Archive for videogames

…It’s Always Such a Pleasure

Posted in Everything Else, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2013 by trivialpunk

Things don’t always work out the way we want them to. My computer’s in the shop again, and my projects sit on it, unfinished. Even today’s post is in its embryonic form somewhere on my D: drive.  Thankfully, this week’s story was sitting on my Google Drive, so it went up, along with today’s Let’s Play.

The post? Well, we’re just going to have to wing it, aren’t we? You all know how I love to harp on old topics, so let’s talk about the critical responses to The Last of Us.

Enough time has passed since the game dropped that we’ve gotten quite a few opinions on the much-vaunted game. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Others are completely indifferent. Still others wonder why it was made within this generation at all.

I’m not here to comment on the game specifically. I still haven’t played it yet. Whoops! Did I type that out loud?

Unfortunately, I’m in a PC household now, so we didn’t have the hardware to play it. I was, however, privy to its critical reception. Again, I’m sure you can figure out why people liked it. Also, probably, why “the people that didn’t like it” didn’t like it. I read and listened to quite a few of them, but there was one thing that I wanted to discuss at greater length. That thing is the notion that the game was boring because it used stale mechanics.

Now, some of you might not have thought the game was boring, and that’s totally cool. I’m not here to reiterate the opinion. Again, I can’t possibly have one, because it’s a game I haven’t played. So much of a game relies on your engagement with it that it’s almost meaningless to write a review of a game without having played it. Sure, you can criticize things about it, but, as a holistic experience, you’ll be missing something if you don’t spin it up. Granted, you can rely on past experience to figure out what it would be like to play it, but you may still miss out on something integral to the game if you play it like a movie.

That over with? Cool, let’s talk about reusing mechanics. If you watched this Extra Credits video, then you’ll know that one of the best ways to start a game is to begin with a set of mechanics. This means that narrative is usually going to take a back-seat to game-play.

But what if you’ve got a story you want to tell? Well, you can use a franchise to do that. A franchise is a sub-section of genre, really. It’s a collection of mechanics that are wrapped up in an identity.  Look at the Halo and Silent Hill (you knew that was coming) franchises. The first games set the stage for narrative, but, more importantly, they also tested out the mechanics. Knowing how those mechanics would affect their audience, and how it would all fit together, provided the designers with the space to tell a story.

What if you want to tell that story without a franchise? Well, you can use the same techniques that Halo and Silent Hill used: you can learn from other games. As much as I hate to admit it, Silent Hill came after Resident Evil. RE dropped three years before the first Silent Hill. Games aren’t made in a vacuum, so you can’t possibly imagine that one didn’t affect the other.

In fact, if you really think about it, survival horror games would utilize the mechanics tested in the original RE game for years after its initial release. Few of them would truly add anything revolutionary to the formula, besides a new story. Now, I know that’s a pretty controversial statement, because games like Silent Hill 2 improved on the formula in many ways, besides through story-line, but you can see the similarities.

Fast-forward a little bit and we can see that trend blossoming behind us. We had the bloom of the first-person RPG, in the ancient days, with games like Deus Ex and System Shock. They would later evolve into the sleeker FPS with RPG elements of today, but that’s a different post. There was the era of the platformer, where every movie tie-in that had a story to tell became a jumping-puzzle game. Let’s not forget the Eldritch days of the point-and-click adventure. Or the sweet petals of the third-person shooter with RPG elements, still fresh upon the bulb.

I know, we didn’t really want another third-person shooter with stealth elements. Most of us have played Tomb Raider or Uncharted, so The Last of Us isn’t exactly fresh. I’m sure it doesn’t help that The Last of Us and Uncharted are both from the same studio. Nor that it’s a zombie game. If it smelled anymore like compost, we could use it to fertilize our vegetable gardens.

BUT, is that inherently a bad thing? Okay, sure, we can over-do things sometimes, especially in the video game industry. Playing through two very similar game-play styles in two different titles can be a bit of a pisser, because a video game is a long time commitment. Two similar movies, okay, that’s four hours. Two similar games? That’s at least twenty hours for two AAA titles.

Still, by all accounts, The Last of Us had a great story and solid game-play. Hell, I’ve read through it, and it made me wish I’d been able to play it, just to experience it. Maybe I’d have gotten bored after the sixth hour, I don’t know, but I can see what it was trying to do.

Video games get a lot of flack for telling bad stories, and that’s not undeserved. Many of the epics of our past are, from a strictly literary perspective, quite silly. Or simple. Even lame. Part of that is a haphazard approach to story-telling, and some of that is the result of completely disregarding it in favor of game-play. That’s not to say we haven’t had some amazing game stories, but Mario? Come on.

We don’t always need a great story for a great game. We can stitch it together through game-play or experience it through the world; that’s the sweet alchemy of video games, but what if you want to tell a story? A specific one. What if you look at a game and think, “I know exactly what story I could tell using that as a vehicle.”

Do we want to, on those grounds alone, muzzle creativity? Like or dislike a game all you want on its own merits. Maybe, you’re bored of the mechanics; that’s legit. Hate away. I think that’s awesome, and we can always use another voice asking for originality. However, I would caution anyone against pronouncing something stale simply because it’s similar to another thing. The deployment of a set of mechanics can be horrible, but the mechanics themselves are tools.

Don’t say that a mechanical paradigm is inherently dull. The industry listens to that kind of thing. Say that it was used badly. Say that this particular game could have benefited from X instead of Y. Say that you’re tired of hearing about zombies! Say anything, but remember that what you say will be heard. We’re part of the creative process. When we criticize better, the industry becomes better.

I know I hold this stance because of how important stories are to me. I admit that without any shame to provide you with full disclosure of my bias. I’ve read through horribly written books for a good story and vice-versa. I’ve watched terrible movies for analogical reasons: to learn something about them and myself. I approach games in much the same way. I believe that some games should exist because they tell a story. Others, because they are fun games. Other because we want to learn how to type faster while we kill the undead.

We wouldn’t have Megaman X without Megaman. We wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2 without Resident Evil. We wouldn’t have SpecOps: The Line without CoD… or SpecOps. You know where I’m going with this.

Actually, SpecOps: The Line is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Think about it. It wouldn’t exist without the games that came before it: without a profound understanding of the mechanics they used. Maybe The Last of Us didn’t utilize the mechanics it had perfectly, but if we didn’t try that sort of thing, we wouldn’t have games like SpecOps: TL. We wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2.

In other words, gaming would be the lesser for it. So, don’t get down on rehashing mechanics. Get down on doing it poorly. Or, just get down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCP_Containment_Breach

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yeah, and it’s free.

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

Gaming Retrospective: A Stunken Drumble Down Memory Lane

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , on July 20, 2013 by trivialpunk

It seems I’m destined to write you while tipsy this week. Okay, well, “destined.” Either way, what better way to wrap up this rose-coloured retrospective week of what video games have meant to me than with a glass of vodka in hand and a bottle of Tylenol on the bed-stand? Okay, it’d be nice to have a watermelon, but these are the sacrifices we make when we choose to make a living writing. I mean, where was I going to get a watermelon in my boxers? Oh, also, before we start, I’m starting a new letsplay series with my friend Boris the Illithid. Come check it out!

We’ve talked enough about my love of games and the way they’ve brought me together with some of my best friends this week. So, I’m going to just let go and talk about whatever. Next week, we’ll get back to the thin veneer of professional cogency we both pretend I have.

I played a lot of Mario and Duck Hunt when I was a tottle-spawn. As I got older, I played Battle Toads (Yes, that one) and R-type. These were my introductions to the action genre, and they felt so absorbingly, edge-of-your-seat epic that I used to sit, mouth-agape, reacting on instinct, eyes unfocused, fingers reacting, in a zen state of mind-blown tranquillity. This was the height of entertainment, I thought.

Yet, I kept having my mind blown. Star Fox for the SNES would follow. Thinking back, I guess I didn’t really play any of those expansive PC games I hear so much about nowadays. I’ve got them kicking around somewhere for educational purposes, but I suppose I have action gaming to thank for my reflexes and hand-eye coordination, so that’s alright. Despite looking like something you’d find in a high school art class today, Star Fox was amazing to me. We’ve got a lot of these early games to thank for the graphics capabilities and game-play we have today. The shoulders of giants and all that.

When I sat down to play it, the dim light of the living room faded and I was in the game. Dodging around grey-metal buildings that rang with a pleasant “ting” every time my lasers hit them and aiming for the flashing weak-points filled my mind. I was the Arwing. After that, the next things I can remember are Mario All-stars, LoZ: A Link to the Past and Megaman X. I remember renting Yoshi’s Story one evening, only to find out that my RF switch had been shoved into the television wrong too many times and my game wasn’t going to work unless I replaced it. Sheer bloody panic! My local video store only rented games overnight, so I pleaded and begged my dad to get me a new one. He ran out and got one, rented the game another night, and I was soothed, awash in the sounds of the tracking egg and the up-beat soundtrack. They’re almost elemental to me now, so essential as to be singular.

I have my dad to thank for my gaming habit. He nurtured, funded and encouraged it. Actually, I think I’m going to call him tomorrow. He did a lot for me; he deserves to hear it once in a while. Anyways, drunk-dialing your parents in tears to thank them for RF switches from over a decade ago probably isn’t a good idea. Come to think of it, Snowflake Video played a big part in helping along my gaming obsession. It was there that I got the first game that truly blew me out of the water, the first game I played that felt like an epic tale of victory (Yes, even moreso than LoZ): Mario RPG. I won’t play it now, because I know I’ll ruin it for myself. I still have it, though. True to form, the owner of Snowflake actually held on to the store’s copy of Mario RPG for me, because he knew I rented it so much. He offered it to me for ten bucks. I’m still kicking myself for not accepting it.

Over-night rentals and a regular school week meant that when I rented a game like Mario RPG, and didn’t manage to finish it in a weekend, there was no guarantee my save-file was still going to be on it. It was stressful! I still remember running home, game-box in hand, shaking with the anticipation of getting the game back in my machine to see if the hours of progress I’d logged were still there. I developed strategies to make sure they stuck around. I always saved in the second or third slot, and I named my games stuff like, “EraseandDie” or “IAmWatching.” I’m sure someone got creeped out by that. It made the in-game dialogue funny, too.

Secret of Evermore, Kirby Superstar, Turtles in Time, Super Mario, Gradius, F-Zero, Mario Kart, Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, and Earthworm Jim, oh my! The Super Nintendo was an amazing machine. I still remember getting a Game Genie and staring at it like it contained some awesome mystical power, so much was my respect for the machine it entranced. These were heady days, but it was only the start. The best was yet to come.

Doom, Duke Nukem, and King’s Quest. These were games that I remember pulling me in and not letting go. Even to this day, I can look back and remember the awe of stepping into those game universes. They were so foreign, so “mature.” They felt like experiences meant for someone else, but their alien nature made them all the more compelling. I drank deep from their cup of knowledge.

Pokemon was a major milestone for me, too. It was the first time I used the night-light at the end of my bed for anything other than reading. I finished it for the first time in the basement of my friend’s place while I was supposed to be visiting. This was before I knew about the Rare Candy cheat or, indeed, used the internet. Blastoise and I all the way. Although, he did fall in the final battle – a truly emotional moment for me – we won the day. I’ve never forgotten his sacrifice. Also, he ran out of MP for Hydropump, so there wasn’t much to be done.

The N64 followed. Along with the Playstation and the Dreamcast. Let me tell you, I thought there was no limit to what these dream-machines could produce. The first time I played Mario 64, I was a gamer for life. Up until that point, I’d enjoyed games, but the free-movement of Mario 64 and the 3D world felt so real. I know, it looks like polygon butt-cheeks by today’s standards, but compared to the 3D in other games, it was amazing. Wave Race (my sister still holds the high score grrr….) and Banjo-Kazooie sealed the deal. Every now and again, I’ll feel nostalgic and throw on a letsplay of it, but I can’t help cringing when they run past everything. I’m a survival horror gamer, what do you expect? Eventually , Final Fantasy 7 would blow the bits of brain-matter remaining into smaller, neater chunks, but it was around this time that I got my hands on a game that would change my life forever…

Silent Hill. Now, I’d always watched horror movies and lived in a perpetual horror-scape in my imagination, but Silent Hill was the first time I lived one. The bizarre puzzles. The twisted monstrosities. The very real feeling of imminent death. It was perfection. My sister and I sat in the basement and powered through it. Solving the puzzles and talking about the mystery with her is still one of the best times I’ve ever had. I’m trying to wrangle her into playing SH Downpour, but it’s an uphill battle. Don’t worry, it’ll happen.

It didn’t stop there. Zone of the Enders, FF9, Resident Evil… the PS2, the XBox, the Gamecube… Fable, Halo 2, Silent Hill 2, Turok, Fatal Frame, Clocktower, Eternal Darkness… they start to run together. Huge LAN matches of Halo 2, Quake, Counter-strike, Star Craft, Dungeons and Dragons for PC, World of Warcraft, Golden Eye… They all start to run together, whole universes colliding and coalescing, each one building on the other. Micro-managing in Star Craft became micro-ing in DotA, Counter-Strike assisted Resident Evil 4, while Fable hung out with Eternal Darkness.

I like to think that a little bit of the nobility of each character I played rubbed off on me. Master Chief and James Sunderland are still the voices of determination in my head when I’m really feeling down. I owe a lot to gaming. Before we wrap up this half-hearted veil of a theme, there are two more things I’d like to talk about: walk-throughs and the Devil-spawn notion that was controller-input cheat-codes.

I don’t have much to say about walk-throughs except to express my admiration for the people that engineer them. The ASCII art alone is enough to boggle the mind at times. The hours it would have taken to collect and organize that data, often-times for free, is incredible. The gaming community owes a debt to those people, and I’d just like to thank them while I’ve got the chance.

Do you remember the N64 days I was talking about? This is when I was affected by controller-input cheat-code devilry the most. I know everyone knows about the Konami Code, and the controller-input cheat-codes (oh, we’re just going to call them C-IC-C)  of yester-year, but I still think the whole concept was evil. Why? I’ll tell you why, because I spent hours trying to figure them out! I’d get a brand-spankin’-new N64 game home, hastily un-box it, tossing aside its flimsy cardboard carapace, nestle it lovingly into the machine and sit at the title screen for hours inputting random combination of buttons, meticulously writing each one of them down. Then, I’d try the ones I’d input already again on other menu screens. Ah, the madness of youth, nearly a sickness. I think in the whole time I was doing it, I only unlocked one or two codes, but it was enough.

The best way to get someone to repeat an action is to reward them on a random basis, and I’d have to say that C-IC-C definitely counted. The number/letter cheats were almost as bad, but I usually looked those up when I saw there was an input window for them. Then, I knew there weren’t any C-IC-C codes to be found. For some reason, I thought the written codes were too long, so I’d never get them (I know about statistics now, and I can’t help but agree). However, for some flip-diddling honk-nosed idea, I thought I could guess the C-IC-C codes. I guess the accidents of history back me up, but given what I know about stats now, I’m still amazed.

I just want to acknowledge that someone, somewhere, did this long enough to unlock the codes. I know many of them were released, but someone did it at some point. To whoever that brave soul is, I salute you. You fought the good fight.

Thanks for indulging this walk down memory lane. I’ve already got something queued up for next week. Until then, keep gaming!

Final Words: Half-Life.

Oculus Riffing

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2013 by trivialpunk

I don’t know why I’m writing this. I should really be sleeping. Oh wait, I remember now! Because this article on the Rift was so cool! Something about new technology gets my mind spinning up. Then, there’s just no stopping it until I’ve written my thoughts down somewhere semi-permanent.

oculus-rift-0113-de

Reading about their difficulty with developing HUD elements for the Rift was the most intriguing part. How, I thought, would I tackle the problem. A minimalist UI is certainly a good choice; it’s bound to be effective. However, what about more complex games with more complicated UI? What about a shooter?

I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of Rift technology. So, these solutions will be dubious at best. However, I am familiar with vision. The article is quite correct; the edges of your vision are great at seeing movement, not detail. Your fovea is cone country. Cones are light sensors, and they’re tightly packed near the center of your eye. Their arrangement and function allow you to see colour and detail. Rods surround the area occupied by the cones and see a slightly bluer spectrum. They’re more reactive and so are better at sensing movement.

We see 3D because of ocular disparity. One eye sees a slightly different picture than the other. Your brain puts those two things together and, through the magic of some intense processing and an extremely complicated visual system, produces 3D from 2D.

Now the fun part. How do we take advantage of this? Well, this could get really complicated, and I haven’t slept, so let’s stay in the realm of the simple and say we want to keep the HUD near the edges of our vision.

My first instinct was a 3D HUD-semi-transparent GUI. That could get complicated, though. Simple. It would take a profoundly different understanding of HUD elements to produce a workable system out of movement. It’s not impossible.

In the same way you learn where enemy fire is coming from in classic FPS games, you could keep track of your life. Call of Duty 2’s red-soaked display is one way to do it. You could also establish a fixed length line and track over it. As the track gets shorter, you’re losing more life. You could do something like a vertically-rotated heart-monitor using this same logic.

The edges of your vision are great at picking up speed, as well. You could increase the pace of the monitor’s movements to a frantic level as you get closer to death.

I’m also wondering what the threshold is for movement acuity. Could you create short-hand movement lines, like specific squiggles, that gave you information? The edges of your vision can still pick up pace, length, movement and rhythm, after all. You could even go with light intensity or something like a pulsing light. The larger and slower the pulses of the circle of light, the healthier you are.

You could even use the circle for an ammo counter. Or, you could overlay elements of the HUD in the environment. Instead of light or bloom tracking over a shiny surface, it’s your score.

You could use sound-cues or force-feedback. Perhaps, you could turn invert the colouring on a portion of your environment in the shape of a HUD or create a ripple effect over a simplified one.

These are just ideas, and I’m sure what the industry comes up with will be infinitely more elegant. I’m really looking forward to messing around with the technology. It looks amazing.

I only hope you can use it with glasses.

Addendum: One of the problems with the edge-HUD would be that, normally, movement on the edge of your vision attracts your attention. It would either be a distraction or a head-ache. Perhaps continual exposure to it will dull the reactive force of the movement, but it’s one more thing to grapple with. Humans, I tell you. All I want to do now is play with this technology. Not only is this fun, new gaming technology, but it’s hitting all my psych spots.

Repetition, Survival-Horror, Horror and Repetition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This lovely little guy

This lovely little guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

You Did WHAT for Ten Hours?

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

Just a quickie this time, okay? So, I was sitting here, reading some articles, getting ready to play my before-bed Ildefonse, when I was struck by the strangest of thoughts. First, a little background.

I listen to a lot of reviews on-line and read my fair share, as well, so I get to hear a lot about set-piece events. However, oddly enough, they’re correlated with games that are sometimes described as being forgettable. Not the game itself, mind, but the game-play. Gears of War. Halo. More recently, Ryse. These are THE Xbox franchises, of course, so they get a lot of press, but that’s not the reason they’re popular. They’re polished to a mirror’s reflection, and they play very well. So, why would people be describing the game-play as forgettable? Why would anyone have trouble remembering epic moments like the pitched battles in Halo or whatever happened in Gears of War 2?

I’m sure this isn’t universal. Like I said, it was a mere correlation, but what if there’s something there? Even if you didn’t read my previous rant on sequels, you probably already know that movies and games engage in very different ways. You watch movies. You play, you interact with, games. In essence, you are projecting yourself into the game world. When you’re playing a game like Far Cry 3, you’re actively listening to the jungle and trying to figure out the best plan of attack. Assassin’s Creed is full of dynamic escapes and brilliant, sometimes sloppy, kills. Super Meat Boy takes the full engagement of your platforming spirit and reflexes to conquer. In all of these cases, you have to actively figure out what to do next. Where to go. How to deal with the present environment. How do set-pieces measure up?

They’re directed moments of game-play that are often quite epic, so, they’re not totally mind-binned. I vaguely remember the giant pitched tank battle from CoD2 and the scarab fight from Halo 3. The scarab fight more, because I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how I could get on top of it to go for a ride, then extract its cannon for my personal use. The CoD2 tank fight comes to mind quite easily, but I don’t remember what I did. I just recall that there were lots of tanks and that I won. It was epic; shouldn’t I remember more?

It could be that these set-piece battles are a little too much like watching something. It’s pretty easy to figure out what you have to do, even if the game doesn’t wrestle the camera away from you. Often, they involve large events and scripted scenes, but you’re not at the dynamic heart of them. Yeah, I zen-out while I’m picking in Minecraft, but I remember many of those torch-lit dives into the earth. There, I am the earth-mover and the world-shaker. So, can you make set-pieces engaging? I absolutely believe so. Even though they’re scripted, they can still be dynamic, especially if that script remains true to the core engagement of the game. Hell, Heavy Rain is almost entirely scripted, but I still remember that quite well. Clock Tower 2 has moments that, years later, are still riveted in my memory.

I guess, at the very heart of it, it’s neurological. New memories are easier to create when you have to think about what you’re doing. This is something akin to depth-of-processing, and it’s why you should always do your homework. Most heavily scripted sequences are familiar to players or don’t require you to think, so you just fall into a routine. Perhaps, the familiar sequences are all just running together. I’m sure there are a hundred other Minecraft tunnels I don’t remember, because I didn’t do any thinking while I clunked through the stone. Still, memory is a tricky bugger, so take this with a grain of salt.

Even so, I’m quite sure that the most memorable games, the ones that we’ll vividly remember years later, will be the ones that challenge us to think. To solve a problem. To consider a philosophy. To fend off an encroaching army of Shoggoths with only a year remaining. But, I don’t WANT to be King!

Sorry, Fable-Flashbacks.

Life Goes On Trial

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Don’t get too excited, we’re not talking horror today. Although, we’re staying in the lovely field of morbid I like to call my home. You see, I decided that it had been too long since I’d stretched my legs and taken a walk in the outside world. So, I tagged along with my room-mate to a gathering of local game devs. Thankfully, there was a terrible storm suffused with funnel clouds and hail going on, so I didn’t melt in the sun. While I was there, I realized that I haven’t done any work with the local publishers in my city, unless you count ragging on BioWare occasionally. And by ragging, I mean completely forgetting to include Dragon Age: Inquisition on my E3 wish-list. Of course, that might have something to do with my relative disinterest and the fact that you’ll hear about it everywhere else anyways. Yeah, it’s a good series, but… Wait, we’re not here to do a break-down of Dragon Age.

We’re here to talk about Life Goes On from… Ian, Susan, Erik and David. That’s right, this isn’t a studio project. It’s a passion project from four people with a concept, some skills and a dream. That’s about as indie as you can get without just being that NotePad fan-fic you won’t let anyone else see. Or, maybe that’s just me. Anyways, it’s good, or I wouldn’t be raving about it. Without further ado, let’s delve into…

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There’s something a bit weird about reviewing a game based solely on the demo, because any criticism I might level at it can be countered with, “What do you expect? It’s not done yet!” That’s very true, and we should do all we can to support the independents, but… well, let me tell you a bit about the game first. It’s a puzzle-platformer that requires -requires, no less- you to kill your character in order to proceed. Basically, to solve the traps and get past the puzzles in the game, you need to be in two places at once. To deal with this ordeal, the best solution would probably be to go home, learn to use your sword and die happy knowing you didn’t waste your life so someone else could claim a prize. However, there is an alternate strategy: use the corpse of the last sucker to do the work for you. I mean, there’s no way what happened to him could happen to yo-ugh!

Anyways, sorry, what was he saying? Right, you direct your little minion into death-traps so that it leaves its corpse in a convenient location to weigh down a switch or act as a platform. There’s one particularly nasty puzzle where you have to jam yourself onto the bottom of a rotating bed of spikes so that you can act as a moving platform for the next yourself. Sound confusing? Here are a couple illustrAUGH!!!:

dead knight on switch with respawn landing on knight

>.> …. It’s a wonderful example of that mechanics-as-metaphor thing I keep banging on about. The basic message being: “Every life makes a difference. It’s a continuous stream of effort.” This sentiment should be familiar to anyone in the field of science. Or arts. Or making bloody good sandwiches. No work is ever THE final word in the process. No civilization has ever been the unquestionable peak. Even though you may fall, others can pick up your work and continue on towards the goal. All it takes is a little inspiration and a nearby spawn-point: perhaps, a hospital. Effort is made to give each of the little guys a bit of personality by giving them individual names that get scritched out and scroll by on parchment when they die. They’re even differentiated by gender. Sweet. Although, honestly, they die so fast that it’s difficult to notice any differeEuuugh!

Iiiiifff…. I had to offer any criticism, and I do, it would be that the game-play feels a bit flat. There are some really cool puzzles here, but the life-line of the game is going to be its level design. There are cannons to shoot you around. Switches and moveable spawn points to act as logical puzzle-gates. Spikes and conveyor belts to get you to and from. But you, as a player, don’t do much with the environment, besides move through it or die on it. I feel like you could replace the knight with a ball and experience the same game-play. There’s very little conflict outside of the obvious timing-execution requirements, and that’s going to damage the amount of the engagement that the final product can offer. This is why Mario had coins, moving power-ups and enemies; and why Donkey-Kong had bananas, collectibles and enemieEEEEKKK!

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There IS this little guy. You can find him in each of the levels. He’s kind of a collectible, but he actually collects you. I know, I know, he LOOKS cute, but step too close and he’ll make a quick meal of you. That’s not quite enough, though, and adding too many extra elements like the cannon to the environment risks making the play feel gimmicky. You’d need to add different ways to interact with the environment, like using your sword or writing out a last Will and Testament, to produce the emergent game-play properties that will keep things fresh. However, this is a puzzle game, so maybe it IS just about getting from one room to the next. The designers even made sure to zoom the camera out to give you a better view of the environmental hazards you’ll be dealing with. I guess I’m just not a fan of puzzle-platformers. I feel like it could be more engaging, especially with how cool the concept is. Oh yeah, and it controls a bit wonkily when it comes to turning around, but it’s still in beta, so what do I expect? Although, besides the turning around bit, it controls like butteh.

…<.<….. >.> …. umm… okay, thaAGUGH!

The graphics are good, the aesthetics brilliant, the environments charming and the humour legitimately funny. I’d recommend downloading the demo and giving it a try for yourself. Despite all the negative things I’ve said about the game, I’ll still be keeping an eye on it. After all, the credits are extremely clever. Who’s to say that they couldn’t carry the game on charm and level design alone?

<.<

*phew*

Penumbra: Black Plague – Mining for Survival Horror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penumbra_Black_plague

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

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

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

SPAZing-out on SPAZABH

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2013 by trivialpunk

Alright, hey, hello! So, today, we’re going to be talking about Space Pirates and Zombies and Bounty Hunters (Basically mercenaries). I picked it up because the recent pop-culture obsession with zombies has afforded me the excuse to include any number of unrelated titles in my blog. Ultimately, I’m looking for good horror games to write about, but it’s not in the cards at the moment. Perhaps, I’ll have to step back in time and review some older games. SPAZ (or SPAZAB) came out in 2011, so we’re not that up-to-date. Oops. Oh well.

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SPAZ is a game that the creators put together because it was the type of game they wanted to play, as the intro screen is pleased to tell you every time you start it up. I have to admit that I haven’t played many games like it recently. The story is interesting to a point and the world it takes place in is pretty well fleshed-out. Suffice it to say, you’re on the edge of the galaxy and you want to be in the middle of it, because that’s where all the money is. The various star systems you visit are connected by warp-gates, which are guarded by the local UTA authorities. So far, so standard. However, the entire known universe has fallen due to a civil war of sorts over the frankly abundant resource pockets that dot the systems, so all the stars are disconnected. The only connected authority is the mercenary faction, whose presence can be felt almost everywhere in the entire… everywhere. It makes you wonder why they haven’t just taken everything over. Maybe it’s an allegory for capitalism, and they just don’t want to have to deal with all the administration bullshit. Each star is divided between the local UTA forces and the civilian rebels. Every star. To the point where it gets almost unbelievable, but we’re flying around in space fighting zombies, so who’s to say what’s believable any more. That’s the story, for the most part. The main characters are pretty likeable and, to be honest, they’re the only things that are going to pull you through past the five-hour mark. With that in mind, let’s move on to the rest of SPAZ.

It’s full of good ideas, but, despite pumping over 17 hours into the games, I don’t feel like it executes well on any of them. The story, for instance, is communicated almost entirely through dialogue and the odd thematic combat sequence. The dialogue itself only really serves to describe the reasons for the current fight OR send you on a galactic-scale fetch quest. Whee.

On the surface, it’s a top-down flight-combat, fleet-control game, but, once you peel all the layers away, it becomes clear that SPAZ is a resource management game. All of your missions and scenarios give you some combination of rez (the game’s currency), goons (the people you need to fly your ships), data (essentially exp for levelling systems) and reputation. Reputation is confined to a specific star-system, (unless we’re talking about the merc faction) and really only affects who will sell you what parts and what missions are available at a given star, so there’s no real weight to blowing up an entire civilian space station. Missions change over time in a star system. They’ll only be available for a certain number of “jumps,” then they’ll disappear. However, most systems only have 4 or 5 available mission-planets at most and most missions are available for around 7 jumps, so there aren’t any difficult decisions to make. Most of the time, factions will only provide you with missions if you haven’t been shooting them up lately, but, at the same time, that means that if you want to increase your reputation with them, then you’ll have to either start shooting at the other faction for a while or fly into their home base and hand over some goons or money. Of course, if you want to shoot at another faction, then you can’t just get your “fleet” to jump them. You have to use the one ship that you can control at a time to whittle down the shield of an allied vessel. There’s no ambush command. Even if you select and direct your entire fleet to attack, they’ll just sort of waltz with it until you’ve destroyed enough of its shield to show that you’re really serious. This can take up to a minute depending on shield strength, which really makes you wonder what they thought was going on during that time.

Though, even for a resource management game, there’s really nothing at stake. Goons and rez are easy to acquire. You just have to do a few missions and you’re golden. It doesn’t even cost rez to make jumps. Hell, you actually get rez and goons from making jumps. I’m sure this was designed to make it so that you’re never just stuck anywhere, but that also takes away the only conceivable use for actual mining (driving over space rocks in your buggy and getting a bit of rez), because mining is so laughably inefficient that it’s not worth the time. If you really want to make rez, then the best way is to do challenges for the mercs.

After playing through the game, it became clearer and clearer that the mercs were just tacked on, if their shoe-horning onto the title-screen didn’t already make that obvious. The game seems to want you to explore the galaxy, but if you destroy ships or do missions within a sector near a merc planet, then you’ll gain bounty. So, this adds a clock to every action you take. That, or you can go back to a mercenary planet and play their little combat-challenge mini-games.  These provide you with rez and rezpect, which cancels out bounty. However, for me, a big portion of the urge to explore was driven by the idea of finding new planets with new tech to buy or absorb through destroying it (You reverse-engineer spaceship designs by destroying them and collecting their black boxes). The merc mini-games kind of destroyed that aspect of the game for me. I mean, why would I bother testing out new ship designs or feel any sense of risk if I can just play the mini-game for free over and over again and make money at the same time? I think these challenges were added in to give you an easy way to make money and reduce bounty, as well as let you try out ship designs and tactics, but I lost too much of the potential of the game through them. However, the end of each challenge circuit gives you a special crew member.

Special crew members provide you with bonuses when they’re active on your crew. They also level up as your gain data while using them. Pretty straight-forward levelling system that nets you useful bonuses. However, you can only use a couple of them at a time and their bonuses are huge. I feel like more crew members with smaller bonuses would have provided more flexibility and customization. Also, how on earth is one crew member making that big a difference? Aside from the fighters, you main ship is bloody huge!

Ship on Ship Action

Ostensibly, the ships themselves provide plenty of opportunities for customization. There a many different types of weapons that play around with the mechanics the games uses quite effectively. There are scanners that you can mount on your ship that let you see the many cloaked units you’ll encounter. Otherwise, you have to find cloaked units by using a variant warmer-colder and spinning around in space shooting lasers everywhere. There are also tractor beams for picking stuff up more easily (a blessing, because the ships control like butter on a theoretical ice frying pan) and mods that buff other portions of your ship. However, you spend so much of the game out-numbered and out-gunned that you need almost every available port bristling with weapons to take out your enemies before they destroy you. At worst, it’s the illusion of choice. At best, it’s a mechanic that only becomes useful once your whole fleet is kitted out with enough large-sized vessels to accidentally have a port free.

Speaking of horrible controls, the game-play near the beginning of the game is a lot of fun. The smaller ships are fast and maneuverable and the enemies are, as well, so it’s a seek and destroy sort of game. However (and I’m saying that a lot today), the larger ships control like something you peeled off the bottom of a jet-engine that recently crashed at a junior go-kart derby. This makes chasing down the little buggers, which still get thrown at you late-game, by the way, all the more frustrating. The commands you can give to your wing-men are varied and sometimes clever. You can order them to eject their hulls so that they can get a boost of speed to escape, but you’re missing a few really crucial commands for the late-game. One of those, as I mentioned earlier, is the attack-I-don’t-care-if-they-like-us command. The ability to set patrol routes wouldn’t go amiss, either. The one that really irks me, though, is the inability to tell them to stay still and fire in one direction. Isn’t that a staple of micro-management games?

The inability to give a “hold” command doesn’t sound too important, until you consider the later enemies. One time, I was fighting a giant space station that had all three of my ships outclassed in terms or defense and fire-power. It literally regenerated health faster than I could damage it. So, I destroyed its escort, warped back to base and rolled out Base-Crackers. They had as many guns and output-mods as I could put on a ship without sacrificing its ability to hold people. The only challenge at this point was to sit out of range of the station’s guns and chip away at its health. My guns out-ranged theirs, but I needed them all focus-firing in order to make it take damage that didn’t heal instantly. My pilots must have been depressed because of all the bleak, empty space, however, because they all flew within the reach of the station’s weapons to take shots at it. So, I backed them up, one at a time, and went back to my ship. They just kept flying right in to get fried. There wasn’t much I could do, except cycle through them one at a time in the most aggravating, tiresome way possible. Finally, it died and took my ships with it, because they wouldn’t move out of the blast-wave and refused to take my commands as anything but suggestions. Oh well, I managed to save the ship I was controlling directly, any ways.

Penetrate

The galaxy you play in is pretty disorganized. It’s randomly generated, after all. That means that if you want to get all of the available ship upgrades, then you’ve got to fight your way through the lower-level areas that spawn all around the edge of the galaxy as potential starting-areas. Unfortunately, this also raises your bounty level, so you’ve got to either do challenges or bribe the mercs. Either way, you’re spending time freeing up the ability to explore. It’s like a pro-active Facebook energy system with a nifty wrapper. When you find a system with an upgrade you want, you’ve got to raise your reputation with the faction that controls it in that star system by doing missions for them or giving them goons. Giving away too many goons means you’ll have to do missions to get more, so you’re doing missions either way. If there aren’t any available missions, you can try the non-faction missions, which usually mean fighting that faction any ways, or faff about until the requisite number of jump-cycles has passed. Then, you’ll need money, but the lower-level areas aren’t going to furnish you with enough cash to go about your daily business once you’re at the point where you’ve broken the tech-level-barrier to the other lower-level sections, so you’ll have to go back and do high-level missions or more merc levels. Whee.

Do you see what I mean by good ideas poorly executed? Every portion of the game seems to get into the way of every other portion. The core game play is fun, even if the AI is predictable and lifeless. The music and voice transmissions that add life and character to the environment get repeated so many times that you want to find and blow up the transmitter. The missions quickly get repetitive, except when you run into the odd one that’s nail-snappingly difficult. If this game was shorter, it would be a lot more fun, but the massive randomly-generated galaxy demands exploration and time. Like I said, I poured 17 hours into the game. The first 5 hours, I thoroughly enjoyed. The next 5 gave me pause as I have all the ship designs ruined for me by merc missions and I got the haunting realization that earning rezpect was going to become a staple of game play. The last 5 hours were somewhat enlivened by the introduction of the zombies, FINALLY. I wish they had shown up earlier; it wasn’t going to take that long for me to grasp how to play the bloody game. They bring their own infection mechanic with them and make the marine ship-to-ship combat more interesting, but I was very low on interest by that point. The last two hours were a refresher for this review.

This game is cheap and it has good ideas. If you’re not too interested in finishing it, you might enjoy just tooling around the galaxy and exploring. Like I said, I thoroughly enjoyed the first five hours and that’s decent value for your money. Maybe you’ll even enjoy the things that I hated. Hell, I’m sure that a different play-style might make the controls and AI mechanics more serviceable. It’s not done, either. They’re still up-dating it. It did get released without the Bounty Hunters, after all. If an edition that major made it onto the up-date list, then maybe they’ll fix some of the problems I had here. They’ve really got to sit back and think about how all of their mechanics are interacting, though, because it’s a right mess in some areas. Also, record more audio tracks. Please…

-Transmission terminated under the authority of the UTA-