Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 21, 2014
Probably the most famous / popular of the horror-themed indie games (and a strong contender for the scariest) is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. If you haven’t heard of it, you probably don’t follow indie games, or at least you hadn’t until recently. If that’s the case, Welcome! I’m happy you dropped by!
Three years ago, my eldest daughter wanted to have a Halloween party. She made it an “Amnesia” party. The primary entertainment consisted of Amnesia: The Dark Descent on a laptop plugged into our HD TV, played in the dark. With refreshments, etc. One person played (I don’t remember if they alternated players), and the rest sat in the dark, sometimes talking, and regularly being scared out of their wits. They seemed to all have a good time, so I guess it was successful. If you want scares, and that feeling of all the blood in your body rushing out of your extremities to protect your vital organs, Amnesia delivers.
Whether it’s the scariest video game of all time is subject to personal taste, I think. But there’s little doubt it’s one of the scariest. Having learned how to scare people with Penumbra, developer Frictional Games set out to hone Amnesia into a straight-up disturbing and downright terrifying experience. They did an excellent job. While it retains some of the adventure game elements of its predecessor series, those aspects are simpler with a greater focus on physics-based interactions with the environment. Hardcore adventure-game fans may lament this sacrifice to the action-gaming gods, but
You play a man named Daniel, suffering from self-induced amnesia via a potion. Why did you make yourself forget? You find notes to yourself, and hear conversations play out from buried memories as you traverse the ruins of a castle towards a goal deep below in an “inner sanctum.” As you play, you discover that the events – which I originally took for being much older events, when the castle was new(er). But as you discover, the secrets are far more recent, and the castle is falling into greater ruin by the hour – as something darker and sinister consumes it.
As in Penumbra, as your character stresses out, bad things happen. His sanity decreases in the dark, or in response to supernatural events, or looking at a horror (which once again means – don’t try and get a really good look at the bad guys even if you feel safe!). It recovers somewhat when standing in the light, and when completing certain objectives. The twist in Amnesia is that this increased stress will cause the character to hallucinate (which is bad in a place where some things that look like hallucinations can kill you), and will actually draw monsters to your presence.
The game feels far less “on the rails” than Outlast, and the horrors seem to play with a somewhat more logical set of rules than in Slender: The Arrival. The result is a game that feels more fair and like you are more in control. The real trick – and the credit I want to give Frictional Games – is that the game manages to terrify without resorting too much on yanking that control from the player (as terror often derives from a feeling of helplessness). Yes, your character is defenseless against the horrors that stalk the halls of the castle and dungeons, aside from running and hiding.
An interesting side-effect of the physics-based interaction is that you have to open and close doors manually, by “grabbing” them with the mouse button and physically moving the mouse to move the object. This gives you greater control, on the plus side. But on the downside – when you are running for your life from something terrible, it’s easy to fumble the door you are trying to open. Just like the movies!
If you are looking for a game to really give you the Halloween scares, this is the one I’d recommend first. It’s not for the very young or faint-of-heart. But it is quality supernatural horror.
Last year, a sequel finally emerged – Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. It’s not really a direct sequel – in fact, it’s suggested that it takes place in an alternate timeline, in 1899. With a smidgeon of Steampunk blended into its horror, it was originally intended as more of an experimental title by developer Chinese Room of Dear Esther fame.
Once again, amnesia and rediscovering one’s identity – and past actions (and that you are partly responsible for the horrors you must now face) form a central theme to the story, which I guess ties the two games together. Well, that, and the need to hide from horrible monsters.
The consensus seems to be it is not as high quality (or as scary) as the original game, and it does away with a lot of the mechanics of the first game (including the sanity mechanic!). But it still serves up some great disturbing / creepy ambiance and its share of scares.
Filed Under: Impressions, Indie Horror Games - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 20, 2014
Motte Island is a 2D Flash-based game that cannot be mistaken for a high-end title. However, it’s a fairly ambitious game that incorporates stealth, puzzles, mini-games, and combat into a horror-adventure game.
You play a convicted murderer escaped from prison. As the game begins you are attempting to elude police and make your way back to your old home on Motte Island to save your sister, who you are convinced is in danger through vivid dreams. Once you get to your home town, things seem “off.” And then they get worse.
Soon, you find yourself exploring deeper into the island, evading / attacking demons and other nasties with whatever weapons you can find. Stealth is entirely preferable, even if you choose the brute-force approach: attacking an unsuspecting target is far, far easier than a stand-up fight.
The adventure-game elements involve a lot of exploration, hunting for items to overcome challenges, and so forth. Like many other horror games, lighting (or more importantly, darkness) is a big deal, and the source of many of the scares the game serves up. Most of the time, the game is more about creepy than scary. (Note: I had another screenshot I wanted to include, which seemed okay as I was playing the game, but turned out to be so dark as to not be very useful here. Oops. When in motion, though, it looks decent).
From what I’ve played it seems like a mixed bag. Some elements work really well, and others … not so much. But I do have to give it credit for being an admirable freshman effort from developers OneAperture and Gamebell Studio.
Filed Under: Impressions, Indie Horror Games - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 17, 2014
In a couple of the games I’ve covered (and will be covering) for the Halloween season, I’ve mentioned how the games are often pretty linear. Like it’s a bad thing. And – well, okay, I’m not the biggest fan. But if you want to draw a comparison, Paranormal by Matt Cohen is … well, not exactly a polar opposite, but certainly a different approach to the genre.
Inspired by the Paranormal Activity movies, Paranormal offers a “found footage” style of experience… except that (at least in the main game) you get to control the cameraman. Most of the time. You play an artist who is certain his house is haunted. He has set up cameras in his house, and is wandering around the house late at night with a handheld (“shakeycam”) camera to get evidence. He gets more than he bargained for. And you, the player, get treated to some fun, spooky, creepy, and sometimes deadly events.
There is no save-game – each play-through is short and unique, with different events. Each night, you get up, and walk through the house, looking for… well, proof that the house is haunted, to capture on-camera. Other than walking through the house, opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights, and occasionally finding old clues about what happened in the past that precipitated the hauntings. But unlike an adventure game, there’s not really a goal or a series of obstacles to overcome. You simply record the events taking place in the house. You have only a few minutes of power to your camera before you are forced to go back to bed and let the camera’s batteries recharge.
During the night, the static cameras may pick up weird events happening in the house. Again, if you have seen the Paranormal Activity movies, you have some idea of what these might be. It’s not always stuff happening directly on camera – sometimes its strange noises, particularly the sound of footsteps.
Each night is another exploration of the house. Things do escalate a bit over time, but there’s not a strict progression. At first, it’s weird noises or flickering lights, or things moving behind your back. But then the haunts get bolder. Sometimes you are able to react and somewhat interact with what’s going on, but other times you are frozen in place. Sometimes you may be looking in the wrong direction, but you know from audio cues that something scary is happening somewhere nearby. The documents to be discovered are randomized as well, although I don’t know if reading them has any impact on the events that occur afterwards.
The game maintains a pretty creepy flavor throughout, and there are some good scares. It feels lower-intensity to me than some of the others, but that’s perhaps because there’s not really much of an illusion of escape. You do not leave the house. Your interactivity is limited. You are an explorer only, and the house will eventually win, no matter what you do. But like a roller-coaster, you can just settle in and enjoy the ride.
There’s a second mode – “The Room” – that seems to be based on the little cut-scene-like footage that is shown every time you sleep. A static camera is on during the night, and stuff happens in the room. Honestly, with no characters to be impacted or threatened by it, it’s not really scary – just kind of amusing to see what the ghost does next. It might make a good screensaver.
A third option – for DLC currently in development – is listed but unavailable. Entitled, “The Town,” it looks like the horror gets to spread to other locations. It had a successful kickstarter campaign last year, so we’ll see what happens.
Anyway, if you ever wanted to try out a “haunted house simulator,” Paranormal is it. It’s different, certainly. I’m not entirely certain I’d call it a “game,” but if nothing else, it’s a cool, creepy interactive toy.
Filed Under: Impressions, Indie Horror Games - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 16, 2014
Okay. How about some Halloween-themed *fun*? A long-time acquaintance of mine, Jake Birkett of Grey Alien Games, has fun, Halloween-themed Match-3 game that takes you on a ride through the playful side of the holiday.
Not that you’ll be limited to playing it during the month of October. With 100 levels, you’ll spend a few hours playing it, at least (8+, according to the developer). But if you’d like to see how much Match-3 games have progressed since the Bejeweled days, it’s worth checking out. Besides having multiple play modes, there’s also little mini-activities like decorating your house for Halloween.
It won several casual game awards last year, and offers a ridiculous number of power-ups and “bonuses.” If you don’t want the scares but do want a game that reflects the fun of Halloween – and appropriate for the kids – it’s one you may want to check out.
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Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 15, 2014
If you really aren’t into the scares – or the first-person stealth – of some of the games I’m covering this month, then maybe it’s time for something a little less intense for the Halloween season. GhostControl Inc., by Bumblebee Games, is one interesting candidate, particularly if you have a fondness for strategy games. This game features a combination of turn-based tactical combat with a business simulation. You control a ghost-hunting / elimination business called GhostControl Inc. Any similarity between this and the movie GhostBusters is purely intentional, I’m sure. There’s also a little bit of similarity – in concept, at least – with the original X-Com games. Again, purely intentional, I’m sure.
Your job is to clean up the ghosts in London. You start out with a single team-member and some homemade ghost-trapping equipment. As you experience some success and get paid for your jobs, you can upgrade your headquarters, buy a better company vehicle, hire new team members, and buy better equipment.
One interesting aspect is that you can sell the ectoplasm you trap for additional money. There’s some fridge horror going on here when you consider that it’s actually the spirits of people you are incarcerating and selling off for cash, but we’ll just think of ‘em as harmful monsters, ‘kay? Another interesting twist is that you are liable for the damages done by your team and by the ghost once you arrive on the scene. This gets subtracted from your pay, and if it gets too high, the job will be canceled.
Another interesting twist is that you are not the only ghost-containment team working out of London. There are a couple of (or more?) rival companies competing for contracts, and if they beat you to a haunt site, you are out one contract.
Combat is turn-based and tactical. In order to trap a ghost, you will need to weaken it first with your ghost-gun. More powerful spooks will often require coordinated tactics on the part of the team. Each team member has their own stats, strengths, and weaknesses.
The game is definitely played for laughs, although with all humor, your mileage may vary. The developer is German, and the humor may not translate all that well. Or it’s just really low and generic to suit an international marketplace. Either way, expect some groaners. But I’m okay with that.
The game is not without its quirks. Unless it has been significantly updated on Steam (and not on Desura, the version I’ve played), there are quite a number of polish & interface issues, in spite of the gameplay not really being all that deep. While I’d stop short of calling it a casual game, it’s significantly more lightweight than the original X-Com.
Still, it’s a fun game to load up for a quick round of ghost-bus… I mean, ghost-controlling action and business empire building.
Who ya gonna call?
Filed Under: Impressions, Indie Horror Games - Comments: 4 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 14, 2014
I fully recognize that “indie” is a broad term, now more than ever. At least as far as individual titles are concerned, “indie” represents a significant majority of ‘em. And they run the gamut from student offerings to professional teams with years of AAA experience finally going at it alone.
Outlast is a work from the latter category. Created by developer Red Barrels, a team of individuals with impressive AAA credit, it’s a little too short and a little too shy on production quality to be confused with a recent-vintage AAA offering. And maybe a little too linear. No, wait, strike that, AAA loves linear games. Anyway… it’s a very polished indie offering that serves up very scripted, but very powerful scares.
The game takes place in the modern day in an oh-so-cliche insane asylum… but the twist here is that it’s an old, long-shuttered asylum that was purchased by a medical / pharmaceutical company and reopened as a private operation to conduct experimental therapy on therapy on patients. You play freelance investigative reporter Miles Upshur, tipped off by a contractor that highly unethical procedures are being conducted, and that families of the patients are being paid hush-money to keep quiet about it. So you do some creative breaking & entering to get your scoop.
… And then you discover that the inmates are truly running the asylum. You picked the wrong night to sneak in. The experimentation by the Murkoff Corporation has made these people worse, not better. And to top it off, the experiments have created a nanite-driven entity hosted by the subconscious of one of the patients which can only be seen via Infrared night-vision. Which of course is an option on the main character’s camera. Due to all the darkness that must be navigated, it’s an option that must be used frequently.
I suspect the developers designed the entire game around the fact that everything – especially people – look freaky in IR.
While I have my quibbles about the gameplay – did I mention it’s very linear and scripted? – I can’t argue with the results. The old hospital is a nightmare landscape that is merely disturbing only in its “safest” moments. Miles is incapable of combat, and so survival is dependent purely on stealth. Not that combat and weapons did the SWAT guys any good who entered the building just ahead of you. You hide and sneak, or run and leap, through the horrifying funhouse, and be prepared for plenty of jump-scares. And dying.
It’s the little touches that really brings some of it home for me. When you go through a door or corner, your character may reach out and steady himself on the corner, as if getting ready to push off and run away if there’s something scary on the other side. It’s a small thing in a first-person game, but it adds an element of believability and a reminder that you are playing someone IN this world, not just an observer. And your character has a voice. He breathes heavily, and you can hear the terror there as the tension increases. You can easily find yourself breathing heavily in sympathy. Oh, and he screams.
You may scream along with him, but it’s entirely optional.
There’s additional DLC – “The Whistleblower” – that chronicles the terrifying adventures of the contractor who sends Miles. I haven’t played it yet, but it is something of a prequel to the main game, giving another perspective on the horror that transpires at the old mental hospital.
Outlast delivers the thrills, scares, and horror. I haven’t played all horror games – including mainstream – to do a straight-up comparison, but I’d expect Outlast to rank up there on a short list of scariest horror games of all time. But be warned – it goes for the graphic horror. It features plenty of blood, gore, guts, and dismemberment.
Good ol’ hardcore Halloween / horror fare, right?
Filed Under: Impressions, Indie Horror Games - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 13, 2014
I’m going to interrupt my discussion of good indie games for the Halloween season (probably not the only interruption this week) to announce that my fiction is getting published again.
Mechanized Masterpieces: A Steampunk Anthology was how I discovered Xchyler Publishing. It’s an anthology of Steampunk short stories with a very amusing twist – they are all based on classic literature of the Regency through late Victorian era. They are sequels, or prequels, or side-stories, or retellings of these classic stories, but with a steampunk twist. So you’ve got little Margaret Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility turned privateer on the high seas braving the dangers of Singapore to acquire cybernetics for her wounded husband. Or the Phantom of the Opera making a reappearance with clockwork dancers. Or the “true” story of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley.
Very fun stuff. I understand it is their best-selling anthology, and possibly their best-selling book, period. I certainly enjoyed it. It made me excited to work with them.
And I did. My short story, “Dots, Dashes, and Deceit,” was published in their next Steampunk anthology, Terra Mechanica: A Steampunk Anthology. Which was awesome. Beyond awesome. Thrilling.
Anyway – they are working on a sequel to Mechanized Masterpieces. This time, it’s steampunk-style stories related to American classics. My own story, “The Van Tassel Legacy” will be included. This story is based on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” but takes place many years later. A young physiochemist learns the truth of an old local legend, and in it the means to defeat a predatory industrialist, but it requires the infirm Brom “Bones” van Brunt to make one last ride…
Anyway, the book will be out early next year (mid-February). I’ve met (and read!) many of the contributing authors, and I’m really looking forward to reading their stories. This should be a lot of fun.
Filed Under: Books - Comments: 6 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 10, 2014
Does a game have to have convincing graphics to scare you? Does our lizard brain in charge of that emotion need realism to be fooled?
I don’t think so. Not after playing SONAR. Billed as “an exploration / horror game,” SONAR, as you might guess, has little to do with visuals, and everything to do with sound.
You are trapped deep, deep underground, without a single light source, and a portable sonar device and its screen is your only visual display of your entire world. Everything else is sound. The rest of your group is dead, and your oxygen won’t last forever. You need to find a way to survive, and to escape. But the blocky, alien landscape isn’t without its dangers.
And… you aren’t alone. There are predators even this far underground.
The graphics probably have a little more pizzazz than is strictly necessary. You can see the waves of sound bounce off walls in slow-motion when you ping. While the SONAR’s interface provides you with the bulk of your feedback, you will also need to listen to the sounds in the game. Carefully. They will often alert you as to what’s going on.
Because you really don’t want to ping too often. That noise attracts the predators. Caution and stealth are how you will survive. Your sonar can work to passively build out nearby walls as you walk, but the range is extremely limited. You will need to rely on this limited passive feedback, the sounds you hear, and the occasional, judicious active ping to figure out the world around you. To defend yourself, you may throw rocks — assuming you realize you are under attack and know which way the predator is coming from.
The horror in this game is a bit more cerebral than others. The threats are out there, but you literally will never see them coming.
Filed Under: Impressions, Indie Horror Games - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 9, 2014
The “Slender Man” folklore is a modern construct of the Internet age, although my wife (again, the scholar of spooky stories) has managed to dig up a few old tales that might have served as loose inspiration that fed into the as the meme/story has evolved. I’m sure a folklorist might have (and probably have had) a field day researching how the mythology around the Slender Man (or Slenderman) caught on and grew over five years – even by people who know its fabricated origin.
While the particulars are of recent vintage, the basics of what the slender man represents are very, very old. He’s the spirit of the wild and abandoned places in the dark. If you have ever been wandering around in the woods at night, seeing unclear shapes and not sure if they are a person, a plant, or something else… you know the fear he represents. That’s probably why the mythology caught on – it speaks to a universal experience and fear far older than the modern experience.
It was only a matter of time before this phantom of the wilds appeared in video games. He’s been in several. The first “big” (and “official” – in that it received the blessing from the creature’s original creator) commercial venture, by Canadian indie team Blue Isle Studios, was Slender: The Arrival.
Slender: The Arrival is a sequel of sorts to an experimental freeware game, Slender: The Eight Pages. The gameplay is pretty straightforward – achieve goals in a confusing area (woods / mines) like finding six generators or eight pages of notes scattered throughout the area, without getting caught by the Slender Man or his proxy / chaser (a possessed human). The big guy himself is a major cheater, as he can teleport. As in Penumbra, looking at him too closely or for too long has dire consequences. The proxy, on the other hand, pursues you by more traditional means, but can be temporarily blinded by the flashlight on high / narrow intensity. There are plenty of other creeps / scares in the game, and of course exploration – and the need to keep moving. But that’s it.
With a major mod and reskinning, the game would probably feel silly. But that’s the point. Everything in the game is designed to maximize the effect of “jump scares.” It is supposed to build tension and scare the hell out of the player. They pull out every reasonable trick from film and other games, and pack it in to build tension and terror. It starts as something as creepy and “off” as hearing footsteps down the road when you have quit moving. Signs of other people who have been terrorized / killed before you. A strange electronic throbbing that begins imperceptibly but grows as you make progress in a scene. Lots of shadowy, creepy-looking but harmless things in the darkness that you can mistake for the predator. And of course, an ultra-creepy soundtrack and setting. Even before you ever see Slender for the first time, you are freaking out and just KNOW that you are the next thing on his menu, and that there’s no way back, and the way forward is almost certainly doomed, but you can’t stay where you are. You are screwed.
Except for a few brief respites that never feel in any way safe, the game is pretty unrelenting. I can only imagine what it might be like with VR technology, where the safety of the real world is more fully blocked out.
Heh, heh, heh…. >:-)
Other horror games might be more subtle and clever in creeping you out. Slender: The Arrival has some subtle tricks to build tension, but that’s about as far as it goes on the subtle scale. Otherwise, it is a sledgehammer of terror and jump scares. If that’s the kind of rush you crave, check it out. It’s available on PC and some consoles. And, like most indie games, it is relatively inexpensive. Cheap scares for the Halloween season.
For best results – play late at night with the lights off. With headphones. But not if you have a heart condition.
(* For some bizarre reason, I keep finding the critical need to go to the bathroom, have a midnight snack, or check email that someone important MIGHT be sending me at midnight whenever I play, but I’m sure that’s coincidence…)
Filed Under: Impressions, Indie Horror Games - Comments: 2 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 8, 2014
My first encounter with H.P. Lovecraft’s horror was in the form of a magazine (I think) with illustrated versions of classic horror short stories. I think I was in sixth grade. The story was “The Outsider,” and it was the only story from the magazine that I remember reading.
My next real Lovecraft encounter was through gaming – playing The Call of Cthulhu RPG with friends one night. Having mostly played straight D&D style fantasy or space opera RPGs, playing Lovecraftian horror was a breath of fresh air. Having read several of Lovecraft’s works (mostly short stories) since then, I have to admire Sandy Petersen & company for showing how to adapt that literature – which at first glance doesn’t look like anything that could be adapted to an interactive medium – into a fun (if completely off-balanced) game world.
It’s to the point now that Lovecraft is permanently associated with games in my mind.
Eldritch by Minor Key Games, is a weird, wonderful mix of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror, Minecraft‘s block-based graphics, the design of Roguelikes, and the immersive gameplay of a first-person stealth game. Like any other stealth-based game, you will spend a lot of your time running and hiding from the monsters, and any good session of Eldritch will be kicking in your fight-or-flight instincts (usually, of necessity, flight – especially in the higher levels). But the simple, blocky graphics are more cute or humorous than truly terrifying, and in some ways it works to the game’s advantage. For a game that will kill you so quickly and so often, it certainly doesn’t appear all that threatening.
The original trailer certainly makes it look like it plays a lot more action-y than I play it. I spend a lot of my time hiding and creeping and trying not to walk into the deadly traps or a wandering monster. Because sometimes there just isn’t enough bullets in the revolver. But there’s definitely something to being able to kill a cultist with a thrown bottle (which I always envision as a beer bottle, but that’s just me).
The game is rooted heavily in the lore of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the “father of modern horror.” His stories were full of things that drove the protagonists insane just to become aware of them. Once his stories started getting old enough to enter the public domain, the floodgates have opened on Lovecraft-inspired games. Thankfully, while other games tend to focus on Lovecraft’s most famous creation, the godlike slumbering cosmic entity Cthulhu, Eldritch also plumbs many of Lovecraft’s other creations for ideas.
And not just Lovecraft. My favorite, mentioned in this little trailer, is that you need to “Avoid statues that are similar to but legally distinct from Weeping Angels.” Borrow from the best, man….
So what’s the game about? Well, you find yourself in an arcane, labyrinthine library, with books that hint as to your true nature and purpose there. The main door is sealed, with three empty pedestals. And there are three (well, more, now) books – two of which start out sealed – and touching them transports you to another dimension. You have to sneak, fight, out out-clever your way through to the other side – and to obtain the orb of a waking soul of a cosmic entity to return to the library.
One interesting twist is that dead enemies only respawn if you loot them. Sometimes it may be worthwhile when you really, really need to find a few more bullets, or are desperate for some extra artifact coins to use to cast a spell, but it comes at a cost of a returning enemy. Pick your threat.
While combat is (often) an option, you are not an overpowered fighter in this game. Not by a stretch. Likewise, there’s no “leveling up” from killing enemies, nor is there much by way of weapons or armor upgrades. Going in guns blazing will leave you dead. But unlike many games I’m discussing this month, you do have some opportunity to fight back – or take the first shot. Sneaking up to cultists and stabbing them in the back may not be the most heroic of actions, but as they are evil fanatics who will kill you in a heartbeat (often with magical spells) as soon as they see you, it feels justified. No matter how cute they look, the creatures in this game are deadly. And never really grow less deadly as you go…
The game has had two free expansions added since its first release – Mountains of Madness (inspired by a similarly-entitled story by Lovecraft) taking place in the Antarctic, and sort of a timed-run experience called Asylum. There are rumors to be other options that can be unlocked, but I haven’t gotten there yet.
While rooted in horror, the game isn’t particularly frightening. Sure, cultists, monsters, sneaking, hiding, running – it’s got thrills aplenty. But it’s horror-theming is used more for fun and adventure, rather than true Lovecraftian freak-out. If you prefer your scares a little more on the tame side, and would like to check out a game with plenty of replayability with just a touch of horror, Eldritch is worth checking out.
Filed Under: Impressions, Indie Horror Games - Comments: Be the First to Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 7, 2014
For the month of October, I’m sharing some horror-themed indie games. They may not all be very scary, but if you are looking for some good games to get you in the mood for Halloween, or just want to know what games might give you the chills, this is the place to be. I’m not offering reviews or recommendations – just showing off some of the fascinating breadth of games available from fellow indie developers. Some are excellent classics, some are just interesting recent experiments, but all have roots in horror or the supernatural. If you follow indie games, I’m sure several of these will be familiar to you, but I hope I’ll have managed to pick out a few that you’ve never heard of.
For the first pick of the month, I’m going to go back a little ways to pull up a game series that won’t tax even a somewhat aging system too much. They set the standard for indie first-person horror games. No, I’m not talking Amnesia, although if you guessed that, you’d be close. I’m talking about Amnesia‘s direct predecessors by the same developer: The Penumbra series, by Frictional Games.
Penumbra is a 3D, real-time, first-person perspective adventure game series of horror and isolation. The first game begins with your character, a physicist names Phillip, pursuing the notes of his long-lost father. His search takes him to northern Greenland, a wasteland of ice and snow, where he discovers an abandoned mine that – he eventually learns – was a lot more than just a mine. Combining the psychological horror of being completely alone and trapped in a frozen wilderness, and the threat of predators – four-legged, eight-legged, two-legged, and no-legged – that inhabit the underground complex, and it’s an intense situation.
Add to this the tendency for your character to panic. As stress builds, the visuals begin to swim, and eventually Phillip will panic – an almost certainly deadly situation. In a particularly clever twist (in my view), getting a good look at something terrifying will cause Phillip’s panic level. And he can’t fight very well – a situation made worse by an unintentionally clumsy combat interface in the first game (which caused the developers to just bag fighting altogether by the second game). Your best bet, when facing threats, is to flee or hide. Hide… and do not look too carefully at whatever is searching for you.
Most of the gameplay emphasizes problem-solving, puzzles, and exploration – good old adventure-game fare, in spite of a fully 3D environment. But with its inclusion of stealth-based mechanics, believable AI, good storytelling, and genuinely creepy effects in a stark, oppressive setting, they are truly noteworthy and pioneering games of terror… They not only set the stage for their own immediate successor in first-person horror, but for many others.
Filed Under: Indie Horror Games - Comments: 8 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 6, 2014
In the Barnson household, we celebrate Halloween all month long. It’s all about scary. We value scary. My wife, who tells ghost stories professionally (yes, that is a thing), has a whole verbal essay about the value of these kinds of tales. From the purely cautionary roles, to catharsis, to simply exploring scary situations or emotions from a position of safety, there are many reasons these stories have flourished.
Are games any different?
Games take us “there” more than any other medium. They can theoretically combine the best of film and literature into an experience all of its own. And from my own perspective, games can be far scarier than any movie or book I’ve experienced. I knew this back in the early 90s, when I was hunting (and being hunted by) an invisible demon in the mazes of the original Doom, or when guiding my X-Com team through an abandoned farms, knowing that a move around a corner might bring instant death to a key team member, while the “music” throbbed and warbled in imitation of an accelerated heartbeat.
Games can do horror really, really well. However, there are problems. None of these are insurmountable – in recent years, we have had a ton of indie horror-themed games, some of which have been pretty outstanding. But the interactive medium of video games offer challenges not found in more linear, traditional mediums. And some of these cut straight into the nature of horror.
Control, interactivity, and powerlessness
One of the major aspects of horror is a feeling of powerlessness – of loss of control (after a certain point), the horror of becoming a “victim.” Games are all about control. It’s called interactivity. When you have the ability to respond, react, and defeat the horror, it becomes more of an action game than a horror title. Sure, like any other action game, you may have scares and jumps, and you may be facing a foe (or combined foes) that you simply cannot permanently defeat. The zombies keep coming, the elder gods are only slowed down, whatever. But it doesn’t change the fact that we can eventually “win” – if only by escaping. But always – that’s under our control.
This is a problem across the board with stories in video games – the needs of dramatic storytelling are at odds with the needs of gameplay. The player, ever aware that they are in a game, do not make the kind of decisions that a good protagonist “should” the purpose of building the drama. Or they may simply not play according to the script – what I sometimes refer to as the “shoe tying problem:” Referencing the movie Jurassic Park, I often note that in a game, the player may be busy tying his shoe when the T-Rex makes her big reveal. It’s a lesser version of the same thing.
Game developers have worked around this problem by limiting interactivity – or simply taking control away from the player completely in some areas or during cut-scenes. I suppose that to a point, this has become accepted, part of the language of games. But whenever and however it happens – whether the player notes that his or her path is constrained by obstructions that make their navigation excessively linear, or that they lose control and are forced to react in a way contrary to their gamer instincts, the player is reminded that they are only in a game, and lose an element of immersion. Is the sacrifice worth it? Sometimes, yes, if done sparingly and subtley. Other times… not so much.
Death is boring
Another twist in the medium is that while video games may trigger our instinctive survival instincts to scare us, when the games do carry out the threat of offing our in-game persona, it reduces the terror. We “die,” and enjoy a release of tension. The worst has already happened – there’s nothing more that the game can throw at us. We respawn at the last checkpoint, and try something different, but the game no longer has as much power to frighten us. At least not for a while. It’s the equivalent of a linear medium “cheating” and saying that the previous scene was all a fake – a dream or a fantasy or something.
In linear media, a frequent approach is to shift points of view, and have the story kill off other characters. In this way, the deaths really do count, and the audience is informed of all the behaviors that lead to death: Cowardice, hubris, immorality, stupidity, whatever. Games have traditionally not employed this shift in perspective between different characters very often. Maybe that’s something we should experiment more with.
Jump scares are easy and overused
Then there’s “jump scares.” These are the cheap trick of traditional media, the equivalent of suddenly shouting “BOO!” at the audience while they are absorbed with rising tension. These are no less lame in games than they are in any other medium, and should be employed sparingly. The occasional cheap jump scare can serve as a temporary tension release, allowing an increase in tension to follow. Sadly, too many “scary” games depend almost exclusively on these. I think The Meatly offers a pretty good commentary on the overuse of this device:
Ultimately, in a computer game, everything comes down to numbers – ones and zeros. Everything is quantified and run through a system. Even if the eldritch horrors of your game are unkillable and don’t have to worry about stats like hit points or armor, their behaviors and limitations have to be built into the game. Yes – limitations. Something has to prevent the horrible monster from teleporting through the wall and devouring the player the moment he presses the “Begin New Game” button.
And since they must be quantified within the system, perceptive players may figure it out. And since fear of the unknown remains the greatest fear of all, once the enemy becomes known and in any way quantified, it loses its terror. In extreme cases, it may even be subject to a bug, predictable pattern, or some other anomaly that can be exploited by the player.
One of the best ways to build up tension and a feeling of horror is to have the audience encounter unsettling elements that are not of themselves threatening, but are perhaps indicators that the character is not safe: An off-key music box suddenly playing without being activated, a fresh bloodstain on the ceiling that begins to drip, the gruesome remains of a dead animal, a cold spot in the room, a record that plays music that the character has never heard before except inside his recurring nightmare. That’s great stuff. But within the mechanical simulation of a world, the player may be free to scrutinize these elements to the point that their inherent creepiness gets lost. Once again, the mechanical systems, repetitiveness of the animations, and scripted trigger points may become apparent, and lose some of their ability to thrill.
Games often offer a good deal more playing time than your average movie. Maybe even an order of magnitude. The thing is – horror is something that works best with a growing sense of tension. But it can’t grow forever. If it takes to0 long to get to the payoff, the player is going to suffer fatigue, lose interest, or simply become numb to it. Or worse, begin mocking it. In good storytelling, there are several points where the tension is momentarily relieved, and the audience is given the opportunity to relax a little bit before the next big build-up. This is true in games as well. But there’s only so many times the cycle can be repeated before it, too, loses its power. Games have to manage that without (usually) having strict control over the pacing – which is often in the hands of the player.
But scary games abound…
In spite of these challenges, scary and horror-themed games abound nowadays, particularly among the indies. Indies have proven willing to experiment – often out of necessity of limited budgets as anything else. But perhaps unsurprisingly, being forced by constraints to leave a bit to the imagination is what has allowed these kinds of games to succeed, and in many cases, kick butt.
Or at least kick my butt. I know that they’ve helped me come to realize that I’m a chicken. It’s embarrassing to admit, but yeah – I get my stress / terror threshold exceeded, and I have to take a break. I can’t completely override my survival instinct, and so I have to flee into the real world, I guess. It doesn’t happen so much with movies or books, but the right game can push my buttons.
Yet I keep coming back…
Now we have a wonderful breadth of horror-themed games, from horror-comedies about mowing down zombies, to “survival horror” titles where brute force is a necessity but of limited utility, to spine-tingling adventure games, to downright terrifying first-person thrillers. So – for much of this month, I’m going to talk about horror-themed indie games. Many will be familiar to veterans of indie gaming, but hopefully some will be new. Not all will be scary, but some… well, some are all but guaranteed to freak you out.
Happy Halloween, folks…
Filed Under: Design - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 2, 2014
I guess I should quit holding my breath for all those YouTube Let’s Play videos of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon now…
Turns out the majority of them were scammers, and my cursory investigations (especially for foreign language accounts) wouldn’t have exposed ‘em.
That’s a big problem – trying to handle a game launch AND trying to not piss off the legitimate reviewers / youtubers while weeding out the scammers… it’s a lot of work.
Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 7 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 1, 2014
I’ve been playing through a few smaller, lesser-known roguelikes lately – primarily more modern, graphical roguelikes with simplified interfaces. It’s been fun, but while I might truthfully say I’ve “played them to death” (or two or three or eight deaths), I can’t say I’ve really played any of them to the point of truly grokking them.
Some are better than others, some are more complete than others, and many of them feel like they could have been built with a “Roguelike Maker” tool. Just mix in content, stir, and allow to cool before serving. Most have their own little unique quirks, which is good, and interesting to play. But there’s definitely a point when I’ve played several where I wonder in which roguelike I saw something or another. They kinda blur together.
Part of the problem is that these more streamlined, “lightweight” roguelikes are all variations of the common “roguelike” experience and gameplay loop. They don’t have the depth (or complexity) of games like Nethack (pictured above with a graphical front-end) or some of the other cult classics. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they are streamlined and far easier to get started playing. But the downside when the gameplay all feels very similar and the dungeons have similar random-level generation algorithms is that they really need to do something cool to stand out. Just different monsters, items, and skills aren’t quite enough.
In this respect, traditional fantasy RPGs do have an advantage: Story. That’s not to say roguelikes cannot have a story – many do (at least one that goes beyond “kill the foozle” or “recover the unobtainium orb” – but it’s harder to tell one with procedural content.
To me, this just means that – like any other genre that’s getting kinda crowded (which is all of them) – roguelikes need to step up their game and work harder to stand out. Maybe not quite the extent that FTL did. Many argue as to whether or not it should count as a “roguelike” – which I consider a total non-problem. But FTL, Diablo, Receiver, Eldritch, Sword of the Stars: The Pit, and other titles are good examples how far you can take the “procedural death labyrinth” idea. Variations on setting, mood, style, game mechanics, level creation, and even representation of your ‘character’ or group can totally change the flavor of the game. This is a good thing.
But it’s not just a “pick one from column A, and one from column B” thing, either. Perhaps more than games with hand-crafted content, procedural content games really need to have these elements – however they are represented – come together as a complete whole to unify the game. FTL really is the poster child for this concept for me – the way they took the core feeling of being in command of a crew on a small starship – and everything about the game feeds back into this idea. The story, the encounters, the mechanics, the “loot” all support this idea. But even though Sword of the Stars: The Pit is a far more conventional roguelike, the sci-fi setting and story elements also help it stand apart.
And now… moving to the superset of RPGs: Same advice. So many RPGs have roughly similar mechanics (especially if created with something like RPG Maker), the story, characters, mood, theme, setting, and everything else absolutely should be blended together into a tightly interwoven whole. Story shouldn’t just be ‘tacked on’ to an otherwise paint-by-numbers RPG (or worse, a procedurally generated roguelike… if a computer could do just as good a job as a human in making the content, yer doin’ it wrong…). It should have a strong sense of its own unique identity, and so should the player.
Filed Under: Roguelikes - Comments: Read the First Comment
Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 30, 2014
- Sell a game.
- Make at least $1 (Or equivalent in other currencies)
- And thereby become a pro.
The cool thing about this one is that there are very few rules. You don’t have to start the game in October. You don’t have to even make money on it in October. You just need to finish the game and set things in motion.
More info can be found at the Ludum Dare October Challenge 2014 page.
There are some additional resources (including ways to “monetize”) that can be found at the Ludum Dare October 2014 Resources & Opportunities Page. There are lots of ways to earn at least $1, including advertising, contests, direct sales through many different marketplaces, sponsorships, etc.
Anyway – it’s a fun idea. Worth checking out. At least worth $1, amiright? The goal is not to get rich (though if it happens – awesome!). It’s to get the ball rolling. It’s not to turn it into a vocation, but to start to turn it into something more than a hobby for those who love ‘em. So, if you’ve got something you think you can finish, polish, and make ready for the marketplace in 31 days… well, why not do it now?
Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 4 Comments to Read
Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 29, 2014
While they were really only identified after World War II, Pacific “Cargo Cults” emerged when primitive people encountered what seemed like miraculous wealth arriving from American and European countries, particularly during wartime. They saw the airfields and ports with constant traffic of supplies from… well, some version of heaven, they believed. In some cases, the native people identified the pale-skinned visitors as coming from the land of the dead, so obviously they were gifts from the afterlife. In some cases, they believed the Europeans must have stolen the gifts intended for them.
Anyway – the notable aspect of these cargo cults was that they built these elaborate sets out of local materials in order to summon the bounties from the gods, in imitation of the operations they’d witnessed. They built mock airfields, including fake parked aircraft out of branches and twigs, and expected this to summon more cargo planes full of wonders.
It would be easy to mock, if I didn’t see the same mentality in modern life. I started making this connection when I discovered the “original” soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith to the movie Legend, starring Tom Cruise. For the U.S. release, the studio decided to replace the Goldsmith soundtrack with one by Tangerine Dream. Why? Well, Tom Cruise had a very successful movie a couple of years earlier called Risky Business, and Tangerine Dream had provided the soundtrack for that movie, so maybe there was something magical in that combination?
Who knows? Maybe they were right. It wouldn’t be the first time I falsely dismissed something as being irrelevant. But to me, it seems like people throwing stuff together to ape the the cosmetics of success without really understanding what they were doing.
I see this all the time in game designs, particularly those that are clearly modeled after recent hits. Although maybe I’m giving them too much credit – there are some titles that are nothing more than cheap rip-offs intended to divert customers. But maybe the next stage up is what you could call “cargo cult designs” – games made that are clearly intended to appeal to fans of another title, with a collection of features that seem to be included for no other reason than that other games had them. And while these games may have some good ideas – and may even go on to become major AAA successes and thus become the next target of imitation – they don’t really seem to understand the heart of the game they are imitating. They just do a really good job of faking it.
I’d be lying if I said I’m completely immune to this myself. In some cases, it’s simply following in the footsteps of tradition. Maybe that’s a step up from cargo cults – which mimic the results without understanding the cause. In the case of tradition, it’s copying (if sometimes poorly) the causes without understanding why they have the results they do. But maybe I’m again being too charitable.
The truth is, there’s a lot to understand, and the more I learn, the more I discover I have yet to learn. But I guess I can make this one plea to indies – at least those true indies who are trying to make something original if “inspired by” another game. Don’t fall victim to “cargo cult” mentality where you just copy style or features because that’s what the other game did. Take the time to truly understand the core of your game, what makes it fun and awesome.
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 5 Comments to Read