Archive for Game Review

Alien: Isolation v. The Order: 1886

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews, Movie Reviews with tags , , , on March 13, 2015 by trivialpunk

Yes, I’m writing again. Don’t question it; just roll with it. I’m frankly amazed that this website still gets traffic. Wait, maybe not amazed… perhaps touched is the right word. Some of these posts are more than two years in my past, and I’m not really the same writer I was then. So, moving forward, please remember that this is as much a record of my bullshit as it is a repository for it. It’ll make the whole experience that much more surreal when I take myself suuuper seriously.

To be honest, it was our loss of Mr. Pratchett that drove me back here. As an aspiring author and long-time fan, I can’t help but feel the absence. And when I lose things, I need to write. When I need to write, I come here. So, I’m back. I’m not promising weekly updates, but you can find me on Twitch, and I’m going to try to find reasons to come back here as often as possible. Even when I’m gone, I still think about this place. These solitary moments of recording my thoughts and making up terrible puns about video games.

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With that out of the way, I want to discuss two very different games with a powerful common element: narrative linearity. Of course, that doesn’t narrow things down at all. Okay, jump the gun, the games I’m thinking of are The Order: 1886 and Alien: Isolation. Neither one of of these games is shit, despite the liberal use of colons, but they are quite limited in the experiences they can provide. By design, of course. They’re trying to tell carefully guided gameplay stories. You can’t bake a hundred cakes and make an entire fortress lit by squandered birthday pastries. This isn’t Minecraft. Mostly, you’re moving down corridors to do the thing.

Okay, so by now, you’re probably rolling your eyes. The games are way too different to compare. One’s third-person, the other’s first-person. One’s a stealth-based horror game, the other’s a steam-punk modern-warfare re-skin. One has a flamethrower and an angry alien, the other has Tesla weaponry and like eight werewolves. That’s fair, but I spend my days comparing Candy Crush’s excitation curve to WoW’s loot systems, so this isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Basically, my whole comparison is going to hinge on this thought experiment:

Let’s assume that the whole point of playing these narrative games is the story. Let’s pretend that movies are becoming games and not the other way around. Given Alien’s pedigree and 1886’s campaign-mode, I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble with that. Now, as people living within this imaginary world, let’s strip off the aesthetic coating of the story. The narrative and the themes are unimportant now. All that matters are the polygons and how they interact. We’re talking Quake on an oscilloscope level. With me so far? Good, now tell me about the games. I promise I’m not eavesdropping in your house right now. I’ll wait until you’re reading this sentence.

Can you still figure out what they’re about? I’ve gone on and on about integrating gameplay into the narrative of a game’s experience. I’ve held up Alien: Isolation as a great example of it, despite the fact that you’re basically being led by the nose the whole time you’re playing. The gameplay is still interesting gameplay. It presents some unique challenges to think around, and the A.I. is fantastic.

Even without really knowing what’s going on through the haze of the oscilloscope, it’s still clear that you’re hiding from something awful. There’s still a basic crafting system, and the combat’s still pretty clunky. The game of cat and mouse you’re playing with the monster goes on unabated. In my head, it’s even more frightening being stalked through the halls by the hazy green monster.

Alright, let’s give The Order the same treatment. It’s a linear, cover-based third-person shooter with a suite of standard weapons and waves of human enemies. Occasionally, you shoot at some dogs, and there are quick-time events. Now, this is well-polished gameplay, and everything functions very well, but it’s hard to tell it apart from any other third-person, etc shooter. Good thing or bad thing? Compare.

Now that you’ve got that comparison in your head, let’s inject the rest of the games back into our thought experiment. Does the narrative improve the gameplay at all? Well, I’d say it’s certainly more interesting being stalked by and standing up to the Geiger-beasts as a dis-empowered spaceship mechanic. And, for someone like me with nascent fears of alien dick-heads in my darker places, the fear-factor of the experience is increased considerably. That being said, The Order: 1886 is far more kick-ass when you know you’re playing Victorian Batman alongside a host of immortal knights that fights werewolves using steam-punk Teslacutionary weaponry. So, points on both sides there.

Let’s get a little more switchy-the-words-aroundy on this shit: does the gameplay improve the narrative at all? This one’s a little more difficult for me to answer with Alien: Isolation, because I’ve always wanted to play this style of game: hiding from an unknowable Alien intelligence. Being hunted by the world’s most perfect predator. So, the experience of play really highlights the game’s narrative for me. I’m in it. It’s happening. Best game ever, 8/10.

Let’s get somewhere I haven’t already thoroughly documented, though. Alien’s gameplay delivers on the themes and story-elements of its narrative. The gameplay of The Order seriously detracts from the narrative and our character’s, well, character. If we’re an immortal knight that’s been tasked by England to protect its people, why are we perfectly okay with slaughtering them in their hundreds? It would be interesting if we were exploring the kind of dehumanization that arises when someone’s an immortal bad-ass living within an isolated, elitist society that hands out licenses to kill to every member like issues of The Daily Buzzfeed, but it’s not. At one point, the main character makes a specific points of trying to avoid slaughtering people, but there are no gameplay elements that reinforce this option. You take out one guy with a shovel, then you go right back to the slaughter.

Yes, it makes sense that he responds by defending himself in hostile situations, and I’ll forgive him his B.A. in Stoicism, but why bring these elements of mercy and stealth up if we’re not going to use them? Or, if they’re going to be subverted, why not steer into the skid? Hell, give me a line of throw-away dialogue about his mental health or even one from the Queen (you know which one I mean) about his past actions against her rag-tag forces. I don’t need to make a big deal about it, but if we’re stealthing anyways, why do we need to kill? Why can’t we Tesla a knock-out chemical together or even just a tesla-taser? I just had a knife-fight with a werewolf; you’re not going to pull me out of the experience with chloroform, unless that’s you moving around in my closet… Let’s wrap this up before that door creaks open…

Both of these game present tight, focused gameplay scenarios. In one situation, you’re sneaking down a limited set of hallways. In the other, you’re shooting your way down an elaborately designed, limited set of hallways. I enjoyed both experiences for different reasons. I finished them both. Although, given their respective lengths, that’s not too surprising. Still, they were experiences worth having. My question is simply this: did the underlying mechanics create a unique experience? Alien: Isolation has shown us that tightly designed games can create engaging gameplay experiences within a limiting narrative. Whereas, The Order feels like one of those old tie-in franchise games they used to slap on top of third-person shooters, but… uh… they put more money into it?

Take what you can from those bleary thoughts. I’m going to find out what chloroform smells like! I’m sure I’ll wake up at some point… See you on the other side!

Addendum: I know it sounds like I’m really down on The Order, and that, perhaps, I’m a little hyperbolic, as well. He understated.  I really did enjoy playing it. I was talking it over with some friends, and we agreed that we enjoyed watching it being played. And I know that sounds like sarcasm, but it does possess a quality someone might have argued was akin to being cinematic. If you’re in for that, check it out through your usual electronic intermediaries. Also, chloroform smells absolutely rotten.

Torn Over The Evil Within

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

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

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

Psycho-Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punk – …fun.
Trivial – …fun.

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

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

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

A Lasting Federation

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

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

The-Last-Federation-Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Difficulty, Dragon Age: Origins And Streaming

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

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

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

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

 Valid And Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among The Sleepless

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2014 by trivialpunk

What a ridiculous life I lead, sometimes. How insane can you make a banal life-style? I’m not sure, but I do know a lot of it has to do with perspective. And, luckily, that’s the theme of the game we’re reviewing today: Among The Sleep. However, before we cut to that, let’s mention Dream Journal (Cancelled due to circumstances beyond our control).

It’s my first web-series -written and produced by me. How weird could it be? Follow that link, and you’ll find out. There’s plenty more to come. However, if you’re in more of a Letsplay mood, you can follow this link to my Letsplay of “Among The Sleep”. You know, because it only makes sense to mention it here. Alright? We good? Let’s drift…

 Among The Sleep 1

 Among The Sleep is a first-person psychological-horror game developed, using the Unity engine, by Krillbite Studio, a small, dedicated indie studio based in Norway. So far, they’ve put out this game and “The Plan”. Would You Like To Know More? You know what to do. From this small sample of games, we can start to get a feel for the company, because they’re both dripping with atmosphere.

Pains were taken to craft these titles, and while I’d like to advertise for the devs and talk about The Plan, that’s not our business today. Today, we’re a 2 year-old; what the hell do we know about game-development? We’re talking to a teddy bear!

Sorry, flash-backs. But, that’s the basic idea. Your first-person perspective is roughly two feet off the floor and mounted firmly in the eyes of a child. As a result, you see the world a child would: one full of magic, wonder, imagination and danger. I know, that’s more adjectives than I’d like, too, but it’s from this miasma of descriptors that the game takes shape. Because, it’s a game about perspective.

I’m not talking about the angle, I mean how you perceive the world. The meat of the horror elements come from your childish view of the banal world you inhabit. For a child, everyday things are new and strange. Behaviors and understandings that we take for granted can be alien and disturbing to a naive viewer. It’s like landing in a new country, but the place you came from was an existential nothingness. It’s hard to relate the two.

The game is full of perceptual tricks and thoughtful arrangements that guide you intuitively through the levels. Of course, they’re not particularly huge levels, but you are playing a toddler. The size of the maps and the size of the character are well-matched, so the house becomes an Eldritch landscape, unlike any you’ve experienced for quite some time.  The puzzles are clever and very well themed. Although, the door-handles can be persnickety, at times.

But, it’s more than just a good horror-game set-up; it’s a well-executed horror game: one that understands that jump-scares are tools, not building-blocks. The horror is deep; it suffuses the shadowed textures and the narrative completely. There’s a lot going on here. To truly discuss it, we’re going to have to go a little psycho-literary on it, so we’ll finish the game-play first, then we’ll talk shop.

The physics engine works fairly well, and there aren’t any puzzles that rely on it in any annoying capacity. The game-play is tutorialized in an unobtrusive manner, and there are plenty of things kicking around the background for you to find and pick up on. I can’t tell you exactly what I mean without ruining some of the experience, but the obvious example is the drawings you find. (We’ll come back to those later) They’re scattered all over, and you don’t need them to understand the story.

However, if you start finding them, then you’ll start to see a disturbing situation unfold. But what is the story? (We’ll come back to that, too) Well, your mother has gone missing, and you’ve been dropped off at the toddler’s center somewhere in Silent Hill. So, it’s up to you to find the four items and rescue… the… Prin… cess. Well, maybe not. But, that’s the general idea: where’s Mom?

From there, it’s mostly fetch-quests and a little stealth. The stealth mechanics aren’t great, but they’re serviceable. I didn’t really feel like either the shadows or the bushes provided any sort of protection, but if you can put a wall between you and your hunters, then all the better. That’s the game; and it’s an intense experience. Try it out if you feel so inclined. (Its Score is highlighted at the end) Good? Let’s talk psychology, literature and horror.

Much of this game relies on the dissonance between your experience as a child-character and the reality that it’s masking. But, that’s just the start; they made that meaningful by masking something incredibly disquieting: abuse. What kind of abuse? Ah, that’s where they made things more interesting by using alternative narratives.

Crafting alternative narratives can be difficult, but here’s the basic idea: take all the elements available to you, then remix them. Simple, right? Well, if you change the presentation of some of those elements by translating them through a naive understanding, and a wonderful visual aesthetic, then it can become far more complicated. You can suggest far more stories that way, because you’re asking your player to interpret an interpretation of their interpretation. The possibilities are enormous, and engaging your player in that capacity is half the battle of a horror game.

So, how do you cull the divergent pathways? You pick strong symbols, almost archetypes. Then, you pick well-known cultural situations. In this case: a single mother and an abusive male voice at the door. That’s a text-book Disney-Dickensian broken-family set-up. Blend that with some suggestive drawings on the floor, and you’ve got a completely understandable story… (**SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT**) that you can begin to immediately call into question.

Because, the broader a symbol is, the more believable interpretations it can stand-in for. Why is that figure white, but that one’s black? Why are there two figures here? Why is the white one doing that? What is that shadow?

You see, in the beginning, you’re truly worried for your mother’s safety. Something has taken her away from you, and it seems to have had sinister intent. But, again, that’s only your interpretation of the event through the eyes of a child. These are strange, magical events, because they’re unbelievable. Why is Mom acting that way? Who is this other person?

Now, I know I saw the end-game interpretation pretty early, because I lived this. But, I’m not sure it’s as obvious if you haven’t. The Abusive Father-figure narrative is far more culturally salient where I’m from, so I feel like that’s going to be the general interpretation. But, there’s another narrative that can help you get there, and it exists within the pages of psychological theory.

When I was first playing the game, I was looking at things from a Freudian perspective, because there are clearly mommy-issues at play, here. But, are Mommy-issues a real thing? Is Freud really relevant? Here, he definitely is. You see, as unreliable as Freud’s theories are in a scientific capacity, their scope and internal consistency make them valuable literary fodder. His symbols and ideas are frameworks that we can use to communicate complex, emotional ideas to each other.

Which makes it all the more hilarious that I should have been thinking about Jungian psychology. Seriously, this Wikipedia Page is basically all the game’s narrative symbols in short-hand. They took their time with this. One in particular I’d like to point to is the Shadow. The Shadow is that space between who we think we are and who we really are.

The thing is, every person we meet has a shadow, for them and for us. They are different from the way we perceive them, and they’re different from the way they perceive themselves. It makes figuring out who someone is a far more complex problem than we often give it credit for. For a child who implicitly trusts their Mom? You know there has to be a long, dark shadow there.

And, that’s what kind of tipped it for me. The shadows that encroach on you in the opening are literally figurative. Even the goal of the game, to collect enough memories of your mother to access her current location, smacks of braving that dark wall of terror. Of course, I didn’t realize that until I was falling asleep after my first Letsplay session, because the streams of alternate-narrative are well-maintained.

It’s difficult to guess what’s really going on. And, in the dark, you begin to wonder what you’d prefer, which is almost more disquieting. It’s a lonely, frightening place to be for such a small person. (Protag-wise, you can’t get much more dis-empowered than an abandoned child) But, what makes it more frightening is its immediacy and the terrible truth it hides.

Because, for many people, this isn’t a game. I lived through many of those moments myself; I had to make the tough choice that you see at the end of the game. It brought me right back there. But, it did so with some grace. Powerful stuff.

Issues of family conflict writhe deep in every culture and nest silently in every mind. They’re not always our conflicts, and there aren’t always a lot of them, but it’s something we can all understand. You might say that it’s in our collective unconscious; we all know how important family can be, especially when it’s not around.

By carefully suggesting the elements of all sorts of family conflicts (by staying broad, remember), Krillbite Studio was able to weave many different possible interpretations into one game, making us consider all of their unnerving implications, before bringing it all into focus for the finale.

The dissonance between what we thought was going on and the terribly unfortunate reality is another shadow for us to explore in ourselves. Bring your teddy.

I’m giving Among The Sleep a score of: Candle-Lit Ghost Stories In A Thunderstorm out of The Thrill Of Your Darkened Basement. Enjoy exploring the void of The Shadow; I’ll see you on the other side.

Race The Sun: Inevitable, Yet Unexpected

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on May 24, 2014 by trivialpunk

Well, hello there! I’ve been writing fairly esoteric pieces lately, so they haven’t seen the light of day, except for a weird parable post. Today, though, I’m reviewing Race The Sun, so that’ll see some light. Even if it does sink beyond the horizon, dooming us to a dark oblivion.

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Race The Sun isn’t a particularly long game. You play it in 30 second to 20 minute increments, depending on your skill level, and you’ve got only one goal: keep up with the setting sun. So far, so good. Your craft requires you to maintain line-of-sight with the sun, because it’s a light-weight solar-powered craft, and batteries are heavy. If the sun can’t see you, you’ve only got a few moments of precious manoeuvring time before you’re doneskies. Some pick-ups give you a boost for a short period of time. Others provide you with a shield. The green one lets you jump once. And, as you level up, you can customize your ship to let you carry more items.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is an infinite runner game; you don’t want to have to make too many decisions at once. Because, you’re going to have to be making them really, really quickly for as long as you can. The core engagement of the game is the tension between the setting sun and the barely-glimpsed obstacles on the horizon. You need the creed of speed to lead, but you can’t end up flat as a bat under a very fat rat. And the faster you go, the more likely you are to end up in the latter predicament.

Designing games like this seem like an interesting challenge. You’ve got to ensure a level of variation in the procedurally-generated levels, but you can’t have utter chaos. Part of what lets people play this game is the pattern-recognition. We have a calculable reaction time, but it depends on the stimuli. You react faster to things that you don’t have to think about how to react to. And things become thoughtless reactions when they become entrained physical movements or response patterns. So, they solved this problem by making small, copy-pastable challenge zones. Those challenge zones are mixed throughout the Regions.

A Region is just a stretch of arbitrarily marked terrain, but, as you progress between them, your challenge becomes more difficult to surmount, until you’re trying desperately to flit between two giant blocks that are setting down for tea. There’s a bird or a bug-thing that comes and drops things for you between regions, but I don’t trust it. You shouldn’t either. Unless you’re running on normal mode.

Because, there’s a challenge mode called Apocalypse. And a Workshop full of user-made goodies. On those maps, you can never quite be sure what’s going to happen with the bird-thing, but you can be sure that the ride will be a trip. Obviously, not every map has the carefully adjusted challenge-curves that the main maps do. Some of them are totally unforgiving, and others are just blocks in space. They keep things fresh and clever, and some of them are more elaborate than the base game ever attempts to be. Never too elaborate, though; that’s what makes this game so interesting to me: the psychological aspect.

Were you really expecting another answer? The perceptual experience of dodging blocks is fun, but you might ask yourself, “Why blocks?” In a world of insane graphics technology, why are we dodging cuddle-puddles of unmarked squares? I’m sure part of it is that the game started out as a flash-game indie-project, but there’s another, even more practical, reason: details slow reaction time. Most of your reaction movements are guided by the movement portion of your visual system. The rods in our eyes are good at detecting quick movements, and they’re more sensitive to light than our cones. But, rods don’t see much colour. They’re concerned with contours and lines. Your cones, which are concentrated in the middle of your fovea, handle all the colour. This is why we react quickly, but sometimes without thought, to things in our peripheral vision.

It’s also why your eyes unfocus when you’re “in the zone.” Focusing is for depth, detail and distraction. If you want to react with the best of them, then you’re going to be reacting to vague shapes and contours, a’la TF2 characters and giant, unfriendly blocks. Of course, there’s way more to this story, but this is the gateway, and it illustrates how this game has to communicate. It can’t direct you; it can’t talk to you beyond an opening text-scrawl. All it can do is play on your perceptual experience.

And they take the opportunity to do so. Flashes of light, shaking and sound stand-in for explosions that you passed 3 seconds ago. There are no armies, just the suggestion of lines and ranks, planes and tanks. Invasions by aliens. And all of it fits into the gameplay, even the explosions are blinding obstacles that give you half a moment of vision during which to make all of your driving decisions for the next 5 seconds. For a game that’s so bare-bones, it’s remarkably good at telling a story. In fact, every piece of it is so important to the narrative that I had fun replacing the soundtrack on different gameplay sessions to see what kind of videos I’d create. These are my favourite ones, uploaded in shiny 1080P: Slow BurnPenumbra and Night of Chaos.

So, before we wrap up, what story am I talking about? Well, it’s pretty hard to say, because it’s like an odd Rorschach test, but here’s what shook out of it for me. The ship is one of us, and the pathing we choose is life. In order to ensure that we get to keep living in the light for a while, we need to do things; we need to take chances. We need to get jobs or meet people, have kids or drink sodas, we need to do the things that make up life. Some of those things are tricky, others are dangerous. But, there’s no reward without a little risk. That’s why the power-ups are peppered throughout the challenges.

But any challenge might overcome you; any turn might be your last. And every life ends in death. No matter how good you are, the sun always sets. It always, really does. So, what’s the point?

To chase the sun. To do a little better each time. To see what’s on the other side.

Outlast At Last!

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2013 by trivialpunk

Can you believe we’re at 91 posts? Geeze, it feels like just yesterday I was writing surreal, pseudo-autobiographical posts about my birth. But, that was yonks ago, in another completely different incarnation of the Trivialverse. I know I said I was going to up-date on Saturdays, but then a gelatinous slime-monster crawled its way down my throat and set up camp for the weekend. Which is my classy way of telling you I was very sick.

Still am, actually, but if we’re getting a post at all this week, then I’m going to have to write it through the wavering haze of my retreating fever. Here’s this week’s video. This week’s story is another refurbished one. I’m sitting on three or four fully-fleshed-out narratives, but I’m waiting until I can think straight to write them. Otherwise, we might end up with a story about a haunted library where a mind-altering-flesh-eating beetle learns to love. Not that that doesn’t sound kind of kick-ass, but it would lose a lot of the character development and prose necessary to realize its full potential. Whatever that is. I’m not allowing any more refurbished stories in this challenge, though. It doesn’t reflect well on the spirit of the thing. I’m only allowing one this week because I couldn’t possibly write a new one properly. I’ll have to start working on a pool of new stories to act as buffer zones just in case this happens again.

Alright, so this week, I’m reviewing Outlast. It’s going to be difficult, though. I really, really liked this game when I booted it up, but then… well, I’ll see if I can explain it properly. But, let’s talk horror for a second. Lately, I’ve heard people say that there’s been a resurgence of the survival horror genre. That’s true, but I propose that we just call it the horror genre, because with variety comes the need to classify and survival horror is just a specific genre that existed when most others didn’t. Now, we’ve got quite a few different takes on horror, and I would hesitate to call most of them survival horror. Sure, the point of the games IS to survive, but, then, that’s true of most games. You wouldn’t call Mario “Survival Platforming,” or Mario Kart “Survival Racing…” but, I guess that depends who you talk to.

Outlast is a great example of what I’m talking about because, for all its pretensions to being a -survival- horror game, it’s kind of a shit one. You’re never really strapped for resources and there’s really no need to scour your surroundings for the items and clues you need to survive. You don’t have a health meter and there’s no combat to speak of. You’re never really in any danger of dying… that doesn’t mean you won’t die, but… okay, let’s just get to the review. However, to simplify things, I’m going to write this review in two sections: the good-with-bad and the bad-with-good. I’m going to start with the good and end with the bad, because that’s kind of what Outlast did to me. Without any further hesitation…

outlast-02

Outlast is a horror game with many good ideas that was developed and published (on Steam) by Red Barrels studio using Unreal Engine 3. Now, these guys aren’t newbies, many of them worked on games like Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Uncharted… you get the picture, and the experience shows. The game is fucking gorgeous. But, if you’re familiar with those particular games, then you’ll probably guess the caveat to this little advantage: aggressive linearity. Set-pieces are fine in games like Uncharted (mostly because I’m not really a fan), but feel bizarrely out of place in a horror game. We’ll get to that later, though. Since the surface is where the beauty lies, that’s what we’re going to scratch at.

The game takes place in a mental hospital that has gone… well… absolutely mental. The prisone… patients have escaped and are wreaking havoc throughout the facility. Nearly everyone has been killed and the few that remain are grotesque monstrosities, barely cognizant, with an unsettling tendency to jump out of shadows and half-closed doorways. This is where the game excels. The linearity of the game ensures that they always know where you’re going to be coming from, so they can set up some beautiful jump-scares. A couple times, I even dropped my mouse, which caused me to spin 360 degrees and run right back into the arms of the terror of the minute.

More than that though, since corpse-strewn hide-aways are kind of the bread and butter of horror games, it’s a nice change of pace that the corpses are able to talk at us. And jump… at us.

The HUD is pretty simple. There isn’t a lot to keep track of in this game. Just your battery life and your total number of batteries. And a little zoom bar. Well, that’s when you have your camera out. Which, quite honestly, should be most of the game, since you only record notes to yourself when the camera’s up, because if it didn’t happen on camera, it doesn’t matter, right Letsplayers? Right, Instagammers? Right… modern society? Oooh, social commentary.

But seriously, revelation lives in record. There were institutions that abused and mistreated their patients to a disgusting degree. That might be what they were playing at.

The other things the camera does are give you a zoom and serve as your flashlight. The inexplicably amazing night-vision function bathes the area in a film of green that should be familiar to anyone that’s consumed one of the 8999 Paranormal Activity movies that have come out recently. It’s a nice touch and menacing at times, but it sort of washes everything out. I mean, the colours and textures are gorgeous, so why would we want to ruin it by bathing the whole thing in mint? The other problem with this is that it lets you see a little too well. Half-heard gibbers in the dark and the scraping of ethereal chains on cold, hard cement are kind of muted by the fact that I can turn around and see the poor, emaciated little dude that’s causing that ruckus curled up on the floor of his cell.

Peering into the shadows, guessing at the location of the lumbering behemoth that’s stalking you, feeling your way through the dark… these are classic elements of horror. Of course, we need to be able to see for the frantic sprints down darkened hallways that the game loves to throw at you. So, maybe it’s a fair trade-off. It would certainly be a different game without it.

OH! We can’t forget the control scheme. I mentioned this a couple posts ago, but I love the default control scheme in this game. It’s simply elegant and looks like it was actually designed with gamers in mind. By keeping things simple, they’re trying to remove as many obstacles between you and the experience as possible, and they aaaaaalmost succeed, but we’re almost to THAT part of the review.

Two things that bear mentioning before we start muck-raking are the animations/perspective and the creature personalities. The first-person perspective is considerably enlivened by some very well-done body animations. If you look down, you can actually see your feet moving. When you peek around a corner, your hand rests on the wall to steady you. When you’re sprawled under a bed, shaking with fear and hyper-ventilation, you can see your hands splayed out on the floor beside you. Reloading the batteries into your camera. Jumping. Crawling. All of these animations are done incredibly well. The animators worked very hard to ensure that the visuals made sense. They’re some of the best first-person animations I’ve ever seen.

Not only that, but when you perform an action, your perspective shifts to accommodate the movement. The game’s great at using these changes in angles AND restrictions of angles in conjunction with their sound-effects to conjure terrible creatures from the reaches of the natural phantasmagorial plane that exists in your imagination, even if it doesn’t pay it off very well. Oh look, another patient. Better hide under a bed! The wonder… the terror… just starts to wear off.

But, hold on, there’s still more good to behold! I mentioned earlier that the patients were a nice touch, but the enemies are even better. A lot of work has gone into ensuring that you get to know them pretty well. The murderous-patient cries are pretty entertaining and serve to flesh out their insanity pretty well. Repeated calls of, “This is the experiment!” and “Death and Taxes!” from the pursuing psychopaths lent an air of surreal jollity to the piss-dribbling proceedings. There’s even quite a bit of build-up for a few of them. There’s a pair of naked dudes that look like someone took a mech-suit and made it out of skin that very kindly inform you that they’re going to murder you so good. One of the former guards is particularly memorable, because he looks like… well, he looks like a giant, evil, white, naked Fat Albert. But, by far my favourite has to be Doctor Trager.

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He’s not only eminently likeable, but he’s also bat-shit insane. He sort of represents the entire Asylum. You know they can’t help it. Despite their best efforts, they’re being driven to madness and death by something inexplicably horrible. But, it’s not like they have to be uncivilized about it. He makes you WANT to sympathize with him. And, ultimately, he might represent the greatest lesson that romps through metaphorical Asylums like these can teach us: atrocity is not necessarily a thing committed out of spite or hatred. Sometimes, all it takes to become a monster beyond your most fiendish imaginings is to accept protocol and slowly slip into complicity. You may think you’re doing right by someone. You may think you’re doing what’s best, but from another angle, from a retrospective, you could be one of history’s greatest monsters. There’s very real danger in rationalizing your position, in accepting the status-quo just because others are and you’re taught that it’s right, and this is it.

We’ve heard that all before, but it’s worth remembering, because it’s easy to forget. We compromise ourselves into misfortune time and again, but that’s part of what it means to be human. Then again, so does dragging ourselves out of it. Interesting side-note, one of the doctors mentioned in the game, Doctor Wernicke, was actually a famous physician/psychiatrist, but he wasn’t a mad necromantic doctor. Sorry. He’s best known for Wernicke’s aphasia, the inability to comprehend words due to damage to “Wernicke’s Area” in the brain, which is just over the medial temporal lobe. But he’s also famous for Wernicke’s Encephalopathy, a disorder whose symptoms include: ocular disturbances, intense apathy, unsteady gait and changes in mental state, resulting in a waning awareness of one’s surroundings. Like most mental conditions, it’s not absolute and in his day, as in ours, diagnosis was more of a science-art than a check-list, but the guys in the room near the beginning that are watching nothing on T.V. (you’ll know it when you get to it), are a grotesque, exaggerated representation of the disorder.

Okay, time to get down to it. Remember how I said that there’s a great build-up for some of the enemies, a pair of naked, angry dudes, in particular? Well, the game doesn’t pay off near enough of their taunting introduction for me to care. I mean, they say that they’re impatient, that they want to tear me limb from limb RIGHT NOW, so where the hell did they go? Did they stop for froyo on the way and get distracted by a trinket shop?

But, that’s nit-picking, the real problems with the game are inherent in its design. Like I said before, the Doctor Trager-strapped-to-a-wheel-chair bit (you’ll know it when you see it) kind of summed up the whole game for me. It was clearly twisted and horrific, but it wasn’t frightening because it was totally scripted and out of my hands. I mean, if the game had ended there, that would have been fantastically ominous, but I knew it would keep going. I was, after all, being shuffled along. So, the threat was completely extrinsic to my ability to combat it. A player without agency is just a person watching a movie. Still, it’s a really cool sequence, but it didn’t play to the strengths of the medium of engagement. However, if, by this point, you are still engaged with the horror, I think you’ll find that the feeling of helplessness could be incredibly effective. The threat of violence here is both overt and unpredictable, which elevates this portion above the bits with guys with sticks. It’s not frantic, which is a nice bit of juxtaposition. It helps that Trager brims with more personality than a man with twice his skin coverage!

But, was I engaged? Was I immersed? We often talk about immersion and engagement like they’re two different things. And, they are. BUT, they’re inextricably linked. If you are engaged by a game, then you’ll have an easier time settling into its atmosphere. I mean, look at Silent Hill. It looks like crumbly bum-biscuits by today’s standards, but when I sit down to play it, it springs back to life. And I don’t think I have to explain how a good atmosphere can help engage you. Suffice it to say that if you are settled into an environment, then you’ll invest in the things that happen within it. Earlier, I said that the game looked beautiful, and I mentioned their skilful use of camera angles and sound effects, so you know the atmosphere is fine… for the most part.

Part of the problem is that the environments get a little too repetitive. I mean, there’s even a bloody sewer level. It goes from repetitive Asylum, to repetitive prison, to repetitive sewer, to repetitive… you get the idea. The environments look nice, but the objects within them are repeated ad nauseam. Despite the extremely linear nature of the game, I even found myself getting lost a few times, backtracking into doors I’d already been in because one room full of beds looks the same as another. There is an effort to introduce some variety, but that kind of falls to pieces when you realize that all the lockers in all parts of the place look exactly the same. This sort of makes sense, since it’s all one big compound, but they’re in samey-video-gamey spawn points. Usually, they’re right beside an objective, because once you turn that knob, the monster in the halls will come find you. So, you’d better get inside that locker!

Maybe I should explain. The stealth mechanic in this game is kind of weak. It’s hard to tell when you are and are not visible. So, to supplement this, they introduced a hiding mechanic. When a monster is chasing you, you run out of its line of sight and dive into a locker or under a bed. Then, it comes looking for you. This is pretty effective in the beginning. There’s a lot of standing, frozen in terror, as the monster of the minute sniffs around outside of your hiding place, wondering why he can’t smell that strange piddling sensation in your pants or hear your character’s heavy breathing. Or the beeping of your camera. Or why it doesn’t just check BOTH lockers. But, seriously, this happens so often that it starts to lose its flavour and you start wishing it would hurry the hell up so you can get back to your fetch quest. And that’s the thing, in a horror game, you should never ever get to the point where you’re thinking, “Geeze, I wish it would hurry up and find me or leave so I can get back to this fetch-quest.” EVER. That’s the thing, even if the monster finds you and pulls you out of your hiding spot, it doesn’t kill you right away. So, you can just get up and run away again. Most of the time.

Occasionally, a monster will have a machete or something, and then it just one-shots you and you get warped back to the last check-point. But, the check-points are kind of sparse. Nothing kills horror like getting caught in a corner and knowing you’ll have to warp back and try an execution challenge again. Repetition kills engagement.

Repetition kills engagement.

Anyways, remember earlier when I mentioned the first-person animations and the simplified HUD? Well, here’s how they screwed that up. When you mouse-over a door that’s openable, hint-text pops up to remind you how to open it. However, if the door is locked, then there’s no text. It feels like they were going with a Silent Hill/RE feel here with all the locked doors, like most horror games at this point, but if I don’t have to test a door, it doesn’t matter. It’s just scenery. All the immersive animations in the world won’t change that if I never have to use them. That’s the problem right there. The hint text and constant reminders of my character’s body animations that I don’t control (counter-intuitively enough) just keep reminding me: you are playing a game. A player that knows they’re playing a game will play like a gamer. No sound effects will fix that. Perhaps, if I was really immersed, the animations would have an elevating effect, but between the weird inmate behaviour, the obvious jump-scare locations and the constant hint-text, it was just another reminder that I was playing something. It’s like the uncanny valley: it’s an all or nothing proposition. If I don’t feel that it’s my vision moving along, then I’m not going to become fully engaged with the actions. That’s why camera-bobbing doesn’t work very well, despite being a neat idea. Your experience of running is smooth. Your visual system corrects for the motions in your perception and your memory. We have an incredibly intricate predictive-corrective system that lines up our voluntary movements with our visual system. Your focal point doesn’t bob, cameras do. The perception is the important part, not the reality.

Being immersed… no, I suppose, engaging the portion of your imagination that produces terror and the emotion of fear, even momentarily, can plunge your world into a coating of venomous ichor from which there is no escape… until you turn the lights on. I close the light on the bottom floor of my house every night before walking up to my room. It’s not frightening or anything; I know this place like the front of my keyboard. But, every once in a while, just before I turn out the lights, I’ll wonder what could hide in the darkness. What Eldritch, twisted, tainted, tortured terror teeters tremulously to tear me trembling from its trap. In those moments, my world is a night-scape of perplexing, unknowable horrors. It’s all very vague, but the feeling is there for a minute. In my middle-class-ass hallway. In the bloody suburbs. If that mind-scape can work there, then imagine what it could do in a horror game. It’s a tricky thing to invoke, but it’s the essence of horror. That’s why immersion and originality are your primary concerns when crafting a horror game. Spark your player’s imagination, and they’ll consume themselves in the fires of their own fear.

It’s the nexus point where immersion meets engagement. Granted, it’s a difficult thing to maintain, but well worth the effort. It’s what legends are made of.

So, let’s hit up engagement and wrap up. Not being able to fight is usually seen as a point in the game’s favour, but it’s also a negative. Not being able to defend yourself, hiding in spots that will only hide you at chance value and won’t often kill you when you’re discovered, and not being able to plan a route when you’re running away seem like they should be frightening. And, for a while, they kind of are. But, being helpless, but constantly escaping by no skill of my own, got old after a while. Plunging headlong into the darkness of the sewers should be scary, but I know there’s nothing I can do if I’m caught, so I don’t feel the need to preserve myself. It works for Amnesia, because you die when you’re caught and you can stealth in the shadows to avoid detection. But, Outlast’s stealth mechanic is barely functional. Monsters can spot you across whole rooms in the dark. It’s replacement, the hiding mechanic, didn’t leave me with much of a sense of agency. So, naturally, I didn’t feel invested or defensive. Just… kind of impatient for the game to spew out its story guts and wrap up. Even a life-bar wouldn’t be completely ridiculous. Just anything to make me feel like my mistakes and my decisions mattered in the long run. Like I can prepare. Most importantly, like I can fail. I know I CAN, but when it comes to horror, the FEELING is more important than the reality. When my only option is “run,” I just feel like I’m being herded. Which should be scary, but only really reminds me of playing Gears of War.

What’s the end-result? Well, I know when I’m going to be in trouble and when I’m going to be okay (Hint: it’s most of the time). The game telegraphs itself really well. If I’m in a dark, restricted corridor with no hiding places, then I’m going to be fine, because I don’t have any other option BUT to be fine. Otherwise, the game couldn’t continue. It’s like when you run into chest-high walls in Mass Effect. There just MIGHT be an ambush in the works up ahead. I guess it comes down to a clash of design principles. The game’s mechanics suit a linear, story-based game, but the type of horror it tries to evoke needs a more organic set-up. Spooky sounds in the dark are just tiresome when there’s not a damn thing I can do about them. And, so, conversely, they can do to me.

 A few other points, the other cameras lying around are a nice touch, but I think it’s a huge wasted opportunity that we can’t pop one of our batteries into them and view a few ominous story-pictures. It would give us another use for the batteries we get, and set up a bit of tension around the decision to use one or not. The banging behind doors that lead to empty rooms is ominous… at first. But, again, where are the consequences? And, I wish the monsters would stop disappearing after I escape their areas. Let me see you rattle your chains!! SCARE ME WITH YOUR IRE!!! These two last points make the threats feel unreal, which would be great in a psychological horror, but are out of place next to the visceral threat of inmatey death.

Let’s get this wrapped. The bits with Trager are probably the best parts of the game. Organically searching the environment while a crazy doctor chases you with an enormous pair of scissors is not only shockingly reminiscent of Clocktower, but it’s also the kind of horror this game was crying out for. Our character is trapped and has to escape, so he’s got to move forward into the terrible darkness regardless of what he wants. We, on the other hand, are the sociopathic hand guiding his every move, unfettered by the consequences of our actions and completely aware that we have to be able to move forward, because it’s a game. And we’ll be fine, because the game is designed to allow us to move forward. The Trager Trap (as I’m now going to refer to it from now on), requires that we, as players, move into the area inhabited by the monster and find a way to escape. Now, you may say that’s nothing new to the game, in fact, it’s basically the same set-up as all the other fetch-quests, but the open-ended nature of the environment, the fact that the doctor constantly talks to us and a lack of knowledge of where the key is are the elements the other areas were missing. It gives us decisions to dread. The tension of having to explore, while being hunted by a seemingly intelligent being, in an organic (albeit small) environment, will always beat out following the signs to a release valve, hiding, waiting for the monster to go away, turning said valve and then repeating the sequence almost exactly. Trager is a monster I escaped that not only didn’t disappear, but faded into the background of the area he knew I’d have to be in. It’s a much different mind-set, even if the situation is exactly the same. Again, what you feel in a horror game will always be more important than what actually happened.

Oh, right, I suppose I should comment on the ending while we’re on Trager. No good horror game should be all gore, all the time. Juxtaposition (and our arousal curve) is a powerful ally in any horror medium. It’s why so many horror movies cut to sex or comedy. They’re arousing experiences that are qualitatively different. Then, they let us settle down before slashing again. It’s why Silent Hill’s two worlds are doubly effective. It’s why Resident Evil and Amnesia have safe zones.  These repeated moments punctuate our memory. Different forms of engagement are good, because it stops the entire experience from becoming a dull sludge. Outlast doesn’t have much besides its standard hidey-lookey-runny game-play. There are a few moments, but because they’re so few and far between, they really stand out. The bit in the thunderstorm. The bit with the fire. The bit with the preacher. The bit with Trager. These are the things I remember most clearly.

However, nothing is more important than the ending of your game. It’s the point by which all others will be defined. If it breaks from the general feel of the game, that can be even better. BUT… BUUUUUT…. Outlast’s ending takes a sharp turn at pseudo-science-and-sci-fi and swerves completely off the road, into a burning ditch of melting tires. The last section of the game feels like one big non-sequitur, like stepping out of Clocktower and into Half-Life. I was disappoint. Severely disappoint. You don’t have to explain everything that happens. Mystery is part of what can make horror engaging. You don’t work for Lucas Film; you don’t have to ruin everything by explaining it. So, subtlety moving forward, hmm? Know when to end a game.

It’s not all that bad. The water effects suck, but the particle effects and rain are awesome. The game’s animations are consistent and change with your character’s condition. The lens crack effect is fantastic. Like I said, it looks great. For some, that could be enough. In fact, I’d still recommend it to lots of people, despite all the things I’ve said here. It’s a bit like a movie, but if you like set-pieces and walking through creepy environments, then you will enjoy this game. If they’ve got the cash sitting around, then horror fans should experience it. For all its faults, it’s funny, occasionally tense, visually disturbing and, above all, thought-provoking. Even if those thoughts are just perturbing self-reflections on why you’re not as frightened as you think you should be of the man with the horrendous pair of scissors. I’m still amazed by how well one adjusts to living without a few fingers.

Otherwise, wait for The Evil Within.

I’m giving Outlast A Sale on Your Least Favourite Kind Of Your Favourite Brand Of Yogurt out of Getting Caught In The Rain, But It’s Only For Five Minutes