Archive for horror

Cutting Commentary in Velvet Buzzsaw

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2019 by trivialpunk

I never said I was consistent. The horror aesthetic is in right now, and creeping doom is on every horizon, but that’s more the state of the gaming industry than its content. Perpetual experiences and micro-transactions don’t lend themselves well to producing horror games, even if they do inspire dread. So, it was either ride the Dark Souls wave or write about the only thing more horrifying than creeping existential horror: politics.

Not here, though. No, the personal is political, so I can excuse the evening off from charting our winding path into a coiling snare. There are so many things in this world that would bind us and use us that one can hardly keep track. Sorry, got kinky there for a second, but it speaks to the question that faces most artists in today’s market.

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There are many ways to read Velvet Buzzsaw, and I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding outside interpretations of the movie, except the initial review that led me to it. I wanted to remain surprised, because I was promised a character-focused horror movie with great cinematography and a twist. I got a lot more than that, though, and I want to give you the same opportunity I had to enjoy it. So, here’s your spoiler-warning. From here on out, I’m going to be spoiling major plot-points and the central gimmick of the twist, as well as dissecting what I see as the ethos of the film. There will be no coming back from these spoilers, soo…

SPOILER WARNING!!!!

That being said, let’s start with the exploiters of artists and the gate-keepers that enable the scarcity they profit off of. I mean, the cast. Morf Vandewalt is a renowned art critic that is insulated by pride, pretence and pomp. He acts as a gate-keeper of value in the artistic world that “assesses out of adoration,” but the film goes out of its way to demonstrate his profound naivety towards the powerful people and institutions that profit off his work. This is a great example of the lighting direction and framing coalescing with the narrative at the perfect moment for a story beat.

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Up until this moment, Morf has been framed as a suave, sophisticated socialite whose words can move mountains. But here, for one moment, his hair is under-lit to make it look like a bowlcut, as Morf is saying something that we know isn’t accurate with absolute confidence. He is, in truth, incredibly childish. You can see it in his demands and complaints. As a critic, Morf is being used to promote dangerous items for dishonest people, as well as destroying the careers and lives of countless artists to further his cachet. He excuses his actions by claiming that his opinions are honest, and they do seem very genuine, but he does tear down Ricky for Josephina. He knows it is wrong, though, and he even gets moments of moral indignation by refusing to sell out his personal beliefs. Morf is not morally corrupt, but he’s not overtly critical of the systems off of which he profits.

You know who is morally corrupt, though? Rhodora Haze, former punk artist turned wealthy socialite. As the owner of the Haze Gallery, she deals in modern art and Machiavellian politics. She’s manipulating Morf behind the scenes, holding contracts like switch-blades under the throats of other characters and stage managing the launch of the Vetril Dease Collection: a series of paintings that were discovered after the artist’s death. Since the artist is dead and the owner of the art is under her thumb, she is free to lie about the paintings at will. She squirrels half of them away to increase their scarcity value.

Rhodora’s mirror-mirror doppelganger is Gretchen. As a newly-minted art advisor/gate-keeper, she’s trying to survive in the same world of money and perception as Rhodora, but she’s nooot as good at it. In her stumbles, we see the ugly seams of their art scene come blatantly to the surface. She tries to bribe Morf to point her to “under-valued, pre-review art,” because she sees Rhodora profiting by buying pieces before Morf’s favourable reivews go live and increase their value. Of course, Rhodora isn’t bribing him; she’s spying on him. Despite Morf’s integrity, he exists in a system where his favourable reviews can be fore-casted by the people who profit off of them. An uncomfortable reflection of the game review space I left all those years ago? Maybe that’s why we’re here…

Let’s not get TOO meta, TOO fast. Where were we? Josephina is another inductee into the world of power and politics. As an employee of Rhodora, she stumbles across the paintings of Vetril Dease on the evening of his death. Recognising his brilliance and claiming them for herself, Josephina empties the man’s apartment of his life’s work. It’s clear that Rhodora took her under her wing as a employee, but is in the process of demoting her when she’s tipped off to the existence of the Dease collection. Josephina is strong-armed by Rhodora, under threat of contractual litigation, into handing over management rights for the Dease Collection in exchange for wealth and prestige. She agrees, because she has no choice.

Jon Dondon is a competing art dealer that learned well from Rhodora. He spends his days trying to poach artists from the Haze Gallery and sabotaging their stars. Jon Dondon puts considerable effort into undermining the reputation of the Dease Collection before meeting his bitter end. His body is discovered by Coco.

Coco is the mirror-mirror opposite of Josephina. She’s working an entry-level position at the Haze Gallery and learning how to navigate the choppy waters of a cut-throat industry. I have a fan-theory about her. I think she sabotaged Josephina in the opening act of the movie by calling her Right before work to tell her about her cheating ex. When Josephina was moved off the front line, Coco got her job. A job she immediately lost, because Rhodora uses and discards people at will, but it’s clear that she’s learned how to undermine people in order to advance her interests. Yet, the film doesn’t totally condemn her for her actions. Coco’s trying to survive in a harsh market, and it’s causing her to compromise her integrity. At the mid-point of the film, she reveals that she’s been spying on Rhodora, and the information she gleaned gets her a new job. So, she’s dishonest, buut…

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Which is really more of a condemnation of the system she wants to profit off of than her as a character. At least, in relation to the other characters in this little psychodrama. She keeps losing her job, because her employers keep dying for their sins, but she survives, even if her dream is broken.

That’s most of the main cast. There’s the blue-collar Bryson, who exists as a stereotype both so broadly drawn and utterly eclectic that I can only call him a douche-hipster. Piers is an established artist that is struggling to find creative truth in a system that values constant exploitable productivity. Damrish is an emerging artist from the streets that wants to find a place where his work can mean something, caught between financial success and cultural relevance.

The last two members of the important players are almost uncredited. They are the representatives of the Museum of Modern Art, and only one of them gets a name. It’s Jim, and his unnamed partner says one of the most important lines in the film to Gretchen: “…If you wanted to ram more of your collector’s hoard down our throat to increase their value, you should have done so before the Dease deal was locked…” You see, there’s only so much room in a gallery to show off cultural artefacts, so curators have to be careful with their space. As an artistic institution, the museum has a responsibility to the integrity of the art world, but the leverage provided to Gretchen by the inflated value of the Dease Collection gives her power over their investors. The wealthy gate-keepers of the art world have lent her the pictures and capital necessary to dictate what cultural artefacts will be displayed as valuable in the museum. She does to them what Rhodora did to her by packaging Dease with another artist named Minkins. In this scene, the film is saying that the power structures that profit off of exploiting artists do not elevate art based on its cultural value but on its ability to be exploited for profit. Therefore, the exemplars of this cultural space did not gain ascendancy through cultural relevance, but  through systems of power. Even if the art is only valuable for the moment:

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From EA to Disney, this is the relationship that most artists find themselves in today. The gate-keepers of artistic value are propped up by towers of money, and it seems like the only way forward is to sell-out for profit. As Gretchen says, “Look, I came to the museum, because I wanted to change the world through art. But, the wealthy vacuum up everything, except crumbs. The best work is only enjoyed by a tiny few. And they buy what they’re told. So why not join the party?” These are not evil people, but they’re still profiting off of a system that locks culture and the ascendancy of artistic vision behind pay-walls and monetary access. So, what should an artist do in this environment? What is the point of art if nobody sees it?

It turns out that the film has really optimistic answers to both those questions, but I want to address two very important aspects before we get to those answers. The first is that the paintings are haunted by the ghost of Vetril Dease, because he literally put his blood, sweat and tears into his work. His pain and madness are seared into his tormented works, and their raw manifestation is what ensorcells both critics and artists alike. This life of misery, “A howl for answers and a resolution that never comes,” is the fascination point off which the galleries will profit. They’re capitalising on the dead man’s pain.

The second aspect is the way in which Dease’s media is altered for consumption. Not a single stroke on his paintings is changed, but when they are removed from the context of his tiny, ramshackle house, they lose their connection to their meaning. Dease faced serious abuse, and his work was a means of processing that trauma. His howl for answers reveals the depth of that pain, but that depth is completely removed by transplanting it to a gallery space for safe consumption. In a gallery, people see the brilliance and clarity of the emotion, but they are insulated from its impact. Capitalism sanitizes media and removes it from the consequences of its context, a point which the film makes extremely explicit:

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Everyone thinks that Gretchen’s death is part of the exhibit, so they’re removed from the reality of the situation. The children in this scene think it’s fake blood; they assume that everything in the gallery is safe for consumption, so they are protected from its implications. The paintings and sculptures in this movie could stand in for any form of media. By removing media from its context and making it safe for capitalistic consumption, we are insulated from its true meaning, thereby allowing the framers of that information the power to control our perception of it. Which gets even more interesting when you consider that Damrish is a culturally-relevant Black artist being tugged away from his artist’s collective to pursue success in a mainstream gallery

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It should not be ignored that the history of African Americans in most artistic mediums includes a long history of exploitation. That the gate-keepers of power in this movie are primarily white, and that systemic socioeconomic differences are of key importance in relation to their access to power. No one in this movie is anything close to racist, but they are unquestioningly profiting off systems of exploitation built on inequality. You could not have an honest psychodrama about the flaws inherent in media exploitation without bringing up the rotten foundation on which it is built. This applies to all vulnerable populations across the media landscape, from Freddy Mercury to the Jackson 5. While naming those two makes it seem like these were relationships of mutual profit, we’d do well to remember the barriers they faced and the artists of all stripes and orientations who see nothing for their life-times of work. The more vulnerable you are, the easier you are to exploit, which is why some populations are targeted more explicitly than others.

Everyone in this movie is duplicitous to some degree. They’re all stage-managing personas and stabbing each other in the back behind warm smiles and “Kisses!” They are the perpetual manifestations of this psychodrama, profiting with cold brutality as they devour warm bodies with neat, sanitized pretence. It’s the same cheerful nihilism on display when the News feeds us justifications for murdering people and presents the deaths of thousands as an engaging tragedy. There is no human way to easily digest the deaths of that many people, but when it scrolls by on your news feed, it feels like one more point in a burning world. Something you can accept and “deal with.”

The personal is political, and the most important point of conflict in the daily lives of most people watching this movie will be fighting the apathy bred by comfort. The most important weapon against action is the idea that everything will be okay. By making things safe and digestible, we never feel the true weight of the tragedies happening around us. There is an art to insulating us into inaction, while at the same time justifying murder. It is the howling storm into which we all must scream.

That brings me back to the haunted paintings and my two final questions. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? I think the film answers that rather handily on multiple occasions. An artist’s primary concern should be the act of creation. “All art is dangerous,” which is to say that all art is powerful. Dease created otherworldly paintings as a byproduct of using art as a tool for exploring his trauma and grief. He survived a life of torment through art, even while definitely committing some murders along the way.

At the end of the film, we have an extremely human moment with Rhodora as she hands the keys of her beach house to Piers. Piers has been struggling with alcoholism and the media-driven idea that artists flourish by sacrificing their sanity to addiction and mental illness. Grappling with the raw honesty on display in Dease’s work, he wants to keep the “easy answer” at arm’s length, while he “tries to get back to creation.” The art world only values him as long as he’s creating work that they can sell, and it seems like the only answer to creating that work is sacrificing his mental well-being. Which is when the ghost of another dead artist steps in. Rhodora’s old girlfriend Poly -who was killed by a similar life- whispers a quote into the chill winds of history that saves Piers, “Dependency murders creativity. Creativity plays with the unknown, No strategies exist that can enclose the endless realm of the new. Only trust in yourself can carry you past your fears and the already known.”

Dependency on liquor and the financial approval of others is murdering Piers’ creativity, while the addiction slowly kills him. Rhodora tells him to take a break from the art scene, because she’s aware of its potential for toxicity. He needs to heal. She tells him to go somewhere and do something for nobody but himself. Because, at the end of the day, You always see your art. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? None, but the artist always sees their work. Art is a tool for expression and self-discovery. The finished product has inherent value to the artist and naturally reflects the time-period of its creation. At the beginning of the film, Rhodora posits that her art world has been thriving since a caveman charged a “bone to see the first cave painting,” tacitly suggesting that art and capitalism are inherently intertwined. Which perfectly reflects her world-view, but it has nothing to do with reality.

While it’s true that pretty shells and intricate carvings have always been traded as valuable, the drive to create is inherent to the human experience. Whether it’s ancient, crumbling paintings or lines in the sand swept away by the tide, the act of creation is inherently valuable. When we place importance on the exploitability of the finished product, rather than the act of creation, we murder creativity. So, what should an artist do in this environment?

Damrish’s story-line follows this logic to its fruition. The personal is political, so we should create for each other in an accessible space. Instead of allowing ourselves to be exploited for personal economic gain, we should look to the good we can do in our community as artists. If you have a voice, then we should use it with thoughtful purpose. At the same time, the collective in the film suggests that if this is the case, then the community needs to be there to support these artists. As someone who wrote free articles for years, I can tell you that you can’t dine on artistic integrity. We need to respect each other and our art, because our creations hold value. Both for ourselves and the future generations that will try to understand us through the exemplars of our culture.

Then, there is the other artist: Vetril Dease. The vengeful spirit left to toil in obscurity, exploited after death without the consent of his personal demons or consideration for the private pain it would unearth. His flesh was sold at auction with each painting, his literal body of work was violated for profit. Artists often sign away the right to control their work in exchange for the ability to create it, especially in the gaming space. Their legacy as creators is controlled as if they were a meaningless incident of its creation. The sole reason I’m writing this review, now, is that I kept asking myself one question: “What is the motivation of the paintings in this movie?” What injustice do the demons locked away behind Dease’s rage seek to correct? In looking for this answer, I came to my thesis for the film: “By making media fit for consumption by cultural institutions propped up by capitalist markets, we sanitize pain and profit off of death. Art that is both personal and culturally relevant/transgressive will/should undermine the power structures that enable the exploitation of art and humans, so that no more people must die in painful obscurity while the rich profit off their work.”

Each death in the movie reflects this motivation. Bryson was supposed to take the Dease paintings to be locked away in a warehouse, but he clearly died on a country road in the middle of stealing them. Rhodora kept Dease behind lock and key, both preserving the paintings he wanted destroyed and setting his work up to be exploited. Josephina stole his work and sold it, despite his wish that it be destroyed. John Dondon dug up Dease’s tragic past, but he was killed before he could use it to undermine the value of the work and profit off the destruction of his competitors through it. Gretchen was killed moments after threatening to use Dease’s work to destroy the hopes of emerging artists, keeping undiscovered artists like Dease in the dark forever to profit off the increased the value of Dease’s posthumous work. Morf kept emerging artists from the public’s eyes by judging their work to be valueless, profiting off their destruction to the point that one of his targets killed himself. Further, Morf stood to make millions from an exclusive Dease book-deal. Before dying, he publishes a tell-all article on Dease’s tragedies and the deaths connected to his work. It is telling that Morf was assumed to be corrupt by people like Gretchen, and that his credibility was only ever destroyed when he told them a bizarre, uncomfortable truth.

Damrish and Piers don’t die, because despite their exposure to the work, they never exploited it. Coco kept losing her job, so she never made a dime off it, either. She lost her dream but not her life. She’ll return home and find something new. And Dease’s art? It’s still out there, circulating out of stolen crates. Which makes me wonder… out of the context of these exploitative systems, will his art still be dangerous, Or was his art most impactful/destructive within this system, because it sought to tear down the power structures that exploited it? Am I reading too much into this? Possibly.

These paintings reflect a dark theme that stretches all the way back to “The King in Yellow.” A terrifying work that inspires heights of artistic excess or the lows of human suffering. Artists often see in works of this amorphous, eldritch nature a kind of creeping wonder. Am I divining something that exists or creating an idea from whole cloth? Kind of meta in a sense, because it comes back to why I’m here and often not here.

I created this blog to “forward the realm I analyze,” as Morf would say, but I found myself in the same position a lot of the time. Discussing gaming at this moment is putting support behind companies that are busily exploiting and destroying the works and artists that I admire. I couldn’t allow myself to be part of that anymore, even if the encroachment of larger investors opened the doors for greater profit. I have zero desire to be chewed up and spit out by an ungrateful industry, but I will always love gaming.

Yet, in my absence, I’ve seen the work of people like Jim Sterling and others pushing back against the glorification of exploitative excess, and I see in that movement a future for gaming. We’ve been here before, so maybe it’s better to stand and fight. These exact same historical beats have been playing out over time, from 3-D to the syphilitic collapse of the AAA Industry from its moulding throne. As we know, from the ashes of failure rise the Embers of a new age, and I’ve been heartened by the growth of the indie scene on Steam. Its gluttonous collapse after Steam Greenlight seemed to me the absolute excesses of Dark Souls’ Humanity. Even I’m back here, writing about the revolutionary potential of an above-average horror movie churned out by a corporate mechanism designed to respond to Disney’s global I.P. Power Grab.

Still, we must shout into the howling gale. We must not place the value of creation on the exploitability of the finished product. In this life, we must live and create, finding joy and integrity where we can make it. I have no mouth and I MUST scream.

Also, I wanted the opportunity to clear up a misinterpretation of my earlier assertion that reaction-time was an important consideration in relation to tank-controls on early survival horror games. Yeah, the tension-and-release cycles are still effective, even when the controls are fluid, because they speed up the monsters, too. The point isn’t the movement of the characters on the screen. The point is the experience of the individual reacting to them. So, if both characters are slow, then tension rises as the character prepares to react, then executes and experiences the results of those actions. The timing of that cycle is the important thing, not the speed of the pixels on the screen. When you’re running away from Pyramid Head’s attack in Silent Hill 2, you have a fraction of a second to react, then pick a direction and run. The tension exists in the execution of the maneuver, even if success or failure are decided at the beginning of the reaction when the startle reflex kicks in. It doesn’t matter if you get hit; it matters that you panicked for a second while you tried to react. That’s part of the build-up of physical tension that accompanies the game’s psychological anxiety.

The Hunters in Resident Evil are the same way. They cross vast distances in one jump, but your reaction to them is hurriedly finding a horizontal axis to safely cross their straight leap. This allows you the time to turn around and launch grenades at them. The controls were slow, so the tension came from thinking quickly. Now, you can react more quickly, but the startle reaction is still there, so more of the mechanical tension has to come from the staging of the game-play sequence.

So, yeah, Velvet Buzzsaw is a psychological revenge-drama where art goes on a killing spree to avenge an exploited artist. Give it a look if you’re still interested. Even with everything spoiled, it’s worth watching. Hell, maybe I’ve been over-analyzing things this whole time, and you’ll find something different in viewing it. That’s the nice thing about art: we each get to decide its value to us. I’ll be back if I feel like I have something else worth saying. Until then, I’ll just be enjoying things for their own value, because…

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Torn Over The Evil Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punk – …fun.
Trivial – …fun.

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

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

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

Alien: Isolation – A Love Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crafted items List: Found or made using schematics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crafting Horror Mechanics and Mindsets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jump-Scare Microcosm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Clockwork’s Empires Tick On

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

Hey you! I’ve been crazy busy lately, but this blog is where I started, so it deserves my love, regardless of the time I have. Today, we’re going to keep it brief and talk about a small subject: Early-Access.

Okay, it’s not a small subject, but the things that I can definitively say about it today are limited. As with any monetization model, it has its risks for both the developer and the consumer. It can easily be corrupted; it can easily fold in on itself. You never know if the game’s going to be finished, and you never know if you’re going to like the finished product after you’ve seen the original. There are many things to consider. But, there is something to be said for watching a game develop. I was in the Minecraft Beta, but I know folks that were in far earlier than I was. They, like me, recall watching the game grow with a fondness that I still feel for it today.

There was passion and dedication behind the dev(s) of that special little game that could and did. It didn’t feel like there were huge expectations for success; Minecraft was basted in the love of the game. And while Minecraft wasn’t the very first early-access game, it’s certainly the most salient success-story among the people I know. So, clearly early-access can work. However, there are some crass individuals who will turn anything beautiful into something sleazy for a quick buck. So, it’s best to know all you can before buying into an early-access game. Incidentally, Jim Sterling does a series of videos about a selection of Early-Access titles. Here‘s a playlist. But, please read on before you run away, because I wanna show you something…

ce_slide

Today, I’d like to talk about Clockwork Empires. It’s an early access game that is being put out by Gaslamp Games, a small indie studio in Victoria, B.C that you might remember for developing Dungeons of Dredmor. And, I think Clockwork Empires was designed specifically to make me love it. It’s a civilization game with a Cthulhian-Clockwork bent. It’s darkly funny and incredibly ambitious, and that’s why I like it. However, it’s also being thoughtfully put together and frankly discussed, which is why I love it. My friend grabbed the game the day it dropped for Earliest Access (Yes, that’s a thing), and we started playing it immediately.

It’s as Alpha as you can allow, because the devs want to make sure the engine’s humming before they add on the spoilers. Okay, there wasn’t much there, really. No save files. Only one spawn-point. A barely functioning Job system. Bugs out the butt. Game-breaking glitches. But, shit, we loved it. We loved it because we expected those things. The devs have been clear on what’s going on and how they’re progressing with implementation, so none of that was surprising. However, in the midst of those issues, we saw glimmers of potential. Potential that we felt would be built upon by a company that’s dedicated to the game’s quality. A stance they’ve wisely embodied in their dealings with their community. After all, trust is the life-blood of early-access.

When the game did work, its grid-based building system and Sims-esque placement mechanics were a lot of fun to tinker with. The character behaviours were wonky at times, but watching your pilgrims mill about and do their own thing is kind of what brings them to life. Also, watching the influence of the Occult spread through my little hamlets was always engaging. Harold the Baker and Susie the Blacksmith having frank discussions with George the Militia-man about the necessity of The Murder Act is always going to be a little bit intriguing. Watching a hungry settler wallow in depression and hunger before deciding to tear off the leg of a fish-person to quiet their wailing stomach seems like it will always be equally fascinating… even if it is a little macabre…

But, those are the cold realities of the life on the Frontier amongst the Cthulhian horrors that haunt us, so it all fits together. Even the writing is charming, which is a big plus to me. The fact that the Cultists occasionally rename your buildings as their influence grows is just icing on the companion cube. I mean, really, why call it a Kitchen when you can call it The Wailing Death-Pit?

You can take this as a recommendation to check out the game and the developer blog to see if you’re interested. But, mostly, I just wanted to tell you why I’m buying into this early-access game, because I think Gaslamp Games is going about it the right way. Hopefully, this game, and/or other games with similarly thoughtful developers, will do well. I’d like this to be the early-access norm, and I like to think that it is, but I had to give them some love, because they’re exemplifying exactly the kind of pro-consumer, we-love-games-too attitude that I like to see.

These are bold, new frontiers, and we’re the first wave of settlers. Whether this model will be corrupted into a tentacled monstrosity is beyond my ability to predict as it sits concealed by the dark wall of our unknown future. However, in the penumbra of our experience, there are shapes of glimmering knowledge interspersed with the Eldritch architecture. Reading those runes is the only way we’ll avoid the miasma that lurks in the dark… Have fun exploring! I’ll see you on the other side.

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.

All-New Advertising Gimmicks Really Aren’t Much

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2014 by trivialpunk

I’m shared between the rich and clever;
I’m the heart of each endeavor.

I gleam in every artist’s eye;
I’m the awe that fills the sky.

I am love, both old and new;
I’m the reason you can “do”.

Despite our clashing; I’m your friend, too;
You’ll use Me to figure out if that’s true.

Who am I?

The first letter of my name is the first clue.

The second letter begins the Tweet that holds the second clue. It’s the only one from June 26, 2014 that begins with that letter.
Ditto for the third letter.
The fourth precedes the beginning of the end;
And, even though it’s jinxing the entire thing, it refuses to move.

Yes, I absolutely put this together to spoil the title of my first ever web-series.
If I must advertise, then I want it to be enjoyable and challenging for everyone involved!

Good luck!

The Edge of Tomorrow: A Cthulhian Tale

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on June 18, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hey, so it’s time to talk about The Edge of Tomorrow! And how we apply Cthulhu to understanding its darker implications. But, first, if you haven’t already, check this video out. It will help you understand the concept of Cthulhu better than the average individual, and it saves me a lot of time. Plus, the people at Extra Credits do a hell of a job! So, let’s get into The Edge of Tomorrow…

Edge_of_Tomorrow_Poster

Alright, let’s get the up-front stuff out of the way. The Edge of Tomorrow is a dark action-comedy that’s an unholy fusion of Dark Souls, Star Craft and Cthulhu. And, honestly, I half expected to see Bill Murray fall to his death in a helicopter crash. The time-skips are well-presented, and the general plot is fairly clever. However, if you can think like a trans-temporal omni-swarm creature, then you might spoil the ending for yourself. Which is exactly what we’re here to discuss, so SPOILERS! If you’re on the fence about seeing it, then I recommend it. Take that for what it’s worth, and sorry for the short post!

**SPOILERS!!!**

Now, as we all know, at the end of the movie… …

Okay, now I’m free to spoil it. At the end of the movie, Tom Cruise finally destroys the hive-mind behind the alien invasion, and he wakes up a day before, in a brighter, cheerier world. Victory, right? Well, it depends on your perspective. You see, for humans, time is a pretty simple, albeit baffling, progression. Because we live within it, we value the moments and ages that have come and gone, as well as the future. But, what if you lived in the past, the present, the future and all of the multiple iterations therein?

Well, then you’d have a wholly different relationship to time and, as a result, to military action. Now, if you’ll recall, when The Angel of Verdun first drove back the enemy, it retreated from its camp, and the day played out very differently than it had before. However, the results of that day were simply that: the results of that day. For the creature that was attacking them, it wasn’t really a big loss. Think of it like a cat torturing a mouse. It tests its defences on one side. It swats at it a bit on the other side. The mouse struggles and struggles, but, eventually, the cat just goes in for the kill.

But, let’s say the mouse could drive the cat back. Let’s say it bites the cat’s claw and sends it scampering away, giving the mouse just enough time to make it into the next room. My question to you is: is the mouse safe? Well, that would depend almost entirely on the room and the cat. The same goes for trans-temporal beings. Okay, it can’t go all the way back in time, but it can go forward as far as it needs to. And, there are things inherent in the mechanics of the time-resets that should also trouble us.

Alright, every time Tom Cruise dies, the day resets. That’s the basic event, but does it reset for everyone, or does he just go back along his personal time-line? That’s an important question, because if the Alpha aliens (the blue ground-troops that can reset time when they die) get killed, then the day also resets. So, one would imagine, on the truly colossal front-line of D-Day, at least one or two blue aliens must have been killed in the action, besides the one that Tom Cruise takes out. So, then, there must be time-stream resets that  take place before Tom Cruise got his power. If that’s the case, then we can assume that the time-stream resets are personal. Otherwise, he would never have gotten his power in the first place. In fact, the Alpha that gives him his power dies before he does, so that’s really all you need to know.

A disturbing thought, because it forces us to ask ourselves: what does the alien really want? In what way would a trans-temporal alien invade a world? It’s not just invading you on the physical front: it’s invading time-streams. So, if you consider every single day that Tom Cruise died as one potential future, then we aren’t winning the war because we pushed them out of a time-stream. We’ve merely managed to eke out a space to continue existing. In most other potential time-streams, the creatures dominate the world. And human-kind is extinct.

This is where things get even more Cthulhian. Because, if you listened to the video, it’s right. Our only hope of surviving a creature that unknowably powerful is to hope that we’re insignificant enough to be ignored. So, if you’re a creature waging a trans-temporal war, maybe you don’t care about every time-stream, because some of them must end in your defeat. It’s not likely, but it’s necessarily possible. Tom Cruise weighted the scale a bit, but he didn’t change the fundamental nature of the invasion. We lost everywhere it mattered to the creature.

But, we’re beings of singular perspective, so We don’t really care about those other time-streams. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for us to appreciate the implications of temporal genocide with a straight face. But, to a creature like this, it must be a daily reality. So, obviously, it would be able to reset time if its own body was destroyed. That’s the realization that spoils the ending, by the way. This creature fights trans-temporal wars all the time. Of course, it has natural defences to work within the bounds of its zone of combat. But, that’s not what we see, because we’re limited.

And that’s the whole thing about Cthulhu. Powerful beyond comprehension, because we can only begin to glimpse the facts of its reality from our own. Its structure is so insane that trying to communicate its nuances will get you sectioned or dissected. And for creatures not adapted to the ravages of trans-temporal living, the iteration of days can drive you mad. You see life and death in a very different way, necessarily. (They bring that across nicely in the movie.)

Love, life, memories, death and Being are very different for time-travellers. Even the concept of being born is a bit wibbly. And when you realize that, and scream it at the top of your lungs, but no one cares… no one can care… that, too, can drive you mad. That’s an unheard-of military advantage. They don’t press the issue in The Edge of Tomorrow, but they acknowledge it at the farm-house and within the characterization and narrative. Show, don’t tell, right?

Still, the more I thought about it, the more interesting and tragic the narrative became. And, it’s always a wonderful thing when a movie gives you that experience.

I could go into the ways that different conceptualizations of the shape of time and space would change the “biology” and habits of a trans-temporal Cthulhian monstrosity, but that’s half the fun. And I’m gonna let you have it! Cheers!

Okay, so, there’s a lot of house-keeping today, which is why I’m doing it at the end. The concept video for Mike And Marco went up! Don’t worry, it’s supposed to look and sound that way, at first. It felt more… screen-testy… There’s also a place you can go to hear me read stories, some of them are Grimm’s Fairy-Tale old, and some of them are mine. In fact, there’s a whole live-action section that’s slowly coming on-line…

Our letsplays of Far Cry 3WATCH_DOGS and Silent Hill: Homecoming are chugging along. With many more games to come. So, please, visit our YouTube channel at your leisure. If you’ve ever wondered what my face looks like, it’s time to see it from the other side.

100 Posts and It’s Finally Just About SH2

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2013 by trivialpunk

Well, here we are again. It’s always such a pleasure. God, but I do love ripping off Portal 2, don’t I? Did you know there was a Portal movie in the works to be produced by J.J. Abrams? He’s working on the Half-Life movie, as well. I wonder if he realizes exactly how important those franchises are… well, he’s in charge of both Star Trek and Star Wars, so I’m guessing it doesn’t matter all that much. This guy’s got pop-culture by the balls and no one seems to notice. That’s a pretty big responsibility; I hope he takes it seriously.

Anyways, the reason I’ve gathered you all here is because it’s time for this blog’s 100th post! I know, I took forever to get it together, because I took time off for final exams and term papers without announcing it, but you read my work, so you’re nothing if not patient. I have interesting ideas for future posts, but I’ve been doing puff pieces about stuff close to me leading up to today, so I figured we’d just keep up the momentum and talk about a game I love with every quantum of my heart and soul: Silent Hill 2.

SH2

No, I’m not going to do a retro review, because there are a ton of those already. Besides, I reference and deconstruct this game so often in my other posts that it would be downright redundant to do it here. It’s the source material, the well-spring from which my understanding of horror springs. It’s The Grudge wrapped in SpecOps: The Line sprinkled with Friday the Thirteenth. And I absolutely adore it. Granted, the first time I played this game I was 13, so there’s bound to be a little nostalgia blindness mixed in there. If you think it got to me a bit early, then keep in mind that I was  11 the first time I played the original.

Playing these games was like accessing some deep, forgotten Magick. It was dogmatic taboo channelled through riddles of reference and ominous symbolic meaning. I lapped it up. Nothing about this game pulled any punches. It didn’t have to be gory, because it became a part of me. It showed me my hypocrisy with hideous clarity. BUT, at the same time, it taught me. It showed me ideas and worlds I had never considered before. Growing up in a Catholic school and bathed in the mythologies of Greece and Rome, I hadn’t even considered that something other than an outside force could grant forgiveness. Silent Hill 2 changed all that.

Best of all, it didn’t talk down to me. It didn’t stop to explain to me that the town was the cite of hundreds of sacrificial rituals. There were no support characters explaining that pyramid-head was the executioner, the final punisher of prisoners in the traditions of Silent Hill’s historical fun-land. No one had to explain that the world was a foggy psychological landscape. It was all symbols, quips and half-erased memos. You know what it took to cement my understand that the world I was seeing wasn’t the “real” world? (By the way, this was my introduction to absurdist relativism) On the staircase, when you confront Angela in the hotel and her entire world is on fire, in that brief moment when their understandings intersect, I realized that the world I was seeing wasn’t the “truth.” It was my own tortured mind turning in on itself so far that it became reality, like some weird Escher nightmare. It was my truth.

download (2)

To this day, this realization informs so much of my understanding of human folk psychology. And, it keeps me from looking down on kids. If I could intuitively grasp a concept of that magnitude in an instant of interactive learning, then not only are games incredible tools for learning, but we’re kidding ourselves when we talk to thirteen year olds like they’re stupid. They may not be aflush in wisdom, but that’s kind of our job to bring across.

Anyways, we’re just going to talk about some of my favourite moments in the game and what they meant to me. The little red save squares are kind of a tradition in Silent Hill. No, not the squares themselves, but the method of saving telling you something about the protagonist. SH3 had the religious symbols from the church. SH1 had notepads, because Harry Mason was a writer. But Silent Hill 2’s save point are straight up the letter you received from Mary that brought you here. Incidentally, as you slowly learn the truth of it all, that letter fades from your inventory until it disappears, because it was never real to begin with. It was all part of your own self-flagellation. Your own necessary delusion that you’ve been using to protect yourself from reality.

Then, there’s the memorial you find on one of the streets. It’s a stone tablet  that details some of the tragedies that have taken place in the town. It’s a nice bit of background, because it highlights both why you’re here specifically and gives the neighbourhood an eerie magic. Finding the radio by following the blood-trail has always been a favourite of mine, as well as finding the notes that act as a sort of monster tutorial. All of these things let you know that the place you’ve stepped into isn’t friendly. There are no warning lights, no jump-scares, and the only other people you find are either raucously unhelpful, frustratingly uncommunicative or dead. Even the monster introduction is a figure lurching into the fog, followed by it calmly shuffling up to you in a cut-scene. The horror isn’t about freaking you out. You’ll freak out because it’s horrible and inevitable.

Because, the story of Silent Hill 2 was already written before the game started. I mean, more than just literally. You spend the greater part of the game uncovering the truth and learning how to deal with it. And, depending on your actions in the game, how you deal with it in the end changes. If you stopped to listen to the conversation in the Long Hallway, your introspection is rewarded with a healthy dose of reality. If, however, you choose to barrel on through because you don’t care about it, then you get to cry and die, my friend, because you’ve already decided that wallowing in guilt and anger is more important than engaging your inner demons.

Yes, the whole thing is kind of Jerry Spring-esque. You do come here to deal with your problems, but, more to the point, you come here because you have problems that need dealing with, a subtle but important difference. Eddie, the chunky dog-killer, ends up murdering his tormentors. Angela is once again unable to stand up to her abusive father. But, they still get to run around this mental playground in the hope that they’ll figure their way out. Instead, Eddie goes kill-crazy and you have to put him down like a rabid animal. Angela… well, she walks back into the flames, although she’s clearly been busy sewing her tormentors to the walls. Here’s a little background music.

The bosses you face are, for the most part, the demons of the town’s other inhabitants or your own angry self-reflections. There are the cage-monkeys, which are really bodies in bed-sheets and you know why that’s important. The Abstract Daddies of Angela’s nightmares. Eddie himself, because he’s pretty much a demon by this point. Your own demonic wife, the grand-mummy of the cage monkeys. And Pyramid Head. Yes, I know he shows up in other games because he’s the executioner of Silent Hill, but, here, he’s the straight-up shadow of James Sunderland (Why else would you get his knife?). He is the part of himself that James won’t admit to. Masculine, destructive and cruelly torturous. He is guilt incarnate and violence made manifest. Which makes sense, because James is the executioner, after all.

The one line related to Pyramid Head that has stuck with me all these years related back to the absolution of self-guilt: “I was weak…  That’s why I needed you… Needed someone to punish me for my sins… But that’s all over now. I know the truth. Now it’s time to end this.” I get chills just thinking about it. After playing the entire game living in fear of this invincible Hell-monster, this unstoppable ghoul whose only loss comes from getting bored and wandering off, James Sunderland takes back control of his own life and serves, once more, as the arbiter of his own destiny. Though all may judge a man, only a man may truly judge himself. That works pan-sexually, too, but it loses some of its pithy zing when you take out the shortest words available to refer to people. Honestly, that’s why writers use “man.” It’s all about simplicity of word-length. But, if we’re going to topple years of Patriarchy in literature, then we really should use, “Thought all may judge an individual, only an individual may truly judge itself.” There, ideology over style, because some things are more important.

Moving right along, after pinging away at the Pyramid Heads (yes, there are two now, reflections and all) for a while with a hunting rifle, they just up and kill themselves, because that’s the ultimate result of self-loathing untempered by self-understanding, leaving James to ascend the stairs to confront his own sins: the smothering of his sickly, deformed wife. Now, depending on your level of involvement in James’ nightmare world, you can either take this as a kindness or a sickness. Either James did it because he was sick of taking care of her, then, racked with guilt, he self-terminates. Sanitary phrase, that. Or, if you look around and listen to the conversation in the hallway, you discover that his wife asked him to do it. Still morally questionable, but much more understandable.

That’s got to be my favourite part of Silent Hill 2. It doesn’t end by freeing you from your own actions: you still killed your wife. It takes your responsibilities and shoves them in your face to make you deal with them. However, it raises important questions about what those responsibilities are. It deals with difficult issues like euthanasia by presenting them and letting the player decide. Yes, you get to leave Silent Hill after you discover the truth and face it, but the redemption is personal, not moral. You still had to visit this nightmarish town. You still had to face punishment. You still had to accept the mantle of responsibility for taking those actions. After all, you held the pillow. Or, rather, James did.

You are still guilty, but, perhaps, you can still redeem yourself, if you acted well. No one can let you off the hook but yourself. But, you also have to be your own Judge. Self and social responsibility… you know the systems that play with these notions, but rarely are they presented so frankly. The whole thing is complex and tragic. There is no true moral lesson, only interesting questions. Best of all, no one shows up to explain it all to you, because it expects that you can use your own mind. And, look at that, you definitely are. This was one of the first times I remember being treated like this by any form of media, and I truly appreciated it… Like a mother-fucking adult.

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Oh, Pyramid Head… How I am thee. The game is also full of strange WTF moments. Like the inexplicable game show in the elevator where you answer trivia questions about the town. I’m not at all ashamed to admit I knew them all by heart. There are the interesting cross-over clues you find that refer to murders or murderers in the town that tie-in to Silent Hill 4. Then, there’s the whole resurrecting your wife ending where you uncover pieces of the town’s ancient mythos and become proficient enough in ancient ceremonies to banish the demon from her body and resurrect her from the dead. Of course, you can only do that on the second play-through, once you have the chainsaw and have experienced the full force of the actual story, because that really only makes sense. The second play-through is your own revisionist history, how meta. It would sort of take away from it if you could just pop her back to life afterwards.

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Oh, did you know that if you  hold the chainsaw long enough, James’ idling animation is a scream? No? Well, feel free to test it out. My favourite ending has to be the alien one, though. Alien endings were kind of a staple in Silent Hill, which shows you that the series takes itself exactly as seriously as it needs to. Like Castle, when you’re frank about yourself, you don’t have to worry about being a little silly. Or weird.

Speaking of weird… Sticking your hand in the wall with the weird Ba-dooung sounds still sort of freaks me out, especially when the controller vibrates. See? that’s how you do jump-scares. You build up to them and then pay them off. Give me something to dread… like sticking my hand into a wall-hole for no good reason. But James is no stranger to sticking his hand in weird places. Remember in Silent Hill 3 when Heather refuses to root around in a disgusting toilet?

That’s because James did it in this game. You pull a disgusting chunk of something out of a crap-filled toilet and, surprisingly, it’s not just a big piece of poo. It’s a wallet with a safe combination in it. Which you use to get a cache of ammo someone was clearly saving up just in case something like all of this bullshit actually happened. Too bad they died on the toilet without getting a chance to utilize it.

Then there’s sticking his hand through the metal grate in an attempt to reach a key on the other side… only to have his hand stomped on by a little girl he’s trying to help. She actually marks the first time I’ve hated a character, especially a small child, in anything, but then, subsequently, came to understand, even empathize with, them. I’m sure there were plenty of opportunities to really think about empathizing in other media, but Silent Hill 2 got me invested in the world and characters by giving me something to think about while not being too obvious.

That sums it all up, really. Silent Hill 2 was engaging because every part of it was morally ambiguous and mentally challenging. To this day, there’s one thing that still bothers me…

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WTF!?

Thanks for reading through 100 posts! Some of the other bloggers in the sphere have a List-mas thing planned that I’ll be participating in, but, other than that, we’re back in black. Or, I guess, on the blog it’s grey on black sprinkled with orange, but now I’m just being pedantic. See you on the other side! … of 100!