Until Dawn

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The character art in Until Dawn is unbelievably great.

It’s pretty hard to write about Until Dawn. It is probably the highest-end horror game ever made. The art, cinematography, acting, and overall presentation set an exceptionally high standard. In addition to this impeccable production quality the gameplay is pretty great as well. The controls are good and the camera system is a glorious evolution of the best Golden Age horror games. Everything about it is stellar, even the theme song. Until Dawn sets itself apart by choosing the Slasher genre as its story frame (haven’t seen that done well since Clock Tower: The First Fear), and its approach to a branching storyline with significantly different outcomes is its key hook. Any way you look at it, Until Dawn should be a phenomenal horror game. But it’s hard to write about because despite oozing with quality, Until Dawn made me more angry and frustrated than any other game in recent memory.

There’s an Orson Scott Card short story called But We Try Not to Act Like It about a dystopian future in which the government forces constant TV exposure on people they deem to be living on the margins. The protagonist is stuck with a soap opera that he recognizes as the story of Penelope, waiting faithfully for Odysseus to return from certain death.  When the soap veers from the archetype the protagonist has a nervous breakdown and eventually kills himself.

Hiram stood transfixed, watching the screen.  Penelope had given in.  Penelope had left her flax and fornicated with a suitor! This is wrong, he thought.

This story has been lying somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain for twenty years, but playing Until Dawn hoisted it from the silt.  To explain the connection, and why Until Dawn made me want to bury my Playstation in a hole in the yard, I need to back up a bit.

The key feature of Until Dawn is its branching storyline.  Decisions that you make can have consequences later in the game, and there are so many choices that there are hundreds of ways that the story could end.  Until Dawn goes out of its way to explain this to you.  It introduces the Butterfly Effect concept in its introductory movie and lets you know every time a branch has been selected.  Characters even refer to the idea in the game’s dialog.  It’s really, really important that you understand that your choices lead to different outcomes.

This is especially true because Until Dawn uses a “fail and continue” model of storytelling.  You never restart a sequence to try again.  If you mess up the story just moves on.  Until Dawn does a good job keeping the story cohesive even when characters die at unexpected times or discover optional story details.  If you didn’t know that the game was built around branching you might not even realize that a decision had been made.

There’s precedent for that kind of mistake: Beyond: Two Souls attempted a similar branching system and failed miserably.  In that game the decisions you make are almost always implicit, and as a result the connection between your actions and later events is unclear.  Many people played Beyond and thought it was a absolutely linear story game.  The Until Dawn developers clearly understood that their fancy branching decision tree must be very obvious so that players understand that their actions have consequences.

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The Butterfly Effect guarantees that your skill in decision making is meaningless.

The problem with this model is that it doesn’t actually give the player control over the outcome of the game.  The whole point of the Butterfly Effect is that you cannot predict the consequences of an action.  In Until Dawn, decisions range from ominous (“stick with the group or venture out on your own?”) to mundane (“go left or go right?”) and there’s no way to guess what the effect will be.  Unlike other games with highly branching stories (such as Virtue’s Last Reward, which actually shows you the tree and lets you jump between branches), you cannot easily experiment with a decision before electing to move forward with it. As a result, the decisions are almost entirely meaningless.  Since you can’t predict the outcome there’s no point in thinking about the decision itself.  Go left or go right, it doesn’t matter.  Whatever is going to happen is going to be arbitrary and unpredictable, so you might as well flip a coin.  Your ability to make good, rational choices is not a very valuable asset in Until Dawn.

The reason to do it this way, I think, is to encourage replays.  Sure, the decisions are unpredictable, but if you chose left last time and choosing right this time leads to a significantly different outcome, that’s pretty cool, right?  Maybe you should play it over and over again and see how the outcomes change depending on your coin flips.

The major drawback to this model is that it completely guts any power the story might have had.  A horror game needs you to be invested in its characters so that you’ll be scared for them when you play.  But your favorite character could be killed at any time, and you might not even understand the conditions that lead to that death.  Until Dawn makes the point over and over again that nobody is safe, any of these people could die, and that you can’t go back and fix it.  Rather than making you work harder to protect them, this turns the characters into disposable nobodies.  Your control of the story is obfuscated across a thousand decision points.  Even if you try you cannot ensure the safety of these people.  So you stop caring about them.

Contrast this with Life is Strange, which uses a very similar branching system (right down to similar Butterfly Effect iconography).  The difference between these two titles is that Life is Strange’s decisions usually have a nearly immediate result, and if you don’t like how it turns out you can rewind time and try it again.  At a few specific points Life is Strange asks you to make bigger decisions that can’t be so easily undone.  But when it does this, it makes the potential consequences of each choice clear.  Decisions are hard in Life is Strange not because of the law of unintended consequences, but precisely because you can imagine exactly what might happen.  This may seem like a small tweak on the system proposed by Until Dawn, but in practice the difference is enormous.  Life is Strange was my game of the year last year, and Until Dawn makes me want to crack my controller in half and slit my wrists with the plastic shards.

To be fair, there are a few big decision moments where the immediate result of your decision is obvious.  Will you let a character live or sacrifice him for another?  But even these decisions, while clear in the short term, have unknowable consequences in the long term.  After a while it doesn’t really seem to matter.

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Dr. Michael Kaufmann Dr. Alan Hill is my favorite part of Until Dawn.

One of the famous tropes of Slasher films is that they have an implicit moral code.  The sexually active teens are sluts and will die.  The arrogant jocks will die.  The most suspicious character will die.  The character who cares for the main character will die, just to show how cruel the psycho killer can be.  This system is so codified that we actually have terms, like Final Girl, to describe it.  But here’s the thing: these films are not trying to preach.  The “moral code” doesn’t exist to teach you that sex is bad, or that jerks will get their comeuppance.  It’s there to telegraph to the audience who they should be rooting for.  It’s a way to identify the protagonist, who will ultimately survive, so that the viewer has something to latch onto and become emotionally invested in.

The problem with Until Dawn is that a branching storyline doesn’t necessarily produce a good story.  If you are emotionally invested in a character who gets killed, you feel bad.  If you don’t identify with the characters then their achievements are meaningless and you feel bad.  You can’t even really take ownership for the story outcome because branching doesn’t actually lead to agency.  Despite making choices left and right, you aren’t really behind the wheel.  I felt more like a rat in a maze, and that’s really the source of my immense frustration with this game.

Until Dawn is a Slasher film in which your Final Girl can die in the last reel.  To make good on the promise of branching and unintended consequences Penelope might give up on Odysseus and choose a suitor, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  The result, at least for some, is a terrible story that makes you feel bad.  And that’s why, despite being exceptionally well-produced and designed for heavy replayability, I never want to play Until Dawn again.

It’s Been Surreal

Surrealist games have it rough. Surrealism is about taking your assumptions and twisting them in a way you did not expect. You should come away with the cogs in your head grinding furiously.  The best surreal titles juxtapose the insane with the mundane to show you their contrast and, if you’re lucky, a startling similarity or two.  But to do this, to startle you and make you think, the surrealist title has to defy your expectations.  It has to tell you it’s one thing and then be another.  And in the world of video games, where titles are sold on trailers and box art and numerical review scores, that’s a rough spot to be in.

here-they-lie-1You can’t sell a game on surrealism.  It doesn’t work if you go in expecting some weird-ass shit.  Metal Gear Solid 2 is a surreal game, but you don’t sell it by talking about the part where the President of the United States grabs the protagonist’s crotch, or the part where the mini-map is replaced by a pin-up model, or the part where the game tells you to turn the PS2 off.  You sell it as a stealth military action game and then you let the weird stuff seep in in the second half, when the innocent player is already invested and doesn’t realize he’s about to have his assumptions challenged.  You sell it as a game about a white dude shooting masked terrorists so that you can pay the bills.  The surreal stuff has to be surprising.  You gotta ease them into it.  And still they’ll say that Metal Gear Solid 2 is the worst Metal Gear because it makes no sense.

I played two surreal horror games this year, Here They Lie and Albino Lullaby.  I played both in VR, and VR has a lot to do with the way those games operate, but  for today I’m going to ignore that aspect.  Oh, and, full disclosure: I worked with the Albino Lullaby team on their Oculus Rift version, which launched earlier this year.

Both Here They Lie and Albino Lullaby received mediocre reviews, and I think that’s mostly because they are just too weird for the mainstream crowd.  There are legitimate complaints as well, of course: both titles are sickening for some people in VR (but not for me), Here They Lie has some problems with the fidelity of its graphics, and both are mechanically very simple (no combat, no items, minimal puzzles, some stealth).  But I think the real complaint here is that these games appear to be building towards some narrative conclusion and then, part way through, take a left turn to Weirdville and never come back.  They are designed to make you think after the game machine has been shut off, and that’s not generally what the mainstream review system values.

Here They Lie starts out looking like it’s going to be a scary walking simulator with some enemies and a bit of stealth.  From the beginning, it’s clear that there is more going on than what appears on the screen.  In fact, the game goes out of its way to use color contrast to highlight the idea that the world is not what it appears to be.  But then Here They Lie takes a turn and drops you in the a city of people with animal heads.  If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that the enemy design is pretty Freudian, and that raises questions about who exactly you are playing as. But if you aren’t paying much attention you probably just think the freaky animal people are some weird shit in a horror game.  Eventually the twists get more dramatic, and if you didn’t think much of the breathing subway tunnel then the flying space mandala is almost certainly going to seem like it came out of nowhere.  The “problem” with Here They Lie is that it’s asking a lot of the player, and as a surreal game it’s not about to make any of the answers easy.

albinoAlbino Lullaby is thematically a completely different beast.  It uses a crazy, tongue-in-cheek art style that looks more like the box art for a ’80s direct-to-video horror flick than a surrealist video game.  Albino Lullaby is more straightforward with its narrative too, and you can easily play it with your brain on autopilot.  That is, of course, until you find something that gives the weirdness meaning, and makes it more horrible than it was before.  Despite its bombastic style, there’s a method to Albino Lullaby’s madness, and the clearer the truth becomes the more thought it requires.  If it sounds like I’m speaking in vague generalities here, it’s because I am: it’s very hard to talk about this title without undoing it.  Suffice it to say that Albino Lullaby is a level designer’s game, with crazy architecture that is surprising and occasionally genius.  But under the hood, the real meat of the title is its surrealist, dreamlike quality, and its penchant for posing uncomfortable questions without providing answers.

Both of these titles sell themselves as horror games with unique visual styles.  And that’s what they are.  But that pitch doesn’t prepare you for what Here They Lie and Albino Lullaby are really up to, and I think some players come away surprised and confused.  They were expecting some spooky monster shenanigans and ended up with cryptic meditations on the structure of consciousness and the complicity of victims in abusive relationships instead.  They expected the latest Stephen King novel but got Fyodor Dostoevsky.

But that’s how it has to be.  You can’t sell Here They Lie on space mandalas.  If you did, it would be expected and would cease to be thought provoking.  The whole point is to subvert the player’s expectations.  But some players don’t like that.  Some aren’t ready for it.  Some were just looking for a way to relax on a Friday night with a beer.  And those folks aren’t interested in the dramatic difficulty of what Here They Lie and Albino Lullaby are attempting to do.

I’m telling you, surrealist games have it t

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Back in 1995

“These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness.” — William Gibson, Johnny Mnemonic

If you’re an indie developer, making a pixel art game is pretty attractive.  First and foremost, it’s pretty cheap and easy to develop, at least in terms of art production.  A one-man-band dev can put together an 8-bit game without needing a lot of art skills.  As a reductive art it allows the designer to evoke imagery that might be much harder to produce with a more complex style.

But the main appeal of the pixel art game is surely nostalgia.  I had an interesting conversation with Raph Koster a few years back in which he commented that indie pixel art games seemed to mostly be about the childhoods of their authors.  That’s not a value judgement, but I think some indie devs I know would have responded to that classification poorly.  To them, they are working in a style, in a format, and are not intrinsically limited in their message.  I suspect Raph would side with Marshall McLuhan on this one.

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Do you remember this? I do.

Back in 1995 is a different type of retro indie game.  Though it still seeks to evoke nostalgic imagery through a retro art style, it doesn’t use pixel art.  Rather, Back in 1995 goes to great lengths to recreate PS1-style graphics on your modern PC.  Low poly environments, fixed-point texture projection warping, and a full-screen CRT effect that looks like NTSC interlacing.  Back in 1995 even emulates the polygon cracking common on mid-90s consoles.  The style extends to the game play as well: the protagonist walks slowly, rotates in place even more slowly, and wields his weapons as if in slow motion.  It’s a style that seeks to replicate full 3D games of the era, and reminded me particularly of Silent Hill and Overblood.

As a retro game, Back in 1995 is pretty different than its pixel art counterparts.  It’s not an easy style to strike.  When I talked to developer Takaaki Ichijo last year, we discussed the technical challenges of pulling off this look in a modern engine.  He ended up working directly with some of the folks at Unity to achieve the visuals he was going for.  And even with simple geometry, the camera cut, 3D motion, and collision detection requirements of these sorts of games are deceptively complicated.  This is not a style that one selects in order to cut cost.

Looking at reviews on Steam, it seems that most of the complaints about Back in 1995 are that it is short and the game play is simplistic.  And that’s true–if you’re expecting to play something of the scope of Resident Evil, you’re going to be disappointed.  Back in 1995 last a few hours, and during that time it hits on many of the important patterns that were common to games of that era, but it is not particularly lengthy, challenging, or deep.

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CRT scan and NTSC color interlacing in full effect.

But then again, that’s not the point.  Speaking of Marshall McLuhan, the purpose of Back in 1995 is to make you remember what that era was like, warts and all.  The medium is the message: Back in 1995 simultaneously tickles that nostalgic nerve while reminding you how clunky many of those titles were.  PS1 full 3D games have not aged well, and Back in 1995‘s main message is that we shouldn’t always view the past with rose-tinted spectacles. The game mechanics and story are secondary to that main point: the developer loves this sort of game but he has no illusions about living in the past.  In a world of retro games that warship at the alter of a bygone era, Back in 1995′s perspective is refreshing.

The game ends, and then it doesn’t, and then the developer shows up to talk about the work.  It’s definitely worth playing all the way through.  For $10 you could do a lot worse than this experiment in the value of nostalgia.

 

 

Virtual Haunted Houses

My daughter, a second grader, loves ghosts and zombies and Halloween.  We read Grimm fairytales together and she is now old enough to enjoy films like Ghostbusters.  It is to my considerable delight that she is not easily phased by the macabre.

This place is legit.

But last summer I made the mistake of taking her to a haunted house in Eiga-mura, a theme park in Kyoto that looks like a samurai movie film set.  Almost every haunted house I’ve ever been to has been something of a disappointment, but this one was incredibly well done.  It’s a bit like stepping into a Fatal Frame level, complete with dilapidated tori gate and women with long hair in white funeral garb.  It was way scarier than I expected, and way beyond what a reasonable parent should expose a second-grader to.  My daughter lost it after the first jump scare and I had to carry her the rest of the way.  A significant investment in ice cream was made immediately thereafter.

The most effective thing about the Eiga-mura haunted house is that it is free of hokey animatronics and plastic skeletons.  It’s dark, it has a well-made set, and it employs actual humans to run up behind you and scream bloody murder.  This is like the ultimate pop-out scare because it’s literally a person popping out of a hidden door, dressed in all sorts of scary makeup, yelling at the top of their lungs.  I don’t care how stone cold you think you are, that shit is startling.

I was reminded of this parenting fail the other day while playing some horror games in VR.  Since Dead Secret is a VR game, I’ve spent some time playing other VR horror titles to see what the state of the industry is like.  Most of these games are just experiments, little vignettes designed to explore one aspect of VR horror.  I like the way Dreadhalls plays with perception by moving things when you aren’t looking at them.  I like how Alone forces you to focus on one spot and then makes sure you know things are happening behind you.  And Alien: Isolation was the VR experience that convinced me that the medium had finally arrived.

Pretty much just like this.

But a lot of the horror games I’ve seen in VR boil down to virtual versions of that haunted house in Kyoto.  A convincing environment that you wander through, followed by a screaming monster that comes out of nowhere and gets all up in your face.  Some of these “virtual haunted houses” are really well done in terms of art and sound production.  A few of them even try to do interesting things to ratchet the tension up before the inevitable jump scare.  And if you had any questions about the effectiveness of this sort of scare, there are a thousand YouTube videos of people screaming their guts out.  If you want to make a virtual haunted house, now’s the time.

Maybe I’m a jaded cynic, but I find all of these virtual haunted house games to be terrifically boring.  I thought about it for a while, and I think the main reason is that there’s just nothing to them beyond the immediate experience.  Like a real haunted house there is no story, no characters, nothing to really work the brain.  Just dark hallways and women with bleeding eyes lunging from the occasional nook or cranny.  To me, this is the simplest, safest form of horror you could possibly make.  These titles remind me of the types of games Richard Rouse III has called “empty calories,” the interactive equivalents of junk food.  While satisfying in the short term, they have no real value or longevity.  They don’t tackle the problems that make horror a difficult genre to do well.

With so many developers now working on horror projects in VR, I wish that more of them would tackle those hard problems.  Haunted houses are great, but they are short, shallow affairs.  Given the powerful feeling of presence that VR affords, it seems like a missed opportunity to use it for pop-out scare factories.

Dead Secret Ships for Steam and Oculus

In 2013 Dead Secret started out as a small, two-person project. It was put on hiatus twice and I didn’t think it was ever going to ship. It started out as a mystery game and slowly developed a sticky horror underbelly, which I have really enjoyed. We shipped it for Gear VR last year. On Monday, Dead Secret came out for Oculus Rift, and we released a non-VR version on Steam. After writing about horror games for thirteen years it feels pretty good to actually ship something in the genre. I suspect that long-time readers of this site will recognize certain mechanics and details from my favorite horror games here and there. It’s kind of a love letter to those titles.

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If you’re interested, please check Dead Secret out on Steam. I have a lot more to write about Dead Secret but it’s all spoilery, so I’ll wait until folks have had a chance to play.

Finally, here’s an image I made for April Fools yesterday. Who knew that Dead Secret was ripped off from an obscure WonderSwan game!?

Packaging Expectations

Dead Secret, the mystery game I’ve been working on since 2013, will be released on Steam and Oculus on Monday, so I thought I’d write about something I thought about a lot while making it: strategically setting the player’s expectations.

32703911A couple of years ago I was browsing my favorite weirdo bookstore in Japan and found a thin volume called いるのいないの? (Iruno Inaino?, “Is Anyone There?”).  It is a “horror picture book,” written and drawn in the style of a children’s story, with a hardback binding, simple grammar, and large, full-page pictures.  It’s actually a part of a series of short horror stories all done in this style by a variety of artists.  Despite its looks, this isn’t a book for kids.  I hid it on the top shelf of my bookcase so that my eight-year-old won’t accidentally read it before she’s ready (which is probably not for a few years).  It’s scary.

I suspect that part of the reason Iruno Inaino? is effective is precisely because it’s presented as a children’s book.  The protagonist is a child. The narration is from the child’s perspective, in the child’s voice, and uses an age-appropriate vocabulary.  Without spoiling it for the four or five of you who are going to find it on Amazon, import it, and translate the Japanese, it deals with a fear that any child might feel.  A simple, basic fear that we can identify with even as adults.  The story is effective, but the ultimate effect is achieved by all the elements of the book working together to set your expectations and then defy them.  Children’s books, as a rule, are not supposed to be scary.  Definitely not this scary.  The packaging of Iruno Inaino? is designed to be disarming.  It leaves us vulnerable to the sharp edge of the story’s thin blade.

Horror is about loss of control.  It’s about uncertainty.  A good horror story throws us for a loop and plays with our expectations.  Sometimes this happens because the story has been framed to lead our expectations elsewhere.

I do not think that Event Horizon is a very good film.  It’s absolutely derivative of Alien (a better movie by every standard) and offers very little in the way of compelling story or interesting characters.  About half way through it drops all pretense of plot and goes straight for gore.  And yet, the first time I saw it, I must admit that it scared the shit out of me.  There I was, operating under the theory that good horror stories are, first and foremost, good stories, and wondering how this fairly uninteresting example of space fear managed to get the drop on me. After a second viewing I figured it out: Event Horizon was scary because it caught me off guard.  The advertising I had seen led me to believe that it was a 2001-style Space Explorers movie and not a scary horror film.  I went in expecting Mission to Mars and got Alien instead.  Even as a derivative of Alien, the mechanisms it uses are effective, particularly if you are not expecting them.  The second viewing was a comparatively bland affair because I now knew what to expect (Alien, on the other hand, still scares me).

Packaging and presentation of horror media sets expectations.  And expectations matter a whole lot to the final experience.  Folks who are really good at horror understand this and control the presentation of their works very carefully.

Take, for example, this early trailer for Frictional Games’ SOMA, released almost two years before the game itself came out:

Now, if you’ve played SOMA, you might have noticed something: this sequence doesn’t actually happen in the game.  In fact, the character portrayed here isn’t even the main character.  This entire level segment, the graphics and the script and the physics and the voice acting, all of it was created just for this trailer.  It’s not in the final game, and was never intended to be.  The purpose of this trailer is to show you what SOMA is like without actually spoiling anything.  It’s setting expectations without giving anything away.  All of Frictional’s early trailers are like this.

catps3_thumbHere’s another example.  The box art for Catherine is provocative. It looks like an anime pin-up girl and it’s designed to make you believe that Catherine is about some sexy stuff. Catherine is in fact about sex, but not the titillating kind.  In fact, every hint of nudity in Catherine is downright nerve-wracking.  The packaging of this game sets it up as some sexy anime girl game so that it can watch you squirm when it starts posing difficult questions about the ethics of long-term relationships. Sex in Catherine is weaponized, and its goal is to make you feel uncomfortable.  It does this, in part, by misdirecting your expectations and then throwing them off a cliff. The blade gets twisted a lot in this game, and it hurts.

The concept of controlling the presentation and packaging of a game in order to misdirect expectations is fascinating to me.  I can’t really talk about the steps we took in Dead Secret without spoiling it.  I will say that we’ve been very careful to only share builds with streamers that contain the first few minutes of gameplay (like this one).  I guess you’ll just have to play it to see the rest.

 

 

The Cell Phone Problem

In 2013 I had the opportunity to chat with Steve Gaynor about his then in-development mystery game Gone Home.  A playable version was on display at the Game Developer’s Conference’s Indie Megabooth, and while I was interested in some of the other titles being shown (like Thirty Flights of Loving), I was there to see his game.  We were far enough into the development of Dead Secret to realize that it might have significant overlap with Gaynor’s title, and I’d come to check it out.

sh-phone-callTo my relief our respective games were quite different, though we’d both made a lot of similar decisions.  Chatting with Gaynor I found that we’re both big fans of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and have both spent a bunch of time in Portland, Oregon. Midway through our conversation I turned to Steve and asked him if he had set Gone Home in the mid ’90s to deal with “the cell phone problem.”

“Yep,” he said. I didn’t have to define the term–he knew what I was talking about immediately.  There are a lot of other good thematic reasons to set Gone Home in the 1990s, and if you’ve played the game you know why, but my interest was functional: the cell phone problem is hard, and I am interested in what other game designers think of it.

If you play a lot of mystery or horror games you might have noticed that there are not a whole lot of them that take place after the year 2000.  There are many that take place in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as those further in the past (including Dead Secret) or in the far future (SOMA, Alien: Isolation).  But the last decade and a half are underrepresented in scary games, and I think the reason is simple: cell phones.

The problem with cell phones is that they are lifelines back to the real world.  Hiding under a bed as a deranged killer searches the house for you?  With a cell phone you can call the cops.  Arrive at your rendezvous point only to find your confederate hasn’t shown?  With a phone you can just call them.  Wondering how to open an antique lock with a screwdriver?  If you have a cell phone you can just look that shit up on the internet.  Phones are ubiquitous and incredibly powerful ways to communicate regardless of your physical location. That power throws a giant wrench in a large number of mysteries that operate on the idea that you are isolated and must rely on your wits alone.

shining-1980-overlook-hotel-blizzard-00n-p5kI mean, take The Shining.  The entire film operates on the basic premise that the roads are snowed in and nobody can get in or out of Overlook Hotel.  The protagonists are pretty lucky that one of them is a psychic because that’s how they are finally able to issue an SOS to the outside world.  If they’d had cell phones they would have noped the fuck out of there about 30 minutes into the film.

The need to isolate the protagonist is common in horror and mystery literature.  And Then There Were None, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, involves ten people trapped on an island from which there is no escape. Firewatch takes place in the Wyoming wilderness in 1989 because many of the protagonists’ problems would be trivial to resolve with modern technology. 999 involves nine people trapped on a giant, trap-laden boat with no means to communicate with the outside world.  The mystery of these titles operates on the idea that the protagonists are isolated, and cell phones just chuck all that thrilling infrastructure right out the window.

Of course, there are ways to defang the portable phone. It could be out of batteries, or your protagonists could find themselves beyond the range of the closest cell tower.  But these contrivances come with a lot of conditions of their own.  I mean, you have to be pretty remote to lose a cell signal in the United States these days.

More interesting are titles that subvert the phone itself.  Ju-on, a 2002 Japanese horror flick, spends a lot of screen time proving that technology can’t save you from a killer curse.  It does this in order to isolate its victims even within their own home.  If you can’t trust the voice coming out of your phone, what can you trust?  Silent Hill: Shattered Memories actually features a cell phone as one of the game’s central mechanics.  And yet, the protagonist is still isolated: he has nobody to call, no friends or family that he can get ahold of, and he cannot trust the police.  This seems much more horrible than being trapped on an island. Shattered Memories’ Harry isn’t just alone in Silent Hill, he’s alone in his life.

Of course, the Cell Phone Problem isn’t really limited to cell phones.  Modern technology affords us all kinds of ways to circumvent the mysterious.  With the internet, GPS, digital cameras, and Google Maps, the average joe can access volumes of information on almost any topic, record his experiences in high definition, and reach out to millions with ease.  Observing authors of suspense and horror address this challenge in new and unique ways is a pleasure.

Good Games of 2015

I played some good games in 2015.  Here’s a couple of the best.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange is, hands down, my game of the year.  The premise is easily explained (My So-Called Life + mysteries + time travel), but the feeling of playing this game is nearly impossible to put into words.  I write a lot about meaningful decisions on this blog, and Life is Strange is a game designed to make every single decision weighty.  The game revolves around the feeling of decision ownership: though you have a lot of power when it comes to making and revising choices, eventually you must own up to the effects of all of your decisions.

Life is Strange works because it spends nearly all of its time on character development.  The people in Life is Strange are real, and when they suffer because of something you did, it hurts.  

Life is StrangeLife is Strange is about replaying a moment to see how else it could of come out.  That’s the central gameplay mechanic: short-term time rewinding. Yet, when I finished it and got one of the two endings, I couldn’t bring myself to go back and get the other.  I made my choices.  Now I have to own them.

Her Story

As regular readers know, I think that Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is one of the best games ever made.  When I heard that the writer/designer of that seminal title had released an indie murder mystery called Her Story, the money in my wallet crawled out and made the purchase autonomously.

Her Story only has one screen: a ’90s era computer terminal that hosts an aging video database system. You can search through the stored videos by entering keywords.  All of the videos are clips of a woman giving a statement about the disappearance of her husband.  It’s up to you to identify clues and decipher what really happened.

The best mystery novels make you feel like you are the detective, tracking the clues and piecing together what happened before the author reveals the truth.  Her Story evokes that feeling with incredible craft.  Satisfaction comes not from reaching the end and finding out what happened, but ending the game when you reach the point that you are confident in your own theory.

That’s all I’m going to tell you about Her Story.  The rest is up to you.

SOMA

I can’t tell you about SOMA without ruining it.  You need to play it.  You need to finish it.

When you’re done, go back and read Thomas Grip’s blog on horror games.

 

Other really good games I played this year: Metal Gear Solid V, Splatoon, TIS-100.  Add to that titles I really want to play but haven’t yet (Until Dawn, Galak-Z, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Fatal Frame 5, The Room Three, Fallout 4, Among the Sleep, etc), and 2015 seems like a pretty good year.  Here’s to the next one.

Live and Let Die

[This post contains spoilers about one of the best moments in Siren.  If you haven’t played it yet, please ask yourself what you are doing with your life.]

There is a moment in Siren in which your character, a young teenager, is trying to reach a church to meet her parents. The landscape is full of crazed shibito, some of whom have begun to grow bug-like appendages and extra sets of eyeballs. It is dark and foggy, and to survive the trek you must sneak past these monsters using the title’s signature “sight-jacking.”

The game has trained you well by this point. Siren is a game in which stealth is paramount; if a shibito even so much as hears you it’s all over. A flash of red and quick cut to the enemy’s perspective signals that you fucked up, you failed to sneak well enough, and now you’re about to get killed. By the time you reach the church stage you are a sneaking pro.

Your high schooler crouches behind some bushes as you wait for the bug-thing roaming around a few feet ahead to establish a pattern. Her name is Tomoko. She’s still wearing her red phys ed jumper, as if the cataclysmic event that turned the residents of this rural Japanese town into monsters happened right in the middle of her gym class.

The moment comes and you go for it, crouch-walking just behind the shibito as it pauses to examine a flyer pasted on an ancient farmhouse wall. As you pass you can hear the mutated ex-farmer crying. But then a flash of red, and for just a moment you see yourself through the eyes of the enemy. You didn’t make it. The shibito has turned and discovered your hiding place. Tomoko has no weapons and no means of defense, and this close there’s no chance of escape. That’s it, you fucked up, game over.

And then, it doesn’t happen. The monster doesn’t attack. It saw you, that much is clear, but it doesn’t move. The creature just sits there, a few feet from your 11th-grader, looking at her. Slowly you inch her away and then break out in a run. The monster continues to sob quietly to itself as it watches you go. After a moment it returns to the flyer.

Something is wrong here. The game has trained you that getting caught equates to a quick and grisly demise. You’ve put hours and hours into this game so far, and never has a monster failed to attack. The rules, somehow, have changed.Tomoko_Maeda

As Tomoko stumbles forward other monsters see her. There’s a red flash of recognition, but nothing approaches her. Nothing attacks. You don’t know what’s going on, but this opportunity is too good to pass up. You put the girl into a sprint, her red jumper a blur of color across the monochrome landscape, and cover more ground in the next minute than in the previous ten. Soon the church is in sight.

The end of this level is one of the scariest moments Siren has to offer. Sony used it in a television commercial that the Japanese government banned for being too scary. It’s a moment where the game’s developers knife you in the back and then twist the blade.

The reveal is this: when Tomoko reaches the church, she runs to the windows and bangs on them for help. Her parents, sitting inside, turn at the noise and are horrified. Tomoko’s eyes are bleeding. She’s joined the ranks of the terrible shibito without realizing it.

One of the most powerful things about Siren is that it forces you to play as characters that ultimately do not survive. There is a large cast of playable characters, and in the end most of them don’t make it. By constantly switching from person to person, the game denies you the comfort of knowing that the protagonist can never die. It eschews the trope of the untouchable main character by not having a main character.

Alien does this as well. The passive camera refuses to give the viewer a protagonist, and so he must assume that any character might die at any moment (and, for the most part, they do). Alien sets up Dallas, the strong male lead of the crew, as a potential hero and then promptly kills him. There’s no clear hero until everybody but Ripley is dead.

Siren is exceptional in its capacity to replicate the Alien model. How many games can you name in which the protagonist is not obvious? How many that have no obvious protagonist? How many in which some of the playable characters turn out to be enemies of other playable characters? This just doesn’t happen in video games. Games are usually about someone in particular, and death of that person is just a play failure. Oops, you died, restart.

In Siren, characters die and the game progresses. The effect is subtle at first, as individual levels play out like traditional games. There’s a single protagonist and death is a level-restart failure. But the meta game spans time and characters in a way that I’ve not seen often, and the effect becomes powerful: nobody is safe. A level restart is not enough to revive a character. Most will not make it.

The one other title I’ve played that does this is Eternal Darkness. Though very different from Siren, it uses the same multi-character mechanic to keep you on your toes. Characters die and the game progresses, the roster of playable characters continually expands, and early protagonists become antagonists by the end of the game. Eternal Darkness gets away with a few scenes like Eye Bleeding Tomoko because its fundamental game structure allows for playable characters to be killed off. If you make a bad decision you can’t always just restart and try again.

That’s the meta-mechanic here: making decisions carry weight. In a medium where every failure can be undone, horror games must go out of their way to increase the cost of a mistake. This is how good horror games create tension. Atmosphere and environment might suffice for an hour or two, but eventually a horror game must teach its player that their decisions matter. Resident Evil does this by rationing shells and saves. Silent Hill does this putting save points far apart to increase the time cost incurred by restarts. Amnesia obscures the rules related to failure, forcing you to constantly second-guess yourself.

Siren does all these things: it rations resources, has few checkpoints, employs obscured rules, and on top of that it allows characters to die. It is terrifying.

Tracing the Tendrils of Item Management

One of the things I learned while working on Dead Secret (big announcements coming soon!) is how complicated item combinations can be.  Combining items is a pretty standard Adventure game mechanic.  You allow the player to collect parts of an item from different locations, then combine those items into a new item that is necessary to progress.  Combine the herbs to make more powerful health items, combine the batteries with the flashlight to make it work again, combine the secret decoder ring with the mysterious page to read it.  If you’ve ever played any Adventure game you’ve probably combined some items at some point.

Horror games have used item combinations as a core puzzle mechanic since the very beginning, and it’s easy to see why.  Adventure games abiding by the puzzle dependency chart model allow the player to work on multiple problems simultaneously, but often need a synchronization point to gate progress.  Keys and locks get boring pretty fast, and item combination gives designers a way to make these synchronization points more interesting.

Item management in Resident Evil 2.

This all sounds simple on paper, but of course the devil lurks in the details.  In early Resident Evil games, item combination became part of your inventory management strategy.  In those games your inventory space is quite limited, so often you needed to combine items (shells, herbs, etc) just to free up inventory slots.  Inevitably there came a moment where you desperately needed to collect some item but didn’t have enough space for it, and item combination became an organizational tool.  Inventory management is a wonderful sub-game in the Resident Evil series, but from a production perspective it’s expensive to build.  You need UI to select items and combine them, some logic in the items themselves to determine when items and and cannot be combined, and maybe even some smart way to explain why certain item combinations are not good.  Resident Evil eventually implemented a number of changes to mitigate some of these complications.  For example, later games allow you to use a health herb without actually collecting it to get around the problem of death via full inventory.  Resident Evil 4 has hands-down the best inventory management system ever, but it’s also the most complicated to build.

More importantly, allowing player-controlled item combination makes it harder to communicate puzzles to the player.  If you want the player to combine the blade with the whetstone to sharpen it, then combine the sharpened blade with the hilt, then use the completed knife on the rope, you need to invent a reason that the blade can’t be used on the rope without the hilt.  You need to tell the player that the blade is too dull when he tries to use it on the rope without sharpening.  You need to invent a reason that the sharpened, completed knife can’t be used to cut other ropes, or as a weapon to stab the bad guy.  You must consider the possibility that your player doesn’t know what a whetstone is.  The more expressive your item manipulations become, the more the player will attempt complicated interactions.  It’s on the designer to come up with ways to respond to those attempts to avoid player frustration.

For Dead Secret, my goal was to keep item interactions as simple as possible.  In early design iterations items could only be collected or applied.  This kept the interface and communication requirements pretty reasonable.  But as we built out the game this simplistic item model became restrictive, so we changed it to allow for automatic item combinations.  When you collect all the necessary pieces of an object, the inventory system automatically does the combination work for you.  This approach has some pluses and minuses.  On the plus side, it keeps the UI simple but still allows for multi-step puzzles involving items that can be collected in any order.  This is particularly valuable in VR, where traditional user interface modes (e.g. the “pause screen”) don’t translate very well.  On the minus side, it removes the sub-puzzle of figuring out which item combinations make sense.  More importantly, it removes a degree of puzzle dependency control.  If parts for an item can be collected at multiple places, the item can be put together at any of those locations, and that has ramifications for progression.  There’s one spot in particular in Dead Secret where we had to do a bunch of work to accommodate this complexity in the dependency graph.

Inventory management in Dead Secret

Overall I’m pretty happy with the system we ended up with in Dead Secret, but it isn’t nearly as simple as I had initially planned.  Items can be collected, automatically combined, used as one step of a multi-step puzzle, and even automatically used up.  There are items that can be applied in multiple areas, items that can be used independently, and items that are entirely optional to collect.  There are secret items that have no icon and no presence in the inventory screen.  A seemingly simple design has turned out to have all sorts of tendrils, extending deep into the mechanics of the core game.  Even so, the item system in Dead Secret is much simpler than many other Adventure games out there.

Once you dig into the details, items and inventory system design is fascinating.  Seemingly minor changes to item usage rules can change the way a game feels dramatically.  Item collection, inventory space management, item upgrading and crafting, single-use items, items-as-weapons, disposable items, items that degrade, item boxes, item merchants–the derivations go on and on.  It’s probably a topic worthy of a lengthier post.

In leu of that, I’ll pose a question instead.  Take your favorite Adventure game, horror or otherwise, and consider the item system.  If you removed it entirely from the game, how much game would be left?