Siren is the Scariest Game Ever Made

Note: This article was originally published in Well Played 3.0 in 2011. I wrote about the book here at the time, but the old links are dead and these days you actually have to buy the book or go wading through academic PDF sites if you want to read it. So I am reposting it here. Obviously a lot of new horror games have shipped since I wrote this, but I think Siren is still one of the top contenders for this accolade.

In 2003 I decided to become an expert on horror games. At the end of the previous year my wife and I had moved from icy Albany, New York, where I was employed as a game programmer, to sunny Stanford, California. My employers were nice enough to let me continue writing games for them from our new apartment (a tiny cinderblock one-bedroom on the Stanford campus), and my daily routine involved logging in at 7 am, coding in my underwear for several hours, taking a break before lunch to shower, and then going back to the code until supper time. At the time I was the lead engineer on a forgettable Game Boy Advance game based on a forgettable animated movie, and for the first several months my productivity was very high because I had no reason to leave the apartment.

But after a while the routine started to get to me. Physical isolation was part of it; I didn’t know anybody in California, and the only people I talked to were my game team via the Internet. Despite the warm weather I almost never went outside, and I’m sure some form of advanced Vitamin D deficiency contributed to the malaise I found myself in. One day I spent several hours seriously weighing the merits of taking a baseball bat downstairs and trying to locate the one car in the lot that randomly sounded its alarm every few hours. It was time for a change.

So I decided to become an expert on horror games. I started by making a list of titles that I knew about. The first version was an Excel spreadsheet that I printed out and stuck on my bulletin board. It was little more than a glorified shopping list, and it had about seven games on it. As I began to research the genre, I found that there were hundreds of games that could be classified as horror, many on old PC platforms that could no longer be run. Even limiting myself to console games, I quickly uncovered a large number of titles. In typical programmer fashion, I ditched the Excel document and instead wrote a bunch of code to track my growing list of horror games in a real database. The goal, I decided, was to play every game on this list to completion, write up a short review of each title along the way, and hopefully, after sampling a large range of horror games, draw some conclusions about the genre as a whole.

The result was a web site called Chris’ Survival Horror Quest. I put the first versions online in early 2003, and by August of that year it had turned into a sort of blog (although at the time, the word ‘blog’ hadn’t yet entered the vernacular).

One of the very first posts I made was about a new horror game from Sony Computer Entertainment called Siren (Forbidden Siren in Europe). There was no information in the post, just two creepy screenshots of misty locales and kids with bleeding eyes. The game was released in Japan that November, and then in the States in early 2004. I picked it up, played it for a while, and then put it down. The game was frustrating and difficult. I wrote an angry, complaint-filled rant about the game for the blog and then set it aside. A few months later I picked it up again, and this time it clicked. All of a sudden I was hooked.

Completing Siren was hard. It took me months, even with the aid of a hint book full of maps. When I finally finished after half a year of play, I posted to my blog that Siren was the scariest game that I’d played thus far. It’s been six years since then, and I’ve played a whole lot of horror games, but none come close to matching Siren in terms of scariness. At this point I’m willing to call it the Scariest Video Game Ever Made.

I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here. Since I began my quest to understand horror games in 2003, I’ve made it my business to finish every single horror game I can get my hands on. As of this writing I’ve played about fifty horror games through, and there are another fifty sitting on my shelf in various states of completion. If my calculations are correct, this means that, within the genre limitations I’ve set for myself, I’ve tried almost every single game ever produced in the horror genre. I do not mean to brag; actually, my horror game collection and borderline obsessive interest in the genre is a bit embarrassing. But I do feel confident that I have sufficient experience to select the Scariest Video Game Ever Made, and that game is clearly Siren.

Siren is a third-person horror game. It looks a whole lot like Silent Hill: it takes place in old, dilapidated places, which are often shrouded in darkness or mist, and characters must frequently use a flashlight to navigate. The game even shares some of the original Silent Hill team’s staff. The plot, which is told in out-of-order segments and focuses on a diverse group of playable characters, involves a remote Japanese village in which many of the residents seem to have changed into murderous zombie-like shibito. The central mechanic in Siren is “sight jacking,” the ability to see through the eyes of shibito who are close by, and to survive the player must use it constantly. The graphics are nice and the sound is particularly key to the overall experience. Described this way, as just the sum of its various parts, Siren sounds like a pretty good horror game.

But it’s not a pretty good horror game; it’s not even a great horror game. It’s the Scariest Video Game Ever Made. And to understand why it is the Scariest Game Ever Made, we need to look at how Siren works at a much more fundamental level.

Off the Beaten Path
I have a very clear memory of playing Siren one evening in my concrete apartment, after my wife had gone to bed. I had progressed through a long, complicated level set in an abandoned hospital (a popular locale for horror game designers), and to complete it I needed to cross an open courtyard to some sort of monument placed in the center. The courtyard was unfortunately inhabited by a lone shibito, and low on health and lacking any means to defend myself, I knew that I wouldn’t survive an outright dash for the end. Instead, I searched the outlying area for some sort of weapon or health item. I found a bunch of junk: a burned-out light bulb, a broken TV, and a laundry shoot embedded in the side of a wall.

After some thinking a plan began to form in my mind. I made my way to the second floor and found the top of the laundry shoot. When the roaming shibito was near enough, I dropped the bulb down the shoot. The monster heard the sound of the bulb breaking and changed course to investigate. I waited until he stuck his head into the bottom of the shoot before dropping the TV down the hole. There was a crash as it crushed the shibito’s head in, and, feeling extremely pleased with myself for having figured the sequence out, I leisurely progressed to the end of the level. It was one of those moments where I was more surprised as a player that the puzzle had worked so naturally—though it was clearly a carefully designed encounter, the whole thing felt thrillingly organic. The sweat on my palms was proof enough of that.

Siren is a deeply innovative game. It’s an absolute treasure trove of interesting game mechanics and ideas. Not every idea is successful, but the shear amount of design experimentation found in the title is astounding. In fact, Siren is such a departure from regular gameplay norms that it’s challenging to decide which of its many innovations are the most important.

The key to understanding Siren is that it is, at its core, a stealth game. The stealth genre, defined by designs in which the primary mode of play is sneaking, is dominated by games about ninjas and spies; horror and stealth is not a common combination. In fact, I don’t think that there are any other true horror stealth games outside of the Siren series. Clock Tower and its brethren (including Haunting Ground) are based around running and hiding, but not so much sneaking. Deadly Premonition has a sneaking mode in which the player can hold his breath to hide from enemies, but it is more of an ancillary move than a core game mechanic. In Silent Hill and many other games, it’s possible to avoid combat by turning off your flashlight and moving quietly, but these games rarely reward this behavior; instead, being able to sneak passed an unsuspecting enemy is often used as a way to make the game slightly easier. The only other real sneaking game in the horror genre is Manhunt, and that title is so different than the rest of the genre that it is its own class altogether (though it does share a few key traits with Siren, which we’ll get to). As a stealth horror game, Siren is pretty unique. The stealth design works by throwing the player into large, sometimes open-ended levels, which are populated by various shibito. Siren’s shibito are zombie-like, but unlike traditional zombies they retain some higher-order skills, like shooting guns, using flashlights, and even locking and unlocking doors. Most of them seem to be acting as they did when alive, perhaps out of habit: until they notice you, they’ll tend the fields, or clean the house, or patrol an area (or, later in the game, spend their time building disturbing structures). As in many stealth games, the core game mechanic involves learning the patterns of the enemy and then deftly sneaking passed them when their backs are turned. Since Siren has no mini-map (nor any other sort of on-screen HUD), the only way to actually learn the shibito’s patterns is by using sight-jacking to peer through their eyes. By closely examining what the shibito see, the player can identify blind spots in the map and carefully sneak by.

The key here is that it’s never quite clear what the shibito can hear and see. The range of their perception is fuzzy, and in fact certain shibito have much better senses than others. This is quite a departure from the stealth precedent; most sneaking games follow the Metal Gear Solid approach of explicitly rendering each enemy’s range of vision on the map, and many implement increasing levels of alertness (as defined by Tenchu: Stealth Assassins) in order to give the player a way to retreat if they are about to be discovered. Siren, on the other hand, offers the player neither affordance: it purposefully obfuscates the exact boundaries of shibito perception and its enemies respond aggressively to the slightest motion or sound. In this respect it is similar to Manhunt.

Couple this fuzzy perception model with an extremely unforgiving combat system and you have a highly stress-inducing stealth mechanic. If the player is found by an enemy, it is unlikely that he’ll survive the encounter, and even if he does, the sound made by combat will likely draw other shibito. So the player is forced to move quietly, and slowly, and hide in areas that may or may not be safe. Many times a successful sneak will require the player to cower just a few feet away from a roving shibito, and since it’s never quite clear whether or not a given hiding spot is truly safe, these moments are heart-stopping.

It is normal for game designers to try to limit player stress and frustration by giving them ways to adjust the difficulty: think checkpoints and power-ups. Siren selects the opposite direction and makes its core stealth mechanic extremely high-stakes. It then doubles-down on this approach by layering puzzles on top of the basic sneaking system. The design ensures that the player never has a chance to fall into a comfortable routine, and must constantly be thinking on his toes.

The puzzles in Siren are varied and, occasionally, ingenious. While the rest of the horror genre seems to be mired in fetch quests involving locked doors and key cards, Siren invents whole new classes of puzzles. Many involve distracting shibito from their regular patrol so that the player can pass; in one early puzzle, the player must make a pay phone beep incessantly by inserting an expired phone card so that a nearby shibito leaves his post to investigate the noise. Others involve using the actual environment; late in the game, the player must break through a locked door by timing his strikes against the lock with a thunderclap, thus masking the sound from nearby shibito. Some puzzles involve the level progression itself: a door unlocked by one character may allow another to pass through that same door at a later time.

There are all kinds of other interesting ideas here, and as far as I know, many of them are unique to Siren. The level progression system is presented as a dependency graph-spreadsheet-thing, with time on one axis and characters on the other, so that levels completed at certain times by certain characters unlock other levels at other times with other characters. Many levels have multiple end conditions, and must be played several times to unlock the entire graph. Almost all of the game’s huge cast of characters are playable at some point, but by the end very few survive. Siren represents a huge departure from the norms of both the horror genre and the stealth genre as well.

Culture Shock and Horror Affordances
But just being a highly innovative game probably wouldn’t be enough to name Siren the Scariest Video Game Ever Made. Even the stressful core sneaking mechanic, while quite traumatic on its own, is not sufficient to warrant the Scariest Game title. No, there’s more to Siren than just interesting core mechanics. There’s another aspect to the game that makes it much scarier than other horror games, even games that employ similar design patterns, like Manhunt. I’m going to call that aspect Siren’s “horror affordances.”

In user interface design schools, an “affordance” is something that suggests its use just by the way it looks. The handle on a teapot is designed to look like it would be easy to grip, and thereby saves you from scalding your hand by trying to pick the pot up by its base. The handle “affords” gripping, the UI designers would say. Its design suggests its intended use.

I’m going to use the word in a similar way. A “horror affordance” is something that affords horror; that is, it is some element that makes it easier for you to become scared, or even suggests that the appropriate reaction to the element is fear. Siren is scary because it has several different horror affording elements, and not all of them are obvious.

Siren’s first horror affordance is the stressful sneaking mechanic I discussed above. That’s one element of its assault on your emotional state.

Another horror affordance is the game content itself: the monsters, the characters, the level design, the dialog, the camera work, all of the things that make up the narrative events of the game. The sound design is particularly noteworthy here; hearing the shibito sob and laugh while looking through their eyes is more than a little bit unsettling. To the casual observer, it might seem like the game content is the central horror affordance: it stands to reason that the monsters are scary and the locations are scary and therefore the game is scary. But I think that the scary content is just one more piece of the Siren formula, and not the most important piece at that. Though many games have great content, very few are successfully scary, so content alone cannot explain how Siren works.

I think Siren deftly employs a much lower-level horror affordance: culture shock.

As a sophomore in college I spent a year in Japan on a study abroad program. I ended up getting a degree in Japanese (along with one in Computer Science, though I had to cram my CS classes into three years since my excursion to Japan put programming on hiatus), and as I write this I am sitting in an apartment in Yokohama. But looking back, I realize that my first year in Japan was spent mostly trying not to lose my grip on reality; I was caught in the throes of culture shock.

Culture shock, at least for me, is like trying to stand up on a boat. The floor of the boat itself appears flat, and sometimes the motion of the waves is so subtle that I can’t really even feel it when sitting down. But

when standing up or (god forbid) trying to walk, I’m suddenly off-balance. The random, pattern-less rocking of the boat clashes with my brain’s assumption that flat ground is fundamentally stationary, and consequently I am surprised by even the smallest motion. It’s a weird, stressful sensation that I have lost control; I do not fully grasp the forces acting upon me.

That’s how it felt when I first came to Japan. The juxtaposition of Japanese sensibilities with familiar Western symbols made me feel like the world had gone crazy. Parts of Japan look a lot like an American city (there are tall buildings and nice cars and people wearing suits), but (I eventually realized) the motivations of the people living in Japan are often quite different than those of my culture of origin. Even minor incongruences made me feel uneasy; there were so many new things to absorb, my definition of “common sense” suddenly seemed unreliable. I felt like a fish out of water—the sensation of lost control was very strong.

This feeling of being out of control is a powerful horror affordance. I might go as far as to say that loss of control is a central element in almost all forms of horror; media that sets out to scare is often fundamentally about making its audience feel vulnerable by removing all connections to comfortable routine. Consider horror films such as The Shining, The Birds, and Alien. These films throw their characters into confusing, conflicting, incomprehensible situations, and never really stop to let the viewer catch up. This keeps us off-guard, constantly second-guessing our assumptions. It puts us in a very vulnerable state, and lets the filmmakers pipe their scary content directly into our brains.

Siren achieves this same effect through culture shock. It does this in two distinct ways.

First, it presents to us a weird, disjointed, out-of-order story, in whichcharacters are not clearly good or evil. The effect is amplified for Western players because the story content is rooted in Japanese culture, and the motifs and clichés it employs are decidedly unconventional to our eyes. Siren’s narrative isn’t the first to benefit from its foreignness; I suspect that the recent Asian horror film boom in the United States has more to do with culture shock than filmmaking. But, as with other horror films and games that are distinctly Japanese, Siren’s ability to scare is improved because it seems unpredictable to us; it doesn’t follow the standard, comforting format that we’re used to.

It’s also important to mention that Siren is stock-full of references to Japanese mythology and urban legends. The eventual antagonist, Hisako Yao, is based on a character from Japanese folklore called Yaobikuni, a woman who ate the flesh of a mermaid and became immortal. This folklore is not commonly known in the West, and thus it is a vector for culture shock, a strong horror affordance.

The second form of culture shock that Siren employs is entirely unrelated to its country of origin. Rather, the core mechanics of the game, the sneaking and innovative puzzles, are so far from the norm that they represent a horror affordance themselves. The culture here is modern game design precedent—a set of rules that are so universal that players recognize them as systems rather than game content. When you find a key with a symbol on it in Resident Evil, you know it’s just a matter of time before you also find a locked door with the same symbol engraved above the lock. When you collect an item that has no immediate function, you can usually assume that it’ll end up being combined with other items or used in a specific spot. And any time a tentacle monster appears, its tentacles will have bright glowing bulbous spots which also happen to be particularly weak to gunfire.

This is the Chekhov’s Gun principle applied to game design. Players understand a mechanic and, once they have identified it as a common routine, are comforted that they understand how to play. In fact, rule transparency and predictability is generally seen as a strength by game designers—those games where there’s never really any question about how to play are usually the most fun. Mario’s floating question mark block affords head-butting; if you weren’t supposed to smash it, it wouldn’t be there in the first place.

But Siren presents the player with a different scenario. Chekhov’s gun is hung on the wall in the first scene but revealed to be empty in the second. The puzzles do not follow common patterns, and because individual levels are usually traversed several times by different characters, there’s often no single obvious path to the exit. By refusing to align to the game design precedent, Siren forces its players to think on their feet. Once the player starts to realize that the rule book has been thrown away, anything seems possible. In fact, as in most other games there is usually only a small set of correct solutions to any given problem. But because those solutions are so non-standard, the problem space appears to be extremely wide to the player. Suddenly all of our assumptions about how games are supposed to work seem unreliable and we find ourselves at sea: culture shock.

Siren’s ability to scare us rests primarily on these four horror affordances: tense game mechanics, scary game content, unfamiliar narrative themes, and unconventional puzzles. These elements in combination create an extremely stressful form of play. They also contribute to Siren’s high level of difficulty; since so many elements of the game are intentionally vague or obfuscated, it takes quite a long time for the player to get a handle on how even the most basic mechanics work. I didn’t even really realize that Siren was a sneaking game until I was several hours in, and I think many quit in frustration before they ever really got to the good stuff.

But, as it turns out, that intense level of difficulty is part of Siren’s success, too.

False Emotions and Difficulty Stress
In subsequent Siren games (Siren 2 is a sequel and Siren Blood Curse is a remake), the difficulty level was toned down a bit in response to user complaints. And, for the most part, that change was successful; the game retained much of its scare power without forcing the player to continuously fail in order to learn the basic game mechanics. But, at least to me, the experience wasn’t quite the same. The games were fun and certain sections were still extremely stressful, but I felt that the later games never reached the same intense level of fear as the original. They felt a bit defanged, and looking back, I think that might have something to do with the unforgiving difficulty of the first Siren.

A few years ago I read about an idea from the world of psychology called the Two Factor Theory of Emotion. The theory, at least the part I am interested in, states that your body takes its emotional cues from two sources: your physiological state and your mental label for that state. Many types of emotions can trigger similar physiological states: both fear and arousal, for example, can cause your heart rate to go up and adrenaline to be released. To accurately identify a physical response your body therefore looks to contextual cues for help.

Psychologists have shown that by causing a particular physiological reaction and then introducing unrelated context, false emotions can be generated in test subjects. The brain, when confronted with some contextual stimuli, misreads the body’s physical reaction and synthesizes an emotion. It appears that if you can cause a specific physical reaction in the body with one form of stimuli and then juxtapose some other stimuli to provide the brain with a label, you can get a person to believe that they are physically and emotionally reacting to the second input rather than the first.

What does this have to do with Siren? I think that the high-stakes game play and crushing difficulty are vectors for physical stress in the player. Even absent any horror content, the game play mechanics are enough to elevate the player’s physiological state. Not because the mechanics are intrinsically scary, but because the high cost of failure makes them intense. In fact, I think many other non-horror sneaking games provide a similar level of intensity; the sneak-and-wait game mechanic is a pretty stressful interface for the player. And once the player is stressed and their physiological state elevated, all the game developers have to do is introduce scary content. If the Two Factor Theory of Emotion is correct, some players will misinterpret their body’s state as a result of the horror content rather than the game mechanics, and will believe themselves to be scared of the bleeding eye shibito.

Of course, Siren also employs its other horror affordances to increase stress and deepen the effect of its scary content. It knocks down our defenses with unconventional mechanics and content, and keeps its game rules fuzzy and flexible. Many games have zombies, and bleeding eyes or not, Siren’s shibito are not all that unique on their own. They work, I think, because the player is forced into a state in which he’s extremely susceptible to stress, and perhaps is even ready to believe that such stress is a direct result of the mostly-dead villager trying to cut his character’s neck with a scythe. Siren’s horror game content is directly empowered by its difficulty, mechanics, and core game design.

But is it any Fun?
Siren is far from a perfect game. Though sometimes improving its ability to scare, the game’s poorly-communicated mechanics and a couple of major UI blunders (the rotating map and investigate key come to mind) turned many players off. Siren asks quite a lot of its players; seeing the game through to the end is no small feat. But as interactive horror, I think that it is significantly more successful than most other games in the genre. Its combination of mechanics, narrative, and difficulty, as delivered to the player in obscure and unconventional ways, make it the best example I’ve seen of fear-inducing game design.

Sitting in my little apartment, trying to keep my heart from jumping up into my throat, I played Siren to completion. Though it was one of the first titles I finished in my quest to play all horror games, it set a bar which has yet to be surpassed. It is the game to which all subsequent games are compared. While a few have come close to Siren’s brilliance, the vast majority of horror games can’t hold a candle in a haunted mansion to it. And that is why I feel absolutely confident in my selection of Siren as The Scariest Video Game Ever Made.

Surviving Horror for 20 Years

August marked 20 years since my first post to Chris’s Survival Horror Quest. For nearly half of my lifetime I have been writing, or trying to write, about horror games for this “blog,” a term that was not in wide circulation when I started. In the two decade lifespan of web site my children were born, I moved my family to Japan and back again, and flow of my career carried me from coding Game Boy Advance games to founding a startup to running a games publisher. As I run my fingers down the vertebrae that forms the arc of my life, the force that this project has exerted on its curvature is plain to see.

Chris’s Survival Horror Quest has changed a lot since my first post in 2003. What started as a grey-on-grey custom PHP3 database frontend eventually turned into a tan-on-tan custom web site (color is one of many topics that I am wholly incapable of understanding), which I finally replaced sometime in the pre-COVID haze that shimmers around 2015 or so with this spiffy Word Press system. The format of my writing changed too: the inverse relationship between the length of my posts and their frequency has only grown with age.

The degree of change that horror games have gone through in the twenty years I’ve been writing about them is shocking. In 2007 I lamented the dearth of horror game releases, complained that horror was too niche of a genre to warrant attention from publishers focused on the next generation of consoles, and worried that new titles were doomed to obscurity. 2007 me would not have believed in a future where fifteen years later horror has become a huge genre on Steam, and wouldn’t have known how to even process a world where MILK INSIDE A BAG OF MILK INSIDE A BAG OF MILK exists and is a universally praised video game. I would have been doubly flabbergasted to learn that the developer of CRASH BANDICOOT made a series of zombie titles that are amongst the highest-end video games ever produced and spawned a TV mini-series.

But the core thesis of this project, the idea that formed the basis for my interest in horror games, seems to have proven true. In the early 2000s I saw horror games as a genre principally focused on emotional manipulation, a category of video game that was rethinking core play mechanics in order to achieve a very specific emotional result. In an era when much of the game industry was focused on power fantasies, horror games were finding ways to make you feel something else. Horror relies on story exposition, on empathy for its characters, on mood and tension and cinematography–all things that video games at the turn of the century sucked at. It seemed reasonable to expect that the mechanisms discovered by this genre would be applicable to other types of emotions. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that the modern lexicon of action and adventure games is full of ideas pioneered by horror. I am so excited to see games like LIFE IS STRANGE, PARADISE KILLER, and WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH create drama and emotional weight using the language of horror games, with nary a zombie, ghost, or demon to be found. I can see the earmarks of horror innovation in everything from GEARS OF WAR to UNCHARTED to DANGANRONPA. And some of the most interesting (to me, anyway) game design work going on today is still happening in horror and adjacent categories.

I was entirely unprepared for the impact Chris’s Survival Horror Quest would have on my professional career. I have spoken at conferences, been cited in several books written by people much smarter than myself, profiled by Der Spiegel, interviewed by NPR, and have published articles in Edge, Game Developer Magazine, and a few others. I’ve written, directed, coded, and published two horror games and helped to produce the VR version of RESIDENT EVIL 4. For a few years Google decided that this site was the most important place to direct people who searched for “survival horror.” I have had the incredible fortune to meet many of the founders of this genre, and even work with a few of them (check out SWERY’s new VR game, DEATH GAME HOTEL). Writing for this web site forced me to learn how to critically analyze video games and that skill has translated into a massive career booster rocket (one that I am incredibly privileged, and more than a little lucky, to be able to ride).

But by far the most surprising byproduct of this blog about horror games has been the change it has wrought on me personally. Over the years this project has stealthily attached itself to my spinal column and directed my movements without any conscious awareness on my part. The motive of this parasite is apparently my own self-betterment, and thinking back over the last two decades I can clearly recognize the influence if its clandestine agenda. Last year I took my family to Japan, rented a car, and drove to Okunoin, a vast cemetery on Mt. Koya in Wakayama that has been the root of Japanese esoteric Buddhism for the past 1,200 years. There I was delighted to find a specific burial mound (a muenzuka) dedicated to those that have nobody to morn for them, built out of hundreds of small ojizo statues, which I had spent quite a bit of time reading about. The impetus for this trip, and my search for that specific burial mound, was spawned by a scene in FATAL FRAME 5: MAIDEN OF BLACK WATER, which contains a similar location. I can trace my son’s collection of books on cryptids back to my own interest, which unfolded from learning about the tsuchinoko, which was itself a product of a minor side-story in SIREN. A similar interest in Japanese folktales, and their influence on modern horror stories, lead me to Lafcadio Hearn, which lead me to the story of The Snow Woman, which itself became a central theme a decade later in my own games. Years ago I visited the Capilano suspension bridge in Vancouver, Canada because I had read about psychological research performed there in the 1970s that, I think, is directly applicable to horror game design. Last week I went back and took my son with me, furthering the agenda of the spine parasite. The map of interests and learning and travels I have embarked on in the last twenty years is a dense spiderweb, and this site is the central nucleus holding much of it together. I don’t think that it is at all hyperbolic to say that trying to understand and write about horror games for twenty years has made me a better person.

So now what? What does one do upon learning that their nerd hobby has inextricably bound itself to their central nervous system, their career, even the way they raise their children, and is responsible for significant personal growth? Is it still interesting to plumb the depths of this genre when its central ideas have already changed the basic grammar of the medium? For many years I thought the purpose of this research was to prepare myself for the day when I would build my own scary games, but now I see it as an end unto itself. Though I may one day make more horror games, the purpose of the spine parasite, like all parasites, is to feed and grow, and any benefits it provides are symbiotic side-effects. It’s not all upside (I am a disaster at parties), but it is mostly upside, and mostly dramatic upside.

I think, therefore, the thing to do is continue to feed the interest. Though my posts here may remain few and far between, I think I will continue to document my (always improving, never sufficient) understanding of how this fascinating genre works. And if anybody cares to read this stuff, that’d be pretty gratifying. Maybe I can help feed your spine monster too.

Flipping coins with RETURNAL

RETURNAL was touted as one of PlayStation 5’s premier AAA exclusive games, and it plays the part well. An incessantly beautiful game, RETURNAL’s vibe is a nightmare alien forest strewn with stone relics of an ancient society, INDIANA JONES raids AVATAR’s Pandora. A novel location in part because lush is a hard adjective for rendering engineers. There are no load times. The sound track, sometimes atonal and sometimes foreboding but always moody, is a single continuous stream of sound that ebbs and flows as you play. The hallmark of AAA is presentation, visual complexity, and polish, and RETURNAL has all three in spades.

RETURNAL opens with a shuttle crash, a stranded astronaut, and a mysterious signal. Space adventurers following mysterious signals to their doom is perhaps a trite device these days, but RETURNAL tries to mix it up by pairing it with a time loop (another weary device, albeit one I enjoy) and the suggestion that perhaps this is all a metaphor for the protagonist’s past trauma (thanks for everything, SILENT HILL 2). Game developers are absolutely head over heels for GROUNDHOG DAY time loops because they map to the attempt – die – restart – attempt loop that makes up so much of the foundation of modern video game architecture. Now, for my money, VIRTUE’S LAST REWARD and SHRAPNEL are amongst the most interesting explorations of the time loop device, but I had mixed feelings about DEATHLOOP, and I couldn’t make it through 12 MINUTES.

Still, RETURNAL’s time-loop-personal-trauma-aliens combo works pretty well, and anyway, narrative isn’t the focus here. The story frame is a necessity because RETURNAL is designed around that siren song of game programming, procedural level generation. “The maps change every time you play,” one review writes, “ensuring you never have the same experience twice.” Death results in the return to your ship, the loss of items and upgrades, and another chance to tackle the alien planet. But wait–the forest has changed! Its layout has been altered, you have to stay on your toes. You can practically see the reviewer trembling at his keyboard at the prospect of an infinite game, a title for which your $60 would offer not 10, not 20, not even 100 hours of game play, but unlimited value. For an industry that insists on tying game length to point-of-sale cost, this must seem like a 10/10 moment, a dream come true, highly recommended.

In 2012, after we built WIND-UP KNIGHT and it suddenly became the most popular game of all of our careers, I wrote an experimental system to make “infinite” platformer levels. The idea was to build a collection of small level segments, little hallways with a single trap or a single enemy, and let the code click them together like Legos in a mostly-random way. In a time when infinite runners were gaining popularity, WIND-UP KNIGHT had 52 hand-authored levels and a couple of “knightmare” boss levels, and then it ended. Maybe, we thought, we should take a look at what games like TEMPLE RUN and SUBWAY SURFERS were doing and make a variant that just went on forever. The result of my experimental pass at this idea was surprisingly robust, and we saw that with enough parts to draw from, we could make the moment-to-moment gameplay suitably dynamic. But ultimately we abandoned the idea because after you’ve seen all the segments, the game became highly repetitive. Random ordering of little slices of challenge was not enough to provoke thought or surprise, and the visual monotony got old fast. It became just a skill challenge, and a fairly boring one at that. So we threw it out.

RETURNAL is based on this same basic idea, albeit one with a lot more complexity than our simple experiments. The map changes every run, but only as a reordering of pre-made rooms, which were clearly designed by hand. It’s a pragmatic antidote to the typically dreary levels that attempts at “fully procedural level design” often produce. Human authorship, at least of moment-to-moment game play elements, seems critical to ensuring this kind of game is actually fun. Computers are notoriously bad at fun.

The design approach here is first and foremost pragmatic, because RETURNAL is a AAA game that was made by a relatively tiny team on what is probably an incredibly conservative budget compared to other titles in that class. The credits list just over 100 people in the core team, including all developers, QA, voice acting, and production. Activision’s CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 2 remake from 2022 has almost as many voice actors credited as RETURNAL’s developer Housemarque has staff. AAA quality is unbelievably expensive to hit, a death spiral arms race of production cost and fidelity promises, and only a handful of publishers in the world can afford to build at that scale. RETURNAL’s approach constrains the production cost to the unique rooms that must be hand-authored, but offers a longer total experience (another reminder of our collective decision to link play duration to value) by randomly stitching them together. It is a way to make AAA fidelity possible for a small team to produce without settling for less than ten hours of hash-tag-content.

But the trick doesn’t work unless that attempt – die – restart – attempt loop is repeatedly iterated. The value of this approach cannot be adequately extracted unless you actually leverage each individual room as many times as possible. And so the game must be hard, and unforgiving, and punishing so that the player will die and the loop will happen and the map will be rejiggered and the experience will change and the play time extended and the value for a $60 AAA video game will be realized.

I am not the type of person that blames “capitalism” for every human failing, but I do think that RETURNAL misses its mark because it must prioritize this idea of Minimum Viable AAA Video Game over being balanced for fun. The first 20 or 30 runs were fun and felt fresh. RETURNAL wants to be not just a roguelike, but a metroidvania as well, and just as I was starting to get bored the game gave me a permanent power-up that changed the way I can address the map. That extended my enjoyment for another five or ten runs, but after that I began to grow tired of the repetition. The same handful of rooms repeated over and over, the same two or three enemy types dispatched ad infinium (a stat that the game helpfully tracks: over 1300 tentacle dogs killed to date!), and the brutal reality that chances for success on any given run mostly come down to coin flips. Will the random number generator give me rooms with health packs or not? Will I virtually coin flip my way to a reasonable weapon or be stuck for an hour with the default pistol? Will I collect enough glowies to power up my shit or struggle through the run with base stats? After fifty or sixty runs of this, with no narrative progression for hours and no new situation to deal with, I start to wish this was a five hour linear title that could have been tuned for fun instead of leaving it up to a virtual game of three-card monty.


DEATHLOOP is the latest in Arkane’s catalog of Thief-inspired systems-as-narrative games.  As a fan of this genre I deeply enjoyed DEATHLOOP, particularly the way it makes my style of play much lower-stress than in other immersive sims.  I am the type who wants to stealth perfectly and maintain a moral high ground, and DEATHLOOP gives me a novel way to relax a bit and enjoy the game.  But after many hours of play my feelings shifted, and now that I’ve finished the game I’m not sure exactly where I stand.  DEATHLOOP is masterfully crafted, a beautiful, witty, and tight game, but it also tugs on some little thread in my brain that unravels that warm blanket of production value and leaves me a little cold.

I find myself more interested in DEATHLOOP’s structure than its content. Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, “the medium is the message” is pretty well known, but DEATHLOOP reminded me of another passage from Understanding Media:

“For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”

DEATHLOOP is certainly a cornucopia of “content.”  Its levels are massive, the upgrades are legion, the story is complex, and nearly ever NPC that you crouch-walk passed is in the middle of some asinine—but lengthy—conversation.  There are secrets, holy shit are there secrets, an unbelievable treasure trove of optional safes to unlock or messages to read or computers to hack or weirdos to discover.  In the classic Arkane style, DEATHLOOP plans for and populates level paths for both the run-and-gunner and the stealthy ghost ninja.  And because the whole game is built around a loop, depth of content is a necessity: you will play through these areas over and over, thread your way through the same hills and buildings, and shoot the same loser in the head over and over and over again.  Having lots to do in very high fidelity is, I think, DEATHLOOP’s primary defense against boredom in a game that shares the same premise as Groundhog Day.

But I can’t help but wonder if all of that—all of it—is an example of McLuhan’s juicy piece of meat, there first and foremost to distract me from what is actually going on.  Because it seems to me that what is actually going on in DEATHLOOP is that the protagonist and his enemies, and all of the people who populate the island of Blackreef, are in hell.  They live the same day over and over, stuck in an infinite purgatory from which they cannot escape, and worst of all, most of them don’t even know it.  These people were promised a no-consequences paradise where any transgression would simply reset the next morning, but instead the citizens of Blackreef are cursed to repeat themselves over and over and over again, into infinity.  The only thing possibly worse than this fate is being the only Cassandra in the place to be able to see it, to maintain a memory across every loop and yet be unable to defy it, which is exactly the state that the protagonist Colt finds himself.

Stephen King wrote a short story called That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French, about a woman who repeats the same nightmare over and over, remembering a little more about what’s going to happen each time, until it finally becomes clear—not to put too fine a point on it—that there’s No Exit.  But in King’s story, the victim slowly realizes the true state of her predicament, while the assholes on Blackreef remain blissfully unaware.

And yet, and yet, the structure of DEATHLOOP is the structure of many video games.  You play for a while, and if you die, the world is reset and you start over.  The enemies are back in their places, the items need to be collected again, you’ve been returned to the last checkpoint.  It’s as if your previous run never happened, you get a free do-over.  It doesn’t feel cruel to reset a world populated by generic military men or crawling mushroom creatures. But as the DEATHLOOP enemies start talking about their friends, their fears, their hopes and dreams, when they start ribbing with their cohorts, even as the game goes out of its way to explain how despicable they are, I started to feel bad for them.  Am I supposed to get some enjoyment out of the cruelty of their situation? DEATHLOOP’s design is to contextualize one of the core structural patterns of video games, and in doing so it suggests that it is monstrous.  It’s hard to think of an analog in other media.  It’s as if we discovered that verse-chorus-verse is, in fact, a form of subjugation. 

The medium is the message.  The content is a diversion.  The focus in DEATHLOOP is right there in the title.  I suspect that DEATHLOOP contextualizes the die-restart-die loop in order to explain it.  Everything in this game, from the art to the sound design to the writing to the characters has been crafted to be high fidelity and believable, and this clunky old game design structure that we’re all used to (but, I can imagine a designer shouting in a pitch meeting, “makes no logical sense!”) has been pulled kicking and screaming along with it.  But the effect, at least for me, is to highlight the cruelty inherent in the structure.  Is that the message?  That all video games are, upon closer inspection, like ant farms that we enjoy shaking?

To its credit, DEATHLOOP sets its protagonist up on a quest to break the loop, to exit hell, and to save Blackreef from eternity, even if it means dying for real.  And it is constantly asking the player to be skeptical, to wonder if Colt’s motivations (which are pretty thin—some voices talk to him via big floating text boxes) are correct or not, primarily by creating a combination friend and antagonist in Julianna.  Their banter is the best part of the game, in part because she’s obviously not crazy, and though she refuses to explain herself, she thinks Colt is wrong.  Like many games in this genre, the end presents a choice between going through with the destruction of the loop (which means that everybody dies, but no longer has to repeat), or choosing to stay in purgatory with Julianna (maybe hell isn’t other people after all).

But, as I carefully avoid spoiling what actually happens at the end of DEATHLOOP, I found the result of both choices deeply unsatisfying.   For a game built on mystery upon mystery, the conclusions available are surprisingly terse.  Are we to allow the content to distract our mind’s personal pit bull or are we ready to reject the structure entirely, even at the cost of our own lives?  DEATHLOOP doesn’t seem ready to contemplate either scenario.  

At the end of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray escapes purgatory by growing into a better human being.  But at the end of DEATHLOOP, it’s hard to say if anything has been accomplished.  The characters seem to be right back where they started.

Chris Plays: 2021 In Review

Another year has come and gone and frankly, I can barely remember it.  This post wasn’t even written on time–2022 is just starting down the tarmac and I’m already nearly three months behind.  To what shall we attribute these time slips, these missing hours?  The pandemic?  Probably.  General stress?  Almost certainly.  But I’ve also found that, in the last two years, my time has been sliced up into chunks with very small windows of free time in between. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember many details about the last 24 months.

I suppose this has something to do with working from home.  As absurd as this sounds, I miss having a commute.  I miss the alone time in the car, listening to music, an audiobook, or NPR, unable to look at my phone, join a Zoom call, or actually multitask in any way.  We used to complain about transit time to and from work but in retrospect, I wonder if my commute was actually a forced, and ultimately healthy, break.  I should note that I’ve been blessed with a short commute time for many years, which is perhaps why I now remember it with some fondness, while some of my coworkers cringe in horror at the thought of ever working in an office ever again.

I can’t even remember all the games I played in 2021.  But I can tell you that I did play a whole lot of them.  Way more than I’ve managed to play in recent years.  At work I am focused on VR video games, some of the most immersive, interactive game formats in existence, and in my free time, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to create a separation between my work and my life that is wider than the few feet that divide my bed from my desk, I swerved hard in the other direction and played a ton of 2D titles.

Part of the volume accounted for here was enabled by my purchase of an AYA NEO, a small, Nintendo Switch-style handheld PC.  It’s bulky and heavy and has nowhere near the finesse or ergonomic quality of the Switch, but it let me play PC games on the go and from the comfort of my bed, which let me spend a lot of those little slices of free time between other obligations on games that I otherwise would never have had time to play.  The Steam Deck will probably obsolete this thing, but it was a life saver for me this year.

Here’s a list of some of the games I felt most strongly about in 2021.  As usual, this includes titles that were released in other years but are new to me.  Also as usual, I’m omitting VR games from this list, although anybody who is reading this blog should absolutely play Resident Evil 4 VR, which I had the intense pleasure of working on.

Fantastic Journey

Inscryption. Probably, and unexpectedly, my game of the year.  I thought Inscryption was going to be a card battle game similar to Hand of Fate, and that’s not an inaccurate description of this title, but it is so, so much more.  Yes, it’s a card game (a pretty good one!), that you’re playing against a mysterious antagonist, and about the time the cards start talking to you it becomes clear that there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.  I’m not even going to tell you more about it.  You should play it.



Mundaun. A delightfully weird romp through the (possibly cursed) hills of Switzerland, all done in pencils and charcoal.  This game knows how to set up a shot and uses straightforward game play for storytelling and foreshadowing better than some AAA games.

Resident Evil Village. An evolution of the Resident Evil 7 format that banks harder on combat and deploys a lot of RE4-isms, Village somehow manages to retain the soul of this franchise while jettisoning nearly everything else.  I was particularly impressed with the visual level design (this game does a better job of directing–and misdirecting–your focus than just about everything else out there).  Each area has a strong theme with easy-to-identify influences, and some of the game play mechanics fell flat for me, but overall this was a super fun, super high-end AAA horror game.  I was particularly impressed with the sound design of Ethan’s breathing, which communicates so much about his mental state so subtly.


Gregory Horror Show

Gregory Horror Show

Gregory Horror Show. I bought this PS2 game in Japan about 15 years ago, and have never played for long enough to get into it.  But the game clicked when I played it with my son, who immediately went into full obsession mode over it.  Gregory Horror Show is a horror stealth game with blocky (and hilariously designed) characters, which is just on the border of silly-and-scary for a fourth grader.  Run, hide, use loops in the map to escape a one-hit-kill enemy, collect items and ward off constantly increasing stress, steal souls from the residents of a hotel that sits between life and death, you get the idea.  The design is solid, the graphics are super good, and the style is legit.  Most impressively, it manages to be fun and frightening for children without giving them nightmares.  More thoughts and images on twitter.

Gnosia. It looks like a visual novel, the story is a time loop / The Thing mashup, and  the gameplay is a debate system that constantly requires you to try to separate truth from lies (and sometimes lie yourself).  Plus the character designs are super cool, the game lets you play as non-binary if you choose, and the dialog is very well written.  Super interesting and innovative game.

The Good Life. OK, so I suck at open world games because I have NO IDEA what order to do things in.  I either get bogged down in infinite side quests or I finish the main quest too early, and at any given time I can’t tell which path I am on.   The Good Life is an open world weirdo murder mystery / sheep riding simulator from the mind of SWERY.  I have been looking forward to this title forever, and really enjoyed playing through it.  The SWERY-isms (like an e-mail client named “Lookout!”)

The Good Life

The Good Life

are all over the place and hilarious.  As usual, his character writing is the main draw and does not fail to entertain.  Also as usual, I suck at playing open world games and definitely completed this one too early.  Lots of Zelda: Breath of the Wild DNA here, but wrapped up in an absurdist package.  I spent 100 hours on this one.

Let’s Adventure

Higurashi: When They Cry. I have been meaning to check out this series for a long time, and this year I finally got around to it.  As visual novels go, this one is pretty good: it avoids the common traps of superfluous cheesecake and romantic conquests, and while the story setup is full of common tropes and extremely routine, it develops in unexpected directions and the ending of each episode is hard to predict.  The Higurashi series is notable in that every episode repeats the story but alters it: questions raised in one episode are partially answered in the next, but in such a way that yet more questions are raised in the process.  It kind of reminded me of how Evil Dead 2 spends its first 45 minutes reproducing the complete events of Evil Dead 1 and then picks up the story and takes it in a new direction.  It is, unfortunately, a bit long-winded, and the repetition got pretty boring midway through the second episode.  I think this story would be more fun to consume as manga.  That said, these games have something I think every mystery game ought to have: a conversation about “what happened” with the principle cast members at the end of the game, sharing theories and reflecting on possible explanations.  These after-party sequences were by far my favorite part of each episode.

Famicom Detective Club

Famicom Detective Club

Famicom Detective Club. Nintendo has remastered a couple of old 1980s NES adventure games, and they are possibly the most beautiful 2D video games I have ever seen.  The art quality is off the charts, both for backgrounds and characters, and this easily wins my Prettiest Game of the Year award.  The visuals are so good that the clunkiness of the 1980s adventure game design stands out in sharp relief.  There’s a lot of moving back and forth between locations, talking to people over and over, hoping that something will change.  Modern versions of this format are so much better at directing the player, dropping clues, and generally making sure that you don’t get stuck that these games feel extremely cumbersome by comparison.  Still, I really enjoyed both of these titles.

The Silver Case. Another remastering of an old adventure game, this time an early SUDA 51 title.  Although there’s a lot to like about this game, it ultimately reminded me of an anecdote my 12th grade philosophy teacher shared with our class on the first day of school.  It goes like this: There is a rare rainforest bird colloquially known as the Thinking Bird because it has an oversized skull.  When the Thinking Bird is thinking about something complicated, it will fly in circles over and over, each slightly smaller in diameter than the last, until finally if it flies up its own ass.

The Blackwell Series. If I had to make one criticism of the indie game scene, it would be that so many indie games are primarily focused on capturing and bottling the nostalgia that the creator has for titles of a previous era.  They are so focused on reproducing the look and feel of those old games that often they forget to actually design the part where you play: many products are all form and no depth.  But occasionally I find somebody working in a retro game format and doing a better job at it than the games they were inspired by.  Photopia is, as far as I am concerned, the best Zork-style text adventure game ever written.  And the Blackwell series, which play like 1990s point-and-click adventures, are way better than most of the games in their lineage.  These titles, which all involve a medium and her hard boiled detective spirit guide, are well written, well paced, and don’t overstay their welcome.

World’s End Club. I’m a big fan of Kotaro Uchikoshi, director of the Zero Escape series, so when I heard that his team had released a new game I ordered it sight unseen.  Turns out World’s End Club is thematically very similar to his other titles (a death game, participants awakening in a post-apocalyptic future with no memory of how they got there, etc), but designed for children.  My nine-year-old son played this game and really enjoyed it (and it’ll be a while before he’s old enough to play anything else from the Uchikoshi catalog).  I liked it as well, despite the relative simplicity of the story and very wide variance in visual quality (some bits of this game look great, others look terrible).  The pirate doodle boss was my favorite bit.

Indie Darlings and Other Obscurities

Haunted Demo Disk. Speaking of the indie vogue of emulating old game consoles, I spent some time with the Haunted Demo Disk, a collection of indie horror games mostly designed to look like PS1 games.  I wrote about a bunch of the individual games on twitter, and there are a couple of stand-out titles (Sanpo and Risu were my favorites), but a lot of derivative and hackneyed titles as well.  Still, I really like the way these developers got together to bundle their work into a thematic collection, and wrap the whole thing up in a meta game that also serves as the launcher.

Ghost Train

Ghost Train

Chilla’s Art. Chilla’s Art is the name of a two-person developer duo who make very short, snack-sized horror experiments.  They’ve made a ton–Steam sells a bundle with 15 of their games, which individually cost $3 to $5.  I completed several, and enjoyed most of them: these games work better when they are short and simple, and start to fall apart when they get too complicated.  They look great–and rely heavily on VHS glitch and other lo-fi effects–and generally play pretty well.  I particularly liked GHOST TRAIN and OKAERI, but was frustrated by AKA MANTO, YUKI ONNA, and ONRYO.  These titles are prefect for horror streamers: short-form horror with a pop-out scare or two hiding under the floorboards that just ooze atmosphere.  I wrote a lengthy twitter thread about these games (and Puppet Combo’s games, see below) back in October.

Murder House and Bloodwash. Puppet Combo is another small team making VHS-glitchy horror games, but with a completely different aesthetic.  These titles take their cues from 1980s slasher movies: lots of blood and a psycho killer on the loose, all wrapped up in a not-quite-serious Playstation 1-style graphics engine.  Murder House in particular tries to get at least one instance of every important 3rd person horror trope wedged into its Killer Easter Bunny gameplay.  I really enjoyed these.



In Vivo: A very weird first-person tunnel crawler with an a partially-pixelated art style and a really cool dog whistle mechanic.  This is a great example of sound doing all the heavy lifting in a horror game that would otherwise have felt pretty routine.

Veiled. A short-and-sweet point-and-click horror adventure with a cool dithered art style.  Play it in your browser!

Reikoku. An ancient first-person PS1 horror game with an aesthetic that a lot of modern indie gamers would kill for.  Interestingly comes with a database of spiritual concepts.  I learned about chakras.  Twitter thread with some video here.

Not at This Time, Thank You



Man of Medan: The first in the Dark Pictures series from the Until Dawn team.  Some great visual storytelling and probably the highest-end contemporary implementation of the Resident Evil 3rd person camera, but the game can’t hold itself together enough to make sense.  This title suffers from the same issues that Until Dawn has, but without the same level of coherence or production quality.  I feel like this team ran out of time.

Virus: It is Aware. A new contender for “worst horror game ever made,” although probably not going to knock THE RING from the top spot.  I made a video of my attempts to beat the first boss.

Yuoni. A horror stealth game that puts nearly all its chips on its (super cool) blood red sunset art style.  Unfortunately not a lot of meat on the bone, though.

七つの秘館 戦慄の微笑 (Seven Mysterious Mansions: Chilling Smile). A not-great Dreamcast horror game primarily interesting because it has a two player mode.  I posted some notes and screens on twitter.

12 Minutes. A time loop mystery game that went from “this was made for me!” to “uhh, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this” to “game no longer launches on my Xbox.”  I didn’t finish this one and I think that’s probably for the best.


That’s it for 2021.  Here’s hoping that 2022 is kind enough to allow me the time to write more for this blog than year-end game synopses.  Thanks for reading!

Chris Plays: 2020 In Review

As the grip of the global pandemic has tightened around the world, one of the very few upsides has been increased time for video games.  I managed to make it through more titles than usual this year, although a great many remain in the towering “to be played” pile.  As with previous years, today I’m taking a look back at games I played in 2020, not just titles released in the last twelve months.  As usual, I’ve omitted VR games from this list.

Good Fun

I am a big fan of titles I can consume from beginning to end in the space between my children going to sleep for the evening and my own slide into unconsciousness.  These are titles that didn’t overstay their welcome.

Blair Witch

Blair Witch – A haunted forest romp set in the Blair Witch universe that has more to offer than it initially appears.  The inclusion of a dog companion is fun and well-executed, the story is compelling, and it can be pretty creepy.  I have a fundamental problem, in terms of basic game design philosophy, with the way that it ends, but that’s probably just me.

Ring Fit – An RPG where you grind your actual stats rather than your character’s.  Gamification of fitness makes a ton of sense and this title does it with style.  Gets pretty repetitive, though.

Home Fighter – Just install everything that Hap, Inc. makes.

Super Metroid – I never played this as a kid, and going back through it now it’s clear how much DNA everything from Dark Souls to Spelunky owes to this series.  Very good with occasional massive cliff points that are common to all games with this sort of design.

Resident Evil 2 Remake – Incredibly high-quality remake of one of the best games in this series.  The weirdest thing about playing this was the near constant deja vu I felt every time I entered a new space.  Capcom has taken a twenty five year old game and made it modern without sacrificing its soul.  Pretty astounding achievement.  Also: screw the end boss.

Resident Evil 3 Remake – Solid remake of one of the weakest games in the series that unfortunately inherits a lot of the flaws of the original.  This version slides the bar from mystery to combat and weirdly inverts the difficulty pattern of RE2: the bosses are easy but the individual zombies are extra lethal.  Unlike RE2, I have almost no memory of this game and thus no deja vu.  Reminds me more of the Revelations series than classic Resident Evil.

Ghosts of Tsushima – Absolutely beautiful and super fun samurai movie open world game.  Best open-world navigation system in a game ever.  They had me at the first standoff slice.

Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales – The last big-budget console game I worked directly on (over a decade ago now) was a Spider-Man game, and the PTSD from that experience pretty much ruined Marvel’s wise-cracking web-slinger for me.  Or so I thought: between the fantastic Into the Spider-Verse and Insomniac’s two open world Spider-Man games, my faith and interest in the wall crawler has been restored.  My eight year old son loves these games, and can play them despite having limited game playing experience.  Miles is his favorite Spider-Man.

Unfinished Business

I bounced off of a lot of games this year too, and close readers will notice that the theme here is per-minute fidelity.  These titles were designed, I think, to maximize the duration of play afforded by their $60 price tag, but as somebody with only small slices of free time available I am increasingly disinterested in narrative games that value total length over moment-to-moment progression.  I feel the same way about movies: give me a tight 90-minute thriller over a three hour opus any day of the week.

Red Dead Redemption 2 – An amazing technical achievement, and also an unlikely ode to naturalism.  A take on GTA that is both laid back and much more compelling.  Appeals to the nemophilist in all of us.  I’m just not super interested in cowboys and I have trouble playing the bad guy.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla – I really enjoyed the original Assassin’s Creed but haven’t kept up with the series for the last decade.  At some point it apparently changed from a stealth parkouring in ancient cities to, uh, raiding villages with button mash combat in Norway?  I guess London shows up in this title but I didn’t get far enough into it to see it.  I feel like maybe age is starting to narrow my tastes.

Persona 5 – Super stylish RPG that I really enjoyed for ~20 hours or so but I just can’t commit to a title that isn’t going to make any meaningful story progress for thousands of hours.  I may come back to this one.

Judgement – I have never made it through the intro cutscene for any Yakuza game, although they seem like they’d be clearly within my sphere of interest.  I hoped Judgement would be Yakuza without the reliance of five games of backstory, and it probably is that.  I think I just got tired of Kimutaku.

Nier: Automata – I like the style, the game play, the story, the characters, and the world, but man, I just don’t have like 500 hours to spend on something that is clearly going to be about the definition of humanity in a world of robots.  I mean, I can watch Ghost in the Shell in 82 minutes.

Story Games

Death Stranding

As I age I am increasingly disinterested in game mechanics and systems and find myself increasingly focused on narrative value.  These are titles that propose that the story is a fundamentally important aspect of the experience, perhaps the most important aspect.

Death Stranding – Death Stranding has a story, and a ton of time is spent on it, and you can bet there are hours of mega Kojima cutscenes in it, and despite characters with names like DIEHARDMAN the story and world are actually pretty interesting.  But that’s not why it made the list. Very few companies in the world could have even conceived of this game, let alone gotten it funded and built.  I couldn’t figure it out until my coworker offhandedly mentioned that it is about community, and that’s the point at which it clicked.  Yeah, traveling across a future landscape carrying packages to outposts and trying to avoid time ghosts is cool and all, but let me tell you: building roads?  That’s rewarding as hell.

Control and Quantum Break – Two very similar games by Remedy with a 50/50 combat/story split.  Control is the far more interesting of the two in terms of setting, character, and gameplay, but Quantum Break has its moments.  Remedy has been playing with mixing live action video into their games since Alan Wake, and both of these titles do it well.  The weak link in both games is the combat, which gets repetitive and (in the case of Control) can be very visually confusing.  Both titles are exceptionally beautiful in the midst of chaos, though, and when time stops in Quantum Break even the light contrails freeze in place.

Detroit – Technically outstanding but fairly predictable David Cage opus on robot racism.  The production quality is phenomenal and the introduction of a visual story map solves the issues Beyond: Two Souls had with implicit story branches.  Investigating crime scenes and recreating the events that took place is super cool and remains the best part of Cage’s titles.  Folks used to think Cage was a well-funded eccentric, but now it seems that he has helped pave the way to animation-heavy, virtual human-based, dialog-centric adventure games as a category, which describes many of the titles on this list.

AI: The Somnium Files – I am a big fan of Korato Uchikoshi, the author and director of the Zero Escape series, which is one of the most interesting series of games that I’ve played.  AI: The Somnium Files, the first game from Too Kyo Games, a new studio founded by Uchikoshi and Kazutaka Kodaka (director of Danganronpa, another fantastic series), unfortunately misses the mark.  While it retains many of the interesting features of Uchikoshi’s previous games, and adds an interesting dream mode puzzle system, it feels like it’s been dumbed down and aimed at a high school audience.

Best in Class

These are the best games I played this year.

I’ll see you again in 25 years.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons – This game came out just as we began to shelter in place and could not have arrived at a better time.  It kept us sane through the first six months of the pandemic.  My entire family played, a cumulative total of well over 500 hours spent building a town, chatting with animals, organizing rooms, and hunting scorpions.  Nothing has ever held our attention so completely for so long.  Not only is Animal Crossing: New Horizons an astonishing achievement in the history of video games, it contributed significantly to our overall well-being during a time of dramatic uncertainty and stress.

Full Deck Solitaire – Matt Burns and I have exchanged the games we work on every few years for feedback, and I am embarrassed to admit that I never got back to him about his latest, Eliza, because I didn’t finish it.  Not because it isn’t good–I was actually super hooked–but because I got completely sidelined by the Kabufuda Solitaire mini-game built into it.  Something about it triggered a massive de-stress effect at a time when my stress level was unusually high, and I stopped progressing in the story and just started playing solitaire.  I moved to Graeme Devine’s Full Deck Solitaire, which I’ve had installed on my phone forever, and began playing it in the evenings as a replacement for doomscrolling twitter or reddit.  A year later I am still playing Full Deck Solitaire, which offers a huge variety of solitaire game variants (one of which took me 28 hours to complete over 206 attempts–more time than I spent on most of the other games in this list), and still benefitting from the weird, hard-to-describe vaporization of stress that it provides.

Deadly Premonition 2 – I am, of course, a big fan of SWERY’s games, and of Deadly Premonition in particular.  The decade-later sequel got hammered in reviews for frame rate and technical problems, just its predecessor was criticized for janky movement and low texture quality.  In both cases, I think such assessments miss the forest for the trees.  The reason to play a SWERY game is to unlock access to SWERY characters that make up the narrative, and DP2’s character roster is in excellent form.  My initial take was that Deadly Premonition 2 was to True Detective as Deadly Premonition was to Twin Peaks, but now I think that it has more to do with Lost Highway: everybody lives two (or more!) lives.

The Last of Us Part II – It’s hard to overstate how impressed I was with this title on nearly every level.  The production quality alone is perhaps the finest I have ever seen: it is unrelentingly beautiful, convincing, and varied.  Like all good zombie stories TLoU2 is a character drama, and the characters are rendered in exquisite detail, both visually and in the narrative.  These are flawed, incomplete, desperate people, some of them struggling for redemption while others double down on their own faults.  The question posed by the game is not whether or not they’ll achieve their goals but how much humanity it will cost them.  The cast of characters is aggressively non-cliche, from a body-building tough woman to a queer girl out for revenge to a trans man trying to escape persecution to a pregnant bi woman trying to keep her partner alive, and none of them have any sort of moral high ground.  Representation may seem like a small thing, but it’s not: the climax of the story involves the four principle actors and there’s not a white man among them.  And all of this is wrapped up in one of the slickest gameplay and rendering engines ever.  I’d say, “more like this, please!” but I’m not sure that there can be more games like this, at least not immediately.  There are a handful of devs can complete with the raw tech on display in this title (the culmination of many Uncharted games).  But I don’t think anybody is even close to Naughty Dog’s acting, writing, and production quality.  I liked this game so much I even wrote a ton of words about the parts I didn’t like.


That’s it for games.  I was also pretty happy with this piece I wrote about cultural normalization.  It’s been a pretty long year, but 2021 is finally here.  To steal a line from Counting Crows, there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.

The Strings on My Wrists in The Last of Us Part II

The principal trope of the zombie genre is that in an undead-infested apocalypse, it’s the other humans you need to worry about.  A zombie plague is a natural disaster, an epidemic, an indiscriminate force of nature that is driven by neither logic nor passion–it just is.  What the genre has to teach us is that in a desperate situation, the worst atrocities will be perpetrated not by the infected hoards, but by the surviving humans.  This is the central appeal of a zombie movie: it puts characters in a high-pressure situation to see how their humanity holds up.

The craft demonstrated in this title is unbelievable.

The Last of Us Part II proudly continues this tradition.  It is a character drama set in a post-apocalyptic America that is more interested in the lives of the protagonists than the events that caused the destruction of the world.  Its choice of genre forces it to treat its characters like real, believable people, and the title puts huge emphasis on making its cast convincing.

It does this with flair.  The Last of Us Part II is an unprecedented production achievement, a dramatic outlier on many qualitative axes, outshining other AAA games on everything from graphics technology to script writing to voice acting.  It is clearly standing upon the shoulders of Naughty Dog’s previous releases (in particular the Uncharted series), but surpasses those titles in every category.  I was thinking so hard about the story in this game that I spent several nights dreaming about its conclusion.  But it is the very quality of the production that also reveals The Last of Us Part II‘s central challenge: walking the tightrope between character drama and gameplay expression.

All games with storytelling aspirations must find a way to deal with the inherent mismatch of narrative and player choice.  Most forms of narrative in other media are passive: we’re told a story and our role is that only of an observer.  But video games are played with controllers because we are supposed to control them: it is the active participation of the player that separates the medium from other forms of entertainment.  Narrative game designers are often confounded by the melding of passive story consumption with active participation in the game.

Many resolve the conflict by simply keeping the story and gameplay separate.  The story is metered out as the player progresses through the game.  Finish the tasks, watch the cutscene, head to the next room and get yourself a new task.  Beating the level is a turn of the page.  The player steps from one room to the next, performing whatever actions the designer has asked of him, but ultimately has no influence over the arc of the story: he can only move forward along a predetermined path, or not move at all.  He has control over his avatar, but his avatar is itself simply a rat in a maze.

If the activities are fun and the narrative compelling, this is perhaps enough.  At the macro level the arc of the plot can be controlled by its author to ensure that it is interesting.  At the micro level the player still feels that he has agency, at least over moment-to-moment choices.  We often don’t even notice the discrepancy between the macro and the micro because the input at the player’s disposal is not expressive enough to affect the macro-level story.  We never have to worry about what happens if Mario decides to run off with one of the Toad girls he rescues before making it to Princess Peach.  The player simply doesn’t have the input grammar to make such a choice, just as the rat cannot choose to bore holes in the walls of the maze.

Of course, there are games that also attempt to allow the player to influence the macro thread of the story.  Often these are simple binary choices: are you on Path A or Path B, good or evil, rescue or harvest, paragon or renegade, a branch at the macro level that selects one story over another but nevertheless keeps the player on a predetermined path.  Games that attempt a greater level of complexity risk producing a nonsensical story as a result.  But in most cases, story choices in video games boil down to just one more level of abstraction between the macro story path and the micro gameplay mechanics.

The Last of Us Part II’s design philosophy eschews such obvious binary choices and instead relies on small bits of implicit choice within a fixed, predetermined outer layer.  Our avatar is Ellie, and as rats in mazes go she’s got quite a few tools at her disposal.  We can choose to send her left or right, investigate that dilapidated bar down the street or keep moving, sneak past the guards or stab them in the neck, engage the zombies directly or pick them off one at a time, climb up the side of a car to reach a second-story window or slip through a storm drain to access a basement.  We control Ellie’s path through a level segment, but not the sequence of segments itself.  The entire design of this title can be seen as a spectrum from high-fidelity, high-choice micro-level interactions to fixed, macro-level predetermined encounters, level progression, set piece sequences, and overall story arc.

In fact, this design philosophy is a pretty common one, and while the execution in The Last of Us Part II is impeccable, it’s hardly unique.  The appeal of this design is that it makes the player feel as if they have choice while maintaining the impact and the coherency of the story by bounding that choice within a local maximum.  In the ideal case the player never notices the facade, and his perception of agency increases the punch of the story because it feels personal.  But there’s a problem, one that affects The Last of Us Part II more than it does Naughty Dog’s other games, an issue that is intrinsic to the framing of the story as zombie fiction, which is exacerbated precisely because the production quality of the game is so high: it is the moment that we realize that Ellie, our avatar, our rat, is not ours to control at all.

There are moments in Uncharted where the curtain is pulled back and we accidentally catch a glimpse of the rollercoaster ride machinery that powers the game.  Moments when we see that our controller input is more for our own benefit than the game’s, that in order to deliver the dramatic action sequences the series is known for our agency has been quietly suspended.  That’s ok in Uncharted because hey, we didn’t really want to screw up the timing on that train car jump and have to redo it anyway.  We might be on a rollercoaster track but the peaks are high and the drops are fast and that’s what we came here for.  Nathan Drake may murder people every few minutes on his way to raiding yet another tomb, but that’s not so incongruent with his character because he’s an Indiana Jones comic book person.  We don’t need to think too hard about his motivations to have a good time.

But the motivations of the characters in The Last of Us Part II are central to its story.  The point of zombie fiction is to examine the humanity of its characters, and Ellie’s humanity is the central axis upon which the story turns.  Is she a good guy, in the right for wanting to avenge the death of a loved one, fighting only out of necessity, or is she just as bad as the people she’s hunting, a psychopath willing to go to any length to achieve her goals?  The title puts huge effort into making the situation morally ambiguous, even going as far as to give the cannon-fodder bad guys who jump Ellie in the overgrown streets of Seattle proper names (“Oh my god, she shot Sean!” an enemy barks as I drop her companion with a shotgun blast to the chest).

I don’t like this scene, but not for the reasons the designers intended.

In every dilapidated building Ellie finds notes from folks who probably didn’t make it, describing the horror of their lives and the tragedy of their situation.  We’re supposed to feel empathy for these people, even as we direct Ellie to slit their throats.  With highly detailed animation and rendering we can read the expression on Ellie’s face and the faces of her friends.  We can see the blood splatter left by a man who shot himself rather than turn into a zombie.  The reason The Last of Us Part II has such an astoundingly high production value is that emotional expression is in the details, and this title is overflowing with detail.

My version of Ellie is as close to the moral high ground as I can get her.  She doesn’t like to take life unnecessarily.  When confronting humans I prefer to play her stealthily so as to avoid needless bloodshed.  If forced into a situation where the bad guys have to be taken out, I’d rather let the zombies have them than pull the trigger myself.  I only kill another human as a last resort.

For the most part, The Last of Us Part II gives me enough agency to make these decisions.  But upon closer inspection I notice that even my palette of options has been designed to force me to choose between binary extremes.  When confronting other humans there are no non-lethal options, and killing is often the easiest path.  I can’t knock a guard out, I can only drive my knife into her jugular.  The game has removed the middle road: I only have the grammar to murder or sneak, and sneaking is harder.

Of course, this setup is by design.  The game designers want me to have to make hard choices about whether my avatar’s humanity is so important to me that I’ll forego iterating a video game combat loop by route.  Like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, this title has an opinion about the righteousness of taking human life, and wants me to reach the same conclusion in the course of play, without having to spell it out.  It has biased my options to produce that effect.  If, like me, you’re a fan of Metal Gear Solid 3, you’ll notice a lot of its DNA in The Last of Us Part II.

But there are points in the game where the macro-level story arc requires an even greater suspension of my choice.  If Ellie is to grow and change as a character, certain events must happen along the way to make that change a believable one.  To increase the punch of those moments, it’s better if they happen while I’m behind the wheel, rather than in a passive cutscene.  But when these events conflict with the way I’d prefer to play Ellie, the illusion is suddenly shattered and I’m left feeling more like the puppet than the puppeteer.

With realistic characters come realistic expectations.

That’s the central problem with the system that The Last of Us Part II employs: when the narrative supersedes the player’s choice to such a degree that the marionette strings the game has been trying to conceal are suddenly revealed, it feels like a breach of trust.  It hurts precisely because the game is so successful at making its characters real human beings who we empathize with.  The dramatic quality of the character drama in this game makes these moments all the more transparent.

There were points in The Last of Us Part II when I put the controller down because I didn’t want to pursue any of the options the game made available to me.  I hoped that inaction would be validated as a choice, that by electing not to Press X to Commit Violence I would be spared the pain of having my hand forced.  Unfortunately, that’s not how the story goes.  The show must go on.

It’s impossible to talk about these moments without spoiling the narrative, but there is a minor optional sequence that is a good encapsulation of this problem. In this sequence Ellie is attacked by three mercenaries in a hotel building on her way to a hospital.  They mistake her for their enemies and jump her.  She has no choice but to shoot these people before they shoot her.  But when you’ve killed all but the last guy, he will grovel and ask to be spared, or dare you to finish him off.  Ellie has no particular beef with these people, they don’t even know who she is, and up until this moment her reaction to their attack feels defensible.  But at the last you are not allowed to spare the survivor.  There’s no option to knock them out (a “strike” will slit their throat), or to tell them to take off, or to tie them up, or any of the other plausible non-lethal solutions to this situation.  If you do nothing they get back up and start shooting again.  It’s important to the designers of this game that Ellie actually kill this person, even though it isn’t necessary.  But the player’s agency must be suspended to enable this little bit of character progression, and it immediately feels like a betrayal.

Perhaps the designers assumed that most players would just kill the guy and move on without much thought.  Just iterate the game mechanic, point the reticle at the bad guy and pull the trigger.  But I think they hoped for more than that.  I think they hoped that the player would feel a little queasy, a little Shadow of the Colossus moment of inner conflict, when following the directions by route seems like the wrong thing to do.  And they are successful–it does feel like the wrong thing to do.  But they’ve also ensured that you have no choice but to go ahead and murder a person who cowers before you.  In doing so, the moral quagmire the encounter was designed to create is immediately defeated because there is no actual choice to be made.  Though these moments are few and far between, they undercut the power of the interactive narrative significantly.

The Last of Us Part II is an amazing game.  It offers deep, exquisite design and technical solutions to some of the problems that have plagued video games for decades.  The story is gripping, the game play is exciting, and the whole thing is beautiful to behold.  It smoothly blends gameplay and narrative in a way that few titles in the history of video games have ever managed to achieve.  But every once in a while the cranes are visible in the rafters, the strings pulling the characters forward catch the light, and we remember that it is, after all, an illusion.

Beam Me Up

The plastic plate affixed to the entrance to the changing room says “Automatic,” but I have to press it anyway.  The door glides open, a Star Trek gateway 245 years early, and quieter too.  After removing my shoes I pass through a cloth curtain hanging over a entry into the main changing area, where I strip down to my skin and leave my clothing in a wicker basket.  At the end of the room is a dark glass door, fogged by condensation, that emits a suction pop when I open it.  Beyond is the main bath area, several shallow pools separated by hard tile floor, each glowing quietly in the dim light.  I sit on a squat stool and shower, making sure to rinse my station when I am done.  Then I slip into the silk of the closest pool and feel my skin light up with the almost-but-not-quite needle pain of 43° C water.


“Westerners can’t handle Japanese onsen,” a high school teacher once told me.  Star Trek: The Next Generation posters adorned the walls of her classroom.  Mrs. Howell had returned from an extended sojourn in Japan armed with a level of fluency that I now recognize as exceptional.  “Five minutes, tops.”  I looked at the poster of Jean-Luc Picard that bordered a hiragana chart and decided that, when I eventually got myself to Japan I wasn’t going to wimp out with the rest of the foreigners.  If Japanese people could do it, so could I.

Fast forward to me at 20, mid-way through a year of study abroad, gingerly stepping into a hot pool at a remote bath house just east of The Great Seto Bridge.  It is a shocking level of heat, so hot that it feels cold, frostbite jaws sinking into my calves.  The water hasn’t yet reached my knees but I’m unable to continue, so I sit down on the edge of the pool and hope that this is a necessary step in the process of acclimatization.  Perhaps once the outer layer of skin has filleted away the nerves below will deaden.  On the other side of the pool a Japanese man sits neck deep in the magma.  His glasses have fogged up so I can’t see his eyes, but he appears to be asleep.  Or dead.  Or possibly meditating.  Firewalking Yogi have nothing on this guy.

Slowly, painfully, I lower myself into the water up to the waist.  The initial Hellraiser needle attack has passed but in its place is an unrelenting heat, a sustained, drawn out sting, a synthesizer note held too long.  Like having blood drawn.  Set phasers to hematidrosis, people.  After two minutes I eject and find that the lower half of my body is cosplaying as boiled shrimp.  I am self-conscious about being naked in public but there’s no way to hide my eggshell whiteness here.  The Yogi turns to look at me as I leave, alive after all and apparently unable to feel pain.  Shucking my weaksauce foreigner onsen tolerance was clearly going to be a lot harder than I thought.

Later that year I have another chance, this time in a hotel on an island near Hiroshima, the one with the famous torii gate standing in its bay.  I was able to abide the circular marble pool in my hotel up to my navel for almost five minutes.  In Tottori, I tried my first outdoor onsen at a ryokan.  The cool night air helped regulate the water’s rough-play acupuncture and I was able to sink in up to my neck.  I shared the pool with a grandfather and his two-year old granddaughter, who giggled as she splashed hot water at him from the safety the edge of the bath, submerged only to her ankles.  It dawned on me that the key to enjoying this practice might be repetitive exposure.  Despite managing to dip deeper into the pool I was still unable to remain in the water for more than a few minutes.

I am envious of how Japanese people describe their bath experience.  The feeling of ultimate relaxation, of ejecting pollutants from the body through sweat.  They speak of an end of muscle pain and an opportunity to think deeply.  Even the home bathtub, a deeper and more advanced contraption than the ceramic casks we have in the West, sounds rapturous when described by the Japanese.  But underlying my desire to bathe like the Japanese is a deeper, more primitive motivation: pride.  Pride that I can operate within a foreign society correctly.  A challenge to myself to learn the rules and execute them, as if culture was just a computer program for which the proper input will return a success code.  To boldly go where no foreigner has gone before.


The arrogance implicit in that train of thought is not lost of me.  My experience abroad as a student was one of normalization, of figuring out how to find my balance on an unfamiliar cultural surface.  I like to think that I exited that process with significantly more humility than I had going in, but a quiet voice in the back of my head wonders not-so-subtlely whether the process has ever really ended.  Surely, the voice whispers, there is no greater display of hubris than claiming freedom from arrogance.  Captain Kirk came in peace, but that didn’t stop him from treating the remote planets he encountered as lesser than himself, mired in their own weird ways, a puzzle for him to decipher.

Still, I have returned to Japan and visited an onsen nearly every year for the last two decades.  In Hakone I enjoyed a private rotenburo, an outdoor bath attached to a hotel room.  In Okayama I tried yakuto, a medicinal bath, which came with a warning that my “important bits” would “tingle,” a description that wholly undersold the level or duration of pain the yellow water had to offer.  In Tottori I submerged myself in a lightly irradiated sodium chloride concoction that is supposed to help with everything from high blood pressure to gout.  One evening after dusk I got into a kawaraburo, an outdoor, mixed-gender, zero-privacy hot springs in the middle of a river.  I expected to find mostly old men there and was surprised by a clientele of young couples.  I talked to some guys who built industrial ships in Shimane and were visiting for a company offsite.  Once, in an attempt to survive a brutal 36-hour business trip to Tokyo, I checked into a sento in Roppongi, an artificially heated bath and sauna, and quickly decided that Roppongi is not the best place for public bathing.  My wife and I even tried a few rounds of ganbanyoku, which eschews the bath altogether and instead involves wearing pajamas and laying on a very hot slab of rock and void yourself of moisture through your pores.

This year, sitting in an outdoor bath in Hokkaido, with snow lazing just beyond the thatched awning, I realize that I have, at some point, gotten used to the heat.  The delta of time between my birth and my first onsen attempt is now shorter than the subsequent term between that initial dip and today.  Oddly, the conquering of my foreign “weakness” doesn’t seem so important any longer.  I can’t even remember when I stopped thinking about whether or not I had cleared Mrs. Howell’s five minute threshold.  With age my waistline has rushed forward while my metabolism has retreated, but even so I’ve lost the awkward self-consciousness about my body that plagued young adulthood.  When I bring my son to the onsen he splashes and swims around and switches pools every few minutes, but he doesn’t seem to mind the heat.  I make him submerge his body up to his neck and count to ten before he gets out, a practice I’ve seen other fathers enforce.  Hopefully he’ll never feel that an enjoyable evening in a bath is about having something to prove.

Come on, Kirk. Just one smooch.

Maybe this is what real cultural normalization is about.  Maybe it’s about not worrying if I can execute a traditional procedure with rigid precision, not kicking myself when I should have said gobusatashiteorimasu instead of ohisashiburidesu, not feeling self-conscious on the train, and not timing how long I can sit in a hot bath.  Perhaps normalization is having the confidence to ignore the script and the humility to do it without making an ass of myself.  I’d like to think that my onsen experience is an indication that I’ve achieved some level of real normalization, a feat that doesn’t have so much to do with tolerance to hot water after all.  Cue Captain Kirk embracing his latest alien conquest as she swoons in his weird, foreign arms.

Then again, that little voice whispers, maybe I’m not quite there yet.

A Glance at Fatal Frame 5: Maiden of Black Water

I purchased a WiiU because I shipped a game for it and figured I should actually have one to play on.  My first two purchases were (naturally) ZombieU and Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water.  I’ve completed every Fatal Frame game to date (excepting FF4, which I got stuck in), and the series has always occupied a place in my heart as part of the trifecta that put survival horror on the map.  With Resident Evil you get bombast, zombies, and recursive map unlocking.  With Silent Hill you get introspection, symbolism, and hell.  You go to Fatal Frame for high-end ghost stories as only the Japanese can tell them.  It’s been almost twenty years since the first Fatal Frame shipped, but playing the fifth installment of the spectral series in 2019 feels as if the gap in time has been surgically narrowed, years and console generations stitched together to produce a modern rendering of a tried-and-true formula.  Fatal Frame 5 is a dyed-in-the-wool Fatal Frame game, and I love it.

This game is beautiful.

The premise of Koei Tecmo’s latest girls-vs-ghosts romp revolves around a mountain that has become a popular suicide spot.  There are, of course, some shrines on this mountain, and if you’ve every played any Fatal Frame game you already know that some Bad Shit went down at these shrines sometime long ago.  And if you weren’t sure, Maiden of Black Water will show you these transgressions in extremely well-rendered black and white flashbacks.  Like Fatal Frame 3 before it, you play as several different characters, each has a reason to go the mountain and a deep, dark secret.  On the way they’ll encounter a variety of ghosts that can only be dispatched by use of an antique Camera Obscura.

All of this should sound pretty standard for fans of the Fatal Frame series.  In fact, what piqued my interest about this title was the news that it was designed and produced by the dudes who created the series, Makoto Shibata and Keisuke Kikuchi.  Everything about Fatal Frame 5 is familiar.  The combat system based on timing your camera shots properly.  The unlikely outfits worn by the protagonists.  The ghosts’ propensity to relive their deaths in front of you over and over as part of their attack sequence.  Lost Japanese villages and shrines, ancient torii gates, and rooms full of hina dolls.  It’s all there.

A fatal glance.

I think the areas that are the most interesting are those where the design differs from the formula.  My favorite is the Fatal Glance system.  When a spirit has been defeated there is a small window of time when their phantasmal visage can be touched.  If you’re fast enough to reach them before they evaporate completely, “glancing” the ghost shows you a blurry video of their final mortal moments.  The video is highly distorted, a VHS tape after too many copies, rendered in black and white or chromatically aberrated blues and greens.  The cursed video from The Ring, except there are tons of them, one for nearly every ghost, and each tells a mini story about the awful ways that these people met their ends.

In Japanese horror, the antagonist is almost always presented in a sympathetic light.  Ghosts in particular often operate on onnen, the concept of emotion so powerful that it persists beyond the grave.  Those that die in the throes of emotion are more likely to return as vengeful ghosts, and that implies that these people suffered cruel deaths at the hands of others.  Thus we find many stories, antique and contemporary, of dangerous ghosts who were made that way by the cruel actions of others.  They may be monsters now, but their origins are pitiful, and many stories focus on the path to the antagonist’s salvation.  This pattern is part of what gives Japanese horror its unique flavor, and if you’re interested in this topic you could read my article about the fundamentals of Japanese horror.

A look into her soul.

Fatal Frame 5’s Fatal Glance system turns the concept of onnen, which runs like a subterranean waterway through the stories of the series, into an actual game mechanic.  The ghosts in the Fatal Frame series have always been mini-narratives themselves, suggesting (or even reenacting) their moment of death with their appearance and attack sequence.  The woman who falls from above and then attacks with her neck broken and sideways.  The girl who was pulled into the well and now resides there forever.  Intrepid players have even noticed that a few ghosts wear their kimonos with the right side covering the left, the way that corpses are dressed, suggesting that they were given a proper funeral.  But the Fatal Glance system takes this idea and dramatically amplifies it, creating a tiny story for every ghost.  Finding and collecting them is a pleasure, and more than a little creepy.

There are a lot of mechanical issues with Fatal Frame 5, and many of them have plagued the series since its inception.  It’s still nearly impossible to fight in closed quarters because the ghosts can go behind walls where you can’t target them.  Fighting two or more enemies at once is a recipe for frustration.  The story repeats its details, over and over, until all subtlety is lost.  The over-the-shoulder camera system introduced in FF4 (replacing, to my great dismay, the amazing system used best in FF2) returns, but moving around with this system in any direction but forward is highly awkward.  Using the WiiU tablet as the camera interface seems cool, but in practice switching your attention between screens is awkward.

But none of these issues stop Fatal Frame 5: Maiden of Black Water from being a highly satisfying game, particularly for narrative detail seekers, with a quality of execution that has no peer in the genre.

Muv-Luv: Subverting the Form

Yoriko Douguchi is not interested in your crap.

In 1967 yakuza filmmaker Seijun Suzuki was fired from his job at Nikkatsu Company for being too weird.  He made 40 films in 12 years for Nikkatsu, each allocated less than 40 days of production from start to finish.  Steadily his movies got stranger and stranger.  At one point in Tokyo Drifter (1966), the entire set inexplicably turns white.  In Branded to Kill (1967, his last film for Nikkatsu), the contract killer protagonist becomes roommates with his target, who is also trying to kill him.  Although Nikkatsu produced a huge volume of films during the 1950s and 1960s, today Suzuki’s are the only ones that anybody remembers.

In the 1970s Nikkatsu burned through the yakuza film crop and switched to pinku eiga soft porn.  This effort saved the company, and by the 1980s they were willing to fund just about any film as long as it met its nudity quota.  Junior filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa produced two movies for Nikkatsu in the early 1980s, including The Excitement of Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (1985), which he wrote, directed, and edited.  Nikkatsu probably expected Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl to be a sexy movie about a naive girl who learns about sex from free-spirited college students, but what they got instead was a weird art film about shame and personal boundaries.  Like Kurosawa’s later films, The Excitement of Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl has a dream-like quality to it, and it’s never clear if the events on the screen are to be taken literally or as a metaphor for something else.[1]  Nikkatsu fired Kurosawa, who eventually bought the film back and released it himself.  Twelve years later, Kurosawa appeared seemingly out of nowhere with Cure (1997), the first in a series of weird and very scary films that established him as one of Japan’s most interesting contemporary directors.

Suzuki and Kurosawa were working on pulp films that came with a lot of restrictions, both in terms of genre expectations and production logistics.  Yet both directors tried to do something interesting within their form.  They met the guidelines of their genres but found ways to subvert the content of their work.  Perhaps the constraints themselves helped them produce films that are startling and creative.  It’s clear that Suzuki and Kurosawa used their pulp genres as a cover for their more complex ideas.

I can’t help but wonder if the same is true for the Muv-Luv series.  The visual novel series consists of three games (Muv-Luv Extra, Unlimited, and Alternative), which must be played in progression to be understood.  Like all visual novels these games are nearly all dialog between the protagonist and other characters in the story, which are depicted as flat images against a background.  As with many visual novels, the initial setup to Muv-Luv involves a male protagonist surrounded by women, each of whom is a potential conquest.  But like Kurosawa and Suzuki, Koki Yoshimune, the author of the Muv-Luv series, seems to have more complicated ambitions for his pulp.

Pretty much what you’d expect, right?

I have to admit that I was a little uncomfortable with the first Muv-Luv game (now titled Muv-Luv Extra, a variant of the original adults-only release that has had its explicit bits removed for international and console releases).  It’s well-written and funny, but it plays exactly to the dating game visual novel form.  Every choice in the game is a proxy for selecting a woman from the cast that fits your personal preferences.  Every member of the cast (which is entirely women) seems to be there primarily to give you a wide range of sexual conquest options.  And to make this narrative work, the characters all have to be secretly in love with the protagonist.  It’s a transparent, and frankly pretty boring, male power fantasy.  “Maybe you shouldn’t play this one in public,” my wife advised me after looking over my shoulder at my Vita.


The moment Muv-Luv Unlimited booted up, I knew my initial time investment had been worth it.  In Unlimited, Takeru Shirogane, the protagonist of Extra, wakes to find himself in an alternate dimension where humanity is fighting for survival (with big mechs) against alien hoards.  His high school is a military base, his classmates are cadets, and he’s the only one of them that didn’t grow up learning how to be a solider.  The male power fantasy is immediately turned on its head: instead of being the object of desire of every woman within a 5 mile radius, Takeru is the loser of the group.  He can’t keep up with the other girls in his squad.  They can out run him, out shoot him, out-everything him.  In fact, they think he’s dead weight that is holding them back from graduating into full-fledges soldiers.  Most of Unlimited is Takeru getting his butt realigned by a cadre of capable women who are tired of his bullshit.  Every once in a while the game will remember its roots as a fan service dating game and put one of the female characters in some compromising position, or force them all to wear revealing battle suits.  But most of the time it can’t be bothered: Yoshimune is too busy world-building with mechs and aliens and complex ethical questions to spend time on cheesecake.

By the time Muv-Luv Alternative rolls around, any hint of the series’ dating game roots has been thrown entirely out the window.  If Unlimited is about cutting Takeru down to size physically, Alternative is a litigation of his failures as a human being.  It is unmitigated misery, mostly of his own making.  The number of choices available to the player also fades away, and the game becomes an almost entirely linear story.  Alternative forces Takeru to deal with his own privilege as somebody from a world where he was safe enough to be a carefree idiot.  It forces him to untangle sticky ethics dilemmas, find a personal reason to fight, and cultivate his relationships carefully.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster, a mecha war epic, exceptionally detailed and complex, about the last thing you’d expect from a series that began as a lacrosse team love triangle.


Alternative is where Yoshimune’s design really starts to shine.  It takes a long time (I’m guessing that I clocked somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 hours between all three games), but eventually he has eased you into an insane world that is populated by characters that you know exceptionally well.  He uses the tropes of the dating game genre to establish detailed characters (because, like horror, an emotionally-relevant dating game needs characters that you actually care for), then puts those characters into an extreme situation to see how they respond.  The protagonist is forced to grow up, and the player might be asked to do a little maturing of their own along the way.

Like Suzuki and Kurosawa it is clear that Yoshimune is using the visual novel dating format as a stealth transmission system for a much more complex topic.  I might even go as far as to say that it’s something of a slap in the face to fans of the types of games that Muv-Luv Extra is modeled after, an idea which Yoshimune seems to corroborate.  The Muv-Luv series isn’t perfect (and it’s a shame that it’s been saddled with such a terrible name), but it’s worth playing to see how visual novels can support works that are much more complex than the genre is known for.


[1] For the record, my money is on Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl being about university as a transitional period, where young adults are free to experiment with their identities and personal boundaries before eventually being assimilated (as the movie depicts, by force) into adult society after graduation.  A sort of Japanese Rumspringa.