Archive for survival horror games

100 Posts and It’s Finally Just About SH2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WTF!?

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

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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repetition kills engagement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, wait for The Evil Within.

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

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.”

Crying Over Cry of Fear

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

After spending a few days immersed in the Gloam universe, I decided to pop my head back up and play some games. If you follow my Twitter, then you may remember that I said I was cracking open a bunch of indie horror games a little while ago. You may have wondered, briefly, why I’ve been so silent on the subject in my blog. Well, the truth is that I didn’t find many worth talking about. If you were around in the early days of Newgrounds and saw those, “Scariest Thing Ever” posts, where some scrolling text tells you a vaguely creepy story and a picture flashes up to the sound of an entire orphanage of children rejecting their broccoli, then you’re familiar with what I went through for roughly three games and counting. I’m not going to point fingers, because I’d prefer to talk about good games than stomp all over developing ones.

With that in mind, today, we’re going to talk about Cry of Fear, because it was pretty damn decent. It began its life, “Dear Esther” style, as a Half-Life mod from Team Psykskallar. Now, it’s a stand-alone game that you can download from Steam for free. Pretty snazzy. Although, honestly, I’m not sure if I’d recommend the game. If you’re really hurting for survival horror, then it might give you a dose. It’s not fantastic, though. Well, it has its moments. Ah bugger, let’s just get into it.

542476_308446645887233_104860890

It starts by dropping you into an alleyway with a mysterious text message. From there, you just follow a bunch of corridors until you hit the end of the game. The plot isn’t exactly deep, and it jumps around a bit, but it is fairly compelling. Juxtaposing the wacky antics of the protagonist (Read: critically flat voice acting) with the situation makes you want to figure out exactly what’s going on. However, as you go through the game, I’m sure you’ll start to feel like you’re walking through a piece of another survival  horror I.P. It seems that large cities have many of the same problems that haunted lakeside towns do. Disappearing corridors. Spontaneous, intrusive surgery. Populations on the verge of utter insanity. Puzzles. Health bars. A dark, mysterious parallel universe streaked in blood and rust.

Basically, what I’m saying is that if Cry of Fear isn’t directly related to the Silent Hill series, then one of its parents must have had a wandering eye. There are some differences, though! Cry of Fear is a first-person game. Unfortunately, it was clinging on to its bastard siblings’s arm so hard that it took melee mechanics along for the ride. Because of the technology its working with, its hit detection is incredibly dodgy. Or, maybe not dodgy enough, depending on your perspective. There is a dodge button, but the game’s stifling corridors aren’t conducive to avoiding the flailing arms of vague monstrosities. You’ll end up taking a few more hits than you ought to and miss more than your share of attacks that should have connected. In fact, overall, the combat is the weakest part of the game.

The creatures you fight run right up to you, so there isn’t much time to consider the implications of engagement. There’s no dread. In fact, most of the creatures in this game pop up like whack-a-moles. It’s trying to freak you out like the aforementioned Newgrounds fodder, but that’s not really frightening. After the first couple of times, you’re more than ready for it. “Ooh, the lights flickered. I’m assuming that means we’re going to have to bash something back into the ground soon.” They just move too bloody fast. They’re in your face, instantly. Blam wham bam. Next.

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Counter-intuitively, there’s a positive aspect to their movement, even while their movement speed is detrimental. The character models jerk and spasm like good anthropological horror creatures should. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the creature design was my favorite thing about this game.. There are these monsters that have their arms attached to their chest with big, iron staples. As you whittle down their life, you break open the staples, and they can attack you with their arms. There’s another creature I like to call “The Aborted” and the usual rambunctious pick-and-mix of disfigured knife-wielding toddlers and hammer-wielding psychos. The boss creatures are pretty interesting, too. They require you to think a little bit before you unload your pack of buckshot into them.

There’s one creature that made me turn the game off and write this review without finishing the game, though. Well, it’s more of a situation. You’re in a long stretch of alleys and a (well-designed) standard chain-saw wielder pops out of a door to chase you down the alley. This one part combines all of the worst aspects of the game into a big barrel of blah. The shady hit detection ensures that you can never be sure where he’s swinging, so dodging is pointless. Even if you could dodge, he moves so fast that he’s back on you in a second. The linear corridors don’t provide you much room to maneuver, and they dead-end a lot. Obviously, if you get caught in a dead-end, then you’re meant to panic and turn around. Unfortunately, as with most chainsaw wielders, he kills you instantly. So, you’ve just got to run through a few times to get it right; it’s just trial and error. He’s killable, but I unloaded my entire arsenal without managing it. You’ve got a sprint bar, so you’re going to have to half-run, half-back-peddle to make it through, because you run out of it pretty quickly. Optionally, you can load yourself up with morphine when you run out of sprint and get another bar to use. Still, if you run by something you want to go back to, he’ll just kill you.

The design of this area really needs work. The first time it’s scary. The third time it’s not. By then, it’s just dull and frustrating. Plenty of things could have improved this portion: adjusting his run speed, giving you an adrenaline boost, not making you watch the cut-scene, giving you room to work around him, not putting a tantalizing machine gun behind him, making him a two-hit killer, not using fake-out corridors with one-hit kills, not baiting us with doors… the list goes on. Many games, as far back as Clocktower, have tried to implement returning baddies for the sake of oppressive fear. You have to do it right, though, and this doesn’t qualify. If I could say something positive about it, then it would be that he’s visually creepy, and he bugs a lot. If I wasn’t so interested in actually playing through the game, then I’d just have let him bug out and be past it already. Maybe the buggy movement was left in to make him manageable. I’m not sure. His sound design is quite good, as well.

Actually, the sound design is probably the strongest part of this game. The track list is certainly immersive. Earlier, I mentioned that the monsters pop up a lot. In the earlier portions of the game, when it’s still trying to build tension, they use sounds to herald the coming of monsters frequently, and they do so quite well. Of course, even this is used to try to freak you out when the jump-scares come, but what can you do? Moving forward with praise, the lighting is well put-together. Your cellphone doubles as your flash-light (Just like in real life!), and it casts a downwards-facing light when you’re not holding it. This makes the upper portions of the game darker than the bottom ones, obscuring the movement in the distance and making you choose between safety and surety.

Aesthetically, it fits the bill, and I’ll admit to being freaked out a couple of times, but it’s not scary. It’s not even really engaging. I found myself slogging through the game, trying to finish it so I could develop a balanced opinion for you, but it just wasn’t enough to counter my frustration. It has lost too many points already for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. Maybe I’ll log back in and find my way past chainsaw face using a bug, now that I’m done with this, but it won’t feel like a victory. I just want to see the end. Still, if it has a good ending and a strong latter portion, then I might change my overall opinion. We’ll see.

Before we wrap up, I want to address the puzzle aspect of the game. As I’m sure you’re well aware, you can’t have a game that’s all combat, especially a survival horror one. Different types of engagement are key to keeping your audience interested. Of course, you don’t want to go the Modern Warfare 3 route, but mixing it up a bit will give you a better game. As is traditional, Cry of Fear uses odd puzzles. However, it doesn’t use them very well. The first “puzzle” is two sheets of paper that are lying on the ground on opposite ends of a small area. Once you pick them up, they give you the name and password for a computer that’s in a nearby shop. Don’t worry, you’ll find it; it’s the only shop with an open door. Once you log on to the computer, a messenger window pops up with a previous conversation on it. It’s just one post: a door code. Oddly enough, there was a locked door that needed a code at the beginning of the area… hmm…

Now, this is kind of neat, but it’s sort of an eye-roller, and it’s a huge missed opportunity. The game could have provided us with some context for why the code was being posted, maybe even hinted at what was going on. Hell, it could have tried for full over-the-top oddness, which, when juxtaposed with both frightening and mundane situation at the same time, leaves you with a vague feeling of surreality. Think: the fridge in the hospital in Silent Hill, the coin puzzle in Silent Hill 2 or the Shakespeare puzzle in Silent Hill 3. This puzzle makes mundane sense, but it’s a bit flat, even while it’s unreal. There’s no frightening magical logic. It vaguely alludes to the idea that someone left those there purposefully, but it fails to make that point meaningful. “Okay, someone might be following me, or I might be losing it. But, why a computer? Why keep them separate?”

To really flesh out what I mean, let’s look at another “puzzle” in Silent Hill 2: the lock-box in the hospital. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Clearly, an insane someone wrapped this thing up tight. It has four separate locks, two of which require keys and two of which require combinations. Each key has a story behind it. Each code is delivered to you in an off-putting way (written in blood on a wall awash in the red stick-icky in a panic cell and on the carbon paper of an insane note in a typewriter). By the time you crack the box, you’re reeling with possibility, “What’s in the box?!?” Any of you that know the puzzle I’m talking about will probably chuckle at the Seven reference here, but it’s the right amount of surreal. It follows the video game’s logic and pulls you deeper into the world. If nothing else, it engages your imagination.

By comparison, Cry of Fear fails to feel like anything but a fetch-quest. Yes, if you dig right in, if you force yourself to, you can find interesting moments to puzzle over and different points of foreshadowing, but the game-play doesn’t highlight them effectively. Many of the problems with the game can be traced back to the engine. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to make this game on, but they did and that deserves some praise. Still, the game should have changed to reflect the tools available. Instead of stuffing a concept into a set of mechanics, you need to make the concept fit to what you’ve got available.

It’s okay. It’s not really a bad game, and the voice acting makes sense, because it originated in Sweden. Honestly, I’d be a bit off-put if they had good voice-acting; terrible dialogue is kind of a survival horror tradition. I’m still going to finish it. I’m not entirely sure I’m happy about that fact, but there it is. At the end of it all, I give it 3 Slightly Stale Donuts out of A Cute Dog in a Dead Homeless Man’s Hat. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Gloam: Entry 2 – Day 6 – Status: Disoriented

Posted in All the Things, Gloam with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2013 by trivialpunk

I’ve been ruminating on this one for a while. I guess I kind of backed myself into a corner with Gloam. I spent so much time trying to figure out how to address the topic of “Writing” that I neglected the most obvious solution: split it up.

Writing:

…for player freedom

Role-playing games are very open-ended. The suite of potential tools available to your players is limited by imagination and game-master enforcement. I would encourage you to do as little enforcing as possible. If you can get your players to imagine interesting, novel solutions to problems, then you have them engaged. You can run into problems, though.

The first time I ran Gloam, it was a city-wide campaign. I went for a full-scale, county-wide apocalypse. I spent hours writing open-ended script events and making up rules for improvised weapons. I wrote long descriptions and multiple solutions to problems. I slaved over creature design and atmosphere. I crafted an entire room to run the game. Then, about thirty minutes in, my players got in a car and said, “We drive towards the edge of the city.” Oh. They’re just leaving.

For one reason or another, I’d gotten so mixed up in the specifics of the game, that I forgot the overall reason my players were there. I managed to sputter out a weak excuse about giant holes in the road, ripped straight out of Silent Hill, and tailored it to fit the game. It wasn’t a total disaster, but it wasn’t a great start. I suppose the take-away here is that you’re not going to be aware of everything your player thinks to do. My players solved the hospital problem by asking probing questions about its architecture.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I had an architecture-based solution prepared for a one-off puzzle and nothing ready for my players’ attempts to just flee the city. Well, the truth is that I had to cobble it together from three other potential solutions. As you already probably know, running a role-playing session is part story-telling, part improv and part gaming. Your players will hit you with curve-balls, and you’ve got to be ready to dig in and swing. Be confident. The last thing you want your players to think is that they’ve caught you off your guard. Ideally, they’ll think that any subtle dissonance or uncanny scenario is a clue. If you can convince your players to try to dig into the mystery here, you’ve reversed a serious battle.

There are many ways to mitigate this. The least useful of all is to deny your players an action. Once you’ve defined the limits of the experience, your players should be given as much freedom as possible. Naturally, you’ll be puppet-mastering events behind the scenes, but be prepared to let them use a soda machine. Open a door with a crow-bar. Investigate a light. Naturally, they shouldn’t be able to fly if that’s not a part of the world. No four-story back-flips or Matrix-style bullet-play. Your players will understand that, but they’ll be a bit unnerved if they can’t take a nap on a bench.

You can actually benefit a lot from this natural predilection to try things. Small events within the world can help bring it to life, and, if you act quickly enough, you can use those events to drive the central plot. I’m a big fan of letting players sign their own death warrants. That’s why I recommend that you steer away from death-traps or ambushes. When it comes to role-play, it’s never going to be the description of the events that gets your players. It’s going to be the anticipation of those events animated in their imaginations. It’s going to be the other players’ reactions. So, make use of foreshadowing.

To do that in the realm of horror role-play, I come up with a short list of possible clues and multiple routes to acquire them. For instance, in that first game, I had a cult attempting to use the city to complete a large, apocalyptic ritual. Now, in order to let my players in on the events, I had to find a way to let them know it was happening. Here are the avenues they might have used to discover the cultists’ plans:

-One character type was an investigator that was looking into a rash of recent disappearances. He’s in town following up on a leather-bound book one of the families that hired him gave him. It’s written in some strange language and it’s his only lead. The linguist recognizes the ancient language and can decipher the book. It details the rituals and practices of an ancient cult. However, despite the age of the text, the book itself is quite new. The binding is bent in one place. This particular section has clearly seen heavy use. (Unfortunately, neither of these characters was in my player-party)

-Recover a copy of that same book from a dead cultist’s house. The linguist can still translate it.

-The opening scene involves dead kid walking on stage during a reunion dinner. Upon investigating his death, the team discovers his family’s involvement with the cult. This leads them back to the school and the first ritual site.

-If the players stumble upon a ritual site and interrupt it, then they can find a nearby map outlining the other locations.

-If players go to city hall, they can discover the involvement of the Mayor in the cult’s activities, as well as that of the finance officer. If they root through his office for a while, they’ll discover a hidden compartment in his desk. In it, they’ll find financial information and a cultist robe, along with related paraphernalia. With a little thinking, they’ll figure out that the cult has sunk a large amount of money into renovations on particular buildings, as well as made several land purchases. Investigating those areas will lead players to the ritual sites.

-Interrogating a cultist with yield some of the data. Interrogating many of them will uncover the truth.

-If the security guard is in the party, he can reveal that he worked for the cult. He didn’t know much, but he knows where a lot of man-power was concentrated.

Any one of those situations will lead players down the same rabbit hole. All of them point players in the right direction, and they can be picked up and employed almost anywhere, especially the “How-To Cultist” guide. Yet, they allow your players the freedom to discover the truth in their own way, and the extra work you put in gives you the draw-cards you need in case your players throw something at you you’re not quite prepared for. Now, you’re prepared without being prepared. Although, if all else fails, you can go the old mysterious text-message route. I’ve had to pull that one out a couple times, I’m ashamed to admit. Just… make it make sense.

I find it helps to have someone to write with. You can’t be expected to see your work from every angle, because you’re right in the middle of it. There are things you know about the world you’ve created that you can’t just forget. However, those things might be completely foreign to your players. It helps if you create a unified world, where the rules always apply even-handedly, but having someone on hand to tell you something doesn’t make sense is invaluable. If you can’t find someone who wants to sit and jam out horror riffs, then write your work down. After you’ve finished working on something else, come back to it and see what things you’d think of doing with the information you’re providing.

Taking time to clear your head is incredibly valuable, no matter what you’re working on.

…for flexible encounters

It’s all well and good to talk about creating flexible puzzles, but what about flexible events? Believe it or not, this has by far the simplest solution: modular encounters. However,othere are going to be location that you want your players to visit. For those, I’d recommend writing personalized, flavoured encounters. I’ll provide you with an example of each to illustrate the difference:

Stage Specific: Breathless (The Manifest Symphony)

-Beams of light spill across the monstrous pile of flesh quivering on the floor. A horrible high-pitched whine, a cacophony of tortured lungs gasping in the darkness, shakes the air around you. The impossible beast before you, seemingly cobbled from the bodies of the restless dead, rises. Air sacks, once lungs, inflate, holding the creature erect. The sacks under one of its many appendages puffs violently, flinging the arm upwards like a reckless marionette. As the arm slams into the trunk of the enormous body, a howl from the skull at the end of the limb racks your ears. Lungs on the trunk send the arm crashing down towards you.
> 1-3 “Heavy” Shoulder wound
> 4-6 The creature is clumsy, newly formed. The appendage smashes into the wooden stage, teeth chipping off and wood splintering.

-The creature, at its full height, is a collection of lungs and ribs, skulls and spines. Well over 10 feet tall, the creature flails its 6 limbs in the air, a symphony of wailing that inches the body forward.

Hoo wiiii daaaa…”

-If the investigators choose to leave the area, the creature will not follow, unless they jump into the gym, whereupon it will topple over on the other side and pursue them. It can strike from all sides.

-It’s easy to outrun. Shooting a lung will puncture it. Cutting it open once all its arms have been disabled, will reveal a hollow core. Light shone inside of it will instantly kill it.

-Killing the creature will yield 1-2 candles of psychological empowerment.

Alright, I know some of that was a bit confusing. Candles and such, but I’m sure you get the gist of it. Don’t worry, it’ll all make sense with time. Now, let’s look at something purely modular.

Modular: The Wittigo (The Empty Man)

-A slow, methodical crunching sound, like the careful chewing of meat and gristle, draws your attention to the corner of the room, farthest from the door, most shrouded in darkness.

-Panning a light across it reveals a man, huddled in the corner of the room, crying. Crying and gnawing on a hunk of fresh charred flesh.

-Startled, the man looks up. Squinting in the glare of the light, it takes a second for you to realize that his lips are mangled stumps of red. They’ve been chewed off. In morphed, half-slurred words, he wails, “I was just so hungry! I didn’t know! How could I have known?!”

“Here piggy, piggy…”

The Wittigo will dive upon its victims, attempting to tackle them to the ground.
>1-2 He has a fire axe.
>3-6 He is unarmed

-If he has an axe, treat it as equivalent to a pistol if it strikes.
>1 – Strike in range
>2-5 – Miss
>6 – Strikes self

-A bite transfers the delusion, which doesn’t dissipate until The Grey One is scared off. [Motivation: Army building]

-The original Wittigo is beyond redemption. Having consumed his family, he must be killed. This leaves you thoroughly shaken. 1 candle of psychological damage.

The Wittigo encounter can be deployed anywhere and at any time. Granted, Breathless isn’t restricted, either, but he’s thematically related to the stage. Writing area-specific encounters allows you to direct some of the action of the story. Having modular encounters allows you to inject a little fear into your players, regardless of where they are. With a little quick thinking, any encounter can be re-written to serve your purposes on the fly. This approach balances the warring factions of narrative direction and ubiquitous threats quite nicely. It is by no means the only solution, but it’s one I’ve found to be effective.

Penumbra: Black Plague – Mining for Survival Horror

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

First, a little house-cleaning. Unfortunately, Duel’s development is going to be put on hold. Not scrapped, mind you, just pushed back. I’ve added a Trivial Letsplays section for your amusement, instead. I’m working on a novella and a screenplay this week, so expect very few posts… or a lot, because I’ll be procrastinating. Oooonly kidding… >.>

Alright, now that that and the oligatory E3 post are out of the way, let’s step out of the future and into the past for a look at our survival-horror roots. If you pay attention to my videos, then you’ll know I spent a gaming session finishing Penumbra: Black Plague. It’s a sweet little first-person survival-horror adventure game that was developed by Frictional Games and published by Paradox Interactive. It’s the second in the series, so it follows in the footsteps of its ancestor. It features stealth elements, (click-drag) physics puzzles and puts a heavy emphasis on creature avoidance. If this sounds familiar to anyone else, then you’ve probably played Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Amnesia was the spiritual successor to the Penumbra series, but the developer probably already tipped you off to that. Without further ado…

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The horror in this game is pretty adequate. It’s only slightly let down by the sheer density of the enemy AI. I know this is to make the stealthing more manageable, but it hits the mark and keeps going. Enemies are often a bit slower than you, so you can even just out-run them. This is a trick, though. Penumbra wants you to run, because it wants you to realize that you have nowhere to run to. This is the soul-crushing dread of being alone, trapped in an environment both hostile and alien.

Speaking of being alone with an alien, the game introduces a little brain-parasite named Clarence that talks to you as you play. He serves to add an interesting layer of existentialism to the story. Is he an entirely new entity? Was he formed by your memories? He certainly absorbs your memories; by doing so, does he become someone entirely new? How much of him is you? He also messes with your vision and becomes a pretty significant plot-point later on, especially when he’s begging for his life. Including him was a risk, because he could have become very annoying very quickly, ruining your immersion and the feeling of loneliness. However, because of the special circumstances surrounding your relationship, that loneliness morphs into something inscrutable. It’s unnerving thinking that you’d be alone but for yourself. If you dig deep enough, it might even cause you to reflect on your self.

Our brain is a parallel processor of insane complexity. Even the two lobes work together-apart, connected by, among other things, the corpus callosum. That doesn’t mean it’s a unified entity, though. In some ways, it’s like separate entities talking to each other. People with split-brain syndrome often think and communicate using one side of their brain. As thoughts become words and your words become your identity, you start to define your self. However, the other half of your brain, the one not being expressed vocally, now unconnected to the other half, is still around. Is still listening. Many people with split-brain syndrome sometimes report feeling like the other half of their body, the one controlled by the silent brain, is an entirely different entity. This applies to neurotypical people, as well. Ever feel like there’s another voice in your head? A conscience? Someone second-guessing you? Could be.

Now, of course, this is science softer than your average volleyball after a brisk day at the local volcano, but it serves to illustrate how tenuous our connection to Gestalt is. How fragile our “self”, our holistic entity, is. We’re never more than a couple steps from revelation, and that’s terrifying. Err… so… yes, I like the character and what his frame-work adds to the ideas presented by the story.

Oookay, well now, let’s mozy on over to the puzzle end of the spectrum. This game has some interesting puzzles, but some of them are glaring problems. Personally, I would never consider a block-stacking task a puzzle. I would never be rummaging around in my kitchen, see a box on the top shelf and think, “How the hell am I going to use a stool to get that thing? Swat at it with the legs?” Of course, it helps that I’m 6’2”, but you understand what I’m saying. That being said, there are some pretty nifty puzzles. There’s one that requires you to lift up disembodied arms so that they snap into place with a sickening crunch and burst into flame. There’s another that’s essentially the best kind of boss-fight, one where you have to apply what you’ve learned and put yourself in harms way, under time-pressure, while doing it. Then, there are the others… the ones I mentioned earlier this paragraph…

Did you ever hear anyone talking about the recent The Walking Dead game say, “Yeah, it’s kind of an adventure game, but the inventory puzzles are so obvious. I mean, you hardly have to spend twenty minutes fiddling around with the controls to make progress!” No, well that’s because the person I made up was an obvious straw-man, but he serves to illustrate the major problem with some of the puzzles in Penumbra and, inversely, why The Walking Dead streamlined the process. Classic adventures game puzzles absolutely destroy the flow of play. Thankfully, Penumbra doesn’t have too many of those, but it does have a couple others that do the same thing. There’s one that requires you to push some buttons in order to make all of them match. There’s a barrel puzzle that’s downright confusing until you figure out what you need to do. Seriously, I was pushing barrels around in the dark for close to ten minutes. In a game that barely clocks more than four hours, that’s a substantial chunk of time. Honestly, though, most of them are pretty intuitive. You’re in a room. There’s only one unique object in the room, you’ve only got one item that will work in it, so you mash them together. Ta-dah! Progress! It does, however, have its share of fetch quests. The unfortunate nature of them means that you’re going to be running around the same hallways a lot. That saves on programming time and money, but any hall you end up wandering around for twenty minutes is going to lose its haunting atmosphere as you whiz busily from place to place. With that in mind, they designed a very specific type of enemy…

Penumbra_Black_plague

Frictional knew that if they had you running back and forth between areas, then you would cease to be afraid of the environment. So, they dotted the landscape with axe-mining pick-claw-lantern-wielding threats. This is where the stealth elements come in. Stealth is all about making waiting interesting, and survival horror is all about avoiding death, cringing at the thought of the next encounter. You can see why they’d meld nicely. Penumbra lets you defend yourself, but not to any great degree. It’s mostly about sticking to the shadows and avoiding the lantern-gaze of your enemy. This is perfect, because the creature in a horror game is most effective when it’s not seen. When it’s only heard. When the consequences of it spotting you are all in your imagination. Your mind will always be able to terrify you more efficiently than any outside source, especially while you’re tense, anticipating. Ever had to wait on a dicey test result? Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Survival horror is all about providing you with the context with which to send your brain into over-drive. You are your own worst fear. Because, that part of your brain that’s listening? It knows you better than anyone else.

So, when it comes to creating an unnerving, thought-provoking, fear-stimulating environment, Penumbra succeeds brilliantly. This atmosphere is only slightly damaged by its AI. The most damaging aspect of the game is its puzzles. One particularly annoying experience involved the freezing cold and a box-stacking task. Even so, once you get past that, the game is an excellent example of how to do survival horror right. It may be a bit old, but compared to the Resident Evil franchise, it’s aged like a fine wine. I give it Two crispy, well-baked pizza pockets out of Finding out the weather is nice on a stroll to the corner-store.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you on the other side!

SCP – Containment Breach: Survival Horrgasm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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