Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Reverse Dungeon

Evil simulators are few and far between.  I think the reason is not many games want to let the player be the bad guy.  That said, there are a few.  Overlord, Plague Inc., and my personal favorite Dungeon Keeper.  In this case the game we're discussing is The Shrouded Isle.  As far as I can tell it appears to be set on a small, remote, northern latitudes enclave during the late 19th or early 20th century.  Five families own the place and answer to a high priest who is the player's avatar.

The deity worshiped by this isolated community is "Chernobog," a slavic word derived from "čĭrnŭ" meaning "black," and "bogŭ" or "god."  I should mention that the only written information on this particular entity comes from a 12th century christian priest who, while recording local customs, mentioned him in passing.  The pagans who worshiped Chernobog left no records.  Because of the lack of information, a lot of mystery surrounds this ancient (and mostly forgotten) deity.  Although I should mention that Chernobog makes an unnamed (but major) appearance in the 1940 animated Disney film "Fantasia."  He is the bat-winged demon that constitutes the peak of a mountain top in one of the ending segments.  I should also mention that the accompanying music "Night on Bald Mountain," was created by a russian composer named Mussorgsky as a tribute to slavic paganism, but was not actually performed by an orchestra until 1881 - five years after the author's death.

Considering the fact that the shrouded isle is (by definition) surrounded by water, it's a little strange that the cult in the game doesn't worship Cthulhu or some other aquatic deity like Dagon.  Supposedly the developers didn't want to copy from H.P. Lovecraft's Mythos too liberally, though they don't deny the influence it had on the design of the game.  The artwork and soundtrack do an excellent job of setting an appropriately dour mood.  The color pallet, on the other hand, perhaps takes it a bit too far.  In a post-release patch the devs introduced a black and grey (excuse me...CREMATION ASHES and DARKNESS!) scheme which is easier on the eyes.  As for the gameplay itself...

If you've ever tried Gods Will Be Watching then The Shrouded Isle will feel quite familiar.  Like that game it is a turn-based time/resource management sim wherein, the player must hold out for a certain number of turns.  In this case the amount is three years, which are divided into four seasons each - that are then subdivided into three month phases.  No matter what the player does their net resources will decline in the long run.  So, in essence the game is all about minimizing losses mixed with risk management and peppered with the occasional random event or hint/request from the upper managment (a.k.a. Chernobog).  Sadly, that's about it.  The game is rather barebones with no announced plans for further expansion.

Back when I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, there was this interesting module called "Reverse Dungeon."  Essentially, it took the generic premise of adventures going into underground locals in search of treasure and flipped it.  Instead of clerics, fighters, thieves and wizards, the players controlled the underground inhabitants (mostly monsters) with the goal being to expunge the intruders.  I can't help but feel that a similar approach would have work wonders for The Shrouded Isle. Sort of like a reverse "Shadow over Innsmouth," if you're familiar with the short story.  It would be interesting to see what options the player had if, say, a reporter or private investigator showed up in town.  Instead of resources like ignorance, fervor, discipline, penitence and obedience, I'd much rather see things like obscurity and influence (outside of the five families) play a more prominent role.  As is, the whole human sacrifice thing is the only major differentiator from being the high priest in an esoteric cult and the manager at some mid-sized corporation.  I'm sure some would argue that if one were to replace murdering people with firing people the two would be largely indistinguishable.  Realistic?  Possibly...Fun?  Not so much...

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


Blink and you'll miss it
Hans Ruedi Giger was never directly involved in video game development. If documentaries about him are anything to go by, I doubt he ever even used a computer. Of course, most of his fame comes from being a concept artist for the Alien and Species franchises. Regardless, his artwork has (through those films and other sources) influenced countless video games starting way back in the 8-bit era (with titles like Contra and Metroid) and most recently with the, as of now, unreleased game Scorn. Some of his artwork has even appeared directly in a pair of adventure games entitled Darkseed and Darkseed II.

I'm pretty sure the original idea, concept, or "seed" (if you will) comes from a series of five nearly identical paintings by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin, all entitled "Isle of the Dead."  Böcklin offered no explanation for his returning interest in this particular scene, but it's been speculated that it was based on a recurring dream he had involving the seemingly fictional island.  Giger (possibly because he was a native to Switzerland as well) took an interest in the work and made a painting of his own, very similar in the broad strokes but with his signature biomechanical style.  It was essentially a dark interpretation of the same scene.  So, therein lies the basic premise behind Darkseed.  For every real world person, place or thing, there is a dark world equivalent.

Don't worry...it's just a doll...oh...wait...
Normally the two never intersect.  However, a race of beings, known simply as "The Ancients" are attempting to cross over via an embryo implanted into the protagonists brain.  This unlucky fellow is Mike Dawson, a writer who has only just purchased the house he is currently residing in.  The previous owner died of a stroke (or so the story goes) and now this bland stand-in for the player is suffering from headaches, bad dreams, and terrifying visions.  Dawson only has three days left to live before he dies from the parasitic organism gestating inside his skull.  The first game day is spent by the player exploring his surroundings and discovering cryptic clues as to what is going on.  Starting on the second day though, Dawson finds out how to cross over into the dark world via a full-length mirror in his living room.  Obvious story references to Alice in Wonderland, Alien, and Rosemary's Baby aside the dark world is where things really begin to get interesting.  For reasons not elaborated on this alternate reality is a grotesque parody of our world; the neighborhood dog is a hideous beast, the local barbershop is some kind of brain surgery station, and the young woman working at the public library is a wall mounted biomechanical construct called the Keeper of the Scrolls.  The two worlds are so closely connected things which happen in our world are reflected in the dark one.  Leave a door open in Dawson's house and the corresponding building in the dark world will have a gaping hole in the wall where there previously wasn't one.  Another creepily clever touch is The Ancients themselves sleeping in a hibernative state where the normal world cemetery is located.

The most frightening part is him going to bed
with his shoes still on
Much of the artwork in the game is lifted in little bits and pieces from various paintings done by H.R. Giger himself prior to the game's development.  There are numerous examples of original assets as well, although it's unclear whether or not Giger had a direct hand in their creation.  Completely absent are his commonly used pagan iconography and reproductive organs.  Personally, I've always found biomechanical landscapes to be his most interesting kind of painting, so no big loss from my perspective.  That said, the actual gameplay in Darkseed is pretty weak, even for point-and-click adventure gaming standards.  It also suffers from a severe case of "Guide Dang It" in that it's practically impossible to win on your own.  On the plus side though, the official hint book comes with some interesting bios on the character in the game, both in the normal word and the dark world.  From this outside source of information we learn that not all the dark world inhabitants are complacent in The Ancient's machinations.  We also gain some interesting background information on the town locals.  It's a shame more of this characterization didn't come to the forefront.  Very little of the underlying mystery is explained (let alone revealed) either.  Are the inhabitants of the dark world dying?  Why do The Ancients want to cross over into our world?  How does implanting a creature into some dude's cranium help them accomplish their goals?  These are questions the game itself bring up, yet no answers are provided.  Granted, I understand that revealing everything can ruin the mystique, but Darkseed doesn't even provide enough information for players to come up with their own theories.

The sequel continues where the first game left off, but feels like a made-for-TV follow-up to what wasn't the greatest franchise-starter to begin with.  It's a shame because the basic building blocks for an intriguingly horrifying story are there.  They just needed to be expanded on, fleshed out a little more, and maybe have some mechanical bits attached to the core ideas.  After all, this an H.R. Giger inspired project we're talking about here...

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Horse Stories

I'm pretty wary of horses in real life.  When I was little I got trampled by one trying to give it some food.  Later, when I was a teenager and trying to learn the basics of riding, my mount (not the same steed) thought it would be fun to try and rub my leg across a barbed wire fence.  Someday, I'll give horse riding another try, but sufficed to say my equestrian experiences thus far have been less than positive.  The same can't be said about video game horses.  Unlike a lot of players who bemoan the fact that these animals don't handle like motorcycles, I have generally enjoyed my time spent with Epona, Argo and Roach (not to mention a whole herd of noble steeds in Red Dead Redemption.  Most recently though, I've had a few interesting adventures in Breath of the Wild that I'd like to recount here.

I was a bit surprised to learn that a lot of players never really use horses and instead prefer to have Link do everything on foot.  Maybe it's just my experiences with Mount and Blade, but I find mounted combat a much easier proposition against groups of enemies that trying to duke it out with boots on the ground.  Better still, if the tide of battle starts to turn against Link, it's easy to flee on horseback assuming the opposition lacks mounts of their own.  The reverse on the other hand is a real nightmare (pun?).  Having Link stand his ground and fight is the only way I ever figured out how to deal with horse-riding Bokoblins once they're spotted me.

Literally the moment I got off the Hyrule plateau I glided down to where a trio of wild horses just happen to be.  Sneaking up on them, I managed to jump on the back of a coffee colored stallion and was just barely able to break him before my stamina bar depleted completely.  It took a while to find a stables since I don't know where any of them were.  Eventually, I stumbled upon the one over by the Dueling Peaks and registered my first horse there under the name "Courser."  After a brief stay in Kakariko Village, I struck out east on foot and during my journey to Hateno, picked up another solid colored horse.  this one had better speed, but less stamina.  Eventually, I registered him under the name "Blue" since that was the color of his coat.

After some adventures with the Zora, I journeyed companionless to the north-east and got caught in a Bokoblin ambush.  It was in an open field during a lightning storm.  They were mounted.  I wasn't.  I might have perished then and there had I not managed to knock one of those pig-faced beastmen out of the saddle.  Quickly, I confiscated his horse only to find (much to my dismay) that it wasn't going to obey me very much.  A confused skirmish with the remaining Bokoblins ensued.  After the grass fires settled down (due to their enthusiastic use of fire arrows), I was still in possession of the milk and chocolate horse I had procured earlier.  As it turned out, she was not the best horse one could hope for.  I named her "Rouncy," but our time together was brief.  I sold her to a man in the canyons to the south-west for 300 rupees.  In truth I was glad to be rid of her because I had recently added "Shadow" (a black mustang) and "Dynasty" (a pure white mare of royal pedigree) to the stables.  The limit per person is five and I have four, with the last opening reserved for a legendary giant horse said to roam an arid valley to the south.

Still, I sometimes find myself wondering what happened to Rouncy.  When I happened upon the man I sold her to many days later, he claimed to have resold the horse to an acquaintance.  His motivation for doing so though felt driven more by avarice than kindness.  If I happen to come across Rouncy again I will make doubly sure she is being treated well.  Real-life horses may have never been particularly kind to me, but I have no desire to be callous or cruel in return, even if it's just a video game.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Not Once or Twice, but Thrice

It looks like the Switch is turning into a real success story for Nintendo.  One might be tempted to chalk it up to the originality of the concept.  However, the Switch isn't a piece of engineering that sprang forth out of the eather.  In fact most of it's features have existed in previous iterations of gaming hardware, the Wii and WiiU being two of the most obvious comparisons.  Even the concept of a system that can be played at home or on the go was first, albeit half-heartedly, attempted by Sony with the PS Vita.

Like many gaming enthusiasts, I never got my hands on a Vita in part because there wasn't that killer app, or "system seller," as it's sometimes called.  The hardware was great, but it lacked the software supported needed to draw my interest.  In a broader sense piracy was another issue and, in some ways, exacerbated the problem of insufficient third-party support.  Sony could only do so much with its first-party lineup.  It's a problem Nintendo doesn't have so much, especially since they can now merge their handheld and home console development teams under one platform.  In theory this should significantly boost the first-party output of Nintendo-themed games.  It also helps that Nintendo doesn't have any real direct competition.

The PS4 and Xbox One are definitely aiming at the same demographic, namely males in their 20s and 30s, but the Switch is kind of doing its own thing.  That's not to say people who own a PS4 or Xbox One don't play video games on the Switch...rather it has to do with a certain kind of appeal Nintendo games offer.

"Kid Friendly" might be the first quality that springs to mind though it's not an entirely accurate thing to claim.  Sure, most Nintendo games shy away from sexual themes and gratuitous violence, but the same doesn't hold true for the challenge.  The term "Nintendo Hard" exists for a reason, namely the unforgiving nature of one's experience on higher difficulty settings.  Mario Kart 8 might feel like a total breeze at the 50cc level, but crank it up to the 200cc mark and even veterans of the genre are in for a serious challenge.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild also has it's own hard mode in the form of speedruns.  Speaking of Breath of the Wild, if there ever was a system seller it's that game.  According to released sales figures it has more than a one-to-one attachment rate.  I'm not sure why any Switch owner would want more than one copy of the game (or a copy of the game and no system to play it on), but there you go.  In order to make up for the usual slim pickings that happen during a console's launch window, Nintendo is drip-feeding new titles to keep players invested in their machines.  It's actually a smart move from a business standpoint, which is saying something for a company known to not necessarily make the best decisions outside of game development.

Portability is another advantage the Switch has that only smart phones can match.  Here too though Nintendo isn't going head-to-head with Apple or Android, mostly because the kind of games coming out on the Switch have a lot more meat on their bones (plus they don't go the free-to-play route).  Again, different audiences although not necessarily mutually exclusive.

So, allow me to reiterate in the form of two video game axioms:
  • A console is only as good as its games
  • Better to make a great game a few people will love, than mediocre game a lot of people will think is just okay    
For both of these truths, Nintendo has it covered.  The switch already has a critically acclaimed exclusive out of the gate and, while their style of games aren't as big sales-wise as say GTAV or the Call of Duty series, there's definately a subset of their playerbase who absolutely love the games Nintendo makes...sometimes to the point of toxicity (but that's a subject for a different time).  You've done well so far with the Switch, Nintendo.  Keep up the good work.  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Oddly enough nobody wears white in the actual game
My last blogpost ended on a bit of a cliffhanger in that there was a sixth and final arcade game that I consider one of my all-time favorites.  One of the neat things about arcade games is their malleability.  Because each machine is dedicated to playing a single game (Neo Geo aside), it allows for a variety of non-standard control schemes; driving games with steering wheels and pedals, air combat games with flight sticks and seats that shift when the player banks and turns, Paperboy even featured a pair of handlebars for controlling the on-screen bicycle.  By far the most common kind of variation was the light-gun game.  When asked which is the best of the bunch, I imagine most people would reply Time Crisis, Terminator 2 or Revolution X, but for me the standout game was the rather generically named Space Gun.

Right away I think most people will pick up on the Aliens film parallels, industrial environments infested with hostile organisms, sometimes cocooned human survivors in need of rescue, and sci-fi military hero characters representing the player(s).  Like most light gun games it plays from the first person perspective.  There are a few instances where players can choose from one of two paths, as well as the ability to backup via a foot pedal, but for the most part the gameplay is on-rails, shooting whatever happens to pop up in the FOV.  The guns are fully automatic and have several different secondary consumable ammo types that freeze, shock, blast or burn targets.  The alien creatures themselves are a purple/green mixture and come in a few different humanoid shapes.  The most common has three eyes and four arms!  It's possible to shoot off limbs or even the head.  Combine that with the basic plot structure which features the player(s) exploring a spaceship, then a base on the planet it's orbiting around, and one can't help but wonder if Space Gun indirectly influenced the original Dead Space.

"Watch your fire and check your targets"
The last chapter also features the obligatory rush to escape while a self-destruct timer counts down.  The end boss battle emphasises one of Space Gun's more defining features, the player has to be mindful of where and when they shoot.  Obviously, they don't want to gun down fleeing humans (or "hostages" as they are called for some reason...), but in addition to this, targeting incoming projectiles or monsters winding up for a melee attack also serve as examples of skilled gameplay.  Additionally, the guns the players use deplete an ammunition reserve when fired, but refill when allowed to idle.  Hence, shooting non-stop will cause the weapon to "chug" at a reduced rate of fire.  In the aforementioned final battle (which takes place onboard an escape shuttle) players must do their best not to hit the control panel in the background while dealing with the last boss.  If the ship takes too much internal damage during the battle it will be unable to take off, dooming the player characters and anyone they had rescued up to that point.  In other words, being too gung-ho nets you the bad ending.  It wasn't a gameplay feature unique to Space Gun (even at the time of its release), but in my mind the emphasis on player restraint did help set the game apart from the pack.

FYI, Alien 3 had one facehugger,
 one chestburster, one xenomorph,
and no guns, Sega
Other than that, there are a few distinct variations on the standard type, automated sentry turrets, flying enemies resembling giant insects or manta-rays, and a few snake-like mini-bosses.  There's also a motion tracker display at the bottom of the screen that tips-off players to potential dangers (not to mention further reinforcing the Aliens analogue).  Three years later Sega would copy the format of Space Gun when they introduced Alien 3: The Gun to arcades using a fairly similar rendering engine and gameplay interface.  Apparently, the developers over at Sega completely forgot the plot of the Alien 3 movie though...

Weird film to video game adaptations aside, Space Gun is the sixth and final entry in my top six arcade games list.  Due to an itchy trigger finger, I never got the good ending, something I found very frustrating at the time, but in hindsight makes me respect the designers for trying to evolve the genre despite having a fairly unoriginal premise...oh and the arcade cabinet was really cool looking too.