Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Horror: Gabriel Knight Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 30, 2014

GK1Determining whether or not a game is “indie” has always been challenging, but it gets moreso every day. Take Minecraft. It started out as indie as indie could be… a game made by a lone wolf developer on his own terms, not even sold through a third party. But then it made gobs of money, had a company form around it, and then  sold to Microsoft for ten frickin’ digits. Unquestionably, the next release of the game, under the Microsoft label, will not be indie. Maybe it wasn’t indie twelve months ago… at a certain point, you become so big that you become “the industry.” Its not that the game has (or will) fundamentally change. It won’t turn into Halo With Creepers. It’s the same game, but Microsoft-produced games are “non-indie” by definition. But that’s all about how and by whom the game is made, not the final product.

So can it go in the other direction? Can a non-indie game become “indie?” In theory, this has happened before, with certain mainstream games (like one by Microsoft, Allegiance, which went kinda “open-source” and is now maintained and expanded by volunteers.) I suggest that it’s happened again with Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition.

GK2The original game was a classic of 1990s graphic adventures, and is one of my all-time favorites. Made by Sierra On-Line, unquestionably a major publisher in the computer game industry of the era, it was known for its mature, well-written (especially for the time) story and compelling characters.

The original designer, Jane Jensen, has co-founded an indie game dev studio called Pinkerton Road, and managed to acquire the license to the first game in the series, and re-made it from the ground up (in Unity!) with a blend of 2D backdrop art and 3D characters and objects. It took me maybe three minutes to validate that the look and feel of the original game is fully intact – it’s the same game, but now for modern systems. Maybe it’s just been too long since I played the original, but I don’t really see much difference in terms of gameplay, other than the higher-resolution graphics making it easier to identify objects. According to the website, there are some new puzzles with this new edition, so there’s some new to the game.

GK3The story is about voodoo, the occult, murder, and possession. Great Halloween fare, no? The game retains its original setting – New Orleans (and beyond) in the early 1990s – an era before someone like Gabriel could just Google half the stuff he’s researching or grab digital photos in a heartbeat. Gabriel has to hoof it, sometimes a very long distance, to uncover the mystery of not only the ritual murders happening in New Orleans, but of his own haunting nightmares and family secret.

Unfortunately, they needed all-new, higher-quality audio for all the voice-overs. While I miss hearing Tim Curry, Michael Dorn, and Mark Hamill, I’ve gotta admit that the talent they got for the remake sound at least equal to their counterparts twenty years ago, at least so far as I’ve played. They may not be “name” talent, but they are definitely talented. Maybe it’s twenty years of additional experience directing voice-overs for games that makes the difference, but the new folks sound like they nailed it.

The remake has only been out for a few days, and I haven’t had much time to get into it, so a lot of the warm fuzzies I’m feeling may be directed more towards the original than truly earned by the remake, but the first hour or so has felt an awful lot like the original. It’s quite possible that the indie budget on this remake has resulted in some losses, so we’ll see. But so far, I’m impressed. The game seems worthy of the original classic, which still stands up in all it’s low-resolution, 2D glory today. But hey, I’m talking indie games now. GK: SotF 20th may have been able to “cheat” to get a leg up on other indie adventure games with a bigger budget and a beloved franchise to leverage off of.  But – so far, it looks and plays pretty well. It’s definitely worth checking out.


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Indie Horror: The Last Door

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 29, 2014

LastDoor1I was kinda skeptical of this one. Yes, even as a retro-gamer, I had issues with giant-pixel graphics running at VIC-20 resolutions (albeit with way more colors). But I broke down and tried The Game Kitchen’s adventure,  The Last Door: Collector’s Edition. The entire game is available free-to-play as an online Flash title, which you can play in episodic format right now. It’s donation-ware. Otherwise, you can pick up the Collector’s Edition – an enhanced version – for download.

And you know what? I got used to the pixellated style pretty quickly.

The Last Door is an old-school style graphic adventure game of horror set in the year 1891. It is inspired by Lovecraft, but I couldn’t help but think Poe as well in style and mood. It must have been because of the ravens / crows. It has a highly pixellated art style, which cause some players to hesitate. I did at first, but the end result was that I ended up imagining more of what was happening on the screen than I was really seeing. I’m sure that was the point (as well as the ability to crank out content very quickly), but it’s not exactly an awesome sales pitch. But… it works.

lastDoor4

The story begins, oddly enough, with a suicide that acts as a tutorial. That sets things off with a disturbing scene, especially as you must click on things to move the game along. As a player, you feel like an accomplice to suicide. But it’s a classic intro to a dark story like this one, teaches the player the simple interface, and sets the mood for the rest of the episode.

The Collector’s Edition covers the first ‘season’ of the game – the first four episodes, with enhanced sound, new locations, and other bonuses.

I’d really like to joke about how “hunt the pixel” is a lot easier with so few pixels, but honestly, the “hot” cursor areas around objects are pretty large and easy to identify. Likewise, the puzzles did not seem too difficult from what I’ve played. Each episode is short and can be played through pretty quickly.

In fact, the thing I found so delightful about the game – besides the creepy atmosphere – was the fact that it was a relatively painless adventuring experience. The puzzles did not seem particularly obtuse and were well-hinted; the writing was solid; the commands and interface were simple; the sound (and especially the excellent music) were well-done, and the minimalist graphics did not obscure important items.

LastDoor2If you are a beginner to adventure games, these might be a great place to start. Even though I don’t really qualify as a beginner, I found the game to be refreshing and enjoyable. I don’t know if this was in the original Flash-based games (which I’ve not played), or if this came from the extra polish for the Collector’s Edition with the assistance of the indie publisher, Phoenix Online. But as I’m not the hardcore adventure gamer I might have been back int he 90s, things were just my speed and felt “right.”

Overall, if you are willing to try an adventure game (you don’t even have to currently be a fan), and aren’t too afraid of oversized pixels, The Last Door is a creepy little horror title that may be worth checking out.

 


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Indie Horror: Sir, You Are Being Hunted

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 28, 2014

SirHunted
Honestly, I never really thought of Big Robot’s Sir, You Are Being Hunted as a horror title, but it was billed as such on GOG.COM, and I thought, “Sure, why not?” It’s a stealth / survival game, like many others of the genre, and the gameplay lends itself to the flavor. Your enemies are tweed-wearing, very British-style robots, which is itself wonderful, but are one model change away from being far more traditional horror fare.

MadamHuntedThe game is inspired (directly or indirectly) by the classic short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell. It’s a hunting game where you are the prey. You have been transported to an alternate dimension / world from our world circa late Victorian or Edwardian era, to a similar one peopled by aristocratic robots of very gentrified British disposition that hunt humans – and you in particular – mercilessly. It’s a first-person sneaker of dark comedy and scary, fun thrills.

The game is and the world is generated randomly each time (through what they call a “British Countryside Generator”), but like any roguelike, future playthroughs prove pretty similar overall. But it’s the specifics that matter, depending upon your selections when you begin a new game.  Your goal is to gather up fragments of the teleporter that brought you here, which are scattered across several islands. When reassembled, it will transport you back home.   The robots, of course, don’t want to be deprived of their sport, and as you make progress, they step up their efforts to hunt you down and kill you, throwing new equipment and enemies into the fray. Fighting back gets harder, staying hidden gets harder, and dying becomes much easier.

Hunted2Since everything is procedurally-generated, there’s no fixed strategy or route you can take. You have to observe, take advantage of whatever equipment or opportunities you can find, and get familiar with the capabilities and behaviors of the various enemy types.

The game is highly customizeable – in addition to the standard biomes and your character “class” (starting equipment), there’s the ability to customize the entire game to the point where it can be trivial (with no enemies) or impossible (with terrain impossible to navigate).

The ability to defend yourself in a meaningful way does change the flavor of the game from some of the other stealth-survival titles I’ve talked about this month, but this ability is very limited in its effectiveness. You are outnumbered and outgunned from the get-go. You may turn the tables on your pursuers, like Sanger Rainsford in The Most Dangerous Game, but in the long run you are always the quarry – the prey.

As you hide and scavenge your way across the islands, you’ll come across equipment from weaponry and utility items (like binoculars), to things you can use as distractions, to tea and biscuits (for keeping up your health!). Unfortunately, these items aren’t always easy to come by – the AI tends to guard the bleak little villages where these things can be looted. You can get some gear from killing a robot, but it’s rarely enough to make up for the scarce ammunition and health you expended trying to take it down.

hunted1A multiplayer update is promised next year.

The game is full of nice touches, from the enemy design, to the parodies of Edwardian-era British culture, to changing its title on the options screen if you choose to play a female character. It’s a little steampunk, a little horror and dread, a little dark humor, and a good deal of fun.

If you are a fan of first-person stealth games like the Thief series, and/or “survival horror” games, then Sir, You Are Being Hunted may be a title worth checking out.

 


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Indie Horror: The Horror at MS Aurora

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 27, 2014

Aurora1I like to encourage indies to take chances and experiment with game design. It’s an entirely selfish thing to ask, because it asks the developers to take risks for my potential benefit as a jaded old-school gamer who is tired of playing the same ol’, same ol’.

The problem here is “risk.” There’s a reason the big AAA studios fall back on the same old tired designs. When you are putting tens of millions of dollars behind a game’s development, you want to do everything you can to minimize risk and maximize returns. You can’t take a crapshoot with a $50 million budget.

Indies have a little bit more leeway with much smaller budgets, but the end results are only on a smaller scale. Most experiments fail. Maybe not totally, and they may yield some surprising results and fantastic lessons to learn from, but it’s a straight-up dice roll. Even if you do it right – starting tiny and iterating with a fallback plan – there are still a lot of unknown variables. Failure can still be devastating.

In the case of The Horror at MS Aurora, by 12 o’Clock Studios, the experiment seems to have been creating a tight, short horror “movie” played almost entirely by so-called “Quick-time events” (QTEs). These are not often favored by hard-core or old-school gamers, which would include me. Your mileage may vary.

Auora2The game plays out (deliberately) like a B-horror movie, where you simply follow the prompts. Periodically you may have to stumble along without guidance, but the area is so small, and parts of the ship you aren’t supposed to visit are sealed off with no way to open doors, so it takes “linear” even beyond Dear Esther levels. Otherwise, as there are things to do – like making coffee (I’m not kidding, and it kinda acts as a tutorial) – you have to follow on-screen prompts and hit the buttons or move the mouse quickly or repeatedly to avoid a mishap or setback (or, later in the game, death). Sometimes you will have the choice between two options selected by key presses.

So it’s basically a “hit X to not die” kind of mechanic, as old as the Dragon’s Lair arcade game, but with occasional randomization of the keys that you have to press or mouse movements you make to avoid memorization as a strategy. The story itself is pretty short and slow-moving, but it feels longer and slower-moving due to the game mechanic and – for me at least – ease of failure, requiring a restart at the last checkpoint.

Aurora3The horror itself takes a page from H.P. Lovecraft, The Thing, and several other classics. You (and the crew) face a hungry, vicious, tentacled horror (from some ice in one of the cargo containers?) out in the middle of the ocean in isolation.

I gotta admit a little bit of bias here: As I work with maritime simulators all day, I found the representation of the cargo ship & operations to be a little non-standard, which started the game with some abuse to my willing suspension of disbelief pretty early. But most players will not have that problem.

Unfortunately, this interesting experiment didn’t go well enough for 12 o’Clock Studios, which have since suspended operations. I’ve heard this was something of a student project which they took commercial, and the soundtrack (which I had via a bundle sale before I ever played the game) is really creepy and enjoyable in its own right. And of course, tentacled horror on a stranded ship at sea is just a ripe trope to exploit.

You can grab The Horror at MS Aurora now from Desura.

 


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Indie Horror: Anna / Anna Extended Edition

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 24, 2014

Anna1Anna is an adventure game that is more-or-less indie and more-or-less horror. And it’s more-or-less horrendously difficult to get all the endings (at least in the Extended Edition, which I played) without some kind of walkthrough. But that’s a whole ‘nother story. Billed as “psychological horror,” it’s an adventure where you must piece together pieces of your haunted past.

When the game starts, you are a professor of archaeology who has finally found his way to an old, abandoned sawmill in the mountains that has been haunting his dreams. He hopes it will contain clues about the vision of a beautiful woman you cannot identify. Far out of range of cell phone reception or your college students, you begin your quest for answers.

Just entering the sawmill is a challenge, but it is traditional adventure game fare. You hunt around for potential tools to solve problems, and try various means of combining them, using an object on another object, and moving things around to finally fix the broken mechanism to open the door.

Anna4Once inside, things get spooky. And weird. Not quite so abandoned after all, the old building still has a fire roaring in the oven and candles lit throughout the house (although you still have a trusty flashlight to illuminate what’s in front of you). And there are voices. A woman crying in a room with strange symbols on the door that cannot be opened. Mysterious mannequins that move while your back is turned. And bits and pieces of an old sabot-maker’s story that parallels your own life.

The more you learn about the sawmill (and the living quarters above), the more the house changes, and the harder you can dig for clues about your own missing memories. Are you descending into madness, or are you awakening darker forces that have haunted this place for a very long time. Keep pushing, and the darker truth about the myserious “Anna” that has been haunting your dreams are slowly revealed, tying her to ancient pagan blood rituals. Is “Anna” a supernatural being, or a real person, or a manifestation from your subconsciousness? Is she your protector, your destroyer, or both?

Anna5One interesting twist is that the game allows you to leave the sawmill at any time. Once you do, the game is over. Chicken out whenever you want. :)  You will get an appropriate ending … of sorts… depending upon how far you have dug into the secrets of the old sawmill. Another interesting mechanic is the use of “intuitions” which you gain as you dig deeper into events and history. While not really used until the end, they can be combined to form new intuitions, just like inventory items, allowing you to literally piece together facts to get the full story.

Another twist (or factoid) is that the building is based on an actual old derelict sawmill recreated by the developers.

The building itself is pretty small. Even in the extended edition, there are really only something like seven locations (requiring a scene load screen), and all of these locations are dense – maybe two or three rooms and lots of clutter. But these locations are not static – they change over time and as new things become revealed.

Anna is neither a traditional horror game or a traditional adventure game, but something else entirely. It’s full of red herrings and subtle clues as it tells a story of a man’s haunted past that finally catches back up with him.


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Indie Horror: The Walking Dead series

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 23, 2014

WD_clementineshedYou know, if I were to only to write about indie “zombie games” – for the PC alone – I could probably write up one of these quick takes every day from now until Halloween 2015. I don’t know exactly when or how the zombie craze hit, though it does look like it is on the downside of the peak, which relieves me. Not that I don’t mind a good zombie story / movie / game, but there’s a certain point where it just gets tired.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t point out some of the better games that have come out of that weird craze.

The Walking Dead series by Telltale Games is another series – like Amnesia – that you have probably heard about if you follow indie games at all.  Also like Amnesia, it’s an adventure game that has had a lot of the “adventure game elements” (mainly puzzles)stripped out.  In the case of The Walking Dead, they’ve been replaced with a very rich story that hinges solidly on decisions that you make over the course of the five episodes of a season (there are currently two complete seasons).

Now, this series is based on the comic book, not on the TV series also based on the same comic book. Same source material / world, different story lines. In the game, you play Lee Everett, a recently convicted murderer who has just lost his court trial and is on his way to prison when the zombie apocalypse changes everything. The first person he runs into is eight-year old Clementine, and he immediately becomes her protector and father-figure in a world gone mad.

Shortly afterwards, you run into other survivors – some of whom may be fairly ruthless in their efforts to stay alive in a world of predators – and of course, drama happens. Lots and lots of drama.

WD_ZombiefightMuch of the “gameplay” is limited to fairly straightforward puzzles and “quicktime events” – a short action sequence where you simply have to aim and click or hit buttons in a particular sequence / rhythm within a given time limit. Again, the focus is almost entirely on story, particularly how you interact with other characters in the game. It’s all about making “interesting decisions.” And not trivial, black-and-white decisions, but tough choices about who lives and who dies, what lies or truths you tell, and who gets left behind.

The art style resembles that of a graphic novel, although it’s a full real-time 3D game. As the game is tightly scripted, the camera frequently moves (especially during quicktime events) to a dramatic angle that again calls to mind the framing of panels in a graphic novel.

It’s less of a game and more of “interactive storytelling” – but in a good way. While it has its scary moments,its about like any other zombie movie – more of the tension of being deep behind “enemy lines” with no escape, and the pressure of desperate people trying to survive.

The game is very much rated “M” for graphic violence, language, and mature subject matter. There are currently ten episodes (in two five-episode seasons) available. You can buy the episodes one at a time to try the game out, or you can go for a cheaper option and buy a whole season. There’s also an additional DLC for season 1 called “The 400 Days,” which isn’t part of the main story arc. The game was originally launched for the PC, but is now available on many different platforms, including Mac, iOS, Android, Playstation 3, and XBox 360.


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How to Not to Screw Yourself Over on the Internet

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 22, 2014

I’m going to take a one-day break on the horror-themed games to just comment on how indie game developers can avoid turning their own life into a personal horror story.

Earlier this week the game Paranautical Activity, by indie studio Code Avarice, was finally released from early access to full release on Steam. This is a big deal – this is the time your game may receive the most visibility ever. You always hope for more, but… yeah. It’s how it works. Well, a mid-level disaster struck – the game’s label was not changed from “Early Release” to “Released.” A lot of people – like me – will not touch a game on Steam marked “Early Release” unless it’s part of a bundle, or I’m a friend of the developer, or if it’s really highly recommended even in it’s “Early Release” state. So yeah, this is kind of a big deal.

Co-founder of Code Avarice, Mike Maulbeck, was understandably upset about this. Whether this was Valve’s fault or an oversight by the developer isn’t clear, but he faulted Valve. He exploded, publicly on Twitter, and issued a death threat against Gabe Newell, co-founder and managing director of Valve.

It got their attention, but not in a good way. Paranautical Activity was immediately removed from Steam. Apologies did nothing, and Mike Maulbeck resigned his position and sold off his entire stake in the company so that he was completely removed from any involvement or potential financial gain from the game. So far, this has not motivated Steam to re-list the game, though perhaps it may allow them to work with Steam in the future. Considering how hard it is to get a game listed in the first place…

Now, I don’t think anybody believes Maulbeck was at all serious in his death threat. If we’re not a violent person and we say things like that among acquaintances, it’s no big deal. Everybody understands that it is hyperbole.

One of the problems is that while nobody normally pays attention to you on social media except acquaintances and other interested parties who maybe somewhat familiar with you, you must never forget that you are in public. And the general public doesn’t know if you are Mother Theresa or Ted Bundy.

Now, I do feel bad for the team, and I think the whole thing is regrettable.  Honestly, I feel bad for Maulbeck, too. But I hope that it can at least serve as an object lesson.

It seems that as the floodgates have opened for indies (well, partly opened), there have been a few who have done well without having learned about professionalism. Sadly, in the Internet Age, it’s often the lack of professionalism that and willingness to be brash, controversial, and sometimes downright offensive that gets rewarded, because attention is the source of all rewards. But it can also come back and bite you, especially when you have enjoyed enough success that you no longer seem to be the “scrappy underdog.” Behavior that’s acceptable on your way up may not be later.

There’s a certain level of understanding out there that people need to do what they need to do to get attention. That’s fine.  While twenty years ago it would have been considered highly unprofessional, today it’s simply Marketing. It’s a big ol’ grey area. The boundaries aren’t super clear. But if you stray beyond them, you will be shooting yourself in the foot. Or in the head.

So here are some ways to NOT screw yourself over in the Internet age. All of these have exceptions, naturally, but your particular case is probably not one of them:

1. Do not threaten to kill other people in the industry, even in jest. With very few exceptions (most of which involve your target being a close personal friend, or if you are referring to an action inside an online game), this is pretty far beyond the pale.

2. In fact, don’t make any sort of posturing at someone else’s expense – particularly not customers or current or potential business partners. If you come off looking like a clown all by yourself – well, people may laugh, but nobody else is hurt. But if you hurt other people, that sends a signal to everyone to not associate with you for fear of collateral damage. Rage against the darkness or the unfairness of the universe if you must, but don’t bring other folks into your public rants.

3. If you feel the absolute need to rant / vent, do not name names and do not bring third parties into it. Even if the recipient so richly deserves it, anybody who doesn’t know better may see themselves as the potential target of your next public rage, and may think disassociation is the safest course.

4. With emails – when you are writing somebody you are really pissed off at, put your own email address as the recipient. Write the email. Don’t send it (putting your own addy as the recipient helps prevent an accident.). Then go do something to calm down. Psychologically, you may have already vented. Then you can go back and look at the email, rewriting or editing it for a more professional communication.

5. Always remember that you are in public on social media. It may feel like a private conversation, but your voice can carry. Especially at that very moment when you say something bad or stupid or embarrassing if taken out of context (just the first 30 seconds of this video is sufficient to illustrate my point):

6. I don’t know if Brad Torgersen came up with it, but I’ll call it Torgersen’s rule anyway because I heard it from him: On the Internet, any group will be represented by it’s worst-behaving members. I’ll throw in a corollary: You will be known by your worst behavior or biggest screw-up.

7. If you know that you tend to go off when angry, absolutely do not go onto social media when angry. Vent to a sympathetic ear in private if you need to. But you will be a terrible judge of your own postings. As with emails, assume everything you write in a fit of rage will be permanent and – like step 6 above – the One Thing you will be remembered by.

8. Don’t pick fights with other publishers or developers. You really shouldn’t do that, PERIOD, because word WILL get around. But especially don’t do it in public. That’s the nuclear option that makes saving face (for your target) far more important than resolving the problem, and you may not win that fight.

9. Do NOT whine over someone else’s success. Some totally crap game was greenlit ahead of you? Your game is 10x better than Minecraft? Them’s the breaks. Accept that life is unfair, and channel your frustrations into pushing yourself, not tearing down someone else.

10. And finally, don’t betray confidences. It may give you fifteen minutes of fame, but you will pay for it for the rest of your career of not being trusted.


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Indie Horror: Amnesia: The Dark Descent

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 21, 2014

Amnesia3Probably 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.
Amnesia2As 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.

 

aamfpLast 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.


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Indie Horror: Motte Island

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 20, 2014

MotteIsland1Motte 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.

And 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.


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Indie Horror: Paranormal

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 17, 2014

Paranormal6In 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.

Paranormal2Each 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.

Paranormal5There’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.

 


Paranormal – Story Trailer 1 – Indie DB


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Indie Horror: Spooky Bonus

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 16, 2014

SpookyBonusOkay. 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.

Spooky Bonus

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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Indie Horror: GhostControl Inc.

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.

BannerGCI

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.

GhostControl2One 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.

Screenshot_GCI_1As the game progresses, your team members gain experience and competency, more equipment becomes available, and the nasties get nastier and more powerful.

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?

 


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Indie Horror: Outlast

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 14, 2014

OutlastI 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.

OutlastSS05… 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.

OutlastSS02It’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?

 


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Books: I’m getting published again

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.


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Indie Horror: Sonar

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.

sonar1You 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.

SONAR is available on Desura


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Indie Horror: Slender: The Arrival

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 9, 2014

Slender_Arrival2The “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.

Slenderman_Arrival1It 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.

slender_arrival3Unless you chicken out and turn off the game, of course. That’s always an option. *

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…)


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