The Subtle Horror of Motorcycle Chases and Grenade Launchers

I’ve always had a special attachment to the horror genre. My parents divorced when I was a little kid, so I only really saw my father during summers and holidays. He was a big horror movie fan, and we would marathon scary movies together every time I visited. I guess I’ve always associated horror media with those father-son kind of moments, and I’ve held a love for the genre ever since. Since I also grew up playing video games, this fondness naturally extended to the survival horror genre. The problem is, I can’t help but feel that the survival horror genre has lost sight of itself over the past few years. It seems harder and harder to find survival horror games that don’t focus on lighting up zombies with gold-plated AK-47s. The mainstays of the genre, like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, are the most noticeable examples of this shift that has transformed survival horror into survival action.

The shift really began once Resident Evil 4 hit the market to critical and commercial acclaim. It was definitely a great game, and it was refreshing to play a Resident Evil game that was willing to try something new with its gameplay mechanics and setting. It did so well that other series in the survival horror genre sought to imitate it, especially the tighter focus on action-oriented gameplay. The actual horror elements of the genre ended up becoming less of a focus, while aspects like enemy combat and action set-pieces were given the spotlight.

Capcom followed this up with Resident Evil 5, a game that featured quicktime events against motorcycle-riding infected people and a boss fight that pitted a Humvee’s mounted turret against a giant bipedal monster. I know not everyone is scared of the same things, but does anyone really find these things horrifying? Are these games marketed toward some kind of demographic that can’t sit through Die Hard without shitting its pants? I know the first few Resident Evil games had their flaws, but it was obvious that a large part of the game’s design focused on setting up a decent horror-themed environment. The first Resident Evil mansion had a well-established horror atmosphere, where zombies trapped outside pounded lethargically against windows. The locations were appropriately dark and dangerous, adding to the player’s discomfort at being forced to navigate through them to escape.

Anything but the motorcycle!

Anything but the motorcycle!

Resident Evil may have started the trend, but the worst culprit is arguably the Silent Hill series. This could be mainly due to Team Silent no longer developing the current Silent Hill games, but I think my point still stands. The series was initially praised for its focus on psychological character-driven stories. The characters were people with deep personal flaws that the cursed town exploited to create monsters. The emphasis in the design was clearly placed on exploring these character’s back-stories and their attempt to escape from the haunting fog-covered town. Combat existed, but you weren’t actively encouraged to fight against the monsters. Once Silent Hill: Homecoming hit the scene, combat became the main focus, exemplified by the main character’s dodge rolls and melee combos. The popular monsters from Silent Hill 2 lost their contextual meaning and became generic monsters to be encountered, a hollow attempt to capitalize on the marketability and popularity of the creature designs. The famous Pyramid Head creature is probably the most notable example of this: In Silent Hill 2, the creature represented the main character’s feelings of guilt and desire for punishment. Now, Pyramid Head kind of just shows up to wink at the camera.

The Silent Hill 1 re-imagining, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, went back toward the psychological horror setting by trying a unique mechanic that would alter the game based on various psychological tests given to the player. However, Shattered Memories was treated more like a spin-off to the main series and was only released on the Wii, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable. It never met the kind of commercial success needed for the Silent Hill series’ creators to reconsider the merits of psychological horror focused gameplay.

Good suggestion.

Good suggestion.

“Horror” games that make horror the main focus of the experience feel like they’re becoming few and far between. Amnesia: The Dark Descent, for example, was praised for its immersive atmosphere and setting. There were no cheap jump scares and no combat mechanics. The player is actively encouraged to run away from any monsters they encounter. You can’t even look at them without starting to lose your sanity, keeping all of the monster’s features a mystery. To me, that’s what horror is all about at its core: the fear of the unknown. It’s about the nervous and unsettling feeling you get when you’re walking home late at night by yourself. It’s why you’d have a hard time trying to find someone that would want to explore an abandoned hospital with you at night, even though you know nothing is really going to be waiting for you there. It’s about feeling vulnerable to something you don’t quite understand and is threatening to you. The feeling of fear and horror is somewhat diminished when the majority of a game is spent blowing away dozens of expendable monsters.

These kinds of feelings are what the survival horror genre should try to evoke in the player. For example, take a look at Clock Tower for the SNES and PlayStation. (Clock Tower was never released in any English-speaking countries, but was translated by fans of the game.) In Clock Tower, you play as Jennifer, a young girl who has been adopted with three of her friends by a wealthy family that isn’t quite what it seems. The atmosphere is built up by long periods of silence and methodical movement. This is used to contrast the horror of encountering the Scissorman, an invincible serial killer that stalks Jennifer throughout the mansion. These chase scenes are intense, giving you a real feeling of urgency to escape when the music suddenly ramps up and this killer is chasing you. There is no Magnum to grab and blow his head off with – you’re expected to either outrun him or hide until he gives up and goes to look for you somewhere else. You’re repeatedly forced to try to survive as you solve the mystery of the family’s history.

 

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I hope the horror aspect of the genre will be given more attention as time goes on. With the greater focus on setting up firefights and brawls with monsters, however, a large part of what makes survival horror unique is lost. There’s plenty of other game genres you can go to if you’re looking for straight-up action, but not if you’re looking to be scared. For now, it looks like the prominent series in the genre are going to keep moving toward their new focus on action-oriented gameplay. The recently released spin-off Resident Evil: Raccoon City Operations has gone all-out action, becoming a cooperative cover-based shooter. Trailers and details of Resident Evil 6 suggest that Capcom is trying to find the best of both worlds by featuring multiple characters, each with his or her own perspective. One side will be the action-oriented soldier scenario and the other will be the more methodical and atmospheric approach.

I truly believe horror games have a huge potential they haven’t realized yet. A large part of the horror genre is based on exploiting psychological fears, and the horror genre has the potential to explore symbolism and psychosis in ways that other genres don’t usually touch. Hopefully, the horror elements of the genre will regain their prominence in the future, because without it, we would end up with a genre that only differs from action shooters because you’re shooting monsters instead of soldiers. Honestly, we’re pretty much already there, so unless things change, we can all look forward to the inevitable Resident Evil 15: Rocket Launcher Outbreak.

Report for Basic Braining : Psychonauts

Talk to the mentally-projected hand.

Talk to the mentally-projected hand.

The last time I tried to play Psychonauts, I was immensely frustrated in the first few seconds. Not by the content of the game, mind you, but by the fact that it wasn’t recognizing the 360 controller plugged into my PC. I had heard horror stories about certain platforming sections and that playing with a mouse and keyboard was a fool’s errand, so this would not stand! That moment of excited anticipation for a game by developers I love faded pretty quickly. By the time I closed out of the program to find a method to get the controller to play nicely, distraction had already placed its icy grip firmly on my shoulder. Years passed, but that never stopped the flow of positive things said about Psychonauts, whether it was referenced for its great sense of humor or cited as a depressing example of a good game selling poorly.

Double Fine Productions is a fantastic studio and they’ve made some great products in the past couple of years. I spent a good chunk of time blowing up Tubes with a buddy in Iron Brigade (back when it was known as Trenched), and Costume Quest was very adept at delivering some killer wisecracks. Even Brutal Legend, a divisive game amongst many reviewers, is something that I still recommend that people try out despite its shortcomings. Its ambitious design makes it one of the most unique games I’ve ever played.

A few months ago, a patch came out for six-year-old Psychonauts. This was a result of the original publishing deal with Majesco expiring, which reverted the rights back to the developers at Double Fine. The patch was a whopper, adding in Steamworks support such as cloud saving and achievements, tweaking the difficulty of some levels, and putting out a Mac version of the game to boot. My interest in the game was full of renewed optimism, as I inquired to myself, “If they did all of that, then maybe, just maybe, they added in native 360 pad support!” Of course, when I put my mind to something, it will still take me several months to actually do it. Luckily, the dry spell of games this month proved to be the perfect condition to finally sit down and give Psychonauts the good old college try. Again.

Before a title screen even has the chance to come up, the game prompts you to pick a save slot. I was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of relief as my 360 controller was registering without even having to configure it. One caveat to this, however, is the fact that any action the game advised me to perform was instructed with on-screen images of keyboard prompts, not gamepad button prompts. They clearly have gamepad button graphics in the key binding options menu, so it’s not for a lack of those. After hunting around in the options for a while, I wasn’t able to find a way to fix the issue. An annoying oversight, but I’ll happily take it over some third-party workaround just to get the controller working. Now that we have a working controller, let’s journey onward to the meat of the game. And no, I don’t specifically mean the Meat Circus.

The Collective Unconscious of your mind is one of several surreal environments.

The Collective Unconscious of your mind is one of several surreal environments.

Psychonauts starts you off as Raz, one of many children sent to a summer-turned-boot camp to train to become what can only be assumed as some sort of psychic soldier. It’s your run-of-the-mill 3D platformer with a reasonable control scheme and areas full of collectible goodies. That said, it doesn’t take a psychic to see why it’s so heavily praised. The wonderfully cartoony design approach meshes well with the levity that surrounds everything you come across. You can barely go two minutes without hearing talented voicework from the cast of characters, which is as colorful as the game’s art. The narrative does a great job of putting the player in the world by maintaining a fantastic pace for the story. Overall, everything feels deliberately cohesive, and even if 3D platformers aren’t your preference (they’re definitely not my favorite thing to play), it’s easy to find yourself hungry for more.

The latest PC patch offers a bit of incentive to revisit the game for those who have already played through it, with Steam achievements for those who like to show off. The native gamepad support and Mac version help make it more accessible to people like myself who missed this beauty the first time around, though it is a slight chore to deal with on-screen keyboard prompts when you’re using a controller. However, jumping over that hurdle is more than worth it, since Psychonauts is already leaps ahead of almost every other 3D platformer I’ve ever played. I’m only a few hours in, and that’s all it took for it to me to realize that I need to see it through to the end.

It’s a shame that it originally sold as poorly as it did; critical acclaim surrounded Double Fine’s first major release left and right, but less than 100,000 copies had moved in the first eight months. Luckily, this hasn’t shaken Double Fine founder Tim Schafer, who told CVG back in late 2010 that he wouldn’t be opposed to making a sequel. According to Shafer, the main sticking point is finding a publisher who is interested in putting it out. Psychonauts has recieved a plethora of positive commentary over the years, so the name is in enough people’s heads to potentially be a big seller. With any luck, this article may just put it in a few more, so if you haven’t had the chance to pick it up yet, put on your thinking cap and grab it as soon as possible.

GameFly Unlimited PC Play – Worth it or not?

Batman watches over the GameFly PC Client News Screen.

Batman watches over the GameFly PC Client News Screen.

GameFly, the video game rental service that is often described as the “Netflix of video games” is making moves into the PC game digital distribution space (often described as “Steam and its competitors”). With GameFly’s purchase of Direct2Drive in May 2011 and the launch of its beta PC client in September 2011, the company is taking big but slow steps into the market dominated largely by Steam. Not that there isn’t room for more competition, but is GameFly’s effort worthy of note?

I’ve been a GameFly member for quite a while, and the shipping facility in my city makes the mail service snappy and efficient for me. I received a beta invitation to the GameFly Client as they call it, so I gladly installed the application to check it out for myself. As an avid and possibly addicted member of Valve’s Steam, I was curious to see how a competitor approached the PC digital distribution game.

GameFly’s big selling point is the “unlimited PC play” for members of their mail service. This new service gives members unlimited access to a large library of PC games, and you can install and play as many as you want, whenever you want, so long as you’re still an active member of GameFly. Sounds awesome, right?

No, Battlefield 3 is not available for free unlimited play.

No, Battlefield 3 is not available for free unlimited play.

Well, the selection of “unlimited play” PC games is definitely substantial, but is unfortunately not very interesting. Pretty much all the available titles fall into one of two categories: games that are several years old, or crappy games that you’ve probably never heard of. Not that those are necessarily bad things, but if you think you’ll get to play some recent big-budget release without buying it at full price, don’t get your hopes up.

The actual process of installing and playing an “unlimited play” game is overly involved and complicated compared to the relative simplicity of Steam’s. These are the steps you have to take before you can start playing your game:

  1. Click “Download Now” to initiate the game download
  2. Verify your account by entering your GameFly password
  3. After waiting for the game to download, click “Install Now” to install the game
  4. Click “Play Now” to activate the game before being allowed to play

It’s kind of a pain in the butt. The upsides are the ability to play the games even when the GameFly client isn’t running (which can’t be done in Steam), and uninstalling the games is not nearly so laborious.

I ended up playing this game longer than I intended while testing the client.

I ended up playing this game longer than I intended while testing the client.

The GameFly PC client has features for buying games from the GameFly store and for managing your GameQ, where you add games to receive in the mail. You can also watch videos and read video game news from Shacknews, which is owned by GameFly. The whole client looks slick and attractive, which isn’t surprising as it’s an Adobe AIR application. This also means it’s quite the resource hog for the minimal amount of functionality it actually provides. Since the GameFly website can perform every action that the PC client can except for downloading the unlimited PC play games, the PC client feels kind of unnecessary and mostly redundant. The selection of unlimited play PC games is unfortunately not interesting enough to make this a recommendation, unless you happen to be particularly interested in a certain PC game that is available in the program.

Maybe the GameFly PC client will be worth another look in the future when GameFly can work out deals with publishers to get more interesting PC titles in the unlimited play program. For now, I’m uninstalling it from my computer.

Opinion: Dungeons of Dredmor

Oh dear. Not again.

Another Steam Christmas sale has come and gone, and if you’re anything like me, you probably made some unorthodox purchases. I’ve owned Dungeons of Dredmor from Gaslamp Games for a couple of months now, but like so many other games, it sat ignored and uninstalled, only serving as a permanent reminder to spend less money on Steam games every single time I looked at my Steam Library. Over the winter break, the game’s DLC, Realm of the Diggle Gods, had dropped to a measly $0.74 USD, and naturally I fell for the sale-trap yet again and snapped it up. This time, I felt really dumb having purchased DLC for a game I wasn’t even sure that I liked, so the obligation to boot it up swelled within me, and I took a self-punishing plunge into this fairly recent roguelike.

The gameplay in Dungeons of Dredmor is pretty similar to any other roguelike – wander around in randomly generated dungeons, fight monsters, find loot, dodge traps, and constantly pray that you don’t die. The combat is turn-based; whenever you move your character or take an action like eating or attacking, all of the enemies on the map all get a turn to do the same. This makes the combat focused on character planning and positioning. Simple strategies like funneling six enemies into a narrow corridor instead of letting yourself get surrounded are key to not biting the dust. And, as a key staple of roguelikes, permadeath plays a solid role in making you think about the ramifications of your actions, since you can lose hours of progress with a few stupid choices. However, if you’re new to the genre, Dungeons of Dredmor has a few nice options to make the game more accessible, such as the option to turn permadeath off and a difficulty selection.

The era of ASCII graphics in roguelikes seems to be rapidly coming to a close, for better or worse. In this case, I’ll make an argument for the better, since this game emanates style from every pore. The art direction is very reminiscent of early PC games, almost striking a resemblance to an old LucasArts point-and-click adventure. The sound effects and music also share that fantastic old-school feel, combining everything into a melting pot of warm and bubbly nostalgia, despite the game being released just last year. It even accomplishes the difficult feat of being genuinely funny, and layers a thick sense of humor on top of the whole package. The attention to detail is evident with everything from item descriptions to propaganda posters hanging up on the walls of the dungeon sponsored by the game’s end boss, smack-talking enemies (“i hope you have a terrible day” is a common expression) and a deep voice-over that praises you with a booming “HEROIC VANDALISM!” every time you smash a statue of evil. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and feels clever enough to make you happy it was included.

While the game is exponentially more accessible than most roguelikes available, it still has a steep learning curve. The stat screen has several dozen little colored icons which tell you what they do when you hover over them, but memorizing them and figuring out how they synergize will take a significantly long time. A lot of the game is made intentionally vague to help encourage player experimentation, but certain mechanics are simply TOO vague. I didn’t even learn how to sell items until I accidentally held down Shift when I was in a shop. The tutorial does an OK job of explaining the basics, but hiding things as elementary as “selling items” from the player serves no purpose. Also, certain elements of the UI are needlessly archaic, such as the lack of mouse-wheel scrolling, and a crafting menu that’s essentially a cobbled-together mess of icons instead of something well-explained and easy to use.

Despite being a great showpiece for roguelikes in general, Dungeons of Dredmor raises a few important questions. How many people are actively still looking to play a masochistic glimpse into the relics of gaming’s past? Does the lack of hand holding, the steep learning curve, or the overall classic style hold any modicum of a broader appeal, or are roguelikes strictly stuck in the hearts of a select niche? Breaking past the ASCII-graphics and making permadeath a selection seem like wide strides from the age-old formula for this type of game, but I’m stuck wondering just how many more people those choices could attract. However, I can at least tell you on a personal level that the game strikes a huge measure of positive chords with me, and I think that for $5 USD (available now on Steam), more people owe it to themselves to see if this genre might hit those same high notes within themselves.

The Roguelike Effect

I’ve had a real sore spot for Torchlight since purchasing it, because I picked it up during a Steam Weekend deal and felt great about getting it for 10 dollars just a few months after its release. In a karmic sort of “Fuck You” fashion, the Steam Christmas Sale started the following Monday, and one of the titles of the day was Torchlight, for 5 dollars! Five dollars less than all of you suckers paid for it a day before! Odds are, you didn’t even have time to play it, and here it is, even cheaper than yesterday!

Naturally, I did what anyone would have done and immediately uninstalled Torchlight, followed by a vow to never play it.

More recently, a buddy introduced me to the wonderfully masochistic world of roguelikes, and I’ve been amazed at how much I enjoy getting my teeth punched in by a video game. For those not in the know, a roguelike is an RPG, usually with turn-based movement, from an over-the-top perspective with reoccurring ideas like perma-death and randomized tilesets. They’re punishing, they’re frustrating, but ultimately they reward you with a great sense of satisfaction whenever you progress.

You rarely progress.

You rarely progress.

There’s been a lot of noise about the Diablo III beta this week, and it called to memory the lengthy times spent in puberty frantically left-clicking my mouse to get bigger and better armor and weapons. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had played a hack-and-slash, and the urge to hunt down some loot bit me. Last week, I decided it was time to give it a go, and bitterly moved on past old grudges and reinstalled Torchlight in a fit of Diablo-hype. For completely unrelated reasons, I also simultaneously realized it was time to watch the 1982 hit movie, 48 Hours.

"Look, convict, we're going to have to work together if we want to get purple drops."

"Look, convict, we're going to have to work together if we want to get purple drops."

As I started making my first character while listening to racist epithets spill out of Nick Nolte’s gravelly mouth, an interesting proposition arose. The difficulty selection screen had a check box for ‘Hardcore Mode,’ and a compulsion came over me. “I could pussyfoot around this and play on baby mode for babies,” I thought to myself as I stroked my chest hair, “or I could simulate diving headfirst into a wall over and over, like a real man!” I ticked the Hardcore box, and selected the hardest difficulty setting.

Things went pretty swimmingly for about 15 minutes, until I was suddenly overwhelmed by a massive cluster of enemies damaging me faster than I could heal. “No sweat, that was just my first attempt,” I reassured myself. “Can’t expect to do this in one try. Gotta pay more attention from here on out.” Each new attempt started bringing a real thrill as I progressed just a tiny bit farther than I did the previous time, but I was repeatedly distracted by things like Eddie Murphy brandishing a knife at a redneck in a bar. It didn’t take me long to realize that I should probably take it a bit slower, and try a non-hardcore character to test the waters of the game a bit more.

Nick Nolte is the only survivor. Seems appropriate.

Nick Nolte is the only survivor. Seems appropriate.

At this point, the movie was nearing its end, and I had to debate in my head if I wanted to watch the sequel, Another 48 Hours, or if I wanted to just focus on the game since hearing the word “convict” every 20 seconds proved itself too great a distraction. I turned off the movie and made it significantly farther than I had with any of my Hardcore characters (as predicted), but something was missing. The gamble of losing all of my progress due to a lapse in attention span was now transformed into something so minor as losing a few gold pieces. The charm had died down a bit, and it became a matter of monotonously left-clicking instead of the moments of tension from earlier when I was outnumbered or had run out of health potions. I decided to turn off the game, since I had lost almost all interest after about half an hour of slogging through without real penalty.

What happened here? It didn’t take long to go sour, and I can definitely say that I was having a lot of fun despite restarting the game from the beginning four times. Why did it jump from a rambunctious romp to a lethargic letdown? Then the thought occurred to me: I had been trying to play Torchlight like a roguelike. Intentionally dooming myself from the start by checking the Hardcore box, my impulsive choice had actually impacted my feelings on the game overall. It was honestly making me wonder if the hack-and-slash genre was even for me anymore, and that I might not get the same joy out of them that I did in decades past. It’s almost as if roguelikes have left a permanent scar on my soul.

Left with a feeling of uncertainty, only time will tell if Diablo III will be able to arouse me with its temptations of bigger and badder swords, or if I’ll need the assistance of a gritty ’80s cop movie to help me cope with losing Hardcore characters at a consistent pace.