Archive for horror

Uzumaki in its Medium: Mandelbrots and Death

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by trivialpunk

Welcome back! A little this and that before we get started. I did a rewrite of my oldest story for a creative writing class, and you can find that here. This week saw the introduction of two new Letsplayers to the Valid and Sound stable: DeathSarge and Alice Brady. You can find Deathsarge’s blog here. For Deathsarge’s introductory video, we played The Stanley Parable. Alice Brady’s introductory video was Organ Trail, the zombie-themed remake of Oregon Trail. This week, Alice and I are starting our descent into Alan Wake.

For those of you not familiar with Valid and Sound, it’s the collaborative label for my local group of nutty Letsplayers. We were going to call it Valid OR Sound, but we figured that, with enough of us in the room, we could cover both bases. Now, for the reason we’re all here: this week’s discussion of horror. Just before Halloween, I polled my Facebook friends for their favourite horror antagonist in any medium and the overwhelming response was The Spiral from Uzumaki. So, today, we’re going to discuss how Uzumaki’s medium enables its particular exploration of horror, as well as some of its more psychological aspects.

Uzumaki___Spiral_by_Tailed_Fox

There are a lot of complaints when a story changes mediums. Often, we blame the directors for ruining our book in the process of making a film. If you ask anyone that likes anime and manga, they’ve probably got a favourite expression of any franchise. Don’t word it like that, though, ask them: Do you prefer the manga or the anime? Almost unfailingly, they will have a preference. This isn’t always because one is of greater or lesser quality. Often, this is because the story was made for its original medium. Have you ever tried to sketch an oil painting or fry a cake? What you get out of it might be good, but it will also be fundamentally different.

This problem is exacerbated when we’re discussing horror, because horror is an experientially fickle genre. Translating a story from one medium to another takes a greater deal of skill and an understanding of the essential elements of the story. Look at Ender’s Game. I loved the book; it was one of the first novels that I read as a child. The movie, however, left me cold. It was a box-checking exercise. It covered all of the events of the book, but felt stunted and emotionally detached (I actually laughed at the inciting incident of the token conflict with Bernard). That’s not really fully the fault of the directors. They actually did some pretty clever things. How could they have done it better? Well, for starters, they’d have to strip down the story to its fundamental elements and focus on those. On the characters, the plot and the message.

However, again, that would produce a movie that would be fundamentally different from the book but that would still carry the same weight of experience. Lord of the Rings is a great example of this. Yes, they got three movies to work with, but they were also telling three books worth of story. A lot of stuff was chopped out to ensure that the movie’s world felt Gestalt. And it worked. It worked because the directors understood how to translate from one medium to another. Translation relies on two things: 1: The fan-base being open to changes (That’s where we can assist in the production process). 2: Having an understanding of why something works in a particular medium and how it could work within another.

That brings us back to Uzumaki. The story of The Spiral is an interesting one. Essentially, this town has been cursed by The Spiral. What is the spiral? Well, it’s a shape, but it’s not a self-contained one. It suggests the infinite within the framework of a circle. It spirals endlessly outwards and unceasingly inward. Well, at least, that’s what it looks like. In reality, it’s a self-contained shape, but it’s also visual short-hand for something that’s mesmerizing. It’s a drill. It’s a slump into depression. It’s the physical decline of old age. It’s the cyclical nature of history and human experience: roving in circles that are never quite the same. It’s a literal example of not being able to make ends meet. It’s a plume of smoke. It’s draining water. It’s hurricanes. It’s everywhere. It’s a physical manifestation of the rules of nature. It’s Mandelbrots and death

That’s what makes the spiral such a perfect antagonist. The Spiral appears to have a Will of its own, but it’s absolutely inscrutable. There’s no way to know the motivations of a force of nature that’s so enigmatically ubiquitous. Our lives are spirals. We are made, in part, by spirals. Yet, it’s sort of an odd shape, so it’s salient when we find it.

These things make The Spiral perfect as an antagonist. It’s both innocuous and vaguely disconcerting, but also fascinating and self-referential. This is the slow-building, existential horror that Japan traditionally does so well. Think Silent Hill or The Ring. As a person trapped within the Universes where they hold sway, there’s nothing you can really do to understand them, no matter how hard you thrash. Even James Sunderland’s revelations at the end of Silent Hill 2 do little to explain why it was all happening in the first place. There are hints and pieces of lore, but truly understanding the motivations of the town is beyond his ken.

That’s a lot like Uzumaki. What the hell does the spiral want? What’s its end-goal? Does it even Want? And if it’s unstoppable and insatiable, by virtue of having no actual goal, then we’re caught in a violent maelstrom of unreconcilable impossibility. Two of our greatest human strengths are pattern recognition and curiosity. Both are part of the search for meaning and The Spiral skewers us with them, because we find it fascinating. We can go mad trying to discern the patterned motivations of the spiral and fall to it through our unfailing motivation to understand it. In that way, it’s extremely Cthulhian. It turns our minds against us and hollows us out with the domineering surety of a drill. Ceaselessly and without motivation, it chips away at who we are.

Most disturbingly, it is us. The seeds of our doom are sewn in the very tools we would use to resist it. That’s what makes The Spiral so awesomely disquieting, but the method of presentation is important, too. Why does Uzumaki fare better as a manga than it would as a book, if Lovecraft exploited a similar vein of fear in literary form? Well, in part, it’s because the fear is visual. The manga includes some pretty disturbing images, like this one:

uzumaki-1136762

Believe me when I say, this is pretty normal by the standards of Uzumaki. Yet, it’s not entirely the visual. Part of it is our attempts to understand the mind –the experiences– of the character. Third-person and first-person books often include a semi-omniscient narrator to allow us to look into the minds of  the characters within it. Uzumaki does something similar, because it shows us the characters. Whether you realize it fully or not, you’ve spent your entire life trying to figure out what people are thinking and feeling based on their postures and facial expressions. The manga format lets us do this, but it also plonks its characters into completely alien circumstances. What… how does the person in the picture feel? Sliding along the floor, dragging against the rough linoleum, eyes askew, depth-perception shattered. His skin isn’t his own, and his back has become a horrible burden. A burden of The Spiral.

We can, in a way, look into the mind of this young… man, but we can’t quite figure out everything about him. In fact, we’re disturbed and repelled by the idea that we might. Even, that we might try. This is the uncanny valley of psychological interpretation. Close enough to us, close enough to our edge of madness, to be enticing, but still so Eldritch that it’s beyond our comprehension. It’s unsettling how much that notion suffuses our experience of the story.

In the early stories of the series, we see more clearly the effects of the fascination induced by The Spiral, but the same uncanny valley rules apply. We can see the madness in their eyes, but we can’t experience it. We have to take it as rote that it’s there, whereas we might question it in a literary piece or a movie, when it would hinge on actor portrayals. Unless we can experience the force of the mental spiral downward into insanity through the medium, it will always seem stilted. Uzumaki’s visual element bypasses that by letting us see it in freeze-frames. We can see it happening, but we’re locked out of fully understanding its nuances. It’s the edge of the uncanny valley of understanding that we find disturbing.  This is why “Eldritch light” is always more effective than “vaguely fuzzy lights of unknown origin.” It’s fully understandable, but partially incomprehensible.

Yet, the story counts on the fact that we’ll try. Some of the story’s more visceral contortions are made doubly effective by the imagination of the reader trying to understand the feelings of the character. You’ll see what I mean as you read, but, for a more general interpretation, you know how you cringe when you see someone hit their head? That’s because you know what that feels like, and part of you has understood what that feels like. You’re fed the sensation theoretically, and, if your mirror neurons are firing properly, part of you felt the necessary movements to produce the effect. We’ve all been trapped in tight spaces before, so you’ll understand the effects of The Spiral just enough for it to disturb you.

There’s more, though. One of the most important elements of contemporary horror is timing. I’m sure you’ve noticed the flaring violin strings and building musical jump-scares that go into most horror movies now. For the veterans among us, this sort of thing can be annoying, because it basically warns us when something’s going to jump out. It’s a bit sigh-worthy, but the crescendo of the strings, the height of the musically inspired tension, is juuuust before the horror-trope is executed, and then it is held. It’s just before the stabbing. Just before the cat flies across the screen (So many fake-out scares are cat-related!!). In a way, the music is telling you when it’s time to tense up and think about what might happen. Manga doesn’t need that, though. Uzumaki requires your volition.

Turning the page of a book is an active process. In fact, reading a manga, at all, is an active process. You have to construct the scenes that occur between each panel yourself. You have to think about what’s happening in each panel, take it in and animate it. That plays right into Uzumaki’s hands. It uses detailed, highly unusual, somewhat disturbing images to provoke our imagination. This is the thing that helps to guarantee what I was talking about earlier. Because the onus is on you to animate the scene, you have to work that little bit harder to understand the motivations and situations of the characters. Often, that simply doesn’t happen when we’re being spoon-fed something on a screen.

In a way, comics are a nice compromise between mental animation and gratuitous information, with a well-defined mental distance between character and reader. It’s this specific type of engagement that makes Uzumaki so effective in manga form, surprisingly off-putting two-page spreads included. Besides all that, if it was on television, the camera would control what your eye looked at. It would trace the lines of The Spiral, and, personally, I think that would look a bit hokey. It would break the forth wall, because I would know that the director really wants me to get into the spiral mind-set. As a book, it would describe The Spiral, but it wouldn’t have the same impact of having to absorb it and its effects visually, mentally, the same way the manga does. Uzumaki, as a manga, asks me to sit and really appreciate The Spiral. I’ve caught myself, time and again, following its flowing, orderly lines to the edge of the page and into the void of ethereal madness beyond.

Why We Secretly Live in a Horrifying Dystopia

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , on November 4, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello! So, the week of Halloween saw the release of another video and two new stories by yours truly: the longer Unfinished and the shorter While You Weren’t Looking. This week, in honor of my favourite holiday, and because I was sick through the whole damn thing, I thought I’d bring you, personally, a little of the horror that haunts my nightmares. The truth is that movie-monsters aren’t as frightening as they once were. I’ve simply watched too many movies. Right now, true horror lies in interactive experiences and real-life, which is, in a way, an interactive experience, except it’s unbalanced as butts. I mean, if we’re going to be doing open-world PVP, shouldn’t we balance the zones a bit better? Whatever. I’m sure there’ll be a balance patch any day now.

For me, horror lies in the little truths of life. The things we take for granted and try to forget always apply. Things like: We’re all going to die someday. I’m a bag of flesh-bones. My consciousness is a complicated illusion. I will never again feel as invincible as I did when I was a child. Every moment of my existence is part of the process of degradation that will eventually rob me of mind, mobility and metabolism. BUT, most terrifying of all: I live in a terrifying Dystopic Nightmare.

Oh, you don’t agree? Well, here, I’ll show you Why We Secretly Live in a Horrifying Dystopia. First, it helps to know that we’re all on the same page. A Utopia is a perfect civilization living through benevolence and love. Its attributes include: unending sustainability, a perfect balance of humanity and necessity and a loving, accepting society of equitable opportunity. A Dystopia, on the other hand, is a perversion of the idea. Yes, it’s perfect, but it’s not always benign. The advanced technologies and organizations that might have been used to create a Utopia are instead used to indulge vice and greed. Maybe you get to live a perfect life, but it’s only for 25 years (Logan’s Run). Maybe everything seems perfect, but that’s only because of the powerful hallucinogenic drugs you’re constantly being slipped (Futurological Congress). Maaaaybe it’s all actually amazing, but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi of personal agency (Brave New World).

Whatever the reasons for a Dystopia, it’s here, it’s bleakly soul-crushing, get used to it. The path to the realization of our personal Dystopia lies in the city. I know people romanticize country living all the time, and I’m right there with you: it’s silly. Living off the land included brutal winters, sweltering summers and the very real threat of starvation or sickness.  Naturally, we must be doing much better than our forebears did on farms, right? In some ways, perhaps we are, but in others…I’m going to be talking about my city in particular, but I’m sure you’ll be able to extrapolate.

First, I rarely interact with nature at all. When I go down town, or to the University, I’m walking on solid pavement or cement 90% of the time. The streets form, basically, a huge concrete island. Just think, for a second, how often you interact with any portion of nature for any amount of time. I’m not saying that we should throw off our clothes and flounce into the wilderness… actually, that’s kind of what we do on vacation. We’re so eager to feel anything natural– to interact with the Earth at all– that we’ll sacrifice time, money and dignity for a brief respite from the solid concrete borders we’ve erected.

Actually, I shouldn’t say solid, because the really creepy part of the city is how honeycombed with shops, rail-lines and maintenance entrances it is. If you stop for a second and look at an office, if you squint reeeeal hard, you can see it as an ant-farm. Glass windows open up onto hundreds of individual workers that scurry about important, personal tasks, running between cubbies and dens. Buildings themselves are like the artificial dens we constructed, because we’re too ashamed to dig in the dirt. Sometimes, when I stop and look, the entire landscape seems like an alien hive, honeycombed with chambers and passages. The hive is alive with us, but each building, each sign, is constructed with the sole purpose of directing our movements. They’re pheromone trails made manifest in print.

That’s not to say that each individual doesn’t direct his or her day-to-day movements, but if you step back, it’s eerie. Also, why would we dig in the dirt to build warrens when houses go up so easily now? No reason, it just sounded dramatic. But, that’s all just the surface layer of perturbing. Yeah, yeah, people live in a city like it’s a hive. We all knew that. To really get a Dystopia going, we need to denigrate the very foundation of our shared humanity: the value of human life. Did you know that there is an actual dollar amount associated with your life? What that value is varies depending on who you’re asking and what condition you’re in.

In America, before Obamacare, if you had a pre-existing condition and didn’t qualify for medicare, then you couldn’t get an affordable rate from an insurance company. In fact, you’d be lucky to get any rate at all. Yet, when reforms were put in place to make it so that anyone could have access to medical insurance, huge waves of people fought back against the idea. Obviously, it wasn’t the majority of people, but some did. Why was that? Well, many reasons, ranging from the ideological to the financial, but, at the end of the day, the real take-away is that human lives aren’t as valuable as money to a lot of people. Usually, it’s those people in control of a lot of people. Like insurance companies (man, they come up a lot), they’ve got to make some pretty tough decisions about what is acceptable in terms of realistic possibility. If they know that the cost of paying off accident victims is lower than the cost of doing a recall, then they won’t alert anyone. It’s a fairly well-known story, but it illustrates my point beautifully.

Of course, money can do many things. Things like feed the poor and educate the people (IF, you know, that’s what it’s used for). Money can build empires and destroy countries. So, it’s easy to see why it might get a privileged spot, if one sum can kill a million and another can save a thousand. Yet, it’s not just the money thing I find perturbing. It’s the commercialization of every aspect of our lives. I mean, as a blogger and part-time YouTuber, I accepted that notion a long time ago. It comes with the territory. But, the social media tools we use everyday– Have to use everyday –are just as invasive. The people who say you can just go without aren’t really considering the implications of not using social media. I got my last three jobs with Facebook posts and my current dorm through a Tweet. At the same time, though, we are being surveyed. And, I don’t just mean with surveys.

Did you hear about the kid who was arrested, thrown in prison and beaten to concussion because of a League of Legends chat post? How about the people that were fired because their Facebook profiles had pictures of them using elicit substances? What about the woman whose on-line soft-core-porn life totalled her teaching career? Yeah, we laugh at them and say they’re stupid, but are they really? If this was anything but our way of life, we’d be thoroughly disgusted by the surveillance and the level of penetration that the internet has into our lives. Between phones keeping track of your location when you post and sophisticated deep-web-trawling technology that can produce and organize a vivid portfolio about you and your buying habits with no prior tracking required, using the internet basically means you’re being watched. Maybe not actively, but this information doesn’t just disappear most of the time. Hell, our search histories alone would be worth their weight in gold to a marketing firm. Our Facebook Likes. Our Tweets. Whatever.

A lot of interaction happens on-line now. In fact, a large portion of our life is lived through social media. It’s a poignant expression of who we are. I’m sure you can see people’s personalities emerging through their profile usage. I know you and I have, at one time or another, posted something just a little too personal in a passive-aggressive Facebook rebuttal or a lonely-night hate-fest. It happens. It’s part of being human. Normally, that would be acceptable, but it’s not, because Facebook removes context. On-line, we’re rarely afforded the emotional states or extenuating circumstances that are the Hallmarks of understanding in personal interactions. That’s the other creepy thing: how well do you know the people you’re spilling your life to?

Personal privacy and the like are all on one hand. On the other hand, how often are we that personal… in person? If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a small cabal of close friends and a larger extended social network. Thinking back, it’s hard to remember spending the time to make the memories I have with them. A lot of the lives I’ve had brush up against mine have been experienced through pictures, videos and posts. My Facebook account does way more socializing and keeping up than I do. If it ever went rogue, it could ruin my life. Honestly. Also, you know, because A.I. My point is that we let machines handle a lot of our personal interactions. Even videos seem, to me, at times, terrified cries from lonely people locked within 1920×1080 collapsible screens.

One of our greatest advancements in medicine and general well-being was antibiotics. Unfooortunately, we really went to town with the stuff. Now, many of the most common diseases are producing antibiotic-resistant strains. Most often in Hospitals. I know, the place you go to get better. Worse than that, though, is that the antibacterial soap we’re washing into our streams in massive quantities is creating strains of similarly resistant bacteria in the wild. Whoops. Fear not, though, because bacteria is not the greatest health risk we have (Yet), Obesity is.

We’re a race of beings that is so successful that we can literally experiment with the fundamental elements of existence and life. We can shape our surroundings to a fine edge. In fact, that’s the only reason we can feed and support the population we have. So, what do we use this incredible power for? Letting our rich countries eat waaaay too much. Of course, over-consumption isn’t the only source of obesity. Inactivity plays a big role. Aaaand, what technology keeps us tapping keys to type in: “plz, can I haz reason not to move for 4 hours?”

Okay, let’s break it down a little faster now. Racial inequality. Sexual inequality. Class inequality. The mad pursuit of profit. People reduced to viewing figures. Rampant unemployment. Access to enough weaponry to destroy all life on Earth. Insane Dictators ruling through fear and power. The constant impingement of technology into every aspect of daily life. A complete lack of silence in most major metropolitan areas. Extreme levels of pollution. Artificially-induced climate changes that could be irreversible with our current level of technology…

Let’s recap: We’ve used our technological might to enslave people through force of arms and subtle, head-throbbing indoctrination. We’re so out of touch with the natural environment that it seems normal to rarely touch the Earth and to communicate the most important moments of our lives through digital renderings on social media sites. Our medical technologies have been over-used to the point of redundancy, and we don’t use them to treat anywhere near the number of people that need it. Homeless people are nearly forgotten, despite their singular humanity, because they don’t have… well, money. Our abuse of fossil-fuel-tech has created spiraling climate changes that could wipe out humanity, and we’re still fighting about whether or not it’s happening. We’ve destroyed our atmosphere. We’re never unimpeded, but we’re usually alone. Our most powerful, earth-shattering weapons are in the hands of the only people who would care to use them. We could end our global food shortage, but beef just tastes amazing.

It loooooks bleak. Well, it LOOKS bleak. I’m not sure it’s actually as bad as it looks, because I’ve got faith in people. Yeah, we can be stupid at times, but we never did wipe out all life on Earth during the Cold War. That’s something. A Dystopia is the nightmarish warping of something perfect. But, that’s just life. Nothing is ever actually perfect. It’s always just to the right of perfect. And, I think that’s fine, because we change with the world. Sure, we may live in a 1984-esque Dystopic digital Penopticon, but that was 1949’s definition of a Dystopia. We live under very different circumstances. Thus, the things we think are insane are a little different. I mean, when I was a human worm-spawn, the idea of an iPad would have blown my Trekkie mind. Yet, today, I’m using one to play videos while I write.

Tablets are just another fact of life, now. It’s easy to sit back and accept the way things are, because that’s usually a pretty sound strategy. However, every now and again, it’s worthwhile to compare our world with unchanging literary exemplars. It gives us perspective on just what our world means in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes, it can make our world look a hell of a lot more terrifying than it actually is. Other times, it shows us exactly how horrifying our lives really are. Either way, sometimes, it’s refreshing to take a step back and make an ant-hill out of an office building. Enjoy your Dystopic ramblings.

Addendum#SaveTheDay

Halloween Steam Sale Buyer’s Guide 2013

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

It’s that frightening time of year: the time when another Steam sale is out for your blood-money. But what to buy to tickle your scaredy-pants, you might wonder. Well, wonder no longer! As someone who feels it’s his sacred duty to support horror-themed games, I can help you save your money and escape the Steam Money Massacre ali… still affluent.

First, some general advice. You might think it’s a good idea to pick up some of those 5 dollars games now that they’re a buck-fifty, but really think about that for a second. You aren’t playing all the games you buy on Steam as it is. If you really wanted to play that game, you’d have bought it at its 5 dollar price-point. The fact that it is now a dollar-fifty doesn’t make the game any better. It may make you feel better about buying it, but it won’t increase the quality of the time you spend playing it.

Don’t forget to check out the reviews for a game. Even games that sound like really neat ideas can fail in their execution. Also, Halloween-themed games seem like a great idea, but if you want something to scare you in honour of the holiday, then don’t sink your money into a re-skinned version of Diner Dash. Animated pumpkins don’t alter game-play. Unless they do, then umm…

Slender is a massively popular game on-line, so Slender: The Arrival seems like a natural buy, right? Well, hold on. Play the original game, because it’s free. Then, decide if you want to play a better-looking, but not significantly different, version of the game that’s going to cost you money.

Costume Quest is a cute, not at all frightening, game from Double Fine studios. If you like quirky mechanics and a fun aesthetic that weeps personable charm, then pick it up.

Condemned: Criminal Origins is a surprisingly good, fairly graphic, first-person crime-solving brawl-em-up. Enter at your own risk.

The Walking Dead is well-known for its zombification of the Adventure game genre, and we all know that making something a zombie makes it like 30% cooler.

Anna is bad. It literally gave me a headache while I played it. It’s messed up in almost every way possible, though, so if that’s what you’re looking for, then it’s your five bucks.

Dead Pixels: Cool concept let down by unbalanced mechanics.

Penumbra is the series that pre-dated the Amnesia series. It’s by the same developer. It’s scary. It includes physics puzzles.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent: If you haven’t gotten this game, and you’re a fan of the horror genre, then I’d really consider getting it. It takes advantage of the years of experience that the studio had making the Penumbra games.

Lone Survivor: Side-scrollent Hill

Eldritch: Eldritch actually means strange. And this blocky Cthuloid adventure is certainly that.

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened: A Sherlock mystery-adventure game about Cthulhuian cults. They literally made this game for me.

Limbo: for those who like platformers and are terrified of giant shadow-spiders.

DMC Devil May Cry: Not at all terrifying. A LOT of fun to smash away at.

Dead Space: It’s still a lot of fun. However, if you don’t feel like buying it, you could always play Resident Evil 4 while watching Event Horizon.

The Wolf Among Us is a cautionary tale about why you should wait for more episodes to come out before buying into an episodic adventure game. It will draw you in. Prepare to howl with frustration at the fact that you have to wait for the next installment.

Damned: Organic, multi-player survival-horror. Why are you still reading this and not playing that?

Resident Evil 6: Playable but ridiculous.

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City: Just buy a CoD game.

Painkiller Series: If you loved Quake and Doom, then you’ll enjoy this.

Outlast: a technical masterpiece let down by an incredibly linear story that relies on repetitive game-play. Worth getting if you just want your horror spoon-fed to you by a nanny that only occasionally pries off your finger-nails with a coat-hook.

Alan Wake: A third-person shooter about the super-powers of writers. I love it, for some reason. The narration and story-line alone are worth getting it for, as well as the interesting little philosophical side-notes. Besides being quite beautiful, it’s also very engaging. A tad repetitive on the shooty-front, and you’ll see all the dark, spooky forests, but if you find yourself watching each and every television in the game, you’ll know it was worth it.

Paranormal: An interesting little haunting simulator. Not exactly terrifying or graphic, but if you can sink into it, there’s a break-neck descent into a personal hell just waiting for you to click Purchase.

The Typing of the Dead: Overkill: A game for those who need to improve their secretarial skills, but also laugh at exploding zombie-guts. Honestly, surprisingly, worth playing.

Sniper Elite Nazi Zombie Army: All the head-shots ever.

Deadly Premonition: A port of a cult-classic. Not exactly cutting-edge, but worth your time to consider.

Dark: Vampires the X-men and contextual button-pressing about sums it up.

F.E.A.R. Series: a bullet-time FPS that only occasionally flips out and injects acid directly into your character’s brain.

The Swapper: Surprisingly atmospheric puzzler.

S.P.A.Z.: Fun time-killer, but kills your time for no adequate reason.

Silent Hill: Homecoming: an American developer’s first attempt at a boxed-console Silent Hill game. Not bad, actually.

Deadrising 2: Kill all the zombies in all the ways.

BioShock: Get if it if you don’t have it. Played it? Good.

Home: a short, fun little adventure story about doing horrible things.

Resident Evil 5: Just… okay, you get to punch boulders into a volcano. But, the AI partner sucks. Don’t play solo.

Prototype Series: If you don’t have Saints Row 4 and you want to play as a super-hero, then this is the one for you.

Aliens: Colonial Marines: Don’t.

Okay, that’s an awful lot to take in, and we’ve only gouged the surface. Still, it should give you something to think about while you stare at your dwindling bank-balance.

Addendum: I was watching today’s Extra Credits video and they recommended I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. It’s a dark, grim, mature look at humanity and questions of our right to exist. I haven’t played it personally, but I bought it immediately on their recommendation, because I trust their judgement. Warning: It’s supposed to be very weird. Thankfully, it’s also super cheap.

Horrors in Their Mediums

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2013 by trivialpunk

Horror is not a plot-line, an aesthetic or a monster. Horror is an experience. In much the same way that a game is not an event displayed on a screen, but rather an experience had by a player, horror is a perceptual trajectory. You start out feeling, seeing and thinking one way and you end up in an entirely different mental location. Once, I had a discussion with a writing professor about a story I was working on. He said he didn’t appreciate being tricked into thinking or feeling a certain way by the format of the story. Really?

We don’t read fiction because we want the truth. We read it because we want to experience A truth. The best way to read a book or watch a magic show is with the understanding that you want to be fooled. If the production is good enough, you’ll forgive the minor annoyances and obvious realities in favour of the grand design. We know magicians aren’t psychics. We know writers can’t control what we feel. At least, we know that as long as we don’t allow them to. Much like hypnotism, the trick is in convincing someone that, yes, they want to –and can– go along with things. It places a lot of trust in the hands of the entertainer (magicians, writers, hypnotists), but that’s part of our covenant as audience and performer.

Last post, I rambled on about the creation of an environment for eliciting fear responses from players in role-playing games. One of the pre-requisites of that was knowing what kind of horror you were producing. I didn’t elaborate too much on that particular topic, because it’s almost as complex as a person is. The fears that plague our nightmares are grotesque manifestations of our hopes and dreams. They are us, taken to an unbearable extreme. Pain plays a harsh solo on our most delicate, life-preserving senses. Claustrophobia is the comfort of enclosure taken to an extreme we are extremely uncomfortable with; it crushes our personal space with its invasion. Psychopaths are the delightfully unpredictable nature of humanity twisted towards an unpleasant end… for someone.

Well, that’s one way to look at fear, anyways. It’s by no means the only way, and it’s not even technically correct, but it will give you a window into someone’s experience of fear. For us, for today, that’s good enough, because, today, we’re going to look into horror within its medium. No curtain held, let’s start with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

caligari

This is an old one, and we’re going back this far for good reason. Over the course of your lifetime, television and movies have changed drastically. However, as you are part of that stream of televised evolution, you might not be wholly aware of how the small differences in production, society and design have changed the opportunities available to directors. Most of them are subtle changes, but two obvious ones that have occurred recently are high-definition and passable CG. You don’t have to look very far back to see some pretty terrible CG monsters, and I’m sure we can guess how that would ruin a good horror movie. However, high-def is an even fouler culprit. Now, we can see way too much of the shiny, bloody bastards, so they’re not as frightening. I’m sure you’re familiar with the notion that exposing the monster too much ruins its mystique and takes away from the element of fear (You know, unless the monster is cleverly designed to be seen, but we’ll get to that…). Not only do we see each and every imperfection on a monster’s body, but with high-def came 60 frames-per-second movies. 1080p, 60 fps movies –initially– look unusual to us, because for most of our lives, we watch the 30 fps movie standard. Ironically, things just move too realistically, too fluidly, in 1080p; they look fake, because we’re used to seeing things a different way. You can see how tweaks to the presenting medium can change an experience drastically. So then, why Caligari? Because, it was made before the introduction of colour.

Look at the walls in the scene, the way the lines on them flow towards a single corner. Notice how they twist your perception of the frame slightly. The entire movie is like this, giving everything a subtly-overtly off feeling. Without the need for canted-cameras, we get a sense of the obtuse. Even the make-up is stark, deliberately so. Shadows are deeper, eyes more sunken, wrinkles far sharper. These are techniques used to get around the limitations of the day, yes, but they are also marked advantages.  The set, colours and tone allow the movie to be what it is. If you tried to paint a set in a similar fashion today, in high-def with colour, it would look like the bathroom at a rave.

Even the silent movie aspect allows for a sense of pacing and emotional reaction that would be impossible now. You don’t have to fill your voice with the quaver of convincing fear; you just have to look terrified. The fewer aspects you have to worry about aligning, the less likely you are to run into a detail that pulls the audience out of the experience. Also, not having to compete with dialogue allows the sound-track to do its thing at whatever levels are required by the emotional content of the current scene. I’m not saying that these things don’t also present their own difficulties, I’m just saying that this particular movie would not be experienced or created the same in today’s popular mediums. Thus, we’ll never again experience the sheer contortion that suffuses The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in exactly the same way. (Incidentally, you can still find this film. I’d recommend giving it a watch!) But, let’s step even further back…

lovecraft

To the era of Lovecraft. No, not the 60’s, I mean the author, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft and Stephen King are big names in horror literature, but, as you’ll notice, they each have very different styles. That’s influenced by many different things: personal style, type of horror, experience, society… yeah, almost everything plays into an author’s work, but some things that are easy to parse out are the places and things they describe and how they describe them. Stephen King, often, discusses very banal things. He works to reveal the insane with the mundane through the use of frightening events within familiar locales. Not only that, he’s often quite explicit. This is because the world King is writing for, our world, is bathed in the garish light of revelation. Now, the best way to frighten someone is to show them how terrifying that world can be. Lovecraft, on the other hand, was writing for a very different world.

Lovecraft’s horror is slow-building and ominous. His descriptions of strange, alien places, in themselves, make his work off-putting, in a fashion similar to the way The cabinet of Dr. Caligari used its backgrounds. I was actually discussing this with a colleague the other day. Aside from mentioning that the directorial style of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was perfect for a Lovecraft movie, she also mentioned something I found singularly enlightening. One of the passages in Lovecraft’s work describes an extremely exotic locale, full of fantastic sights and peculiar peoples. When she read it, she said she stopped for a second and said, “Wait, Lovecraft, that’s just Hawaii. I can hop on a plane and go there right now.” And while I envy the notion of freely travelling, I agree that the world of Lovecraft was still full of incredibly foreign notions.

At the time, English society was still enthralled with the mystic Orientals, the exotic Amazonians and the mysterious Egyptians. Of course, today, we can zoom around these locales on Google Maps, and I attend classes with people from each of these locations. The mysticism has faded from the world’s far reaches in our post-modern age. The strangest, most alien place that impinges on our everyday existence is space. The threats to our well-being are quite well-known, though, so the best way to scare someone now is to simply show them their home in a way they’ve never seen it. And, that could be why Lovecraft is still horrendously, awesomely readable.

Aside from being very well written, Lovecraft shows us our world through the eyes of a profoundly different society. It makes the world itself alien. I once wrote a work that ended up being similar in tone and style to one of Lovecraft’s works. It was criticised for the style of its language because it didn’t feel right next to contemporary references. Yet, it’s that very alien nature that makes the story readable. This comes back, in part, to what I was saying earlier about allowing yourself to experience something. As a contemporary author, people are pulled out of an experience I create with any linguistic style other than my own, but we are ready to accept Lovecraft’s tone because of his time, so we do. This alien acceptance and separation from our own society only magnifies the content of his work: the Eldritch and the Otherworldly. Things that are so absolutely beyond the scope of human experience that experiencing them rends our minds, or, failing that, are so far outside of our grasp that we can’t even perceive them properly. They’re indescribable. Strange, otherworldly geometries. Experience-induced madness. These are roads well-travelled by Lovecraft. This content resonates with the style of his work, amplifying its effect, regardless of the era you’re reading in. Hmm… but, let’s jump from one literary generation to…

Dawww

The wide-world of creepypastas! (If you like the picture, check out the watermark, it’s only fair). Creepypastas are horror stories for the age of the attention derelict. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I love creepypastas; they’re a great way to fit a horror experience into a short span of time. This might sound like a challenge (and it can be), but, again, it’s also an advantage waiting to be exploited. Remember how I said that seeing the monster often reduces its fear-effect? Well, that can apply to many fear-experiences. It’s like porn, most of the time, once you’ve seen the money-shot, the rest is just clean-up. Creepypastas are great for this in that they are almost all pay-off. They’ve got a short establishing section, then it’s right into the horror. Doing this properly can be a real challenge. I know, I’ve tried writing my share, and it’s difficult work.

Each and every section of a creepypasta is incredibly dense. Characterization, motives and monsters are squeezed down into an essential presentation. Yet, since it’s being read by someone ready to accept the world the story quickly presents, these essential elements don’t seem hastily executed on. They’re not being rushed; that’s the format. Even more advantageous, the quick-and-dirty characterization leaves lots of holes for people to fill with their own gooey ego-brains, making it much easier for readers to project themselves into the story. Convincing people to buy into a story, to think about it, and to search for meaning within it, is half the battle when crafting an experience. People reading short-form stories already know that they’re going to have to do just that, which is a huge bonus for any author. Enough foreplay, let’s skip over to games.

fatal-frame-1-screenshot-ghost-battle-capture-circle-ps2-xbox

Aha! You thought I was going to talk about the graphical limitations of the Playstation 2 as it applied to Silent Hill 2! Well, no, I’m not going to mention that the feeling of the oppressive nightmare world was enhanced by the fog that was implemented, in part, in order to deal with the limited draw distance of that generation. Not this time! (DAMMIT! >.<) Silent Hill 2 basically has its own section in this blog. Actually, I might eventually give it its own section, but, until then, we’re going to talk briefly about Fatal Frame, the FPS game about a small, ghost-busting Japanese girl. And, by first-person-shooting, I mean with cameras. Capturing the soul and all that. Sort of. The gist of its inclusion here is that Fatal Frame’s graphical limitations, and the graphical state of the industry in general during the PS2 era, allowed for vague, half-seen shapes and half-loaded polygons to flit, uncriticised, across the screen.

What do I mean by allow? Well, we could certainly create games that looked like PS2-era games, but they wouldn’t be received in nearly the same way. If horror is an experience, then it’s readily affected by expectation. You’ve seen that theme running through this entire post. Like the greater frames-per-second of high-definition, we’re influenced by what we’re used to seeing. What we’re used to seeing becomes what we expect to see. We’re pattern-reading beasts, after all. So, while we can still play excellent games like SPC-Containment Breach, Slender and Penumbra, they feel much less immersive than they would have in the year 2000. Still, if you’ve played Outlast, I’m sure you’ll agree that fantastic visuals aren’t all there is to a game, either. Speaking of, I thought we’d round this out with a brief discussion of the high-definition future of digitaining horror.

We may not have the advantage of iffy hardware excusing shadowy figures, but we do have the advantage of visuals that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Look at Outlast. That game looked amazing, and it was only a little bit of writing and some more organic game-play away from being unforgettably awesome (Still good, though). Even so, the graphical fidelity allowed for some pretty chilling visuals (Horror set-pieces, if you will) and a fantastic initial level of immersion. We can now create horror experiences that are eminently visual in nature. Yes, many horror experiences are ruined by the monster-money-shot, but, sticking with the metaphor, what about bukkake? By which of course I mean, what about horror based around the form of the terror? High-definition visuals don’t have to ruin an experience; they can enable it, too. Look at Uzumaki, the horror story about the spiral. Look at… well, just look at spiders. Clowns. (Getting your finger cut off in Outlast). There are plenty of things that scare us because they’re frightening to look at. We just have to find a way to make players see them as horrific in all of their high-definition glory. Also, we have to remember that it’s not ALL about visuals. Hell, you could copy-paste the game-play of Slender or SPC-CB into a game with better visuals and get positive results.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but it takes that simple idea to shift your focus from hiding the monster to displaying it proudly. It’s the same sort of shift that happens when you go from Lovecraft to Stephen King. They’re both clearly writing horror stories, but it would be difficult to derive one from the other. We need to learn from the wisdom of the past, not try to emulate it. I’ve got faith in our devs; they’re up to the task. That’s not idle speculation, either. This era of video games has several other advantages besides high-definition that developers are taking advantage of.

For instance, our physics engines are on another level compared to where they were only a decade ago, and they’re being utilized by games other than Dark Souls to scare our pants off. Paranormal owes its organic haunting experiences, in part, to its physics engine. Thus, paranormal experiences, bloody telekinetic murders and horrific deaths are entirely possible in today’s industry. While it’s still difficult to translate a physics engine into a decent horror story, our current technology can be used to improve the elements of horror that surround the central narrative. Even so, no one ever said that every horror experience had to have a plot. Sometimes, it just has to have a monster.

That’s enough for a multi-player experience and,  relative to history, our multi-player infrastructure is second-to-none. Look at Damned. A game like Damned (on Steam) would never have been able to exist in the pre-broad-band era. Yeah, we had large StarCraft, Quake and Counter-Strike communities, but that’s because… well, that’s most of what we had, besides a few MMOs. We didn’t have gaming platforms designed specifically to bring people to game lobbies. Okay, it’s a little annoying that the next-gen consoles are pushing the open-world, on-line, multi-player aspects of their games so hard, especially for those of us that want a tight, coherent narrative, but that set-up is also enabling some pretty awesome experiences. We just have to design them and find them.

The gaming landscape is changing, so horror experiences have to change with it. That doesn’t mean we abandon the past, though. No, it’s the best source of information on how we can adapt our current understandings of horror to the Eldritch world of next-gen gaming. Some people may say that horror is dead, but they’re just pessimists (When has that stopped a shambling grotesquery before?). Maybe the type of horror we once knew is fading into the shadows, waiting for another day to rend our flesh with its dripping jaws, but horror itself will persist as long as we do. From my perspective, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the terror we can render in 1080p.

Horror Role-Play – Setting the Stage

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Gloam with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Hello and Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving! Now, I know many of my readers are American, so to them, Happy Monday! Or I guess, Happy Day, because who knows when you’re reading this. Maybe it’s night. Day designations are random anyways, but not so random that they don’t mean something. We often look to the genesis of an event to define its meaning, but doing so can make us forget that its current meaning is equally as important, especially considering our tendency to twist meanings with time. We are born without context, so it’s easy to forget that history is just… ridiculously convoluted.

Anyways, here’s this week’s story. It’s sooort of my take on a Thanksgiving tale. I did something a bit different with this week’s video in preparation for another thing I’m swimming around starting. I’m not going to announce it until I’ve got at least three segments finished. Shhh…

As you may know, it’s Halloween month, and so you might be curious about why I’m not doing a big Halloween thing. I mean, horror blog, right? Well, truth be told, I haven’t been strictly horror for a while, but aside from that, every month is Halloween month for me. I write, think and talk about horror almost every day of the year. So, I’m letting other people have a go at it, while I… okay, maybe we’ll do some horror stuff. But, not video games. This week we’re going to talk about roleplaying.

As some of you may remember, I started to write down my horror roleplay system. It’s in the links of this blog, but it’s not really extensive. The reason for this is that I began writing and, as I wrote, I started editing the system. Eventually, it got out of hand and started turning into a video game. And the game became a project. And the project lost its programmers. It happens. I’ve been a part of a few orphaned projects, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. No way. Where was I…? Right!

Today, I thought I’d give you a few of my favourite tips for setting the mood for your horror roleplay. If you haven’t done a horror roleplay session, then I can’t recommend it enough. It’s like telling an interactive horror story that you can change on the fly in response to your players’ moods. It takes some experience to pull off, but that just means it’s better to start practising now than later! What better time than Halloween month? (Don’t worry, most of these can apply to the telling of horror stories, as well)

First, do your planning way ahead of time. It’s important to stay spontaneous in the game, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also do your homework. Figure out what kind of horror experience you’re providing. What exactly is horrific about your setting? Your antagonist/challenge? Your situation? Try to get inside the minds of your players and figure out what you’re asking them to visualize and the responses you’re going to be asking them to make.

Let’s choose a running example: a horror story set in the woods. With something lurking between the trees and in the leaves.

Alright, so we know where we are. What scares people about the woods? This is an important question, because it’ll affect how you should set up your room. You see, when you experience something, it sensitizes you to related ideas. There’s plenty of research on the subject, but I won’t recount it here. What I’ll tell you is that you should be organizing your space such that it reminds your players of the most salient aspects of the environment you’re asking them to imagine. But, not just any salient aspects, focus on the ones that inspire fear.

Back to the woods: Obviously, the best choice would be to actually be in the woods around a camp-fire. The light from the fire will obscure the shadows in the woods. Ambient noises and gaps of absolute silence will do a lot of the work for you. However, if we can’t be in the woods, we can bring the woods inside. Step one: Plants. Just, ’cause, plants. Step two, gather your group together, around you, facing inwards around a light source. This does two things: it focuses your players’ attention on the light source, thus obscuring the shadows behind them. The other thing is that it leaves their backs vulnerable. You can remind them of that ever-so-subtly by dropping words like “back,” “behind” and “stab” into your descriptions. They don’t have to be direct references. You can say things like, “We have to go back!” or “There’ll be no turning back.” Be sure to look over their shoulders occasionally.

You can do this for almost every setting. Dark, claustrophobic tomb or the underground labyrinth of an abandoned hospital? Pick a smaller room with a tall ceiling, sit on the floor and point a light directly at the ceiling, producing the illusion of an overly-claustrophobic environment. One famous example involves a horror story set on Mars. They wore gas-masks for the authentic view-obscuring,, uncomfortable, hot, claustrophobic feel. Dystopian universe full of the gleaming white lights of arbitrary death? Get a bright room, but find a way to splash colour into it. Basically, find a way for your room to visually embody your brand of horror.

However, you’ve got more than just the visual to call on. Your arsenal is packed with every sense and thought your players have at their disposal. Every memory. Every association. Don’t be afraid to utilize them. Horror is something that’s best taken seriously in the planning stages, seriously in the telling and whimsically in the experience. Don’t be afraid to let your players have fun, but make sure you build the tension back up.

Soundscapes are a great way to build tension, because it’s something that people eventually lose track of. It fades to white noise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still having an effect.

Woods: Try to see if you can find a track that has rustling noises on it that are punctuated very occasionally by twig-snaps or bird calls. Constantly play the track at a low volume, but make sure that the sudden sounds are loud enough to be heard in the background. If you can’t find a track, then see if you can find a close approximation. White noise punctuated by the occasional laugh. The wind. A crackling fire. One of those faux-fire videos is actually a pretty great tool here, because the fire snaps and crackles are random intervals, and it’s made to be played for a long time, so you aren’t going to get very much pattern repetition.

If all else fails, you can just pick some creepy music, and keep it at a barely audible level. That way, when the room falls quiet, the sound of creeping music will fill the air, encouraging your players to talk or filling them with the slightest hint of dread. You can also use soundscapes to simulate space. Huge echoes for large halls. Small, staccato ones for enclosed rooms. Slow fades for open spaces.

Smell is a powerful weapon, as well. I’m sure you already know that smell is a powerful memory evoker. Creating an alien smell can throw players off. Something sickly and rotting (like a piece of fruit) hidden in the garbage can be just enough to unnerve your players.

Woods: Pine-fresh candles. Fresh dirt. The smell of watered plants. Smoke from a pack of matches that you’re periodically lighting, like it’s a nervous habit (watch for smoke detectors). You get the idea.

The tactile senses are, in part, related to the embodiment of the room bit, but also consider the posture (vestibular senses) you want your players in. Lying down, sitting up, standing, whatever. Make sure they’re comfortable enough to last out a gaming session, though, or you’ll find that all the preparation in the world won’t protect you from player-fatigue.

Taste is another consideration. Want to really creep your players out? Find a way to link the food they’re eating to a description. The crunch of the leaves, like chips. The rending of meat from the bone, like a chicken wing. You don’t necessarily have to make it that obvious. In fact, it’ll severely damage the effect if you do, but consider something like…

Woods: “You hear the sharp whisper of a quiet crunch *bite chip here* from a copse of pine to your right, the sound of a pine-cone shattering underfoot.” “Its teeth digs into your leg, finding bone and tearing the chewy meat off the bone,” if you’re serving chicken wings. “The gag feels soft and chewy in your mouth.” -Pizza.

A large component of taste is smell, but it’s also tactile experience. If you can find a way to disturb your players through the intimate act of eating, one of the most sensual (literally, affecting the senses) experiences a human can have, then you’re well on your way to getting in their heads.

If you’re a good actor, then try tensing up when you want your players to be tense. They’ll mirror you slightly. You’d be amazed what has an effect. Air temperature. Low vibration. The occasional weird, halting speech cadence. Laughter from somewhere in the distance. The use of proper nouns. Horror is a blend of the subtle and the obnoxious. Tension and carelessness. If you’re careful, your players will never know exactly how much thought you’ve put into the evening, or the experience they’ve walked themselves into.

Remember, you want your players to be a little uncomfortable. You’re trying to create a strange and frightening environment out of a common gathering of friends. However, you don’t want to scar anyone and you don’t want to hurt anyone. Be safe.

Also, remember to use modern technology to your advantage, and don’t forget to account for it in your game. One of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had as a story-teller was sliding my phone over to a player with a text-message on it for them and having them fling it away in shock (phone was okay). It was just a picture of a cloaked figure, but under the right circumstances, the banal is terrifying.

Outlast At Last!

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

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

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

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

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

outlast-02

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlast08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repetition kills engagement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, wait for The Evil Within.

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

End of Summer Pop-Culture Run-down!

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , on September 5, 2013 by trivialpunk

Remember all that time I took off from writing? Well, I wasn’t idle during that time, but I wasn’t exactly working on projects. You see, I had just gotten Sherlock (my PC) back and started back in on my projects when I realized that this summer was drawing to a close and, between this, other projects and a full-time University course load, I wouldn’t have time to enjoy myself if I didn’t do it now. You can’t just let those summer months float by unacknowledged! So, I thought I’d do a quick pop-culture run-down of what I’ve been viewing and playing to bring you up to speed.

This last week, I was camping, so I didn’t get much watched. However, I did nail out quite a few short story frameworks for the coming month. I realize that this week will have to be a double-post to make up for the stories I’ve missed, but that’s okay. (And here they are! Actionable ContentSolitude and another revamped classic: About A Ham Sandwich) They’re ready and waiting for a final edit. I also got to play some Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn!

FinalFantasyXIVARealmRebornBanner

Apparently, Squenix acknowledged that the original FF14 was tripe, so they built a new game from the ground up and gave everyone that bought the original a free copy of the new one. Now, that’s taking responsibility for your mistakes, and it’s a company policy I can really get behind. In my mind, they bought so much good will for themselves with that move that I’ll forgive the initial server outages and realm roll-out problems.

The game play itself is pretty standard. My friend and I rolled a Thaumaturge and a Marauder to compare the combat styles and how they’re dealt with. They’ve got pretty simple built-in rotations that won’t blow the mind of anyone familiar with World of Warcraft, but they’re functional. The game itself is beautiful. They didn’t use the always-in-season cartoony-WoW approach. They went for a full-on Final Fantasy graphical style. I know that sounds redundant, but anyone familiar with the FF art-style will know what I’m talking about. The biggest surprise of all wasn’t in the actual game-play, though. It was in the controls.

Your user interface can make or break your game, because it’s the set of tools through which you invite your player to explore your world. If your system isn’t fun or engaging, if it turns your game from an experience into a slog to grind through, then you’ll swiftly lose players. This is one of the reasons that PC games have had so much trouble adapting to console waters: the interfaces are just so different. Developers have tried to solve this problem in every way, from console keyboards to PC controllers, with greater and lesser success. FF14 solves this problem rather elegantly by using the bog-standard keyboard interface for the PC and a sleek, intuitive controller design for the PS3. Unfortunately, the 360, at time of writing, doesn’t support cross-platform play very well, so you won’t see a 360 release of FF14 any time soon.

The console controls are as follows: analog sticks to move, single buttons for simple commands, like targeting, and shoulder buttons + arrow-pad/ shape buttons for hot-keyed commands. Between this UI and the uncomplicated rotation I mentioned earlier, the game sets itself up for lolling couch-play rather nicely. There are options, but they add more than they complicate, at least during the level-range we played. There’s a Job system and cross-class-actions to build up; unfortunately, the game’s one fault is how poorly it instructs you to deal with these matters. But, as this game is a deep rabbit hole, we’re going to stop there and move on to…

movies-the-worlds-end-poster

The World’s End! This is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years, even among the host of best-movie-I’ve-seen-in-years that have been released this summer. It’s funny without being crude and true without being too crass. It’s an overwhelming satire of itself, as well as notions held by both dominant cultures and sub-cultures. It’s both prophetic and, quite honestly, rather fair. Its deeper, harder-hitting points are masked by smashy-smashy-eggman fun and double-talk that seeps from its every pore. As insane as it seems, every aspect of it has been carefully crafted to add to its artistic value, satirical outlook and subversive humour. It’s a send-up of able-ism, digital imperialism, whining-without-doing, mass consumerism, personal psychology and brand creation. It even finds time to mock apocalypse movies and self-righteousness.

I’m not sure where it got the time to do all that, but it’s one of the best written movies I’ve seen in years. It quite honestly follows on from the previous movies in the trilogy, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, in spirit if not plot. There are the usual meta-jokes and your old-favourite cast of characters. I’m starting to wonder if British actors are always in the same movies together because of some cultural carry-over from the acting-troop days of old or if it’s just a writer-director preference thing, because after watching Spaced, I’m constantly having “OH! It’s you!” moments. Martin Freeman even shows up to assure us that he’s more than just a furry-toed hobbit that hangs around with a detective. I promise you: you will enjoy this movie. Everyone brought their A-game.

Castle-promo

Speaking of detectives, I went all-in on Castle this month, and it just keeps getting better. He’s somewhere between Jessica Fletcher and Sherlock Holmes. Fletcher because he’s a crime-solving writer and Holmes because his primary strength is creative consideration of the many horrors committed on one man by another. To top it all off, he’s played by Nathan Fillion of Firefly, Captain Hammer and Neil’s Puppet Dreams fame. Also, Nathan Fillion is from my home city, so I like him that much more. The basic premise is that Castle’s a famous mystery author that has, through his connection with the mayor, been authorized to shadow Detective Kate Beckett, while she investigates homicides, in order to do research for new books. I know it sounds a bit crazy, and it is. It only gets more absurd as the series progresses, but that’s okay.

It both does and doesn’t take itself seriously. It never lets a little thing like plausibility get in the way of a good story, but it’s not so out to lunch that you’ll switch off in disgust. Its creativity deserves your suspension of disbelief. The gender politics are interesting and the characters feel real. They may be larger-than-life, but they’re also very human, flaws and all. When someone’s misogynistic, it’s because that character is, not because the show’s outlook is. It’s a balance that’s rare and hard to maintain.

There are some portions that are a bit too sensationalized, but that only serves to reinforce the quasi-pulp feel the show occasionally swerves towards. At times, it’s exactly like reading a trashy crime novel, which is appropriate, wouldn’t you say?

I also started up Papers, Please: a simple little indie game on Steam about working at a border checkpoint station under a thinly-veiled, oppressive, Communist regime. The mechanics are simple, the moral choices poignant and the stories compelling. If you’ve got some time to kill and you want to think about what you’re doing a lot harder than you need to, then pick it up!

I started watching Raising Hope. It’s pretty funny. Not to be taken seriously. Watch with liquor in hand.

Speaking of liquor in hand, Outlast dropped today and I’ve been itching to finish it up. Before I go, though, I want to talk about a pet peeve of mine: default keyboard controls. To me, Outlast and Final fantasy 14 are clear indicators that part of the industry is made up by people who game, because their input systems make intuitive sense to me as a gamer. The interface for FF14 was a refreshing surprise, but the default keyboard layout for Outlast actually made me smile.

It’s clearly set up with WASD and a simple mouse in mind. I always tweak a couple of things, but this time I really didn’t want to. It made me realize how often I’ve had to. So, I’d like to address the people who make these default button maps for a second:

Dear Designers:

I know it’s tough figuring out exactly where to put what buttons, but it’s important. Sit down and really get into playing your game before you make that decision. After all, you’ll need to have a game built before you have a default set-up, but, failing that, let me give you a word or two of advice as someone who has played games for many years:

1. Just because “crouch” starts with “C” doesn’t mean it’s the best button to bind crouch to. I know Warcraft did the first-letter-hotkey thing, but it doesn’t make sense in an FPS. There are going to be times you need to hit the crouch and enter commands at the same time and, given that “E” is usually enter, you’re going to get a lot of finger movement out of that one side. WASD should do for gamers what home-row does for typists: provide a safe place to return to. Try pressing “C” to crouch, “E” to enter and “W” to walk forward at the same time without moving your basic hand position. You can do it by moving your thumb up from the space bar, but you’ll either need to look to see the specific key for your thumb to press or know the area very well by muscle memory. With something like crouch, I could have all the time I need to check, such as when I go through a vent, or I might need it to hide like a scared fox when the twisted monstrosities come calling (Or, if you like, guys with guns that I need to take cover from). Give the pinky something to do: Keep crouch as control.

2. Consider the rate and urgency with which people are going to be pressing buttons relative to their position. If I have to hold a button to run, then don’t bind it to a finger-key I’ll want to do multiple things with, because running is a pretty big part of any game. Likewise, don’t bind it to a finger that never does anything simply to give it something to do. The ring finger on my left hand is highly untrained. Be kind to it. Also, if I’m going to need to switch off my flash-light quickly to hide a lot, then “G” is not the best key.

3. Use toggle keys judiciously. If I’m going to be toggling something a lot (like run), then make it convenient. If it’s more like the walk function in WoW, then not so much.

4. Lean functions are cool, but, unless they’re an integral part of game-play (like in Outlast), don’t mess with my “E” key.

5. Giving someone the option to have a “You just bound “_” to A, but A is already “__” You’ll be replacing “_” Are you sure?” pop-up on the control-binding menu would be nice for more complicated controller layouts.

6. Bind Journal to “J.” It’s what all the cool kids are doing.

7. Be very careful with where you put high-value buttons. My only problem with Outlast was that Reload was bound to “R” which is right next to Lean, which is “E.” So, when I went to Lean, I instinctively skipped over “E”, because it has been my Enter key for the last 20 years of gaming and reloaded my camera, wasting precious batteries. I rebound the key to “Caps Lk,” which solved the problem, but always consider  game-play layout precedents and the habits your players might have going in. It’s okay to shake up the formula when you do it well, like Outlast did generally, but I’ve seen it done poorly enough times to have to mention it. Also, if there’s a button we’re going to be pressing a lot, then it’s sort of a bad idea to place a button that wastes a valuable resource right next to it. Until I made the switch to “Caps Lk,” I wasted three batteries. For a psychotic survival-horror player like me, that’s unforgivably shameful on my part.

Thanks for your time and good luck with your game.

Okay, I knew I wasn’t really writing a letter there, but it would be rude not to sign off properly.

Speaking of, this has been Trivial Punk and I’ll see you on the Other side.

Rat-in-a-Maze: The Merits of Organic Horror

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2013 by trivialpunk

What were we talking about? Oh right, organic horror.

No, I don’t mean the giant plant monsters from Resident Evil, Bulletstorm, or Little Shop of Horrors. I mean organic mechanics within a horror game. A little while ago, I did a small series on Silent Hill, comparing Cry of Fear to my old favourite title and contrasting their approaches to monster mechanics. After that, I sat back and really thought about why I thought Silent Hill’s approach was superior. The answer that jumped back at me was that it was more “organic.” The creatures move around on their own accord, only reacting to you when you come into range. Now, I realize they’re loaded as you approach the area, but the user experience is what’s important for this discussion, not the technology behind it.

Cry of Fear’s creatures spawn at specific points, so you always know when they’re going to jump out at you. What’s more, and this is important, they’re nowhere else the rest of the time. You’re assured of safety as long as you stay in specific spots. There’s no stand-still tension. You could argue that there are safe rooms in Silent Hill, and there are, but you have to get to them. Take down an enemy in Cry of Fear, even if you know one spawns just down the hallway, and you’re safe enough to take a breather.

These two have had their moments, so let’s move on to another couple of horror games that I love: SCP Containment Breach and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Let’s start with Amnesia, because it’s one more removed from Cry of Fear. In Amnesia, the monsters often come to you, or you have to go to them. Now, there’s a slight but knowable difference between this and monsters spawning: how much you’re in control. If you’re crouching in a corner in one of Amnesia’s dark basements, a monster can very easily path by you. And you have to wait, breath caught, for it to pass before you can do anything. In that instant, you become prey: helpless, frightened… alone.

Most of us have played hide-and-seek, and this approach plays on the excitement of evasion. We’re all set up to understand that experience. It’s visceral. Worst of all, we’re completely out of our element in the dark. Light makes things worse and the sanity meter adds a timer to our game of hide-and-go-shriek (Obvious pun…. aaaand it’s GOOOOOOOD!) You can’t look at the monster, but you have to know where it is. It’s a combination of being prey and not seeing the monsters; it’s powerful. I could talk about Amnesia all day, but there’s one more thing we need to discuss first: SPC: Containment Breach.

If you read my love-letter to SCP: Containment Breach, then you’ll know all about it. You’re in a facility full of unknowable horrors. Said horrors escape. You’ve got to escape. Your primary, but by no means only, antagonist on this journey is SCP 173, this little guy:

SCP_Containment_Breach

When you’re looking at him, he can’t move. However, when you look away, or blink, he barrels towards you and, well, kills you. The game implements a blink meter that forces you, over time, to blink. It’s almost the opposite approach to Amnesia’s. You’ve got to have your eyes locked on him, and he’s an inexorable wall of death. That can be dreadful, even terrifying, but the truly brilliant part is its omnipresence. You have no idea where SCP 173 is in the facility. It kind of wanders around and kills things. However, you know he’s somewhere, and, when you run into him, you’d better have your eyes on him.

So, you’re tense, constantly on the look-out. You are a rat in a cage. A helpless individual being hunted by a psychotic killer. It’s as close as you’ll get to Jason Voorhees without a machete wound. Actually, come to think of it, Jason moves an awful lot like SCP 173. As long as you’ve got your eyes on him, he’s a calculable force. However, take your eyes off him, and he can show up anywhere. Mike Meyers does the same thing. Horror movie icons in general, actually. Well, now it’s a game mechanic.

The combination of not knowing where SCP 173 is and having to know exactly where it is produces just the right blend of terror for me. Slender uses much the same approach. Terrified, rat-in-a-maze running from the unbridled hand of death is an experience that must be had. Being randomly plucked beyond the vale of tears is horrifying. It would not be the same if SCP 173 showed up at readily memorize-able spawn-points, especially not when you do multiple play-throughs.

Once you realize that you are in control of the where and when of monster spawns, the game loses a lot of its teeth. Now, I’m not saying any one of these approaches is superior. They can each be used to create a different kind of horror, but they must be implemented with a considered hand. Survival horror is pure gaming psychology. Player experience is paramount. SCP: Containment Breach may look like it’s held together by clay and twine, but it has a solid experience at its core. One that keeps me coming back for more, even though I know the ins and outs of the game.

It’s organic. It’s memorable. It’s terrifying.

Oh, yeah, and it’s free.

So, those are some examples of organic horror. I know there are more, but I like to keep the number of games I refer to to a minimum. That way, we can use a minimum of knowledge to have a maximum of conversations. Oh yeah, Cry of Fear is also free. You can get it through Steam. It’s really quite a decent story. I wouldn’t talk about it so much if it wasn’t worth checking out. Cheers!

Repetition, Survival-Horror, Horror and Repetition

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2013 by trivialpunk

Oh man, two posts in a row about Silent Hill? I must be tonguing the bottom of the barrel here. Not particularly. There are a host of new horror IPs coming out this year, and I want to get a little theory down before I get to the straight-up reviewing. One of the most enjoyable things about it is that the new generation of games may prove me dead wrong. It becomes an incredible learning opportunity, because now my deviant thoughts are in cold, hard pixels. It’s much easier to think about what the newer games are teaching me if I know where I started.

Let’s get down and grungy, then, and slip back into the bound-to-be-occupied waters of Silent Hill 2. Actually, despite being the second post, I thought about this topic first. Last post was kind of a tangent that got away from me. Oh well, there’s no harm in following a thought to see where it gets you. This post came about because I was watching Cronenberg’s “The Fly” the other night. It got me thinking about the type of horror he was creating. The arc. The engagement. There are maybe six shocking moments in the entire movie, and the rest of it is build-up and pay-off. The first half an hour is all foreshadowing. In fact, the creature’s final form doesn’t come until late in the flick and the primary horror up to that point is existential and transformative in nature.

Naturally, this brought me back to horror games. It made me think about what I spend the majority of my game doing, because it sure as hell isn’t empathy building. I’ll be primarily talking about Silent Hill 2, but the points here are pretty applicable all over. Although, SH2 doesn’t cover it all, so I’ll be reaching out a bit to other games. This is far from comprehensive, but it’s something to think on.

Most of my game time is spent running around, picking up items and killing things. Hundreds of things. How does that stay engaging? Horrific? Movies, like “The Fly,” have a distinct advantage over games in that they are much shorter. If there’s anything that kills a creature’s frightening nature, then it’s repetition. Unless, that is, it’s approached correctly.

Keeping your audience engaged is the biggest challenge. It’s one you have to approach subtly in a survival horror game, because you can’t just go around changing how the rules work. Continuity of experience is a key factor in getting absorbed into a game. Once you intuitively understand how the game universe operates, you’ll undergo kinaesthetic projection. You’ll cease thinking about the controller and start thinking about the character on the screen. Yet, you can’t let your players check out completely. CoD: MW tackles this problem by maintaining the same aesthetics of play within a framework of different types of engagement. SH2 uses the same method.

The rules of play never change, but the circumstances and enemies do. They’ve also got enough flexibility to present different challenges in different situations. Think of the standard bread-and-butter enemy

This lovely little guy

This lovely little guy

He may not look like much, but he’s hella engaging. He can hide under cars, necessitating care around the vehicles out-doors. He both stands and crawls, allowing for different forms of attack and different levels of threat. He can spit acid/tar at you, meaning he’s still a threat at range, allowing him to act in a support capacity, if necessary. He’s bizarre looking, but recognizable enough that you may feel a bit off-put by his plight. You have to kick him when he’s down, but he can squirm away and stand up or crawl around and hurt you, creating a really weird version of DDR in the process.

Like all enemies (save most boss monsters), you have the choice of running away. You can undergo combat at range or in melee. You can try to sneak by or just slog through. All of these choices represent limited resources that you’ve got to manage. Ranged combat costs bullets, but usually prevents health damage. Melee is effective and free, but you’ll probably take damage. Running away presents the option to get away without spending anything, but there’s the risk of being taken down while you run or just being cornered. You might end up having to fight any ways, but you would have lost some health in the process.

All of these things – resource management, avoidance, combat types – fit within the framework of the game-play. Even the number of monsters changes things dramatically. At a given time, one creature may be squirming on the ground, another firing at you from range and still another flailing at you within melee range. And that’s just the basic straight-jacket creature.

Going into each encounter, you’re asking yourself questions about how best to engage and, even, whether or not to do it. Each offers a different time of engagement, and, aside from influence from the level design, the experience maintains an organic sort of nature. It’s like they dropped  a bunch of behavioural routines in some corridors and said, “Okay, how are you going to get past this? Think.” Well, actually, that’s exactly what they did. Only, the routines were slavering monstrosities and all they did was laugh maniacally.

Combat is a bit fluid, which allows for different types of engagement within the sphere of combat. However, they flesh out the strange, strange universe in other ways, as well, through puzzles. Remember how we learned waaaay too much about Umbrella just by figuring out how to open their doors? It’s kind of like that. The puzzles operate in two capacities: they flesh out the world, and they provide another form of engagement. In Cut-The-Rope, you cut a rope to deliver some food to an entitled little lizard dude. That tells you everything you need to know about that world. In SH2, you do stuff like melt a wax doll into an empty hand-hold groove so that it’ll hold a horseshoe in place, thus allowing you to open the trap door. And that should provide you an equal amount of information about THAT world.

Almost more important than this is breaking up the combat sections. One type of game-play will always get boring after a while; it will completely fail to engage you. No matter how condensed it is, every game needs to present you with multiple ways of thinking about its game-play. Otherwise, you’ll just check out. If you do that, then no horror game can touch you.

There are other ways of dealing with this, as well. You can even skip right past the combat and avoid the risk of repetition altogether. Games like Amy and Silent Hill Shattered Memories had interesting approaches to this. Think:  Stealth vs. Action games. These games are pretty much all about avoidance. However, there is a happy medium that I’m always glad to talk about: Clocktower.

Clocktower 1 and 2 let you kill things at specific points and, even with the limitations of the time, provided you with different types of engagement (If I’m losing anyone by saying engagement a hundred times, I’ll do a post specifically about that). Clocktower 3 was a little more direct. It took the Resident Evil 3 approach and provided you with an unkillable monster. You spent the lion’s share of the game avoiding combat as vehemently as possible, while still looking around, exposing yourself to danger. At some point, I may go into the specifics of the game, but you’ve been reading a while, so I’ll skip ahead a bit. At the end of each section, you undergo a bizarrely-out-of-place Magical Princess transformation and switch over to combat mode. Suddenly, all the attacks you had to avoid during the running sections change their meaning, because you have to avoid and retaliate in the same breath. Then, once the fight is finished, you’re helpless again and back in exploration mode, switching over to run-like-a-frightened-jawa mode when the psychos come calling.

It would be remiss of me to talk about Silent Hill without mentioning Pyramid Head. He’s practically the face of the franchise now. I can’t say I’m too stoked about that, because exposure significantly impacts his presence, but whatever. In his first appearance, he was a looming shadow. You see, you can’t just litter your game world with engaging fodder monsters; you need to have something else to fear. Much like RE3’s Nemesis, Pyramid Head is an overwhelming, omnipresent threat. You can’t even physically damage him. Yeah, you might be able to claw your way through a slough of lesser monsters, but there looms a larger threat. Everything about his character screams unknowable violence. Even your boss fights with him aren’t won by strictly killing him. Cat. Mouse. This is a huge change from how the rest of the game works, and it’s yet another example of how a small change in mechanics can alter your experience of a creature entirely.

As you can see, large portions of these games are dedicated to switching up your game-play so that you don’t get bored. Yet, they maintain the same basic controls and aesthetics, except perhaps Clocktower 3, but there are arguments for both sides there. This is because horror games face a unique challenge. They’ve got to stay scary in the face of repetition. Yet, repetition and over-exposure of the beast is the usually the death of horror. So, they use different methods to engage and get players to think about different types of horror. Like “The Fly,” they can flit around, picking up bits of existential terror, shock-value gross-outs, the macabre, anything. As long as it creates a continuous world, devs should never shy away from using all the tools available to them to create a feeling of tension: of carefully crafted horror.

Ethnology and You (in Silent Hill) 101

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2013 by trivialpunk

It feel like I was a little hard on Cry of Fear last week. I mean, I started off the post by saying it was a pretty decent game, but then I spent the next thousand words stepping on it like an ant with a glowing red kick-me sign (I’ll leave you to determine whether I’m the ant or not). It’s a bit of an incongruity, I’ll admit. On the one hand, I enjoyed parts of the game and even admired their ingenuity. On the other hand, I do sometimes promise to be critical. Yet, on the way to critical, I tend to brush up against hyperbolic, its barely-disguised evil twin. I would consider it this way: out of the (occasionally) many, many games I end up playing in a given week, I only talk about a select few. I hold those few games to a pretty high standard, so anything entering that ring is bound to get a little rough treatment. Okay, the old Silent Hill series seems to get a free pass, but that’s because I use those games to gauge my standards. Someday, for your viewing pleasure, I’ll rip those apart, too. Not yet, though. I’m not ready.

Part of the problem the game had was that it was from an indie developer. It could only do so much with the budget and manpower behind it. That’s fine; I’m not going to begrudge them that. I celebrate it, in fact. However, regardless of where the game came from, it still took hours and hours of my life. By the same token, if I recommend it and you end up spending hours playing because of me, then I have a responsibility to you. Even if the game is free, it still costs time to play. So, I have to cast an equally critical eye on both the AAA industry and the indi-stry. Granted, I’m going to try to keep things in the realm of possibility and context. I’m not about to bust Cry of Fear on the quality of its cut-scenes. That would be counter-productive to the encouragement of fear. The game does fine with the graphics its working with. Like I said, character design was one of the best parts of this game, and that skill reflects equally well in the cut-scenes.

No, no one messaged me to say that I wasn’t being fair to the game. I just felt like I sounded a bit harsher than I meant to. I stand by what I said, but understand that it was still an alright game. Well, would you look at that! Here I am doing a random monologue about Cry of Fear and Silent Hill and I haven’t brought up the topic I know you’re burning to hear about: enemy behaviour.

In my Cry of Fear post, I mentioned that the monsters are a little too eager to give you a flail-glomp of death. This seems a bit counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t more aggressive monsters be more frightening? Of course, that’s a contrived question to move the post along, because I always try to draw a clear line between survival-horror and splatter thrillers. Yet, because of the general weakness of the combat, Cry of Fear never really brushes up against splatter thriller levels of abnegation. You’re thoroughly involved in the combat; the enemies require you to think about and study them, if you’re going to survive. It’s a cool, refreshing approach, not unlike the taste of Nestea. But, I’m still complaining. Why is that?

Well, it would be because I’ve still got my head firmly planted under the skirts of SH2’s approach to monsters. There’s something to be said for choice and conflict in a game. They help to create tension. Think of it this way: When you walk into a room in Cry of Fear, what are your combat options? That’s right: melee or ballistic. The monsters pop up at you, so you’re never really thinking about how to approach them (not combat them, that’s an entirely different thing). They will approach you, and fast, so you’d better have your strongest stick ready. This sort of ruined the whole cellphone flash-light thing for me. In Doom 3, you also had to switch between the flash-light and a weapon, but parts of the game were designed around it. The lantern maze and the general lighting, as well as the value of environmental information, made keeping your flash-light accessible important. You had to be able to see the creatures. You could also dodge them, occasionally, while they try to dodge you, necessitating vision. Now, I’m not saying Doom 3 did this perfectly, because there are plenty of straight corridors where monsters just jump out and the flash-light is nothing but a nuisance. However, I think it approached it generally better.

The Cry of Fear phone-light didn’t see much direct use, because the monsters were always right in my face. Except for the Aborted: those were well utilized. Still, even they floated towards you as quickly as possible. What value does a flash-light have when the ambient light it creates in my bag is good enough to let me navigate and the monsters never try to avoid me? The idea of getting texts was cool, but it felt a little nose-leady after they stopped being used to create atmosphere.

Still, that’s all flash-light stuff, what about the overall monster behaviour in Silent Hill 2? Well, they generally ignored you, unless you provoke them. Then, they’ll follow you for a bit, trying to combat you, until you get far enough away, at which point they go back to kicking around cans and playing hopscotch.

The Most Serious Game of Hopscotch Ever.

The Most Serious Game of Hopscotch Ever.

This leaves you with options: the most dangerous of things. Now, you can choose to avoid the monsters or combat them. Believe it or not, the ability to run away compounds the fear of combat. It’s a different type of player engagement; it offers a different way to think about playing the game. Not only does this keep things tense, but it leaves the player with some uncomfortable truths:

1. They can run away from any battle. Knowing the option is there will make even the combat encounters feel a bit looser, like you could cut and run at any time.

2. They are choosing to engage every time they do. Now, they’re thinking about the engagement, so they can dread it.

3. They’re witnessing the natural behaviour of the creatures.

Cry of Fear’s enemies are on you in an instant, leading you to believe that part of their behaviour is driven by your presence. SH2’s enemies are just messed up all the time. You’re made privy to their strange quirks and vacant wanderings. They become a study in creature behaviour. The weird nails-on-chalkboard creatures under the cars that spit at you. The mannequins that only react to light. These creatures create choices. You can avoid the cars. You can wander the halls without your flash-light on, but there are more threats than just mannequins in the halls. You can run instead of fight, but you’ll risk getting cornered if too many of them start following you in tight corridors. This is exacerbated by the clunky-in-the-wrong-hands controls.

Beyond creating choices, their aloof behaviour hammers home their Eldritch nature. You can hear the abstract daddies dragging themselves around. The crackling sounds of movement from the mannequins. This is their lives. They’re seriously alien. Even more terrifying, this implies that this is how the universe operates here. These creatures are the norm. You are the outsider.

Maybe that all seems a bit abstract, but there is one solid take-away here: “If you can get your players to think about whether or not a fight is a good idea, then you’ve already won the first battle.”