Archive for Video Game Review

Critically Critical

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! We’re back on schedule this time! Who saw that coming? Apparently, you did, because here you are, all polished and shiny. Or maybe that’s just my new keyboard. Sorry, I spend so much time with this thing that it’s kind of a big deal to me. It also means that I won’t have to use my mechanical keyboard for everything (as much as I love it to bits and bytes), so I’ll be able to stream and letsplay previously unplayable games. Anyone that’s watched any of my old series will know what I’m talking about. Before I went full gamepad, it was pretty clacky on the “Trivial Punk Fun-time Roughly 30 Minutes.” Now, you’ll get to see what you’ve always wanted: me playing Half-Life. No, I don’t know, but I’m excited to get started.

In the meantime, here’s part 2 of the Silent Hill: Homecoming letsplay that’s up and running on my channel. I hope that it engenders a little love towards me, because we’re going to approach another topic that I want to get out of the way before I get back to game reviews. I know, I should just do both. Maybe I will! I’m not the boss of me! Oh… er… anyways, this came up because I had a pretty obnoxious conversation over dinner last night with an associate of a friend of mine. Vague association, I know, but let’s continue on to the actual topic: Criticism.

I know that a substantial portion of the people who come here to feast on the mind-worms that droop from my slackened, pit-marked skull once a week are game critics. Or movie critics. Or book critics. A lot of the reason for that is that criticism is one of the things I enjoy, so I spend time reading about other people’s perspectives quite a bit. It’s good for me to see something through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes, it can completely change my view of something. Thus, it only makes sense, based on the laws of collision that I just made up, that critics are who I would meet on-line. Love the work, keep it up! This isn’t directed at anyone in particular, but I felt that in the age of Internet Criticism, we should discuss why and how we critique things.

Now, this is going to be a pretty big discussion. Obviously, a lot of the meat of critique is personal and subjective, so I can’t make sweeping generalizations and expect to do any good. Even though I probably will end up doing so, human weakness and all, I want to try to be as fair as I can. In the spirit of that commitment, I’m going to be honest: this is going to be 100% subjective. There are the things I’m personally tired of reading, like “B sucked because it didn’t A,”  but that doesn’t mean they should be abandoned. It’s complicated, because the road to that example conclusion is a legitimate way to interrogate a work. From my point of view, the crucial element is when the technique is employed. Let’s dive in and I’ll show you what I mean.

Let’s get this out of the way first: no one will ever be truly objective. (Not “can”: “will.”) It’s simply impossible. Which is too bad, because it would make criticism that much easier. Every experience a person has is influenced by all their previous experiences, how they’re approaching the present, whether they’re hungry or not, how many times they’ve experienced something… Let me give you a for instance. I loved most of The Lord of the Rings the first time I saw it. It was truly awe-inspiring. However, I felt that same way when I watched Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. Did you hear that? It was the sound of a hundred collectively gasped breaths, followed by a slow, deliberate move to the unsubscribe button, but hear me out.

When I first watched SWE1, I was eleven years old and, while I was a huge fan of the original trilogy, I wasn’t committed to the integrity of the Star Wars universe. I watched it with my Dad, which was kind of a special treat, because it was something we could both enjoy. I saw it in the theatres, and I wasn’t immersed in the internet culture that so derides the trilogy we whinge about today. And, let’s be honest, the first movie wasn’t as bad as we think it is today. It was fun, exciting and had Jedi, so I really enjoyed it. If I had put together my review then, it would have been a glowing recommendation written about as well as a Engrish translation.

What about The Lord of the Rings? Well, by the time I watched those movies, I was a little bit older and pretty committed to being a pop-culture junky. I had almost the same reaction to it, because the circumstances were pretty similar for what I was expecting from a movie at that point. Hell, JRR’s The Hobbit was one of the first books I ever read. Even so, I still spent a good deal of the movie comparing it to the book. It’s a pretty common practice now, and, having grown up doing it, it’s one of my least favourite past-times. Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie, but it didn’t have Tom Bombadil in it, and that’s what I wanted to see the most. Kind of soured the thing for me a bit. Eventually, I got over that and saw it for the good movie it was.

Until… years later, I’m sprawled on the couch, half-and-half vodka-coke in one hand, hangover threatening to pound its way through the booze wall I’m hastily erecting, memories of my recently lost girlfriend drifting through my head… Naturally, I put on a movie to distract me. That movie was… you guessed it… The Fellowship of the Ring. And I HATED it. It was too long, over-written, stuffy, pretentious, needless, unrealistic, unfaithful to the source material and a bunch of other mean things. Legolas was a pretentious jerk; Gimli was an annoying bag of hair that should have died too many times to count. You get it. I believe none of those things, but if I had written a review right then, I would have said it was terrible. Ironically enough, one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy it was that I’d loved it enough to have watched it too many times.

See what I mean? I chose an extreme case because I wanted to illustrate it as clearly as I could, but this occurs to a greater or lesser extent all the time. And it’s quite alright. I’m not saying we shouldn’t hate on movies, games or books. That would be silly and unrealistic. It can be a lot of fun to make light of the things we enjoy or hate. After all, we spent money to experience them, and they have a pretty big impact on our society. If that’s what someone wants to do, then I’m totally behind them (unarmed, even). But, I would suggest that we always ask “why.” I’ll illustrate with the conversation I had last night.

The basics of it were that Starship Troopers, a campy poke at Fascism and the military melded with over-the-top drama and action, was not like the book. Also, my associate thought it was a bad movie. Okay, that’s a legitimate opinion, but why is it important that the movie be like the book? Could a movie ever be exactly like a book and still be a good movie? You can capture the essence of something, but why does that mean we need to follow along blindly behind it? (SST Irony) Ideas can be used as vehicles for other ideas, after all. And they really should be, because some things just aren’t as relevant to popular culture as they once were. Or maybe we want to deconstruct them with a goofy movie. Basically, why is A movie THIS movie, and why do we want it to be a different movie? I could go on…

There are a lot of “whys” there, and I’m not going to go through all of them or we’d be here all night, but I will address the most important question I would ask: why are we proffering this criticism? I’m not saying that rhetorically; I’m asking what the end-goal of the criticism is. That’s a pretty essential question to answer, because it informs everything you do with your critique. It’s not something you can answer once, either. You have to know, going in, what you want to communicate for every critique. For instance, last night’s conversation would probably be akin to arguing personal movie preferences, because neither of us managed to have our opinions altered. We weren’t calmly discussing the merits of the movie; we were arguing over whether or not it was good based on our personal preferences. All well and good, but does that help anyone else? Only if you can explain yourself and provide a recommendation.

You see, to me, a personal preference review is one that’s helpful to people who are familiar with your preferences or, and this is optimal, someone who shares your preferences. That way you can provide helpful advice for anyone interested in that piece of cultural ephemera. But it probably wouldn’t be helpful to anyone actually making the film. On the creation side of things, you’re familiar with the fact that not everyone will like your film. You don’t make your films for everyone, and you’re aware of the diversity of opinion. I mean, you could try making movies for everyone, but then people just complain that they’re bland, which kind of defeats the purpose if there’s a large group that doesn’t like them. (Still, it might make a lot of money)

Thus, a lot of the time, the why you’re reviewing something comes down to who you’re reviewing it for. On this site, I try to peer into gameplay mechanics, poke at playability, flirt with experience and languor in story. All so you can decide if you want to buy it or not. Also, a part of me wants to influence how you look at games and movies. When I wrote my review for The Hobbit: TDoS, I did it because I loved the movie, yes, but also because I knew some people might get taken aback by some things if they went in expecting the book. Essentially, I wanted to help craft the mind-set you went into the movie with. Mind-set is a big part of getting everything you can out of a movie. You don’t want to watch an arty foreign-language film at a kegger (or maybe, hmm…) and you don’t want to watch LotR sprawled on the couch with a life hangover. (Still…) I vehemently believe that personal context matters.

At the same time, I occasionally focus on portions of a game that I felt affected the overall quality. Maybe there’s a setting I think would improve an experience or a level that I think could be better. At that point, I’m trying to get other designers, players and producers to think about if it could be improved, my recommendations be damned. Or, maybe I’ll do a review strictly to make a point, like I did with Super Hexagon and learning curves.

One thing I will never do is seriously denigrate the things I purport to love. I’ll always poke fun at EA, but I’m glad they’re around to draw capital and attention to gaming, and I genuinely enjoyed Dead Space. I didn’t like the second Star Wars prequel, so I didn’t watch the third one. I didn’t need to show up to hate it. And that’s what made last night’s conversation so needlessly obnoxious: “Okay, we’ve said our pieces about the film. Now what?” I’ve seen people work for hours to prove that something was bad, but what does that accomplish if that’s the end of it? Last-night-dude seemed hell-bent on convincing me that SST was a bad film, but all he did was convince me that he didn’t like it. It’s not just him, either. I’ve done it. I see it all the time on-line. We’re stating our opinions, and that’s great, but I think we should draw the line at trying to suck the fun out of it for other people. That’s not a critique, after all. Oh dear, did I not mention? I don’t believe that A critique = A review, but they’ve got a lot of things in common, so I figured I’d leave this segue here.

A critique is like a nuanced review. It takes into account past cultural incarnations (Read: prequels), current trends, multiple preferences, multiples perspectives, historical relevance, contemporary relevance… It basically situates the cultural artefact (Ex. movie) within its context and approaches it on its terms. Then, it discusses what all of that implies to us. It’s done to help the producers of the work to improve, the consumers of it to appreciate it and the critic of it to develop their abilities further. Again, that’s just my opinion, and we’re into semantics here, but that’s what I believe to be the purpose of a comprehensive critique. But, it’s not like every critic has all that background knowledge, especially starting out, or all that much room. I’ve seen some pretty poignant review Tweets, after all. And you don’t have to know or do all this to be a critic. The only reason I bring it up is because I believe it’s what we should shoot for when really diving into a piece of pop-culture.

To me, you should always approach something on its own terms; it really improves the experience. Because I have to approach many different types of popular culture, I’m not familiar with all of them, and I don’t always appreciate them off the bat. However, at some point along the way, I realized that I would never learn to enjoy new things if I always judged them by the standards I already had. I would always data-feed myself things I liked, narrowing my preferences further, until I couldn’t see anyone else’s opinions through my own miasma. I would believe something for so long that I’d begin to think it was true. If I didn’t try, if I didn’t work to cultivate different perspectives, I wouldn’t be much use to you today.

That’s kind of the heart of it. The standards by which we judge things are our own, and if we truly want to criticize something on its own merits, then we need to be aware of how those standards are formed and what they communicate. Just whinging about something doesn’t really forward the cause of improving its overall quality, unless we’re talking about affecting viewing figures and preferences. In which case, complaining about Michael Bay films hasn’t done much to affect their revenue. If someone hates those films, then maybe they’re not for them. I hated Transformers the first time, because it was a fandom movie made for someone other than the fandom. They knew the fandom would already come, so they made the film to appeal to everyone else, so they could get their business, as well. When I approach it with that in mind and a pint of beer, then it’s really not so bad. It’s the same way I watch Elementary on television and just pretend it’s a detective show about a guy who just happens to be named Sherlock Holmes. (If anyone’s a poster-child for the changes wrought by contemporary relevance, it’s Sherlock Holmes… or vampires)

More and more of us are flocking to the internet to give our opinions on movies, games and books, and I think that’s wonderful (That’s why I’m here, after all). A culture of criticism can really do some good, especially if we can add something to the reader’s experience. However, I think we should be extra aware of why we’re personally critiquing something and what we hope to communicate about it. After all, we’re going to be leaving these Tubes to the next wave of critical thinkers someday, and they’ll be looking to us to figure out how to approach criticism. For my piece, I want to leave them a tradition that’s positive and thoughtful. Cheers!

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.

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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.

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…

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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!

Trivial Punk’s Top 11 Games at E3

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

Well, I thought I was going to spend this week on more banal tasks, but then E3 popped up, impishly flashing a TARDIS key, and invited me into a wonderful world beyond imagining. Once I got in the box, I realized that it wasn’t bigger on the inside. I was trapped in a clever ploy and forced to witness the evil machinations of a tyrannical, mechanized dream-simulator with “Innovation” stencilled across it in huge block letters. Its goal was clear; E3 wanted all my money. Drake even waddled in, with a confused expression on his face, cheekily holding open a sack of cash under my nose that he’d nabbed off a nearby wall. All things considered, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a Monday.

I missed Nintendo’s offerings, but besides a Lemmings super-hero game and an unnamed open-world robot game, the stuff I scoped out this afternoon on the web-page didn’t look that new. Exciting, perhaps. It’s all the stuff we’ve loved previously, but on a new console. Although, honestly, I’d forgotten that the Wii U was next-gen. At the same time, considering that we’re looking at a copy of the old Mario games with Luigi as the protagonist, I think Nintendo has, too. I can only hope they don’t strip away all of Luigi’s personality and leave him as the same copy-paste-rendered slab that Mario has become. Giving Nintendo the benefit of the doubt, Mario and Luigi: Dream Team looks nifty, Bayonetta’s game-play has always been entertaining and oh… Zelda, Donkey Kong, Mario Kart, Wario, Pikmin… Can someone tell Nintendo that it’s okay to come up with new IPs? I kid. If you’re launching a new console, then it’s probably best to stick with your heavy-hitters, especially considering the offerings from the other guys. I’m sure the games will exhibit Nintendo’s trade-mark polish, as well, so we’ve got something to look forward to. Using Nintendo as our lovely, motion-controlled security blanket, let’s step into the frightening world of “Innovation” (Did I say that enough? E3 certainly did).

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Let’s skirt around the Sony-Microsoft pricing-DRM drama. I mean, there’s nothing like watching two multi-billion dollar companies out-market each other, but I’m in it for the games. So, let’s do a Top 11 run-down!

11. The Last of Us – PS3

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Yeah, I know this game was announced forever ago, and it’s coming out this week, but I had to mention it. This action-adventure survival-horror game looks like it might actually include some of the latter two. If you’re familiar with my stance on Dead Space, then you’ll know what I’m referring to. It’s from Naughty Dog and published by Sony, so don’t look for it on the Xbox any time soon.

10. Assassin’s Creed: Blackflag – Xbox 360, One; PS3, 4; PC, Wii U

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To be honest, I didn’t think much of this game when I heard about it. Even after I saw the trailer for it during Ubisoft’s conference, it just looked like another Assassin’s Creed game. However, during Sony’s presentation, they showed some actual game-play. That’s when I realized that this wasn’t another Assassin’s Creed game, this was the NEXT Assassin’s Creed game. Lush environments, beautifully considering backdrops and action that actually made me set my drink down. Sure, it crashed during the demonstration, but they’ll have those bugs ironed out by release date, right guys? … Guys?

9. Titanfall – Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC

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A first-person shooter developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by EA that balances pilot ground-based combat with giant drive-able mechs called Titans. Even if it’s just an up-date of MechWarrior, I’m excited. They stated that the mechs are supposed to be fast, sleek and powerful, though, so hopefully it won’t feel like piloting a garbage-can on wobbly-wheels. All joking aside, it looks like this could be an amazing game, if the concept merges well with the levels. It’s on you, level-designers!

8. The Crew – Xbox One, PS4, PC

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If you sat through all of Monday’s wheeling and screening, then you’re probably sick to your gills of hearing about driving games. I’m going to be honest, I was, too. That and on-line integration. Blah. So, it’s a bit surprising that a driving game built around on-line integration would make it on this list. No, this isn’t a token entry; I don’t do those. This is a pack-hunting, persistent open-world, on-line skill-testing extravaganza. Ubisoft and Ivory Tower really outdid themselves with the seamless nature of the co-op. There’s no lobby screen or boorish flow-breaking shenanigans. It’s grab-and-go with a little Hollywood magic mixed into the travel times. If I have to have on-line integration, then make it this smooth and functional. Oh, and the game-play. That seemed sweet, too. It sort of seemed like the logical opposite of Need For Speed: Most Wanted. Get behind that wheel and get hunting!

7. Battlefield 4 – PS3, 4; Xbox 360, One; PC

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Yeah, I know, another “realistic” first-person shooter from EA. BUT, hold on to that cynicism, because this Frostbite 3 driven frag-fest impressed the hell out of me. During a live 64-player on-stage demo, the players called down air-strikes that bitch-slapped like the angry finger of God and blew up a sky-scraper. It wasn’t a set piece. It wasn’t pre-planned. Tanks bored into its foundation and it. Fell. Down. That’s dynamic world game-play at its finest. Oh, the players on the sky-scraper? They jumped off and parachuted to safety Far Cry 3-style. I’m not sure if this will all carry over to the actual multi-player environment (there weren’t any smarmy 8-year-olds wiping their noses all over the mics with cusses), but if it does, then keep your eyes open for it. Call of Duty: Ghosts had better be one hell of a game to keep up.

6. Batman: Arkham Origins – PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC

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Were it not the third entry in a series, this would rate higher on the list. But hey, the other two had a generally high level of quality, so there’s no reason not to be optimistic. I guess the guys over at Warner Bros. read a lot of comics, because Origins is following the standard path of comic book story-lines and delving into a prequel, if the name didn’t tip you off already. There wasn’t a lot of game-play, and the story isn’t so unpredictable that I feel comfortable spoiling it for you, but there have been some engine upgrades. Things even look a little grittier, if that’s possible. Let’s be honest, though. If games get any grittier, then we’ll start feeling the uncontrollable need to take pail and mop to the screen. (#grittyreboot an IP you’d love to see get one for lulz)

5. The Evil Within – PS3, 4; Xbox 360, One; PC

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Developed by Tango Gameworks, published by Bethesda Softworks and directed the legendary Shinji Mikami, there’s no way this third-person survival-horror game wasn’t hitting my top 5. Other than its pedigree and a couple interesting trailers, there’s not much information available on the game, unless one wants to dig deep enough. Yeah, we know it takes place in an Asylum of some kind, but, in survival-horror circles, that’s like saying it’s somewhere near a Burger King. Still, Shinji Mikami brought us Vanquish and helped kick -start survival-horror’s popularity, so I’m betting on The Evil Within.

4. Sunset Overdrive – Xbox One

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Combining the open-world running capabilities of Mirror’ Edge with a third-person perspective was a shrewd idea. I mean, that’s what it’s going to take to make the concept work properly. Otherwise, it just looks like your camera is sliding over something on a skateboard or plummeting to its death because you couldn’t see the jump properly. It was published by Microsoft Studios, but you can probably already tell that it was developed by Insomniac Games. I mean, the monsters look an awful lot like Chimera. However, if this third-person parkour, open-world shooter plays anywhere near as smooth as the trailer, we should knock it into a lager and sell it by the pint.

3. The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot – PC

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This might look like another hack-and-slash free-to-play game, but this one’s from Ubisoft, so you know there’s a twist. You create your own castle, fill it will all the traps and mobs you can afford, then you go raid other castles with your hero; don’t forget to leave them a smug, little note once you’ve claimed their prize. The money you get from raiding those castles goes towards beefing up your own defenses! It sounds like all the most absorbing aspects of XCOM: Enemy Unknown rolled into a tower-defense, third-person hack-and-slash setting. I’m actually a little frightened to start playing.

2. Watch Dogs – Xbox 360, One; PS3, 4; PC, Wii U

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Another entry from Ubisoft?! You’d almost think I was biased by my Canadian heritage. But no, Watch Dogs is an open-world, third-person shooter that stands on its own four legs. In addition to an intelligent-looking AI, Watch Dogs includes the ability to hack the environment while you kick ass. It looks sleek and polished. I have no more to say. This looks awesome.

1. The Division – PS4, Xbox One, PC (?)

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When I made this list, I wasn’t paying attention to the developers. Maybe I was a little drunk. Maybe Ubisoft publishes great games. Either way, between them and its developer, Massive Entertainment, The Division managed to claw its MMORPG, third-person shooter ass over Watch Dogs to reach first place. Besides a map system that made me sit up and take notice, the inclusion of intelligent MMO abilities in a shooting environment, as well as smooth multi-player integration into a persistent world with dynamic PVP, puts The Division at the top of my list. Even the fluff of the world seems interesting, if a bit hyperbolic. Yeah, our world is complex and fragile, but if we were going to get knocked out by the sniffles being transmitted through legal tender, we’d have konked years ago. With the ubiquity of on-line game sales, I wonder if this is still culturally relevant. Honestly, it could just be Ubi’s way of encouraging us to buy digital. Still, you have to give them credit for including what looks like an interesting story-line in an MMORPG. That’s the original formula that made WoW great, after all.

So, that about wraps it up! Yeah, I didn’t mention Yoshi’s Island, Final Fantasy XV or Kingdom Hearts, but that’s because I’ve never salivated over those series as much as other people have. They’ll get enough love from the internet without me. That being said, it looks like they might have found a way to revive the lacking Final Fantasy combat system a bit. Anything that makes the battles a little more dynamic is okay in my book. Hey, maybe they’ll even include game-play. Oh! Don’t forget to check out Transistor, too.

I should say that most of these games are in early development or almost out. E3 is a huge hype factory, and the final products aren’t always going to be what we were promised. Look at Fable. So, we should be a bit cynical. However, these are entertainment engines, dream-machines, even, and despotism aside, we should stay a little hopeful. Otherwise, what’s the point? If you go in looking for stuff to hate, you’ll find it. So, keep your eyes open, but don’t have them fixed upon the seams. That’s just rude. So, choose your platform and let the next generation wars continue!

Bastion – Spoiled Rotten

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by trivialpunk

Well, here we are again. It’s always such a pleasure. Welcome back to part 2 of our look at Bastion, the action-RPG from the lovely developers over at Supergiant Games. The first part of this literary tongue-bath looked at the art-style of Bastion and how its aesthetic assisted… nay, was an integral part of… game-play. If you want to take a look at it before you read this one, then it’s the post directly before this one. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by linking to it. Today, we’re going to look at Bastion’s story, as well as some of the game mechanics and game-play features that added an extra punch to its narrative. It’s going to be an avalanche of spoilers, though. So, if you haven’t played Bastion, and I very much suggest that you do, then save this post for a rainy day. That, or go buy and play it. It’s worth your time. If you don’t have the time, then I hope you enjoy my look at it! Maybe if you close your eyes and let your imagination take over, you can explain to me how exactly you’re reading with your eyes closed.

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We begin the story of this isometric hack-and-slasher with a boy’s bedroom floating in nothingness. The hauntingly epic voice of Logan Cunningham begins to narrate the tale. Here we see the first example of the combination of narrative and game-play integration that will become the staple of your Bastion experience. Nothing further happens until you move the control sticks. Then, your character, The Kid, will wake up and get to his feet in response to your movement. This will trigger another piece of exposition from the narrator. At triggered points, the narrator will break in with an explanation of what you’re doing or with subtle directions to your next objective (Occasionally assisted by giant blue arrows). However, they’re not fourth-wall breaking most of the time, because the game is framed as a third-person perspective story. So, it makes sense for him to be recounting your actions. By keeping the story tight and the levels small, Bastion is able to ensure that you’re never quite without direction or observation. Of course, the narrator isn’t omniscient, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

The events that trigger a bit of exposition are varied. There’s one part early on when you get your first weapon and fight your first monster that illustrates how these triggered exposition flashes can bring you into the story and make you feel like you’ve got an effect on events. In the area you receive the weapon, there are a lot of boxes and assorted bazaar paraphernalia. If, after the fight, you stay around to test your weapon on the scenery, the narrator says, “The Kid just rages for a while…” However, if you don’t, then that line is never spoken. Doesn’t do much for those of us that just moved on, but if you stuck around to wail on things, then it only added to the world and your sense of immersion within it. It’s also a good example of the developers’ understanding their players. They knew that if they handed you a weapon, then the first thing you would do is take your curiosity out on the surrounding scenery. So, they wrote it into the narrative. This is one of the advantages of linear game-play. If you plan far enough ahead, then you can make your players feel like they’re having an effect on things, being allowed more freedom, than even most sandbox game can allow. Or, should I say, especially most sandbox games. That genre’s getting out of control, guys.

Other than brief moments like that, the exposition comes before, after and between combat sections. By keeping the wording succinct, punchy and symbolic, Bastion manages to let you enjoy a deep narrative without being distracted from the game-play. It doesn’t shout important lines at you when you’re trying desperately to keep your eye-sockets pick-axe free; it makes sure that you understand what’s going on. You’re aware of the stakes, so they become a part of the experience. By becoming a part of the experience, they alter the game and make you think about the implications of the events and your part within them. This is the kind of immersive, linear story-telling that Far Cry 3 and BioShock: Infinite got so right, but without the first-person perspective. I think this demonstrates quite heartily that you can use a directed story-telling method in any modern linear game without sacrificing immersion, even if you’re not playing as a 5’9” camera on legs.

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Let’s come back to that standing up thing again, because it’s soooo fascinating. Well, actually, it is. When you’ve got a limited number of actions and animations, then you’ve got to pick and choose carefully which ones you want to employ. Then, you’ve got to use them effectively to tell your story. Far Cry 3 has a massive range of available animations, and they could make new ones on the fly, but Bastion reaches back through a long-standing tradition of communicating through simple sprite movements. One of my first memories of something like this was in Mario RPG. At one point, you were asked a question and then responded by jumping. It seemed like an enthusiastic hop and came to perfectly describe Mario’s personality, despite the fact that it was one of a very limited range of available animations that he did. I mean, Mario jumps. That’s like… his thing. The Kid, however, gets tossed around a lot, either during travel or by falling off of ledges, so his thing is standing up. It’s quick and simple, but it’s also very effective.

There’s a portion near the very end of the game, after the climax with Zulf, where you travel back to the Bastion. After the game finishes loading, we find The Kid sprawled out on the grass in his normal fashion, but something’s very different. He was clearly hurt by that last encounter. He’s tired; it has been an extremely draining adventure with almost no time for a proper rest. He’s weathered it all, but you can only handle so much. His body is beaten. His mind taxed. You try to get him to move; his body responds sluggishly, lifting him slightly. But, he collapses. The screen fades slightly. The narrator gives a heart-felt, “Come on, Kid. Get up.” You try again, and he moves a little further, but the effort is too much. He collapses again. The screen fades a bit more. The narrator’s heart is breaking. You give it another go and slowly, achingly, you bring The Kid to his feet. It’s not a lot. It’s just the same animation you’ve used throughout the game to get up with a couple alterations, but it’s used to great effect. It’s also a big part of what we know about our character: he always stands up. Him struggling with that tells you exactly how taxed he is. It’s elegant and engaging. Bam. There’s no half-cocked joke here. This is how you use your mechanics.

Let’s talk choice for a bit. Bastion isn’t a game about building a character around a set of moral choices, but it does a good job of communicating who The Kid is through a couple of key junctures. It doesn’t change anything about the overall game-play. That’s okay. The story is our primary means of engagement. So, let’s start with the climax with Zulf. When you go to wrest the last shard from the hands of the Ura, you end up wiping out waves of their people. This, understandably enough, they aren’t happy with. Far from only blaming you, they also don’t take kindly to the man who led you here, who taunted you into attacking. The man who also tried to warn you away from the Bastion to save your life. So, they assault him. You find him on the ground, broken body bleeding, close to death. At this point, you’ve got a kick-ass special weapon. It’s a blessed bull battering ram with the power to literally rain fire from the sky. Zulf needs help, though. You can’t carry him and fight at the same time. You have to make a choice. Do you pick him up or leave him to die? (Remember that point about omniscience? This is where the narrator’s knowledge runs dry. He has no idea what you do here, so the choice is left up to you.)

If you don’t pick him up, you use your amazing battering ram to fight your way home. After the final fight, you arrive back at the point I talked about with the standing up mechanic. However, if you choose to pick him up, then an entirely different thing happens. You still run through the same gauntlet, getting fired at from all sides, moving slowly under the weight of Zulf’s body, trying desperately to stay alive, but something happens. Eventually, the Ura begin to fire on you less and less. Finally, near the exit, one of the Ura kills the last remaining soldier still firing at you. Clearly, that guy was committed to your death, even as the rest of the Ura honoured your commitment to Zulf. Your commitment to saving what you could. Putting your body on the line for your ideals. Between the music and the pacing, the sentiment and the story it tells through simple symbolism, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the game. Following it up with the scene where The Kid is trying to stand up brought me closer to tears than I’d like to admit on the internet. That is, it brought me to them. It’s incredibly memorable.

What makes it so effective? It follows the video game adage: do, don’t show. You can feel the slow, desperate struggle of The Kid as he walks through the gauntlet because you’re moving at that pace. You can almost feel his health bar dropping, and, by the middle of it, you can’t help but feel that you’ve made a horrible mistake. This is how your life ends. There’s nothing you can do about it, except try to carry on. You might say that you could put Zulf down, but that’s not who The Kid is. See what I was saying? Excellent character development. What are the motives of the Ura? Well, the Ura are basically a quasi-samurai-like race. So, I’m tempted to say they’re moved by your sense of honour. Either they’re given an order not to kill you, or they all believe in their way of life enough that they draw the same conclusion about your actions and cease attacking. It could be both, even. But, you still represent a lot of evil deeds to them, and more losses, so it’s easy to understand why that one guy keeps attacking you. To him, you’re a monster. Then, when he’s put down, it’s either because he is disobeying orders or because it’s the only way he’ll stop attacking you. Couldn’t have been easy. One life for another. It’s a harsh world. A harsh culture. A harsher lesson.

These are all things you understand intuitively through the game-play. You don’t have to sort it out in your head. You can just look at the deeds of the characters, the Ura, whose actions are all expressed within their normal game-play animations mind you, and say thanks. Thanks for understanding and giving me a chance to make this right. Simple and effective story-telling that’s executed so beautifully that my mind almost revolts at calling it “simple.” Yeesh, I’m going to have to pick a truly horrible game to hate on next week or you guys will think I’ve gone soft!

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That brings us to the final moments of Bastion and the choice that defines the game’s meaning. Up until the 9/10’s mark of the game, the narrator is speaking as if to you, using a third-person perspective voice. Then, as you enter the final level, you find out that he has been talking to Zia, the singer, this whole time. He’s been telling her the story that you’ve been playing through during the moments leading up to when you get to activate the Deus Ex Machina. You see, a great cataclysm tore through the land and shattered the world. Thus the floaty platforms and ash-statues. It’s an allegory for nuclear war, obviously. Well, actually, just for the apocalypse. The Bastion, the structure you’ve been rebuilding, can take the memories stored within the Cores of the City and the shards of the Wilds to and use them to restore the world. The entire world. You can jump the clock back to before the apocalypse. It’ll never have happened. However, in the closing level, the narrator reveals that, while he designed The Bastion, he was never able to test it. Even if he had, there would be no way for him to know if it worked, because he would be reset to before he knew the results of the test. That being said, there’s no way of knowing whether The Bastion has already been used or not. Even if you undo the apocalypse, there’s no way of knowing if it will happen again… or not.

In the final moments of the game, the narrator turns to you, addresses you directly, and asks you to make a choice. Do you wind back the clock to the way things were before or use The Bastion to evacuate and start a new life in a changed world? This may seem easy — you prevent the apocalypse, duh — but it’s not. You see, an apocalypse is just a great change. It’s a sweeping reordering of the current world. Bastion asks you to consider if setting things back to the old order is really the answer. It suggests that, perhaps, the structure of that world was what brought it to its end. After all, in the old world, you’re an orphan without a cause. The narrator is an inventor working for the City. Zia is a peasant girl. Zulf is, well, he’s doing fairly well. In the world changed by the cataclysm, you can forge something new. Will you be able to learn from the mistakes of the past or do you not feel like you can make that choice for the millions of lives that The Bastion will restore? You might realize, then, that it’s not just the people that are to blame for the cataclysm. It’s also the world they live in. You might even be able to change something if you wind the clock back, but you won’t have any memory of the events you’ve struggled through. This world, your new family, will be undone so that the old one can re-assert itself.

Will it make a difference? Or, will you end up back at the cataclysm? This is suggested by the New Game Plus option. You start back at the beginning and the first words of the narrator take on a whole new meaning, “A proper story is supposed to start at the beginning…” Where, though, is the beginning in the story of The Bastion? It’s a time loop, a paradox.

Using this framework, Bastion also asks us a couple of other hard questions. Is setting things to rights (Read: the way they used to be) justification for doing ill now? Is it okay to murder someone now because they’ll be resurrected by the time-loop? What happens to that justification if you decide to evacuate? You’ve got so much blood on your hands. Can you possibly just move on from that? If that justification is so flimsy, so reliant on a future promise, is it any justification at all? Is it an excuse for forwarding your own morality? There’s an uncomfortable truth about the way we tend to look at the world in the narrator’s words, “Don’t let anything you’ve done get to you. You can save all these creatures here and now.” “Save” is an interesting term here. The Cores represent the memories of the past that hold the world in place the way it is, but that raises a greater existential question. Are you saving those creatures or just a copy of them? Yeah, the Cores may be great big USB sticks for the God-puter, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not still deleting the original file. Or, is it the original? There’s no way to know.

This is the narrative that unifies the game. It’s complex, tragic and unfair. It asks questions that we can’t possibly answer and explores morality through intuitive choices that aren’t easily made once you think about them. By the way, if you save Zulf and choose to evacuate, then he’s in the closing credit pictures with you, escaping on The Bastion. If you don’t save him, well… There’s no ticket to the past. I’ll close with a quote from the narrator, Rucks, that plays if you choose the evacuation option:

“You could have undone the calamity itself, but, instead, you want to stay in a world like this… we can’t go back, but I guess we could go… wherever we please.”

Don’t be afraid of great change. You can choose to move forward.

That’s how you tell a fucking story.

Bastion – Unspoiled

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

This week, I sat down to play a game from my list of “Have to’s.” You know the ones, like Portal, Amnesia and SpecOps. The ones people won’t stop going on about. It’s rare that I’m disappointed by one of these games. In fact, with the exception of SpecOps, I’ve usually ended up playing them through in a sitting or two. I tried doing that with Skyrim and almost failed a class. I also ran dangerously low on snacks, but that’s another story altogether. My point is that this week, I span-up Bastion and gave it a go. And, in stark contrast to the way this usually goes, I finished the game in one sitting, then decided to play it half-way through again. Then, I slept and finished it for a second time. So, if anyone was wondering where I went for that couple of days. Yeah, that’s where. By the end of the second play-through, I had so many notes covering the four-page spread I keep by my computer that it looked like the scribbling of a mad man. In truth, that’s kind of what it was. I’d lost it, fallen absolutely in love with the game. At the end of the experience, though, I looked back and couldn’t figure out exactly why.

It wasn’t exactly ground-breaking. I’ve played games with better combat. Better graphics. More nuanced stories. I was flummoxed. So, I loaded it up again. I realized, while playing through for the third time, that I’d simply been suffering from a broken heart. I couldn’t see the positives of it, because this game isn’t something you can just pick apart and expect to hold up. Every element of it has been polished and placed with care. Like a well-made BLT, it was the combination that elevated it. In combining so well, it had created an atmosphere that drew me into its world. Once it was over, though, that world ceased to be. Then, like a rejected cultist, I was forced to sit outside and think about what I’d done. What I’d done was spent 16 hours playing a 7 hour game (give or take, depending on whether or not you do replay + and finish all the challenges). I’d lost myself in the world, but I couldn’t get that part of me back. So, all I wanted to do was criticize it.

So, that’s where we’re at now. Part of me is forever lost in Bastion. However, maybe with enough analysis and a couple snippets from its truly excellent soundtrack, I’ll be able to get through this without crying. More than the once I already did. If I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to take a page out of Bastion’s manual and rebuild myself from the shards of the game I get by killing… windbags… Does that mean I have to commit to brevity? No, that’s never going to work. Oh well, roll the dice. I also realized that I wouldn’t be able to go over everything I wanted to without ruining your experience of the game. So, I split the post in two. This one will focus on its art design and some of the game-play mechanics that interact with it. Next post, I’ll talk about its story-line, narration (<3) and the mechanics that interact with that. Then, I’m going to load up a good old-fashioned horror game and cleanse this warm-fuzzy feeling from my cartilage.

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Let’s get a little background first. Bastion is an isometric hack-and-slasher with customizable difficulty from Supergiant Games (Published by Warner Bros.) that emphasizes rebuilding your shattered world from the remains of your once-great civilization using a powerful Deus Ex Machina. As you wander through the levels, the world forms underneath your feet. However, it’s only reformations of structures and places that once were, so there are edges to it that you can fall off of. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “An isometric game about platforms that float in space that you can fall off of? That sounds like a nightmare!” And yeah, it really could have been. Knowing your precise positioning in a game like this is crucial. They didn’t have much margin for error. One tiny step in the wrong direction could have made this game an absolute pain to play, but Supergiant pulled it off without a hitch. It’s quite an accomplishment! So, let’s talk about how they did it.

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Open up the picture in a new tab. It becomes quite large, so you’ll be able to see exactly what I’m talking about. Supergiant had a couple big challenges with this game right off the designing board:

1. Creating a fleshed-out, atmospheric world with limited levels on platforms that were easy to navigate, even as they were forming up underneath you.

2. Making the characters fit into the world, while still allowing them to be easily discernible for the more hectic portions of combat.

We’re going to use that one picture as our primary example for now. Like much of the game, it features a central platform connected to others by bridges and smaller sections that appear under your feet. It’s pretty easy to tell where the edges of the larger platforms are in this one, but I want you to appreciate with me for a moment how fantastic the art in this picture is. How incredibly detailed it is without being cluttered. For the most part, it’s those details and differences that let you know where the edges are. Between railings and embossments, it makes sense from a design stand-point. That’s how you would make a bridge. That understanding helps us to define those boundaries. It’s also intuitively ergonomic. The center of each area is where most human interaction would take place, so things like barrels and benches line the outside. That all being said, it also happens to be perfect for combat.

To get from place to place, the bridge platforms form up in front of you in relation to your walking and rolling speed, so you’re never stepping out into thin air. It’s designed well enough that you soon get a feel for where you can and should not step. If you’re right at the edge and one isn’t popping up, then I’m sorry to say that nothing’s going to be breaking your fall, except perhaps the ground. I’m not even kidding, when you fall off the side, you get blasted up by a wave of tamed wind that thumps you right back on the platform again. Face-first. The wind-taming narrative mechanic is actually brilliant here, because it gives the game an excuse for getting you right back up on the platform and provides you with a primary mode of travel between levels. That way, they can stay disjointed but accessible. The timing of each fall is short enough that it doesn’t become frustrating, but it stills punishes you by taking away some of your life and breaks your combat flow a bit. It’s a lovely balance. They also give you quite a bit of leeway when it comes to being “on” a platform. You’re basically wearing snow-shoes.

For those of you that pay attention as psychotically as I do, you’ll probably have noticed that the picture features four different art styles crammed into one. Well, I say crammed… but that’s because it sounds better than masterful combined. I feel like I’ve worshipped enough for one day. The background is a beautifully detailed, high-definition watercolour. The platforms look a little more computer-rendered, but bathe in the same static art-style as the background, relying on shading detail and simple animations to bring them to life. The Kid, and the other characters you interact with, are a little more dynamic again, constantly moving to help them pop out of the background. At the very foreground of the screen is a screen-saver like effect. In this particular picture, you’ll notice leaves on the screen. They and other objects, like feathers, drift straight down to give you a thematic sense of the level. It’s kind of like how liquor commercials always feature really attractive people. They have nothing to do with the actual product, but it’s an encouraging association.

These different art designs are wrapped together by their placement. More detailed movement takes place closer to you, adding another layer to the fore-shortening perspective tricks that make up isometric geometry. They all also share a common pallet. The platforms are slightly different designs based around the same theme with colour-schemes that alter only enough to let you know they’re different platforms. Nothing bleeds into the next thing, but they’re also quite unified. Talking about pallet actually brings us neatly into character design. For this we’re going to focus on The Kid, as opposed to the stock-samurai, the tooth-paste creatures or the old guy, so let’s get a look at him…

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There he is! Sombre little guy. Now, let’s toss in one more landscape shot just for good measure.

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Notice again the criss-crossed boards and crumbling walls that define the edges. Now, take a look at The Kid. He’s got white hair (yes, they address it), darker skin, a red scarf, dark-brown boots, grey-green armor and a dark shirt. Now, look at the environment. Each and every colour on The Kid is echoed in the environment. There are hints of white everywhere and accents of red all over. The boards are similar to his skin and the lanterns reflect his armor. Without being too obvious about it, they’ve made us intuitively aware that he’s a part of this world; he belongs there. Look at his trade-mark weapon: The Cael Hammer. The handle is his hair, the head is his skin, the end of the handle is his armor and it’s even accented with a red slash. It’s basically him, but like… a hammer.

Of course, all this palette resonance might have made him difficult to see and, in an isometric game, it can sometimes be difficult to tell where your character is facing at a given moment. For hack-and-slashers, these things can be devastating, especially for the block-shield-counters. That’s why The Kid has an asymmetrical design. You’ll notice that his shoulder plates and glove stand out, so you can easily tell which direction you’re facing in terms of left or right. For forward and back, there’s a big, bloody hammer to assist you. However, there’s more to it than that. Look at the details and you’ll notice that every point on his body is accented by a bit of white/grey: hair, wrist-wrap, boots and shoulder. In combination with the dynamic quality of his idle and run animations, you’ve got the perfect recipe for a pseudo-point-light-walker. Our brain is very good at reading patterned and biological motion in these cases, and Bastion takes full advantage of that to let us see where we are in relation to the things we’re bashing over the head. Or cutting open. Or shooting. I’m not going to judge you for your combat preferences. When you run, you also leave tiny dust clouds behind you to let you know what direction you’ve come from. This, alongside a static-dynamic camera, is a big help in creating a realistic sense of motion.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got to say for the art direction in relation to game-play. The rest of it is basically going to be you applying what I’ve hinted at here to understand how the game’s art makes its mechanics more tenable and its world richer. Creating depth and atmosphere can be difficult, but if you unify everything, from the palette to the design, then you’ll have an easier time of it. Every part of a game is going to influence every other part when it’s experienced by the player, so its important to keep unity in mind during development. That’s why everything in Halo is so bloomy-shiny. That and, you know, the engine. Geeze, will you look at the time? We’ve still got plenty of space. Let’s talk combat.

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You didn’t think I was going to talk about a hack-and-slasher without at least mentioning the combat, did you? The things I’ve mentioned about the environment are inversely applicable to the enemy models. They share almost none of the same palette as The Kid, so you don’t really confuse the two. They’re mostly blue-green. However, their palette, again, reflects the environment, while small accents of brown reflect The Kid. They also move in very different ways. The ninjas dash. The gasfellas float. The scumbags… skid. So, you’ll never really lose yourself in the fray, no matter how cluster-fucky it gets. Biological motion. Yee-haw.

All of the weapons experiment with difference aspects of the combat engine. Some of them do great amounts of damage at large distances very slowly. Some quickly do a lot of damage at close range. It’s the standard play with the variables of range, speed, damage, influence on enemy placement, armor-penetration and personal manoeuvrability gambit. It’s pretty effective, too, because the levels you find each weapon on are designed to showcase their usefulness. Of course, you can switch back before too long if you don’t like the style. Each item also comes with its own training ground that you can use to improve your skill with the specific features of a given weapon. Do well enough and you’ll unlock items or special moves. Oh yeah! Each weapon also comes with its own special move that you can equip one at a time and use. They draw from a small pool of uses, but you can increase that pool by equipping Spirits. You know, like liquor but magically formulated to improve your dexterity, in stark contrast to the way spirits usually affect you. Different liquors have different passive buffs and you can equip up to ten at a time, one for each level you gain. Weapons can also be upgraded to improve and compensate for their various variable features to further fit your own personal combat style. So, combat-style is quite customizable. Each level of weapon upgrade makes you choose between one buff or another. So, you can make a really middle-of-the-road weapon or pimp yourself out for doing one thing really well. You can always change your mind for no cost at any forge, though, so you’re free to experiment.

You must be thinking that, between levels, spirits, weapon upgrades and a full range of customizable combat-styles, your enemies aren’t going to be able to stand much of a chance. You’d be mostly right. The base-line enemies are still challenging, though. They’re not going to give you a run for your money, but you’re not going to be so bored that you fall asleep mid-session. HOWEVER, you can upgrade their combat abilities, as well, by evoking the power of the Gods. One of the later buildings you unlock allows you to evoke the various idols of the Pantheon of the Gods of the old world. Each idol you evoke gives you a small money and exp bonus, but also provides your enemies with increased capabilities. You start out with only one, but you can unlock more through play or buy them at the store. It’s a sort of free-market Godconomy, if you will. So, if you’re ever feeling cocky, then take on fast, damage-resistant, randomly reflective, self-healing, occasionally invincible, heavy-hitting, enemies that injure you when you collide, don’t drop health tonics, damage you when they die and slow you with each hit. You might not be stopped in your tracks, but you’ll definitely be frustrated. Then, try the final, unlockable, Game-plus gauntlet with all those on. I assure you, it’s a challenge.

So, that’s Bastion. There’s lots more to talk about, but I think you should experience it for yourself. Next post, I’ll be talking about how its mechanics and narrative coalesce to create an immersive, or at least interactive, experience. It’s going to be a raging spoil-a-thon, though, so read at your own risk. I urge you to play the game first. It’s cheap and well worth your time. I promise you. Also, use an X-box controller. It’s just better. Take care 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…

No Time for Horror, Doctor Jones

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by trivialpunk

If you read my review of the Dead Space 3 demo, then you’ll know that I don’t consider it horror, least of all, survival horror. That leaves a big bloody, gaping question, “What is it?” To answer that question, we’re going to compare it to, surprise, surprise, the Silent Hill games. It’s not that I think that all games should be like Silent Hill. Indeed, later entries in the series attempted to copy the form of the game without understanding the subtleties. Silent Hill is just a convenient starting point, because we’re going to be taking on both series as wholes. So, without further ado, let’s get this rolling.
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As you may know, it’s getting harder and harder to address the genre of a game. Traditionally, there weren’t that many different kinds of games to choose from. However, things have complicated themselves as the gaming industry has expanded. Sure, we’ve been staying close to many of the original formulas in a lot of ways, but we’ve been reproducing and changing enough that some really unusual mutations have begun  to appear. It’s not enough to say that something is a first-person shooter, anymore. That barely tells you anything about the game. Fallout 3 is technically an FPS, but I’d hardly call it one to its face. Dark Souls is an RPG, but that’s not really the core of it. Dead Space 3 is full of gore and threat, but I’d hardly call it a horror game. If it were, then Max Payne and Painkiller would have equal claim to the title. They don’t, though. Even games that we tend to call horror games, like Alan Wake, feel a bit off. Look at the box, it bills itself as a “Psychological Action Thriller.” Here’s where the hands of the brighter gaming scholars in the class will shoot up and ask the burning question, “Doesn’t that pretty much describe a horror game?”
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You’ve got me there. Sort of. Like Fallout 3 and Painkiller, it’s all about how you approach the subject matter. Anyone familiar with sarcasm knows that you can answer a question, using exactly the same words as someone else, and mean something profoundly different. I’m going to crib off of Penny Arcade’s Extra Credits here and say that a game’s genre is defined by what you come to the game for. Using a little backwards engineering, we can look at how the game is affecting the player. After all, that’s the ultimate defining factor. I don’t know any people that watch “The Shining” because it’s a laugh-a-second thrill ride, or read Archie comics for their brilliant satirical deconstruction of white-bred suburbia. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t do that, but I just don’t know anyone like that. I’m going to guess that not many of us do. That being said, it’s going to get harder and harder to define game genres as time passes. That doesn’t mean it’s fruitless, though. Like all categories, they’re just general descriptors. There’s plenty of room to move around inside the box. There is a threshold, though, one I think that Dead Space 3 has hit.
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Of course, the game I’m talking about only released a demo, but if we look back at the other games in the series, we can see a pattern emerging. Even more telling, is part of the Dead Space 3 design philosophy. I’ll link you to my sources —> http://forums.aegis7.com/32-dead-space-3/2637-why-have-they-turned-dead-space-gears/page_4.html#post22344 via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Space_3
For those of you who didn’t feel like following the link, I’ll sum it up. They wanted to make Isaac more responsive. He’s able to take cover, combat roll, and move more organically. This was done because, and I quote, ” [they] want the horror to come from the terrible things that happen in the game; not from the horror that something is moving slowly towards you and you can’t shoot it because the game controls like a piece of crap.” Man, that’s discouraging. It seems like they’ve missed the point of the crappy controls like a champ. Then again, most people who are using cliff notes seem to. I wasn’t there in the planning room for the Resident Evil or Silent Hill games, so I can’t tell you the intent of the control scheme. It might have been a limitation thing, or even an accident, but the results were a feeling of limited efficacy and helplessness.
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If you’ve ever played through this fight in Silent Hill 2, then you’ll know what I mean. For most of the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series, the control scheme was such that you had to rotate your character, and move it forward and backwards, separately. In addition, the room for this fight was quite small.
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That’s most of the rest of the room. As you can probably tell, Pyramid head’s weapon is quite large. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but, when swung, it takes up most of the area. To fight him, you’ve got to run around him, with the clunky controls, get some space between you, and fire off a few shots in his direction. Then, you’ve got to wait until he drags that giant blade towards you, and, when he’s about to swing it, run around him. He’ll switch up the angle of his attack. He does an over-the-head swing that reaches most of the way across the room, as well as a quicker stab attack. This being a well-designed survival horror game, he will eventually leave, even if you don’t shoot at him. This takes much longer, of course. Why design an encounter this way? Because the point of this fight isn’t to shoot enough lead into a seemingly indestructible creature until it bleeds enough to fall over. No, that’s too easy. The point of this fight is to survive, and experience, the helpless claustrophobia. Between the movement restrictions, and the pace of the fight, you get just enough time to realize when he’ll be swinging his big ass sword at you, and that it’s going to kill you.

This goes right to the pacing of the entire game. Silent Hill leaves you room to consider the situation you’re in, and actually makes you dread it. If James Sunderland, the hero of Silent Hill 2, moved as freely as Isaac does in Dead Space 3, then the Pyramid Head fight would be laughable. Or, more likely, the entire fight would have to be re-tooled. Pyramid Head would probably move faster, and the arena would be larger. His attacks would be more varied, and you might actually have to whittle down a health bar. That being said, it would still be a tense fight. If you didn’t have a health bar to whittle down, and he still eventually left, it could actually be quite frightening. After all, there’s no indication that you’re actually hurting him. It actually makes a “Ting!” sound when you shoot him, like one of those inexhaustibly annoying kids on the playground that played Cops and Robbers with Superman-like invincibility. Of course, that kind of movement would mean a re-tooling of the whole game. As it stands, you can get good at moving with the clunky controls if, like me, you played it obsessively as a child. However, every movement still requires a certain level of planning. You’ve got to set up your angle and make a break for it when the time is right. This creates the perfect level of hesitation, because you’re well aware of the threat being posed, and your tenuous ability to meet it.
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In an earlier post, I mentioned that well-designed games tend to follow a similar arousal curve in all aspects of their game play. Fast-paced games usually throw you right into the action after brief moments of respite that give you just enough time to reload before the next wave . It’s up and down and up and down. Slower games do much the same thing, but the length of each portion of the pattern is different. How do Dead Space and Silent Hill differ in this regard? As my break down of the Pyramid Head fight illustrates, it holds true for combat. So, let’s look at Dead Space. Every Dead Space game has a token attempt to build atmosphere, but it never lasts. Before long, you’re slogging through Necromorph after Necromorph. Even the tension-building phases have walls covered in blood and bodies. The parts without it usually involve breaking open item crates, solving puzzles or doing quick-time events. It’s trying to keep you engaged and tense. However, as anyone who has watched a horror movie knows, the horrific moments are all the more salient for the snatches of respite around them. That’s why you’re thrown back to Regular Silent Hill after the climactic portion of every Dark Silent Hill section.

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Dead Space is all tension. As a result, you really don’t experience any of it. Sure, you might feel it, but that’s not really the same thing. Eventually, you habituate to it, like the clothes on your body. Even the gore gets tired. Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee pointed out that the scene from Heavy Rain where the guy cuts his finger off is far more effective than, well, any of the dismemberment that goes on in Dead Space, and I can’t help but agree. It happens so often, and so quickly, that there’s barely any time to consider the ramifications of it. Part of what makes horror so poignant is the degree to which we can imagine ourselves in the same situation. For a more clear example of what I mean, think about that one scene in the Lord of the Rings when Gandalf hits his head in Bilbo’s house. Whether you’ve smacked your head on a low-hanging arch or not, you’ll have a vague idea of what it feels like. Any thoughts about having your face torn off? Arm severed by a killer space scythe? No? Well, shit.
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The result of this is that Dead Space never really gives you the feeling of being horrified. It can jump-scare you, and leave you feeling tense, but real horror comes from the mind of the player. It comes from putting yourself in the place of the protagonist, and thinking about the ramifications of your actions. It comes from thinking about the world and the horror around you. From feeling the difference between the horrific, the sublime, and the banal. There’s no time for that in Dead Space. You’ve got to be shooting shit, now! Well, there are a few moments of considered terror. A fight in zero-g, from an earlier game, with a giant monstrosity was paced just well enough to leave me shaken. It was overwhelmingly, brain-defying huge. I actually got to think about the situation. Go Dead Space! There’s not much to the series like that, though. It’s mostly blood, and run-shoot-run-shoot-AUGH! As for the portion of the design philosophy that referred to “the terrible things that happen in the game,” all I have to say is that disturbing images aren’t scary if they carry no weight or consideration. I can’t stress this enough, you have to give us time to imagine, because imagination is the seat of horror. That being said, it’s not a straight-up action game, either.
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There may be a lot of shit going on all the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s in the same boat as a Call of Duty game. The type and tone of the encounters means that it’s not strictly a first-person shooter, but it sure wants you to fight like it’s one. You see, the pacing penetrates as far as the most basic layers. Isaac’s enhanced movement means that monsters need to be faster to keep up with him. As a result, you can’t really afford to run away from them. Hell, most of the time, the game won’t let you continue until you’ve filled everything around you with enough hot plasma to power a warp-core. This is a huge shift in tone. Survival horror, if Pyramid Head, and the controls, didn’t make it abundantly clear, is a game-type that relies quite heavily on the ability to run away. This makes the times you can’t all the more effective. Monsters in tight hallways have to be dodged, because there isn’t a lot of ammo lying around and your weapons are slow and unwieldy. This is aided by the speed of the main character, which the monsters are programmed in relation to. They’re slow enough that you can run, but fast enough that they’re a bitch to fight. Dead Space encourages you, through its movement and ordinance-heavy design, to fight. You Are The Reaper. In a way, you’re the Pyramid Head of the Dead Space franchise. If Necromorphs feel, then you can’t imagine they’re ever elated by Isaac’s appearance in their midst.

Now, let’s bring it all together. Dead Space, and games like it (Resident Evil 4-6, Silent Hill Homecoming, etc.), aren’t really paced for horror. Their engagement, mechanics, and story-line are geared towards more constant provocation. It’s all about jump-scares and a constant feeling of low-level preparedness. That’s the problem: preparedness. It’s great for keeping people tense, but if you’re feeling ready, then you’re not expecting to be caught off-guard. That makes the moments you are all the sweeter, but much less likely to occur. Silent Hill lets you relax to make you think and to make the moments of terror stand out. The series’ more recent releases have kind of lost sight of that subtlety, but either they’ll find it again, or they won’t. In my opinion, they could have made Silent Hill 3 and knocked off for the rest of time and I’d still be a fan. Yes, I’m also a Dead Space fan, but now I’m just going to go to their games for something other than being truly terrified. Instead, I’ll enjoy it for its bombastic gore and constant tension. There are no secrets in Dead Space, only outright disturbing splatter. In recognition of the shift of tone that the series has taken, and for the convenience of talking about games like it in the future, I’ve chosen to call this type of game a Splatter Thriller (Optionally: Gore Thriller). A toast, to this new(ish) and, literally, exciting genre!

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