Archive for Survival Horror

Torn Over The Evil Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punk – …fun.
Trivial – …fun.

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

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

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

Alien: Isolation – A Love Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crafted items List: Found or made using schematics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among The Sleepless

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

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

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

 Among The Sleep 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”