then you’ll probably have a couple points of reference. There was the Clock Tower series, Dino Crisis, Resident Evil, Silent Hill and a list of other one-off titles that didn’t get picked up with quite the same verve. You’ll probably notice similar movement systems. Not exactly the same, mind you, but they’re related through the time-frames they create. Of course, Dino Crisis introduced a proto-quick-time event, and had jump-scares closer to Dead Space than Silent Hill. Clock Tower was more like a point-and-click, at the time of RE1, than a third-person shooter, but the time-frames they created were similar in their most basic elements. Between an encounter and making a decision, the ratios are remarkably similar. Remember that, because we’re coming back to it later. This is why the remarkably agile dogs, Hunters and Lickers always faffed around for a while before attacking you. They were coded so you’d have enough time to panic slightly, take aim and fire. Then, you’d either have to take clunky evasive action, or keep pumping out bullets. Of course, they could still jump at you from off-screen, but that’s more of a camera-angle/jump-scare issue. (Oh man, I just opened the RE Wiki… I’m in trouble… forty minutes of thoughtful clicking later…)

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Alright, let’s get off just movement for a bit and get down to game-play. RE1 used zombies as their primary enemy, because they were slow, menacing, and easy to defeat. It also opened up many other possible designs through their use of the game’s Phlebotinum, the T-Virus. Like the Pyramid Head fight I mentioned last week, many of the enemies in this game attack along certain vectors, so you’ve got a fighting chance to avoid them. Upon release, RE1 was particularly memorable for its voice-acting and elaborate mansion: The Spencer Estate. Many of the puzzles were so unusual that they gave the game a surreal quality in the midst of a seemingly normal mansion with a standard under-ground laboratory. Zombies created by viruses are one thing, but what kind of twisted forces created the mansion and the abominations within it? Yeah, it’s Umbrella, but ssshhhh -Spoilers!- it was just off enough to unnerve, while retaining enough atmosphere and originality to spook players. Zombie foot-steps echoed through the halls. People kept disappearing. There was a giant fucking shark in the water-filled area. Despite its many flaws, it was still memorable enough to fuel the creation of an entire series.
ImageEventually, the game would be re-mastered. They actually made significant changes to the game-play through the introduction of super-zombies. Thanks to the regenerative power of the T-virus, a zombie that wasn’t burned after it was killed would come back to life stronger and deadlier than before. I should also mention the save-ribbon. Saving was done at typewriters and was limited, on Normal difficulty and up, by the number of ink ribbons you had on you. Both of these elements, the burning and the saving, respectively, were limited by the amount of gas and the number of ribbons you could find. This created a kind of Sophie’s choice tension for gamers that didn’t want to fill up their limited item slots or waste those precious resources. You had a storage chest, but those items weren’t very helpful in the heat of battle. Saying no more about that, let’s move on to RE2!

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RE2 didn’t change much in the way of game-play. It had a graphical up-grade, but most of the controls and game-play elements from the original game were moved over. It had some different enemies, like a crocodile that was one of the few creatures alive that could relate to the shark from Jaws. The big thing it did was introduce the city. RE1 took place in a mansion and its underground laboratory, so it was a pretty tight experience. RE2 was still just as tight, but it took place in Raccoon City. Now, the entire fabric of society was breaking down. Zombie howls echoed through burning streets instead of wooden doors. It also introduced Claire and Leon to the series. These two, along with Jill and Chris from RE1, would go on to be forever hunted by horrible monstrosities from beyond the budget of most pharmaceutical companies. Now, the surreal horror of the mansion comes into its own as we see exactly what Umbrella can, and will, do. The true monster… IS MAN!
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You can’t say you didn’t see that one coming. There’s something to be said about the break-down of society. You’re very purposefully led to locations one would normally associate with safety, like the police station or city hall. This is intended to bring the full reality of the break-down of the city to the player and get all confrontational about the future of the rest of the world. Moving right along…

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RE3 introduced another element of horror that I adore: a recurring, unkillable bad-guy that’s out for your, and mostly your, blood. Okay, not unkillable, but that machine gun isn’t going to do much. Other games had recurring monsters, but Nemesis made a habit of popping out of everywhere, and disappearing just as fast. It gave you the feeling of being pursued by a mechanical, intelligent monstrosity of science and English dentistry. I think my favorite set-piece for this game was the hospital, because… hospital… patient 0’s. That sort of thing. Then, there was the giant worm in the park. The game also included a few puzzles in the general city area that were just as insane as the ones in the mansion. Which makes the player wonder if Umbrella controlled more than we thought, or if the RE designers were just crazy. Either thought was unsettling 2 hours into the game. The game itself ends with a bang, but, in my mind, the most effective explosion is the one near the middle. Having managed to signal an Umbrella helicopter for a ride (think of an umbrella helicopter and capitalization seems far more important), you’re waiting on the rooftop for pick up. In the distance, you see the helicopter approaching, and everything seems hunky-dory. “I guess we’re switching to another charac…” BAM! That’s when Nemesis, with his magical disappearing rocket-launcher, shoots down the rescue bird. After all that effort, you’re sitting on the roof of an infested building, surrounded by death, with imminent destruction at hand, and the seemingly unstoppable killing machine just gave you a huge middle finger. Not only that, but HE HAS A ROCKET LAUNCHER NOW?! HE CAN USE WEAPONS?!?!?!? With that thought in hand, let’s move right along…

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Resident Evil: Code Veronica was most memorable for its look into the curious, insect-obsessed lives of the owners of the Umbrella Corporation. It also gives you some background on the virus, left you trapped on an infested island, and brings back Albert Wesker… but with powerful up-grades. I can’t remember why there aren’t more over-powered monsters like Wesker, but whatever. It’s Resident Evil. If we worried too much about plot holes and retcons, then we’d have exploded by now. The game didn’t add much besides those things, and felt a bit… like a formula game. Instead of a mansion, it’s an island. Claire and Chris make another appearance, though, so it’s alright. Moving along to RE0!

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Resident Evil 0 took a chance, and added dual-character game-play, along with a serious graphical up-grade. Now, you could switch between different characters to solve puzzles. It was an interesting mechanic. However, it somewhat limited the sense of isolation that the series was, at least partially, shooting for. Most of the time, you only met people tangentially and then passed like ships in the night. Also, there were leeches. Again, there wasn’t much of a change in the game-play’s combat department. Although, now you had to manage two inventories and constantly juggle an AI ally. Thankfully, they didn’t do too much besides follow you.

It was around this time that most people were grumbling about the combat. “Why can’t you aim for the head?! It would be easy to survive the zombie apocalypse, or at least stop Umbrella, if we could just shoot slightly up!” Until that point, you could only aim at three different angles that, roughly, corresponded to Up, Forward, and Down. From there, your character had to be relied upon to auto-aim. So, most bullets just went into your enemy’s chest. As we all know, that’s just silly. Along came Resident Evil: Dead Aim (Biohazard: Gun Survivor 4 in Japan)

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As we can all tell, there’s a 4 on the end of that! So, this wasn’t the first FPS, light-gun, Resident Evil game. Clearly, Capcom had been working with their silly systems for a while. Before we get on to how the two systems were pronounced lawfully wedded, let’s look at Dead Aim.

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You could switch between third-person running and first-person shooting with the light-gun. I should also mention that the light-gun worked extremely well for this game. So, if you’re going to play it, then I recommend finding one. It was most memorable for its androgynous, electric-powered villain. Oh, there was a cute Chinese lady, too. The male lead was basically Jeff Foxworthy. I’m not going to bring up every game, but the damage ratios in this game were well balanced enough to show us that being able to aim for the head wouldn’t destroy the balance of play, if it was handled correctly. Again, this is speculation.

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The story wasn’t particularly memorable, but it introduced the t+G virus, and it took place… wait for it… here it comes… on a boat. The slight rocking motions, interesting monster designs, and use of sound effects makes this one of the most atmospheric light-gun games I’ve ever played, and I drained my bank account in the arcade more often than I’d like to admit. It did have the small problem of being beatable with the starting pistol, but it still required fast reflexes and too much caffeine, so I’m going to call it a success. Now, the moment we all knew was coming…

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This was Capcom’s magnum opus. It’s still one of my favorite games, and for good reason. It married the FPS design with the third-person camera, allowing for situational awareness with full-bodied actions and accurate aiming. It include an intuitive inventory system and one of the most memorable merchants in gaming history. It also had one of the most endurable escort components since ICO. Every piece of this game dripped with atmosphere and was so very camp that is was hard to be scared by it. Although…

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Now, we’re getting back to the timing problem. With the introduction of the free-aiming system, it was obvious that you couldn’t have zombies shamble slowly up to you. Even the massive hordes of Dead Aim wouldn’t prove much of a challenge for a character that could easily strafe in circles and run freely… as well as kick down ladders, jump out of windows, close doors, move furniture… In terms of a video game that can be beat, it wouldn’t do to plunk you in the middle of a city and make you fight the 200 zombie hordes it would take to challenge/horrify you at this point. I’m sure it could, because an unstoppable, encroaching mass of mindless flesh is still frightening (see: the mall on Christmas), but it wouldn’t make for a very varied or fun game. So, they introduced the Las Plagas. It was a parasite that was the game’s replacement for the T-virus. Now, the zombies were smart. Well, they were more like villagers, really.

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You may have noticed a bag-headed fellow featured prominently in the two pictures I posted. He’s the first true threat you face in RE4. They introduce him with a few other villagers in a brief cut-scene. They then proceed to chase you around their homes with scythes and blood-thirst. Oh, there’s a chain-saw, too. You may be thinking… “Wait, isn’t that what Dead Space did? Didn’t you complain about that?” Yes, but there are two key points to recognize here.

First off, RE4 represented a real shift in tone for the series. It started tackling the problem that Dead Space would later run into. In a game with an action-heavy protagonist and freedom of movement, as well as mounds of heavy, upgradeable ordinance, how do you design creatures that are challenging, fair, and frightening? I didn’t mention this earlier, but while the timing is different, the time ratios between Dead Space, RE3, and RE4 are similar. The difference is that you don’t have the extra seconds that the clunky combat of RE3 provides to worry about being attacked or scared. It’s either do or die. Much the same way that ripping off a band-aid, or taking a test, is more painful to think about than actually do, preparing for action is more frightening than actually shooting a gun. In a game. I bashed Dead Space for how it handled the situation because it introduced soldiers and monsters by having them murder people in front of you. This, effectively, eliminated most of the mystery or suspense. This brings us to some of the creature designs in RE4, and how they handled the problem.

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I wasn’t in the planning room, but much of the horror of monster designs in RE4 came from everything but the combat. This particular baddy would have to be kited around, in relative silence, because it hunted by sound. Then, it would dash towards you like a demon out of hell and strike. His weak point was on his back, of course. El Gigante was a huge giant that had to be brought down with lots of bullets before it could be directly injured. The Regenerators were really creepy sounding monsters that could only be killed by shooting the parasites in their bodies with a sniper-rifle equipped with a heat-sensing scope. Notice anything odd? All of these creatures have to be moved around, kited, or dealt with in a specific way before you can begin chipping away at their invisible health bars. The horror came from the anticipation of the fight, and from the relative permanence of your obstacle. It created the same kind of time to consider the situation that the original clunky combat did. Only now, the creatures are faster, so you have to be, too. This sort of unites the constant tension and dread of the Dead Space and Silent Hill systems.

Lastly, let’s look at the guy with the bag on his head, because he’s pretty much the quintessential version of what I’ve just outlined. He’s shown with a chain-saw, so we know he’s menacing. He has the added bonus of an obscured face and an almost direct resemblance to Leather-face. He’s introduced in the first area, so you’ve only got a pistol, and very little combat experience. There’s a shot-gun in the village, but if you don’t know where it is, then he seems incredibly powerful. Even shooting at his head and moving gracefully around, two advantages that, until that point, have been your aces in the hole, are meaningless with only a pistol at your command. It’s a real rat-in-a-maze feel. With a cat. Also, the cat has gas-powered teeth. You don’t see him cutting anyone up, so you’re left to imagine the result of his weapon meeting your soft, squishy bits. This makes it extra effective the first time he tears into your flesh with it. I was sort of stunned the first time. I wasn’t ready to believe that the game would just kill me like that. I actually looked away, because I didn’t want to witness the brutal, graphic death I had experienced at his hands. It was a truly stirring moment. RE4 wasn’t fucking around. Let’s recap. He’s effective because, while obviously menacing, he’s left to wreak havoc on you first, leaving everything before that up to your imagination. Plus, he delivers on the threat by destroying you absolutely. For all your new-found movement and fire-power, you’re nothing before a whirring chain-saw. That is, until you get a shot-gun, or learn how to kite him. Then, it’s pretty much over.

I could go on about the one-hit-kill head-parasites that caught me off guard. The occasional trapped wires that make you extra aware of your surroundings, and reinforce the hostility of the entire environment. The unbelievably corny dialogue, and standard Resident Evil plot, but I won’t. I want you to try the game. It’s worth your time, even now. Next stooop!

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Resident Evil 5! Like Dead Space, this game was sort of pre-empted by RE4. Space-zombies are a cool concept, and really well animated, but, eventually, the idea-bucket runs a little dry. RE4 had so much packed into it that RE5 didn’t have much left to work with without blatantly ripping the whole thing off. Then again, they sort of did that anyways. The game got a graphical up-grade, thanks to the next generation of consoles, and a more refined environment. However, it also added an AI partner that was denser than lead shielding. I don’t know anyone that didn’t hate Sheva because of how her AI played. If you’re going to play this game, then grab a partner. It’s not worth the agony otherwise. The inventory system was cut down from the intuitive briefcase system to a standard slot-system to accommodate the introduction of a partner that you could trade back and forth with, a’la RE0. Only, you couldn’t take control of Sheva directly, and you couldn’t trust her, either. If you gave her health items, then she squandered them. If you gave her bullets, then she’d waste them. Don’t get me started on rocket launchers and grenades. She tended to walk in front of your line of fire and just generally derped around. It was like she didn’t know she was in a survival horror game or something. The rest of the game played almost exactly like RE4, but the tone was absolutely destroyed.

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As this picture might illustrate, there were some allegations of racism in RE5. RE4 got some flack for having a village full of Spanish-speaking peasant-zombies, but they didn’t feel blatantly exploitative. As I mentioned earlier, the whole thing had this ironic sense of camp about it. RE5 did that adorable thing that Resident Evil games do and took itself seriously. The opening was an infected village that looked like it might have, believably, been from a poverty-stricken portion of Africa. I’m not sure. Mud huts belonging to grass-dress wearing, spear-wielding Africans are a little more questionable, though. Capcom aren’t bad people. I would like to think that they’re just a little mis-guided. Although, let’s be honest; my limited exposure to the African continent basically ensures that I can’t empirically prove that there isn’t one village like that somewhere, albeit less fetishized and infected.  Maybe that’s what they were hoping for. Either way, I did feel kind of uncomfortable walking through it snapping off head-shots, so maybe it did its job properly. Again, the true monster IS MAN!!

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As you can probably tell, I wasn’t that big a fan of RE5. Besides this guy, who moves suspiciously like Pyramid Head, and some questionable ethnic representations, the franchise has finished its shift to Splatter Thriller. You’ve got a wise-cracking side-kick, free movement, enough ordinance to blow up the entire mansion from the first game, a portion where you’re in a volcano punching boulders into lava, and a hilarious end-scene where you do an anime-style back-to-back double-rocket launcher finishing move on, you guessed it, Wesker, who has transformed into a mutant monster swimming around inside said volcano. You also fight a giant crab. Some scenes are disturbing, and may legitimately frighten you, but there’s no fear, and hardly any tension.

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I’m doing a full review of Resident Evil 6 pretty soon, so I’m not going to jump into it here. Suffice it to say, I’ve got some good and some bad to say about it. As usual. RE5 mis-stepped pretty hard, but it wasn’t that far removed from RE4. So, you can see how fine an edge horror stands on. Dead Space 1 was like the RE4 of the series. There were still things to be surprised by and a certain amount of pacing. As you can see, it’s not just the combat that can destroy a game’s tone. In my earlier overview of horror combat pacing, I criticised the game for its approach to horror, going so far as to re-categorize it. I stand by that, but I wanted you to realize exactly how difficult it is to create fear in today’s industry. We’ve seen a lot, but not everything. The margin for error is smaller than ever. High definition makes it harder, and less desirable, to obscure our antagonists. There’s a definite feeling of inertia that encourages games to stay within acceptable boundaries and play the same old tricks, especially with the sheer cost of creating current-gen games. That won’t do with horror, though, because there’s nothing less scary than something you’re expecting. Unless, of course, you don’t want it. Then, it’s terrifying. Maybe Dead Space made its combat too viscerally fun. Maybe it was the way it introduces its creatures and has them engage the player. Maybe it’s their vulnerable nature, spindly scab-monsters that they are. Silent Hill made many of the same mistakes in its new releases. With an upgrade in graphical and processing power, there’s a push to make characters more animated. As a result, they’re expected to speed up and move more fluidly. Silent Hill Homecoming’s combat rolling is not the answer, though. Silent Hill Downpour made similar mistakes with its big-bads by making the glowing red ball of light visible and… not at all scary. Oh, there’s the hammer-guy, too, but he’s just Pyramid Head with a hammer.

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So, it’s a challenge, but that doesn’t mean our industry will go quietly into the good night. There are plenty of new approaches being tried. Maybe they’ll even revive the Clock Tower IP, but they better be damn careful with it. There’s A Machine For Pigs coming out, with Amnesia: The Dark Descent as its grande herald. We got where we are today in a very logical manner, and I want to give props to the Dead Space team for their progress on an incredibly difficult task: making my dried-up husk of a child’s heart beat with terror once more. Then, all I have to do is implant it once more and the device will be complete.

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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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