Thursday, December 22, 2011

Surviving the Horror

At first glance you might think the title of this post is a reference to the holiday season, but don't forget that this is a video game blog page. That said I will admit that the inspiration for this comes from the newly released Prometheus movie trailer. So what am I getting on about? see...after seeing a preview of Ridley Scott's return to the sci-fi/horror genre I got to thinking about horror video games and how they've kind of faded into the background recently. Jim Sterling over on The Escapist did an excellent little piece on what's need for games to be scary, and while I more or less agree with his points I think that there's something else to it. In order for horror games to work they need to have an element of unpredictability to them.

Take Doom 3 or even Dead Space for example, both are a blending of sci-fi and horror which put the player in a survival situation. Both revolve around a series of jump scares and set piece moments designed to fill the player with dread. The problem is the pattern becomes predictable at some point and players quickly find themselves getting immunized, or worse yet annoyed, by each new "gotcha" surprise. Don't get me wrong especially when it comes to atmosphere these games are oozing with it, foreboding architecture mixed with ominously lit environments and an eerie sound score make for a great setting to cause some player anxiety. The problem is said players know where all the monsters are hiding. Couple that with lots of guns and it's not really scary, rather it's simply a dark action game. So, how to solve this problem? I think the best solution would be to take some advice from one of the masters, H.P. Lovecraft. In effect he's famous said that it's fear of the unknown that really gets under people's skin. To apply this to video games two things need to be done.

First, don't let players know the full extent of what their getting into. Doom 3 failed to frighten many players simply because the story and enemies were a rehash of the first game. Dead Space sufferes from a slightly different problem in that the main threat "Necromorphs" are exactly what they sound like. No twists like they are the byproduct of nanobots gone wrong or some kind alien collective of micro-organisms...sorry turns out they're just a bunch of mutant space zombies. If you watched the high production value trailer then you pretty much already know everything about your foe which kills a lot of the suspense.

Second, there has to be a kind of randomization to the scares. Not knowing where and when the monsters will appear increases the dread quite a bit. Condemned: Criminal Origins succeeded to some degree with this by using non-scripted AI routines. But to be honest dragon attacks in Skyrim are probably some of the best examples of how to keep players on their toes. Plus it avoids the monster closet or worse yet the teleporting behind you trick which gets especially irritating in subsequent playthroughs. Utilizing such a system also plays to the strengths of video games since other forms of horror media can really only get you the first time you experience it.

I should conclude by saying that I'm a big survival horror fan, and have played everything from Resident Evil and Silent Hill to Fatal Frame and Clock Tower. But I have to say I have never played a horror title that keeps the player in the dark knowledge-wise while fully embracing emergent gameplay. What would such a game be like? I don't know for sure, but I bet it would be pretty damn freaky.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Remetal Gearance

I'm not opposed to new terminology in the game industry. In particular I really like the recently introduced term DLG (Down-Loadable Game) to help distinguish between DLC, which implies that the download is simply adding additional material to an already existing game. Especially since "Inide Game" is a somewhat overused term often referring to any game with a low budget and small team of developers. Rather than its originally intended meaning of an independent group working outside the influence of big game publishers.

That said terms like "transfarring" seem completely unnecessary and Kojima Productions latest attempt at wordsmithing has spawned the word "revengance" which comes across as bad grammar...or at the very least a typo. But this isn't the worst nomenclature to come out this console generation. The Nintendo Wii for example was originally supposed to be called the Nintendo Revolution, a far more suitable name when you consider that its motion control system was attempting to be a major departure from other gaming input methods at the time. While we're talking about motion controls I can't help but briefly touch on the fact that the Sony Move and Sub-Controller have to be some of the most uninspired names for such devices. It doesn't help Sony's cause that the PS VITA has a lackluster name combined with two equally valid ways of pronouncing it. But it's not just Japanese game companies that struggle with the English language.

Microsoft had their motion sensor peripheral codenamed "Natal" before it eventually became "Kinect" which in my opinion wasn't much of an improvement. Especially since the "K" in the beginning stinks of Midway Games' inability to use the letter "c" whenever it happened to come up in the beginning of a word. Did I mention people get paid to workshop this stuff? Considering how many game titles have the word "requiem" or "rising" in them I can't help but think there is a lot of no-talent copy-cats when it comes time to choose names. Then again you'll also get very bizarre cases of Bethesda suing the creator of Minecraft for using the word "scrolls" in their upcoming title while Nintendo goes and releases Skyward Sword just over a week after Skyrim unmolested. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I heard someone say Elder Scrolls: Skyward Sword either intentionally or by accident in the bottom half of November, 2011.

Regardless, the day is done and who know what tomorrow will bring. XBox720 seems unlikely and PS4 will definitely not happen considering the number 4 is unlucky in Japanese culture, sounds too much like the word for death in their language. Then again "PlayStation Death" complete with jet black casing and screaming skull logo sounds a lot better than some of the focus group tested crap the game industry has been puking out lately.