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Filtering by Tag: horror

Left 4 Dead 2 community maps!

Who's up for some good old zombie slaying?

I just got word that the Left 4 Dead 2 community map Warcelona has been added to the official server list, and I am mighty intrigued by the setting. I'm gonna be bugging you guys about playing this one with me whenever I have time and I'm in our chat room, so if you're interested in running and gunning through post-zombie apocalypse Barcelona with a bro or two by your side, download the mod and get ready!

I'm also open to other suggestions for great L4D2 community maps. It's not like I'm tired of all the official campaigns, but I may have already played them... TO DEATH. MUH HA HA HA oh, November 12 already. 8(

The Walking Dead: My Own Little Slice of Paradise in Hell

(or: Telltale's The Walking Dead as played by an adventure game veteran)

Zombies -- always fun, always thrilling, and uniquely suited to any horror scenario from a slow and quiet exploration of a creepy house in the dark of night, to a terrifying and action-packed dash through an abandoned shopping mall, to a full-scale apocalypse where civilization has broken down and the monster threat has become just another force of nature. I like zombies.

When The Walking Dead by Telltale Games went 40% off during this year's Steam Summer Sale, I just had to get it for myself. Here's what I thought.

As a purist and as an old hand at adventure gaming, I should have been appalled the moment that The Walking Dead handed me the reins and made me play minute after minute of quick time events and choosing dialogue. The gameplay formula is as simple as it gets, and is split into a handful of distinct tasks:

    1. Talk to a bunch of people by choosing what to say before a timer runs down
    2. Do a series of actions by mashing and hitting buttons as the prompts appear on-screen
    3. Explore a small area by walking around, picking up items, using them on things, and talking some more
    4. Sneak around a zombie-infested (or otherwise dangerous) area by moving between predetermined hiding places and using items and weapons to eliminate threats
    5. Choose between two given courses of action as a timer rapidly runs down

That's basically it. The entire game is a linear progression of some of A, and then some of B, a short stint of C and D, more A and B, and then a gut-wrenching serving of E as the episode hits its climax.

Part of me inside is screaming out: where's the freedom in this? Where are the dialogue trees where I can ask people about everything under the sun? Where are the grab bags of items to use in creative ways, and to bang together in a MacGyver-esque display of ingenuity? The exploration? The puzzles? Dear god, where are the puzzles?

No, The Walking Dead isn't an adventure game in the way that my happy, adventure-filled childhood defines it. It might not even be a game as much as it is an interactive animated series with branching paths. All those doubts, however, went flying like a zombie's head at a lumberjack convention the moment I really started playing and getting into the narrative.

The Walking Dead succeeds because it manages to capture the essence of what makes the original comic book series great: the uniquely human-centric view of conflict and survival during a full-scale apocalypse of the walking dead persuasion. As Lee Everett -- a convicted murderer given a new lease on life by the zombie outbreak -- you will find yourself interacting with various groups of other survivors over the course of the two episodes currently available. Not everyone is as agreeable as you'd like them to be, and while it's very possible to play as a nice guy through and through, sometimes you will have to do some nasty things to ensure your survival.

That's about par for the course for a game about survival and the apocalypse, though. Even the fact that you're saddled with a child to protect isn't such an original idea. Fortunately, the little girl named Clementine whom you are tasked to look after is a likeable and resourceful character, not registering so much as a grain-sized blip on the annoying-kid meter. The game also uses an invisible but clever way to illustrate your connection to her: usually, during moments of personal danger, a red border starts to appear on the screen and the scene begins to take a reddish hue. This usually happens during sneaking sequences when you find yourself exposed and in plain sight, or during QTEs when your face is inches away from being peeled off by a set of snapping zombie teeth. Everytime Lee sees Clementine in danger, however, the screen goes red like a warning siren, reminding us that we're not just dicking around and that saving her is not just another branching path option. To Lee, Clementine's safety is as important as his own, and the game communicates that brilliantly.

Talking is a big part of The Walking Dead, even if it's essentially the dialogue system from Alpha Protocol, complete with the timer that makes you choose your response quickly. It seems like a weak attempt at interactivity at the game's outset, but eventually, dialogue becomes less and less of a narrative chore, and more of a respite from the grim realities of life in a dead world. Conversations are short and to the point, and never quite long enough to satisfy the player initiating it. The system does a good job of making things frantic, clipped, and uncomfortable. Lee will never get to know the strangers he's grouped up with as well as he'd like, and likewise, there are things about his past that are better off unsaid -- the aforementioned murder conviction not the least among them all. Often, there's an option for "..." to keep silent, and sometimes it does feel like it's the right thing to do. Impressively, your choices here matter -- people will remember your responses to them, and future interactions will change accordingly. Even the tv-like "Previously on" and "Next time on" segments use your plot and dialogue choices in the recaps and previews.

The choices you make during key points affect the plot in a big way. Characters will live or die depending on your decisions, and those who live will go on to play major roles in the episodes to follow. The branching is enough to drive home the point that your choices do matter, but you can't really derail the plot with them either. The Walking Dead is a linear game, with events happening in a predetermined order and crises playing out when the script calls for them. In a Deus Ex-like manner, it's the way you progress from plot point to major plot point that will differ from player to player. At the end of each episode, the game presents a tally of the choices you made and compares them against its record of all the other players who played through the scenario. It's a nice way of seeing how the rest of the community is playing the game, and also to find out where the major branches in the episode took place. Some of them took me by surprise, because while I was playing the game, I felt like some situations presented me with no choice at all.

Apparently not.

There's no doubt, however, that The Walking Dead is light on the puzzles that the genre is known for. At no point will you be tasked with using lateral thinking to overcome an obstacle, like padlocking the vertical gate in Full Throttle to secure it and climb up the chain that served as its pulley. Nor will you ever need to show a character a specific item to get her to help you accomplish a task. The game has some inspired moments -- distracting a group of zombies with some common sense application of a universal tv remote, for instance -- but most of the tasks you will do is of the use the flashlight on the dark hallway variety.

That's fine with me; in a setting like this, there should be no time to spare for clever solutions to inexplicably important puzzles. The Walking Dead constantly communicates to you that if something seems like it can't be manipulated to your liking, it's more efficient to turn around and look for another way to overcome a problem, instead of pecking at it with rubber chickens and dazed monkeys.

I think it's great that the developers at Telltale Games have managed to marry story and gameplay so eloquently in The Walking Dead, although it arguably limits the way that the plot will develop. In the comic book, the survivors have reached the point that they have started forming real communities, making real and major decisions to stay alive, stay fed, and stay safe from wandering zombies and murderous humans alike. The way the game plays, however, I don't see how this can be possible without making the player feel powerless and insignificant. Unlike the protagonists of the comic book, Lee Everett and the player will never make the shift from reactive to proactive as far as interaction with the game world goes. We will have to see how the succeeding episodes will develop, and I still have high hopes that the series will satisfy regardless.

My bottom line is this: The Walking Dead is such an immersive and engrossing experience that there's no way I can not recommend this to anyone, from hardcore gamers to, well, your mom. It was just on sale on Steam, going as low as 40% off, but the trip is well worth it, even at full price. Play it and see for yourself!

On Horror Games: The Complete Series

With my five-part article series about horror games (and why you should play them) happily concluded, I thought it would be best to do a round-up post of all the installments for easy access. Here's a list of all five articles.

I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed cowering in a damp little cavern behind some rotting barrels in Penumbra, desperately trying to will the prowling zombie dog away but not entirely sure if it has already moved on. It's a special kind of enjoyment, as you can probably see.

As a special bonus, here's a list of horror games that I heartily recommend based on my own experience with them:

    • The Lurking Horror - Text adventure. Lovecraftian horror. Byzantine world design by today's standards, but the atmosphere is well done. You can play it online here.
    • Legacy: Realm of Terror - First person RPG. Lovecraftian horror. Haunted house exploration. Not smooth first person, but "block by block" like how Eye of the Beholder played. I'm not sure where you can get a copy nowadays, but it's worth a look.
    • Alone in the Dark - Third person action-adventure. Lovecraftian horror. Haunted house exploration. Fight zombies with shotguns, swords, and your hands and feet (and die trying). Unparalleled Lovecraftian horror atmosphere. Available on GoG.
    • Gabriel Knight series - Third person adventure. Historical mystery mixed with scary beasts and cults of myth and legend. Astoundingly good writing. Clever puzzles with the occasional dud. Just plain awesome all around. Available on GoG (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3).
    • Penumbra series - First person adventure/survival horror. Lovecraftian horror. Physics puzzles. Plays with some diabolically fun ideas, like how you can't directly look at monsters while hiding to avoid the risk of a sudden panic attack. Great writing, especially in the second game, Black Plague. Available on Steam.
    • System Shock - First person action/survival horror. Cyberpunk-themed horror in space. Clunky controls by today's standards, but worth playing for the excellent gameplay and atmosphere. Unfortunately, System Shock and its sequel aren't that easy to buy today. I'm hoping for a GoG release in the near future.
    • System Shock 2 - First person action/RPG/survival horror. More cyberpunk-themed horror in space. Adds RPG-like stats and different character classes to play as. Modern control scheme, which makes it easier to get into. Scarier than the first one. Again, hoping for a GoG release soon.
    • Thief series - First person stealth. Thief is not a horror game outright, but it does feature some very creepy and unsettling environments. Your character is also relatively weak in combat and needs to hide to survive. This vulnerability greatly adds to the fear factor. Available on Steam and GoG (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3).
    • The Dark Eye - First person adventure. This game is based on Edgar Allan Poe's stories, and doesn't feature puzzles in the traditional sense. It's more like an interactive storybook with really disturbing visuals, with the added twist that you get to play both the victim and the murderer in each story. I haven't done any research yet on where you can get this today, but it's well worth a try if you could find a copy.
    • Sanitarium - Third person adventure. Good puzzle design and unrelentingly surreal atmosphere that skips back and forth between the asylum you reside in, and fantastic other words which may or may not be real. This game has a good ending that really stuck with me. Available on GoG.
    • Realms of the Haunting - First person action/adventure. Haunted house exploration, but also so much more. Decently-acted FMV cutscenes that used to scare me, but now are simply "not so cheesy". Imaginative environments, memorable characters, a handful of legitimately stressful moments. Available on GoG.
    • Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness - Third person adventure/RPG. Looks and plays like a classic point-and-click adventure game, but there's combat and many actions are stat-driven. Equal parts Lovecraftian horror and gothic Transylvanian atmosphere, complete with sinister gypsies. This game is actually fourth in a series of five, and if you're going to play it, you might as well play them all; they're all good. This is the only one with a horror theme, however. Available on GoG.
    • Dead Space series - Third person action/survival horror. Battle mutated zombies in space with an arsenal of futuristic construction tools. Scary and memorable moments in areas with no atmosphere -- sound is extremely muffled and the only clear sound is your own ragged breathing. Dead Space 2 is more action than horror compared to the first, but they are both worth playing as horror games. (Part 1 | Part 2)
    • Clive Barker's Undying - First person action. Yet another haunted house foray, although this one also brings you to strange other lands on occasion. Intense action with terrifyingly well-designed monsters and villains. Some really nasty surprises via the "Scry" power, which opens your vision to things beyond regular eyesight. I thought this was on GoG, but apparently it's not. I'm hoping it will be soon.
    • Nocturne - Third person action/survival horror. Enjoyable dead-serious b-movie atmosphere. Great lighting effects. Some really unique ideas, like undead mobsters in prohibition-era Chicago. Just great monster-hunting fun with an enigmatic but likable protagonist. This game isn't on GoG either!
    • F.E.A.R. - First person action. Plays like a manic mix of The Matrix and Ring. Your time is split between headshotting intelligent AI troops and drop-kicking them in slow motion, and walking through scary corridors while a disturbing Sadako-esque little girl does brutally violent things to some hapless soldiers. Great action with an intriguing story. Available on Steam.
    • Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines - First person RPG. The easiest way to describe this would be to call it Deus Ex for the undead. The game is set in present day Los Angeles, where you play a neophyte vampire from one of seven vampire clans, each with different traits and vampiric powers. Many quests are designed so you can solve them in a multitude of ways depending on your skillset. Empowering in that you're playing one of the monsters this time around, but also manages to remain scary all throughout. Available on Steam.
    • Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth - First person action. Lovecraftian horror. Investigate the sleepy New England town of Innsmouth, and try your best to stay sane amidst all the horrors and atrocities going on. Fairly long with varied environments. Has one of the best playable chase sequences ever. Available on Steam.
    • Scratches - First person adventure. Plays like Myst, but with inventory puzzles instead of knobs and levers to mess around with. You wouldn't think a slow-paced slide show-type adventure would be able to scare you, but you'd be wrong. The night I finished Scratches, I slept with the lights still on. Available on Steam and GoG.
    • Spec Ops: The Line - Third person action. I'm serious! This title is here because of the sheer disturbing mindfuckery it manages to pull off. In the latter part of the game, you start seeing strange things and events that may or may not be a consequence of your earlier actions. Very linear, but features at least five endings, all of which are very different but also very fitting in their own way. Available on Steam.

Well. That took longer than expected. I'll feature some of these games in future horror-related articles if I become so inclined. In the meantime, feel free to chat me up about any of these games I mentioned!

On Horror Games: Part the third

We're back for another week of talking about scary games and what makes them great! This is part three of my five-part series aimed at getting more gamers to try horror games by explaining their appeal. If you missed any of the previous articles, you can find part one here, and part two here. Today, we're going to talk about innovation: what drives these games, how they use available technology, and the clever ways in which they surpass norms and standards. We all love technology, sure, but the sheer innovation that gets poured into horror games is just astonishing. Read on for all the nuts and bolts behind these pleasantly unpleasant surprises.

Horror and Innovation

Warning: a spoiler for The Lurking Horror. No plot points revealed, but you might miss out on some very unique jump scares.

Some PC gamers pride themselves on always having the latest and greatest hardware, and there’s always a “killer app” du jour out there that the hardware-obsessed aim to devastate with their souped-up rigs before moving on to the next test of semiconductor might.

We’ve been lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view) these past few years: because of the refusal of the current console generation to die out in a dignified way, we’ve been stuck with virtually the same tech for much longer than I’d like to think about now. There haven’t been many insanely demanding games that have come out in recent years, and I think Crysis is still considered some kind of e-peen benchmark by some enthusiasts out there.

I’m looking forward to the next generation, if only to see the leaps that horror games will take in terms of technology and presentation. One thing that really impresses me with horror games is the genre’s need for the creative utilization of current technology to present something unexpected, or unknown, or all too convincing in the scariest manner possible. Some other games may establish the benchmark, but the horror genre is forever nipping at that benchmark, surpassing it in the most surprising ways.

The Lurking Horror is one of the first true horror games to exist. It’s part of Infocom’s series of text adventures (think Zork), and unlike the rest of the catalog, which featured underground explorations into fantastic worlds, sci-fi adventure with a robotic sidekick, and other zany hijinks to get up to, The Lurking Horror is all about a hapless student at G.U.E. Tech -- you -- who gets stuck on campus during a raging snowstorm while trying to finish a school paper. Inevitably throughout the course of the game, you learn many things that Man was Not Meant to Know, and discover something ancient and evil brewing in the depths of the school complex.

The gameplay is standard Infocom fare, with the player typing in commands like “go north” and “examine monitor” to interact with the world. What was new, however -- and this game was the first to do this -- was the inclusion of sound effects. During key moments in the game’s narrative, the game would play an audio clip that appropriately fits the current situation. Being a horror game, most of the sounds that this game featured were not pleasant, to say the least. It’s genuinely terrifying to hear a loud, alien screech coming out of your pc speakers as you encounter an otherworldly flying creature at the campus greenhouse after hours of deathly silent exploration!

Horror games would continue to show this bold innovating spirit for years to come. The original Alone in the Dark pioneered the usage of cinematic camera angles in gameplay, and we suffered through a host of “cinematic” action games in the mid- and late-90s that blindly featured the same bad camera angles and weird controls because none of the developers of those games realized that it was forgivable for Alone in the Dark because it was a scary game that was meant to be alien and unfamiliar and terrifying -- a game that took the very discomfort of playing it and turned it to its advantage.

The schlocky monster-slaying title Nocturne featured some groundbreaking light and shadow technology for its time, and I couldn’t imagine the game any other way; the lighting was integral to setting the mood of the game. It even ran with slightly darker visuals than usual to encourage players to experience it with the room lights turned off. Today, realistic-looking soft shadows are a dime a dozen in games of various genres from shooters to sports, but back then, it was a revelatory experience. This was the game with a place named “The House on the Edge of Hell”, and it just won’t feel right without giant, looming shadows moving around everywhere to keep you on your toes.

There are still innovations happening today for the horror genre, both in the technology and in the vision. The developers of Condemned: Criminal Origins had to come up with a workable melee combat system to emphasize the brutal and desperate feel they wanted, and they succeeded brilliantly. The Dark Eye needed something otherworldly, and the deranged team behind it used the creepiest stop-motion ever devised for its visuals. Metro 2033 did well both technologically with its amazing lighting and visual effects, and creatively with its everything-is-finite concept that had the player scrambling and risking his neck for the chance to loot just one more out-of-the-way corpse. It’s brilliant. All of it is brilliant.

Now it's 2012, and technology has broken into the realm of what would have been considered magic as recently as half a century ago. Today, we have gadgets that you can talk to, and track your body's movements as an input method. We've got graphics and physics simulation technology that's approaching reality at an alarming rate. We can take our games anywhere. We can take everything everywhere. I hope some of the right minds are looking at all this technology, and I hope they're seeing some potential in utilizing it to scare us in even more surprising ways.

I'd rather not suffer through surprise insanity effects delivered via mobile -- no sudden texts from my dead grandmother, please -- but it makes me wonder what the 2012 equivalent of a bloodcurdling scream emanating from a text-only adventure game would be.


Thank you so much for reading. Be here again next week for a discussion about horror and its peculiarly reality-bending aspects. Are you really seeing in five dimensions all of a sudden, or is it all in your mind? See you then!

The Monday AAR: Rogue Thunder is Coming

Happy Monday, gamerfriends! Here's another rundown of what happened in the community this past week. No stupid little anecdote for this edition, unfortunately. I spent most of the weekend alternating between going out to buy things and going home to sleep -- morning, noon, and night. That's no fun.

Anyway:

    • Operation: Rogue Thunder begins this week! INQUE will post details here as they are revealed. In the meantime, if you're looking to participate, visit the role assignments thread to see if you have a proper role already assigned to you.

    • It was Double XP Weekend for Battlefield 3 this weekend, and some of the OMGeeks were present to participate! Our very own blitzio led a squad composed of t43m4n, riffscreamer, and Exodus, and fought bravely while it lasted. Stay alert for similar events! If there's one coming up, someone on OMGeek is probably already organizing something for it.

    • The guys have gotten organized in Max Payne 3 multiplayer, and I hear it's going great. I just haven't been able to participate because, well, I didn't buy the game. The community is getting a crew together though, so sign up here if you're interested in rolling past some Brazilian slums as a gang. That's indicative of the actual gameplay experience, isn't it? Correct me if I'm wrong.

    • Part 2 of my series of articles about horror games just went up last Wednesday. Read it here, or if you missed the very first one, you can find it here. I discuss the theme of choice and consequence and the significance of uncertainty in the latest article. Next Wednesday, we'll talk about horror games and innovation. Stay tuned!

On Horror Games: Part the second

Welcome back, horror fans and fans-to-be! This is part two of my five-part series about horror games and why you should play them. This week, I bring to you more spoilers and more tantalizing glimpses at the intensity of the horror game experience. We'll be talking about story and theme in this edition: more specifically, choices and consequences. Now that interactivity can offer you the choice of what to do, would you go down alone into that dark basement? Would you suggest that it's a good idea to split up to cover more ground? Would you pick up that hitchhiker, knowing full well that it could be a member of an inbred clan of cannibal serial killers?

You might think you have a choice, but is it one that you have the power to make?

Horror and Consequence

Warning: spoilers for Phantasmagoria and Amnesia. Major spoilage imminent for Saw 2: Flesh and Blood.

Horror may be about the human spirit, but it arguably speaks more about human folly. When we make decisions about things that we don’t fully understand, unexpected things happen. We close one door and open another, all the while fully aware that we can never, ever see through both. In this way, horror is about blind compromise. It’s a leap of faith within a leap of faith!

In Phantasmagoria, it was Adrienne’s curiosity that let loose Carno’s ghost, which eventually possessed her husband and opened the floodgates to a few scares, a lot of gore, and one of the most memorable chase scenes in gaming. Amnesia’s protagonist, Daniel, willingly erased his memory in order to clear his mind of past horrors and past deeds -- things he did of his own volition. Lots of times in horror fiction, people get themselves into deep doo-doo just by being and doing. You just don’t know what innocent action will ripple out into terrible events down the road.

Whether or not a game actually gives you a real choice, horror games will leave you regretting your decisions when the Bad Things start to happen:

  • I wish I never agreed to meet up with Dr. Polito. - System Shock 2
  • I wish I never read all those journals about African tribal customs. - Scratches
  • I wish we never ever invented the computer. - I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
  • I wish I never entered this cave and lit up this lamp. - Gabriel Knight 2

Once again, the lack of control and power persists, and the challenge is laid upon the player to see a clear way through what seems like an utterly chaotic mess.

Horror games embody the power of choice and decision -- no matter how weak or trivial they may all seem, there’s always a thematic choice that will change the world in some major way. You may think I’m contradicting what I said about linearity earlier, but I don't think so. If something is inevitable, then it's inevitable. The choice is simply there to tantalize and frustrate and present all sorts of questions about what could have been and what could have been avoided. It's fatalism with a dollop of doubt, and without doubt, I say there's not much use for a horror story.

I have an example that delves a tad too much into twist-ending territory, but illustrates this mostly unfair choice-and-consequence in a gaming context. The game is Saw 2: Flesh and Blood. Its events take place during a stormy evening in a dilapidated, fenced-in area of the city where once again, Jigsaw has shown that having terminal cancer is no great barrier to rigging a dizzying amount of death traps designed to help his contemporaries strive to fill the bleak emptiness of their empty, misused lives while painfully shedding no small amount of blood.

Your character, of course, is one of these unfortunate contemporaries. Over the course of the game, you run barefoot on broken glass, shimmy through tight corridors covered with barbed wire, solve logic puzzles to rescue fellow victims hooked up to elaborate death-dealing contraptions, and oddly enough, solve a clandestine drug smuggling operation happening in the city. Seriously. Jigsaw is an especially wascally wabbit in this instalment of the series.

The human folly, however, is established hours before any of this is resolved. Saw 2’s tutorial level has you playing another Jigsaw victim who is offered his freedom after the requisite self-mutilation with a scalpel and a little bit of out-of-place puzzle solving to unlock a door. It is established that you have cancer, and that you don’t have long to live, and that you are a drug addict. You are shown an elevator leading up to freedom, which you can accept or refuse to ride in. The elevator only fits one, but it will make another stop before reaching ground level. On that other stop, another of Jigsaw’s victims -- whom you haven’t ever met -- will want to get in to escape. You are asked if you are willing to sacrifice your spot in the elevator to save a complete stranger. No matter how it plays out, the game then proceeds to the main story proper.

The twist, which you probably saw coming from miles away now, is that you (or rather, non-tutorial you) are that complete stranger. If by any chance you exercised your video game instinct of self-preservation during that tutorial, your effort of playing through the rest of the entire game is ultimately rewarded by a cutscene of some random guy zooming up past you in a sealed one-man elevator even as the ceiling slowly lowers to crush you to death. Don’t worry: the random tutorial guy also dies before the credits roll because he makes one bad decision too many after he gets offered his freedom. Conversely, if you let your tutorial-self die in the tutorial, you get to live at the end of the game.

From a gameplay standpoint, this is downright annoying. Simply put, the first choice you make in a game that is anywhere from 10 to 14 hours long determines whether you live or die at the end. However (and don’t cringe at this surprise life insight, brought to you by all your friends at OMGeek), it does illustrate a point about how choice not only carries consequences for ourselves, but for other people as well -- for good and for ill. It’s a message I can appreciate as an appropriate horror moral story, though I wish it could have been delivered in a better way through a better game.

There are other horror games out there with choices that are just as compelling, that deliver the same impact without any of the frustration. The best part is that in a horror story, choices are doubly significant because the stakes are much higher. You may either be saving the world from an eternity of living hell, or maybe just trying really hard not to get your right leg amputated at the thigh with a rusty saw blade moving at a steady clip of one centimeter a second. In both examples, it is very, very, very important to prevent such an outcome from happening. I’m sure you’ll agree.


Thanks for reading, everyone. Next Wednesday, we'll talk about horror and the innovation that it drives. Be here then!

The Monday AAR: The Week After

E3 has come and gone, gamerfriends, and I'm left feeling mostly empty and jaded after all the slick, overproduced, samey content I sat through. Some games they showed excited me, sure, but I have a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach that gaming as a whole is moving in the wrong direction. It's the 90s gamer in me, talking about the good old days of autoexec.bat and config.sys. Don't mind that guy.

Anyway, some points of interest for you:

    • blitzio put up a thread about the stand-out videos from E3 here. GailExodus and Matrix374 were kind enough to help him out. If you'd like to strike up an E3 discussion a week after the fact, drop by and share your thoughts.

    • In ArmA II news, INQUE is taking sign-ups for participants in a basic training course to be held this week. If you'd like to learn the finer points of the ACE and ACRE mods as they are used in our ArmA II server, simply leave a message announcing your intent to join in the thread. The final schedule shall be posted shortly.

    • Minecraft Wednesday is this Wednesday, as always! Prepare to gear up for a creepy expedition as we head out into the nether to find stuff. And things. Also, it's time for you to claim a little plot of land to call your own if you want to build a house for yourself. Stand by for more details tomorrow!

    • Allow me to toot on my own horn for a brief spell: I've begun writing a series of articles about horror games aimed primarily towards people who don't play horror games. The first part can be found here, with each succeeding entry in my planned five-part series going up here on the blog every Wednesday. Stay tuned, and I highly encourage you to join in the discussion! Thanks for reading.

    • I don't usually post about deals here on the AAR, but I do the AARs and I deserve a little self-interesting plugging every now and then! Crusader Kings II and all its DLC are currently on sale on Steam at 75% off! You can get the base game for 10 USD, or go big time and grab the game and all currently released DLC for 13 USD.

      The game highly interests me, as its almost like Medieval II: Total War without the RTS Total War part. Politics, courtier assassinations, crusades, land grabbing, and more await! The deal only runs for one day only, so if you're interested, get it now!

On Horror Games: Part the first

Pssst! Gamerfriends. This month of June, we’re going to have a weekly feature and discussion about horror games and the elements that make them great. You know, because it’s totally appropriate to do this in June. During E3 season, no less. I won’t be spoiling much; I do want the non-horror players out there to give scary games a try after reading this series. I will spoil enough about some selected horror games to pique your interest though, and I’ll be indicating any incoming spoilers at the top of each article that goes up. Sounds good? Good!

If you’ll just join me here, we’ll get started. Here. In the dark.

People have asked me before: why do I like -- nay, prefer -- games that can scare me so badly that I may end up sleeping with the lights on for the next two days? What's so good about being terrified, about developing an irrational fear of the dark, or of the light, or of that old broom in the kitchen corner that kind of looks like a face if you squint really hard and kind of catch it in just the right light?

Why horror games?

Fun fact: I have actually attempted writing this piece about horror games and the entertainment value of the scare twice in the past, and both times my writing crashed and burned like a walrus attempting to fly -- there's just too much blubber, it’s hard to maintain any kind of momentum, and I found it hard to really look at my love for horror games and peel everything back to reveal the lean meat. I'm gonna try this again, and this time, we're gonna get to the bottom of this together.

Why horror games?

Here's a simple truth about what I love in my games: I love facing great odds and I love overcoming them. I like how Diablo featured a plainly-dressed everyman who works his way up from a level one chump who misses two out of every three sword swings into an undead-bashing, demon slaying machine. The very first time I hit that transition, I started to lose interest. The fun is in the challenge, and in the simplicity, and in the gritty struggle against the darkness while armed with substandard equipment and armor that threatens to fall apart every time an imp brushes up against it. Thirty levels later, I'm clad in gleaming platinum mail (of the Whale) and I command the powers of Heaven in my glow-in-the-dark weapon. Also, I can make living skeletons dismantle themselves at thirty meters by staring hard and grunting. In ten different ways.

Some people think being all-powerful is fun. Diablo 3 even forces the idea upon the player by not allowing him to swing the sword in his hand and by instead making it mandatory to attack with SUPERPOWERZ. It's fun, but it's not so rewarding. It's satisfying, but it's not as memorable as striking down a group of zombies with a sword that’s two swipes away from falling apart. Winning is still an achievement, but the struggle that precedes it feels a bit lackluster.

Horror, on the other hand, is all about being weak and powerless in all the things that count... and maybe still winning. There’s no guarantee. Horror is about uncertainty and fatalism and the multitude of ways that life and the world can change in incredible, unbelievable ways. Horror is about the human spirit, because what it means is to be placed in an impossible situation with no other place to run, and finding a way to run anyway. Horror is a leap of questionable faith into a world where all control is taken away from you, and you are challenged to make the most of the chaos that you’re left with. Control freaks need not apply.

Sometimes, you make it out of the haunted manor with all your limbs and digits intact. Sometimes, the serial killer catches you and hangs you up to cure on a meathook. Hey, it’s all about the human spirit, but I never said anything about the human triumph.

Horror and Linearity

Warning: some spoilers for Dead Space, the Penumbra games, and Silent Hill 2.

Horror games have a huge potential for telling great stories because of the inherent linearity of the genre. A properly scary horror game will carefully and cleverly limit the player's choices at any given time because a strong aspect of horror is the lack of control that the protagonist has during a crucial moment. Terror is the byproduct of having no choice and having no way out. Sure, linearity carries a bit of a stigma when it comes to gaming, but here's the interesting bit about horror games: the gameplay is arguably not the most important part of it all. Eliciting a strong emotional response is far more crucial. It's the reason you came to play, after all.

This is why I took it all in stride in Dead Space when Isaac Clarke was conveniently left stuck behind a glass partition while a pack of necromorphs was busy murdering half of his away team on the other side, or when the intelligent, well-spoken protagonist of Penumbra somehow willed himself into deliberately travelling all the way to Greenland to walk around in a freezing, snow-filled valley, with no provisions, no equipment, no way back, and no hope other than a hole in the ground that leads to further sanity-draining events. These otherwise cheap devices that serve to drive you from a bad situation into an even worse situation are there to set your mood properly, and if done right, you won't even notice you've been forced into the situation until you really stop and think about it.

There's a part in Silent Hill 2 where you can literally stumble into the lair of Pyramid Head -- Silent Hill's popular patron saint of grim executioners -- while wandering around some confusingly laid out underground tunnels. These weren't exactly sprawling tunnels, but you did have a choice to whether to go left or right at some points. I remember losing it in that place: the red lights and the giant knife just lying around and that overly loud scraping sound that indicated that I was mere seconds away from getting painfully eviscerated sent me running in a panic through those tunnels. Exploration had given way to flight -- it wasn't even an escape now, because there was no hint of getting out of the metallic maze, but the game communicated my single new goal to me quite clearly: put as much distance between me and the clanking and scraping and don't think while doing it because I had no other choice in order to survive those next few seconds. Long story short? I let the game scare me into being herded towards where I was supposed to be on the script, and I had no idea it was even happening.

Linearity through genuine terror is an interesting thing: it's exciting, highly motivational, and it never feels like cheating. At the very least, it doesn’t the first time it happens.

Here's another example. In Penumbra: Black Plague, you are coerced into doing a cruel, appalling act willingly. The control is never taken away from you, and you probably won't hesitate springing into action when it happens. However, once the full truth is revealed and you're given time to contemplate your actions, you realize what the game has done to you, and what it made you do. It's manipulative and it's unfair and it's a totally brilliant way to illustrate the terrible, terrible truth that the game owns you even as it relinquishes full control to you. It was a numbing yet incredibly intensifying experience.

That’s something I can get from the horror genre that other kinds of games can’t seem to match up to. The only other strong emotion besides fear I can think of that can have such a profound effect on my experience is humor, and we all know that well-written humor is in short supply in the gaming world. Without the added dimension that fear provides, you can only go through so many “cool”, “badass”, and “dramatic” moments until you’re just dragging yourself along, forcing yourself to play on because you spent fifty American dollars on a title.


Thanks for reading, everyone. Join us again next Wednesday where we'll discuss horror, human consequence, and the PLOT TWEEST of Saw 2: Flesh and Blood!

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