Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What Nightmares May Come

As promised here is the third and final part of this October's look into horror an video games.  Enjoy these six video teasers, previews and trailers of upcoming titles.  Oh yeah, and a happy Halloween!

Ghostship Aftermath
I wasn't all that interested in this game until the interior helmet view was added in.  Then what was a fairly generic sci-fi FPS suddenly transformed into a much more immersive and claustrophobic experience.  Honestly though, who needs big toothy mouthed monsters to make things scary?  Playing this on the Oculus Rift during a zero-G segment alone will likely make your blood run cold.

Back in the days when PS2 reined king of the video game consoles there was a series of Japanese themed ghost photography horror games know as the Fatal Frame series (Project Zero, if your in Japan).  While the franchise lost it's edge sometime around the third installment, this new take on the concept looks to be trying to swap out the Japanese themes for something Indonesian in flavor.

As it has been said many times before this game looks to be anything but routine.  Using randomization elements found in rogue-like games, the danger players face won't necessarily be the same thus eliminating set piece scares which are the bane of most horror games in terms of replayability. As if that's not bad enough it also has permadeath.

There's not a whole lot of information available for this game yet, but I can tell you it's made by Frictional Games, makers of the Penumbra series and Amnesia: The Dark Decent.  Apparently they didn't actually work on Machine for Pigs, rather that was brought to us by the creators of Dear Ester.  So this is their next big project...sadly, it looks like we'll be waiting awhile since the release date isn't until 2015.

Among the Sleep
As if being unarmed isn't bad enough, here comes a game in which you play a toddler barely able to stand.  Based on the video bellow I think it's safe to say players will be doing a lot of crawling away from boogieman style threats.  On the plus side if your character craps themselves in fear at least their wearing a diaper.

Neverending Nightmares
Successfully Kickstarted and under development by a self confessed mentally ill person, this game promises a wide variety of grotesquely authentic fever dream imagery taken straight from the minds of those who habitually wake up terrified in a cold sweat.  Call me squirmish, but I'm not sure if I really want to play this game in all honesty.  So, consider yourself warned when you click play on the video bellow.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Booh," not "Boo!"

Exploiting fear of the unknown is a big part of making a successful horror game, which is why it's difficult to produce a good sequel.  After awhile players will understand their foe all to well for it to be a spine chilling experience.  Doubly so if the player is packing enough firepower to overcome most any obstacle.  Here's a list of six titles that fell into this trap.

Resident Evil: Code Veronica
John Woo style duel gun wielding, a cross dressing antagonist and Leonardo DiCaprio look alike love interest are hardly elements conducive to horror.  Disgust...possibly.  Annoyance....definitely, but not fear.  The bio-organic weapons this franchise is so famous for are mostly recycled from previous games (Bandersnatchers being the one noteworthy exception).  While the series did see somewhat of a revival with Resident Evil 4 and the Remake thanks to Shinji Mikami's later return to form.  This entry definitely marked a low point in the series though, at least until Resident Evil 5 and 6.

Dead Space 3
The first outing with Issac Clarke (ya know...before he got plastic surgery) felt fairly derivative, but at least it came across as a worth tribute to sci-fi/horror movies and games of yore.  Not so with this entry in the series.  By the third time around Issac has become a one man necromorph dismembering machine with support from a no-nonsense space marine via co-op play.  Perhaps these changes were what motivated the designers to throw in silly enemies such as suicide cultists and "brethren moons."  Regardless, I think making the Unitologists into fanatics lead by an evil space Brit alone drove the franchise into wholly unscary territory.

Alone in the Dark 3
How Edward Carnby went from private investigator to cowboy is a bit of a stretch to say the least.  Supposedly, a 1920s film crew goes missing in the Mohave Desert and our protagonist has been called in to figure out what happened.  Aside from supernatural themes of a curse this third outing has all the clunky gameplay of previous titles but none of the southern Gothic or unknowable Mythos flavor that made this paranormal PI's adventures so interesting in the past.  Instead we get to do ridiculous stuff like shoot up lots of mooks, transform into a spirit animal and jump steam engines over a gulch for highlights in this blandly presented survival horror title.

Silent Hill: Downpour
I'm a rare exception here in that I actually enjoyed all the mainline Silent Hill games up to this one (yes, even Homecoming).  Dwindling quality with each sequel meant that by the time I got to Downpour though there was nothing left to offer.  The characters are uninteresting, the enemies uninspired, the levels recycled or else feel forced (a roller coaster ride!?...seriously?), and worst of all is the story which has more in common with Steven King's later work than any of the superior, but possibly exhausted, sources the series drew inspiration from previously.  Silent Hill 4 lost a lot of fans by breaking with tradition, but at least it went in to new unknowns.  This game doesn't pay proper tribute, nor does it do anything fresh or original.

Read Dead Redemption:
Undead Nightmare
Let me preface this one by saying I enjoy campy horror flicks and a bit of black comedy.  Cult classic film sequels like "Return of the Living Dead" and "Army of Darkness" are guilt pleasures for me.  That said I couldn't get into Undead Nightmare even though I really enjoyed Red Dead Redemption.  Granted the narrator sounds like Vincent Price and I could have sworn I saw Elvira somewhere, but there just wasn't enough scares or humor here.  The zombie hoards copied straight out of Left 4 Dead are easily gunned down, particularly with some of the new DLC weaponry such as the blunderbuss and sadly, the locations in places like the ghost town Tumbleweed, were a lot more chilling to explore in their original form (especially with all the poltergeist sighting internet rumors circling around it).

Dino Crisis 2
In a lot of ways the original Dino Crisis was Resident Evil except the zombies were swapped out for dinosaurs.  What it did have going for it on its own merits though was atmosphere.  The environments were distinct in that they were entirely metal making the only organic things the player, NPCs and of course the bloodthirsty bird/reptile hybrids themselves.  This created a distinct contrast between angular and curved, natural and artificial, as well as hi-tech and primordial. Another cool aspect of gameplay was the rendering done entirely using in-game engine resources which allowed limited panning and sweeping camera views (a one of a kind for PS1 survival horror titles at the time).  The sequel threw all this out though, and instead opted for the same old plastered on pre-rendered backgrounds of tropical jungles mixed in with over the top action sequences.  The real mood breakers though were mini-cutscene puzzles in which attacking velocirators would be forced into an idle animation (giving the impression that they were patiently waiting for some player activated device to finish it's work before resuming their attempts to eat you alive).

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tales of Terror

Since it's the month of October, I decided to do a little three part series on horror in video games.  The first part is about six games that scared the crap out of me even though the weren't, strictly speaking, considered part of the horror genre.  Meanwhile, the second part will feature six titles that failed to scare me despite being classified as horror games.  For the third and final part we'll look to six nightmare inducing games that are in the works.  Ready?  On to the first part...

I've  heard the claim that horror games intrinsically can't be scary to a lot of players simply because they'll mentally brace themselves for the worst the moment gameplay begins.  In this case the only way you can really creep these hardened types out is to catch them off guard.  Ideally this is achieved by not letting them know ahead of time that they're playing a horror title.  Here's six games that pulled this particular kind of fast one on me by using just such a strategy.

Demon's Souls
You'd think that I would have been prepared for some scares with this game, but the fact of the matter is Demon's Souls and its sequel, Dark Souls, are really more dark fantasy than anything else.  It's easy to get used to the grim foreboding without expecting any genuine scares.  However, there are a few places where players will unexpectedly dip into realms of terror.  For some players The Tower of Latria is just such a place, with its dungeons full of deranged madmen, some of whom are trapped in medieval torture devices.  In my case though the Valley of Defilement was where I got freaked out.  In particular there's a deep cesspit where even the diseased inhabitants of the poisonous swamp throw their filth.  Whether the result of infanticide or simply disposal of stillborn babies, I can't say for sure, but in a blood and plague filled pool at the very bottom of this area there are some truly horrific creatures to be encountered.

Homeworld: Cataclysm
What better place to throw in a bit of horror than with an RTS?  Because of the distance between the player and action it's difficult to pull off, but if there's one game that has succeeded it's the stand alone expansion to the original Homeworld.  The truly frightening aspect of this game comes from the nature of "The Beast."  While never precisely explained, it's hinted that this adversary originally resided in the huge emptiness between galaxies.  As far as foes go it's quite deadly since it can subvert organic nervous systems and synthetic circuitry with equal ease.  It doesn't really have a consciousness so much as half echos and warped shadows of its victims which it projects to confuse, terrify or demoralize prey.  At its core The Beast is a virus or bacteria seeking only to increase the number of its "parts."  A startling revelation to make, I can assure you.

X-COM: UFO Defense
Terror missions are bad.  Doing them at night is worse, but the absolutely most fear inducing situation to be in is both of these circumstances combined with a pack of Chryssalids on the loose.  In the much newer X-COM: Enemy Unknown the danger is somewhat reduced by the simple fact that you can't deploy more than six agents at a time.  In the original game though large teams of a dozen or more were quite common.  As you can imagine a few of these bio-weapons getting loose among your rookies would result in a lot of casualties (not to mention a sizable increase in foes).  All the while this music is playing in the background.  As if having to kill zombified civilians and former squad mates wasn't bad enough, the original X-COM was designed such that implanted Chryssalid larva would always hatch either in three turns or immediately after the host was killed...and you thought playing the new game on the classic difficulty was hard.

Thief II: The Metal Age
Much like Dark Souls this is another dark fantasy setting which starts off merely foreboding, but then ramps up the terror with the occasional appearance of ghosts, undead or worst of all the dreaded "Haunts," think Jacob Marley except he's got a hefty sledgehammer and an insatiable desire to use it.  Now, creepy as these guys are, I wouldn't loose my nerve when I happened upon one (or several) in some abandoned cathedral, old crypt or burned out house.  After all what else do you think would be there?  What did get me though was coming face to face (or rather face to skull) with a Haunt in the poorly lit library room of an otherwise ordinary mansion I was casing.  In hindsight I guess I should have guessed that the place might be "Haunted" at night.  Needless to say next morning the household servants had to clean up some bodily fluids on top of accounting for what was stolen.

For players new to this seemingly lighthearted colorful little sandbox game, surviving the first night can be a nightmarish experience.  Giant spiders, skeleton archers and zombies trying to break down the door of your hastily constructed shelter are just a few threats.  Other night time horrors include the iconic exploding "Creeper," which incidentally was the end result of an animation error for pigs during development.  Then there are the "Endermen," who move stuff around in the environment without rhyme or reason and grow angry with you look into their all white eyes.  Lastly, is the "Nether," an underworld filled with lava and ruins, inhabited by even worse things than those previously mentioned.  For a game that has such a friendly looking exterior things get pretty horrible once you break it open and dive in.  Oh, and don't try digging through the bedrock otherwise you might plunge into an endless black void...sweet dreams.

Space Quest V: The Next Mutation
In truth all the Space Quest games have horror segments, sometimes jarringly so given the game's overall comical nature.  Worst of all though is the mutants which appear about halfway through SQ V.  Resulting from humans inadvertently being exposed to an illegally dumped toxic waste called "Primordial Soup," these creatures first appear shortly after a remote colony losses contact with one of their survey teams.  For the next several nights sighting are reported around the perimeter.  A search team is sent out and vanishes too. Then one night the entire compound is overrun.  Only the administrator survives by sealing himself in a secured enclosure.  Despite his best attempts the mutants are able to commandeer the only shuttle leaving the lone survivor to slowly succumb to the toxins.  Oh...yeah, when you figure out about all this after the fact some really eerie music plays just to make it all the more disturbing.  I thought this game was supposed to be funny...

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


If you've never been to it before, there's a little website called "Collative Learning" run by a British chap named Rob Ager.  He likes to break down films and analyze the pieces to see where they germinated from.  By all means check his stuff out if you haven't already.  Watching some of the videos he uploaded to Youtube inspired me to try something similar, except instead of movies I want to apply some of his methodology to video games.  So for my first (and possibly only) attempt I've chosen Homeworld and its direct sequel Homeworld 2.

On a superficial level Homeworld takes plot points from the TV series Battlestar Galactica, sprinkles in some real history regarding ancient Indian trade routes, and paints it all using visuals inspired by The Terran Trade Authority series of sci-fi picture books.  An even more distilled interpretation might be PERSIANS IN SPAAAAAACE!  However, I think both of the above mentioned summaries do a bit of a disservice.  Homeworld, quite frankly, has a lot more to it.

Kharak, the desert planet from which the game starts its journey, is very similar in concept to Arrakis...also known as Dune, which in turn is the title of (and primary location in) the landmark science fiction novel of the same name by Frank Herbert.  The story of Dune features several feuding houses, each of which has a real world parallel.  House Atreides is Greek, House Harkonnen is Russian, and the Emperor is somewhat akin to a ruler of the Ottoman Empire; of course complete with Sardukar as stand-ins for Turkish Janissaries.  In Homeworld we are able to see a similar style at work.  The Taiidan Empire speaks garbled Russian during cutscenes.  The trade people known as the Bentusi have the "Great Harbor Ship" Bentus with a distinctive keyhole shape very reminiscent of harbor for the ancient city of Carthage.  Then there are the Kushan, whose language features a lot of double vowel words such as "Kiith," "Sajuuk," and "Khadeesh."  This kind of vernacular sometimes appears in romanizations of Arabic dialects.  Music too plays a part with acoustical instruments native to India and sparse lyrics in Sanskrit (for an example click here).

The Bible also has a slight influence in the form of names.  Particularly with regards to places mentioned in The Exodus.  The Garden of Kadesh has a multifaceted location name in that it was both the real world site of a great battle and carries a vague resemblance to the Garden of Eden.  Completing the picture are wrath-of-god defenders employing swarms of insect-like fighter craft, lightening spewing multi-beam frigates, and snake shaped motherships.

The warlord and chief antagonist in Homeworld 2, Makaan, is often though of as a futuristic version of Genghis Khan.  Especially so when you equate the Vaygr with outer space Mongols.  Then again other great conquerors from real history such as Hannibal Barca or Attila the Hun fit the role pretty well too.

Even ship color schemes offer clues as to sources of inspiration.  The shades of orange and blue used to represent Kushan vessels have a strong association with Arabic culture.  The shape of the Kushan mothership is also quite similar to the mainsail of a dhow.  Incidentally, a real life construction project with a similar theme in mind is the Burj Al Arab in Dubai.

So, taking all these bits and pieces into account, it's clear that Homeworld represents a complex amalgamation of different cultures found in and around places like the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Black Sea.  However, this rich tapestry does have some thread which seems to lack a discernible origin despite my investigations.  I can think of no explanation for the little details such as the intergalactic Progenitors, the Ghost Ship, or the partially complete megalithic constructs near the graveyard of Karos.  Then again perhaps all three of those things are tied together somehow.

Back to my research.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pyromania Potential

It doesn't matter if you call it a flamethrower, incinerator unit or Greek fire, pyrotechnic streams of burning death have never quite gotten the treatment they deserve in video games.  Thankfully there have recently been some positive strides, but before I get into current developments lets go back to the early days and the early attempts to simulate this deadly form of weaponry.

The 16-bit era is about as far back as I can remember seeing flamethrowers in video games.  Titles like Super Contra, Gouls'n'Ghosts, and Mystic Defender would all treat jets of fire like a wobbly chain made of interconnected sprites that would steadily inflict damage on anything caught in its path.  An admirable first effort, but still a long way from, the real thing.  Gain Ground is another slightly different 16-bit example.  One of the playable units was capable of using a flamethrower which would fart out short range slow moving balls of fire.  Provided you could mash the attack button like crazy, it was possible to get something resembling a steady stream of flame.  Sadly, it never really had a good in-game use.  One final 16-bit game that had yet another take was Alien 3.  While not consistent with the film of the same name, it was possible to get an incinerator unit that would spurt out pre-rendered gouts of fire considerable distances.  While an improvement over anything which had come before, it still lacked the ability to ignite other objects in the environment, nor did the xenomorphs seem at all intimidated by it.

Jumping over to PC (and Mac), Marathon had an instant kill flamethrower, which again isn't  the way the real thing works either, but at least it felt deadly under the right circumstances.  In fact it took over a decade of stagnation before we've finally started to see significant  improvements. The Thing let players catch their enemies on fire and Far Cry 2 stands out for having burnable objects allowing the player to use brush fires and other conflagrations against foes.  But for every game that took a step forward there were two games such as Dead Space and Dark Souls (gasp!) which still had the same old reductive designs you'd hardly consider adequate for lighting up a BBQ or campfire.  What pretty much everyone outside the development team behind Return to Castle Wolfenstein had a hard time figuring out was real flamethrowers are kind of like super powered squirt guns, except instead of water it's burning napalm capable of arching distances over 100 feet!  Getting into an enclosed space for protection from the heat doesn't help as much as you might think either in that the intense flames produced by these weapons will eat up all the surrounding oxygen, so even if you're able to avoid having your flesh roasted you might very well die of asphyxiation.

All in all flamethrowers are something radically more complex than firearms.  Simulating how they work in a digital world is extreme taxing even on top-of-the-line physics engines.  In film making too flamethrowers tend to be nerfed for the safety of cast and crew.  Hence, the impression Hollywood movies give tends to be pretty inaccurate compared to the real deal.  On an interesting side note, the US Military has shyed away from man-portable flamethrowers since WW2, preferring instead to rely on vehicle mounted or ballistic ordinance incendiary devices.  Fire, after all, doesn't take sides and as such is dangerous to wielder and target alike.

Of course in the world of video games safety isn't exactly a high priority.  After playing through The Last of Us, I found myself rather pleased with the way the jerry-rigged flamethrower and Molotov cocktails worked.  Granted the range for the former is a still a bit short, but at least they got the effect right.  Enemies in particular, react with horrific accuracy when burned, and best of all (or worst, depending on your perspective) ballistic armor and cover confer no benefit.  Regrettably, you still can't ignite stuff in the game environment.  I guess that's asking a bit much for current gen consoles though.  Regardless, I hope someone tries to make a realistic firefighting sim someday.  Maybe base it in pre-modern Japan with the player managing an Edo (now Tokyo) based unit of Hikeshi.  That would be cool...er...maybe I should say hot?  Well, you know what I mean.