Monday, July 16, 2018

Wide Eyes

I tend to miss out on the zeitgeist when it comes to movies, and the 2015 horror flick "It Follows" is no exception.  When I finally did get around to seeing it (which was only just recently), I was struck by how much the main threat in that film reminds me of a variety of video game antagonists.

The first one I thought of was the "Nemesis" from the Resident Evil game of the same name.  Before that though Resident Evil 2 prototyped the concept with the "Mr. X" enemy type.  Going way back there were "Snoopers" in the Macintosh home computer game Colony, as well as "The Ship's Defender" in the early CD-ROM game Iron Helix.  Pretty much the entire Clock Tower series is based around these kinds of foes.  The puzzle/RPG Ao Oni is an indie video game that also likes to terrorize players with a relentlessly reoccurring...well, as the title says in Japanese - "Blue Demon."

I can't say I'm particularly fond of this game mechanic.  Much like "It Follows," knowing that you are constantly being hunted can get pretty stressful.  Even if the intention is to create an intense gameplay experience, such as in the case of Alien: Isolation, I know a non-trivial number of people who don't like having to endure that kind of constant anxiety (vicariously).

So, what's the difference between the titular "It" in "It Follows" and...say...Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger?  Well...those last two horror antagonists aren't really restricted by rules, self-imposed or otherwise.  They mostly operate on dream/nightmare logic, and the thrill comes from watching the bad people get what's coming to them.  "It Follows" doesn't really go down that route.  Instead, it opts to have relatively sympathetic characters.  Additionally, the threat here appears to function under a clearly explained ruleset.  Although it's not entirely certain if these rules are absolute or flexible (i.e. "It" could break the rules under certain circumstances).  The idea of an inexorable pursuer that abides by a slowly changing set of rules has actually been done just recently with the scifi game Echo.  In that setting the protagonist is up against copies of herself.  These clones reset periodically and acquire a move set based on whatever actions the player made during the last interval between resets.  In this sense they are able to learn new abilities from the player, but can also forget old ones should the player choose not to utilize them in the previous interval.  All this is explained in-game and even in one of the trailers for the game, yet you'd be surprised by how many people (including reviewers) wrongly assume certain important details.  I see the same sort of thing in "It Follows."   Yes, "It" always approaches at a slow walk, but that doesn't mean"It" can't hitch a ride, nor does guarantee that "It" can't pause its seemingly inexorable advance.  The rules here are based on observation and guesswork.  There's no arbitrary referee that's going to blow the whistle and say "It cheated, fifteen yard penalty."  Everything "It" does could simply be self-imposed, the way a gamer might do by trying for a pacifist run in PuBG or a no-stealing playthrough of Skyrim.

People of asian descent might be more familiar with this sort of thing, in that it's a common trope in folktales involving ghosts.  The Taiwanese horror game Detention is a great example of this.  Several of the hostile apparitions in the game can be deterred simply by having the player-controlled character hold their breath.  It's never explained why this works, but it does and is one way to avoid otherwise fatal encounters with murderous spirits.

Something else I see people do is make questionable assumptions based on what they already know; usually with the intended goal of showing off how much smarter they are than the characters in the film (and possibly the scriptwriter).  Before curling up into a ball of smug intellectual superiority though, I think it's best to consider how one got to that place.  Thinking you're a badass at competitive online games while using hacks, is just asking for a lesson in humility.  One of the creators behind "It Follows" mentioned in an interview that he was considering the idea of making a sequel if only to show how misunderstanding the rules through flimsy reasoning could lead to some disastrous consequences.  I doubt it will ever happen though because that's exactly the kind of thing that would piss off a certain subset of the audience the same way cheaters get pissed and complain on official message boards after they get busted.

One last game I want to mention is Miasmata.  The player takes the role of a shipwrecked survivor, washed up on the shores of a once inhabited (but now deserted) island.  They are alone except for the presence of some small animals and one large predatory beast.  This creature appears frequently, particularly toward the latter half of the game.  Consulting the wiki reveals a large amount of information about the monster's behavior, as well as methods for dealing with it.  However, the webpage article makes it clear that most of this info is based on what players have discovered through experimentation and as such remains unconfirmed by the developers as to its accuracy.     

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