Tag Archives: Video Games

Crystal Chronicles

CrystalChronicles

I’m going on a quest.

A quest to play through all of the Final Fantasy main series, in order.

All of them. In order.

Why? Well, for a start, I’ve only really, properly played Final Fantasy VII, VIII and X (even if I have dabbled in III and IX along the way). For a person that claims JRPG to be their almost-favourite genre, that’s sort of embarrassing. So yeah, recently, I booted up my copy of Final Fantasy (the PlayStation port of the SNES version) to prepare my four Warriors of Light for my opening assault on the series. I’m calling this quest #FinalOdyssey, which – hopefully – will last longer than my New Year’s resolution to play more point-and-click adventure games (which kind of didn’t really happen, did it?­). Also, it gives me a perfect excuse to listen to a whole bunch of The Black Mages material, which is never a bad thing.

The Final Fantasy series is often seen as one of those untouchable, unquestionable serieseses, but is it entirely justified? It’s certainly not without its flaws, and (perhaps with respect with the most recent iterations of the series) there are far more qualified rivals that populate the JRPG arena these days: the likes of Xenoblade Chronicles, Persona/Shin Megami Tensei and the Tales series leap to mind. In fact, on reflection, I’ve played more Dragon Quest [aka. Dragon Warrior; FF’s long-term rival and now sibling in the Square-Enix catalogue) games than I have actual, proper Final Fantasy games. Final Fantasy VII still remains probably my favourite game of all time, though, and – graphical niggles aside – it still holds up in both storyline and gameplay in spite of its eighteen-year frame.

So, seeing as I’ve only touched the series at certain, key tangents, it makes sense for me to properly appreciate everything Final Fantasy; beginning with the main series, I-XIII. Of course, now that the ‘no sequels’ rule has been well and truly broken, this means that I’ve fourteen (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, X-2, XII, XIII, XIII-2, XIII-3: Lightning Returns) games to play before I die or the world comes to a premature end [whichever arrives first]. Also, there’s also a bunch of the FF spinoffs to look at – the Crystal Chronicles series, in particular, is vastly underrated and (perhaps) deserving of a more favourable appraisal – and, maybe, I’ll get round to them afterwards.

I’m not particularly in a rush to marathon my way through all of the main FF series in a row; more that I’ll play one, take a break, play another, etc.  Fr’instance, I’ve just started hammering through The Bureau: X-Com Declassified in preparation for similar things going on at Watch the Skies! on the weekend (and which I alluded to in last week’s Friday blog), so there’s that. But yeah, games.

XCOM

So, what else have I been playing?

Well, I recently got very, very excited about Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, which is a semi-board game (hey, it’s got a BoardGameGeek listing so it counts) based upon 1-8 people playing as members of the “Baker Street Irregulars” to solve ten fictional cases. It’s more of an interactive novel than a board game, not least because there’s no ‘board’ as such; just a casebook, an address directory and a map of Holmes’ London. And you know what? It’s awesome fun.

Each case begins with an introduction and background to the crime – usually a murder, with some starting information and a few (obvious) leads to chase up. Then, as a group, players follow leads by deciding on a relevant location to investigate or witness to question; look up their location in the directory, and turn to the relevant casebook page to follow up the lead (which may give extra clues, confirm a suspect’s alibi, or provide no information at all). The team continue following leads, gathering data and evidence, until they have enough to report back to Holmes with a ‘confirmed’ suspect and answers to the CHECKSUM question that Holmes will pose.

Of course, at heart, it’s a deductive game; but one that’s unlike any other game I’ve ever played. It’s got more in common with a Choose Your Own Adventure book; except you’re not limited to the options of “Turn to Page 45 / Turn to Page 32” but have almost complete freedom to follow up any lead at any time and to draw your own conclusions (perhaps, in the process, accusing the wrong suspect). To draw video game analogies, where the likes of Choose Your Own… are like on-rails shooters, Consulting Detective is like a fully-3D FPS. It’s most fun with a group of 5-6 participants, and is presented in the form of a ‘story’ – following a lead in the casebook reveals a story that must be read out to the other investigators; which may be helpful, may reveal nothing new, or which may send you on a merry trail yielding nothing revolutionary at the end.

Moriarty

Despite the sheer amount that I’m enjoying it, I am a little apprehensive that there will, at some point, come a time when we run out of cases to play. On that day, I will be a bit sad.

Oh well, not to worry; because someone is already working on a Cthulhu-themed version of Consulting Detective, by the name of Arkham Investigator. And it looks badass. You can get the first two cases as Print-n-Play versions already, but it looks like there might eventually be 8 cases, and also that the game might get a proper, printed release at some point. Either way, go and check it out because why the hell wouldn’t you.

[While we’re on the subject, how awesome would a Commander Vimes: Watch Detective be? Whilst I was poking around the internet for Consulting Detective­-alike games, I stumbled across {mistery.io} and I’m rather tempted to make a few Discworld stories, just for my own amusement.]

Anyway, so yeah; that’s what I’ve been up to. What have you been playing recently?

[Zinar7]

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Mind Games

MindGames

I realised recently that I have a habit of, automatically and subconsciously, saying “Have fun!” to someone as we say goodbye or part company. I’m not exactly sure where I picked this up from (it was @tweetjard, quite possibly), but it’s an interesting observation to make about something that I do on an almost daily basis without even noticing.

I kind of say it almost like it’s an order: HAVE FUN ON PAIN OF DEATH OR FEEL WRATH OF EIGHT THOUSAND ORC SPEARS. Or, something along those lines, anyway.

Having fun is genuinely one of the few things that I try to take into every endeavour that I undertake; whether it’s just making everyday tasks (cleaning, cooking) a bit more interesting by introducing mini-games to the process, by making little jokes in my head to force a smile from myself, or by making up little challenges/quests to lighten the mood of menial tasks. Such games might be trying to trying tea bags into the mug from four paces across the kitchen as if I’m playing darts (inspired by the scene from Would I Lie to You?), pretending that my spreadsheet data-entry is actually some sort of secret code-breaking operation and that I only have twelve minutes to fill the sheet before the circular saw kicks into gear to chop the princess into tiny pieces, or treating the car wash like some sort of mechanical Moby Dick into which I must plunge and emerge the other side (presumably out of the blow-hole; I don’t know, I’m not a whale expert).

But yeah, having fun is important.

Maybe it’s this mentality that explains why games and the concept of hold such fascination for me; as if there’s some sort of microchip in my cerebrum that responds to the process of amusement and/or challenge and finds something to do with the 50% of my brain that isn’t occupied by the (menial) task at hand. Just in the procedure of everyday existence, my brain devises cunning challenges or games to subtly (perhaps, imperceptibly) relieve some of the tedium of life’s more mundane facets. I’m just always looking for ways to make light of things, or inject a dose of silliness directly into the veins of humdrum normality; probably to the annoyance of my friends, who’re probably way bored of playing Yellow Car by now.

It’s things like that, though, that make me sort of worry that I’m a bunch more immature and frivolous for someone that is thirty years old and pretending at being a grown-up. It’s true; I can, oftentimes, be immature and childish and with feet fairly firmly planted in the pursuits of empty-headed things, holding a very adolescent sense of humour and what amuses/entertains me. Should I feel guilty that my always-on brain is drawn to geek culture, video games and music rather than a desire to learn about architecture, politics and art? I’m much more at home being sat in front of a games console than a library desk; and I’d be far the most uncomfortable person at a dinner party, were I ever invited to one. Do I cling too much to youth and not growing up?

I dunno, probably.

I’ve always been a bit like this, but the mentality for looking for “fun” in the context of tedium was first planted when I worked in retail before I properly embarked on this whole “academic career” thing. Only when one has had to work in customer services can one truly develop a true contempt and bitterness for the everyday public; where, often, the only way to stop oneself from going truly insane is to occupy the brain with anything that’ll distract from the mind-eroding numbness of dealing with the human hordes. For me, it was dreaming up secret personas and characters for all of the customers that would stop by, or mentally trying out object combinations for point-and-click adventure games in my head to test out when I got back home. [Yes, I know I’m a sad case but, at the time, I thought I was achingly cool so shut up].

Part of my [s]ill[i]ness is also that I just can’t turn my brain off – it’s always running, always thinking; always processing. It’s always computing about how something can be optimised, or light-heartedness placed in a gap where there is none: fr’instance, navigating a busy shopping centre (with people dashing around in different directions at different speeds) causing my psyche to enter ‘Senna Mode’, looking for the “gap” and the quickest way of navigating the imaginary zombie hordes. [Granted, I am usually doing so with the end goal of reaching Forbidden Planet in the shortest possible time, so I guess I have fair incentive to shortcut through the shuffling masses, but that’s not the point.]

What I’m saying is: fun is everywhere. Sometimes it’s presented to you in the form of a neatly-packaged medium that directly provides entertainment or amusement; sometimes, you just need to use your imagination to find a way to inject some silliness into the proceedings.

Godspeed to that.

mad-max_fury-road_poster2

Anyway, speaking of zombies hordes and childish pursuits and more conventional packages of “fun”, I’m pleased to report that I finished my time with MediEvil earlier this week; putting to bed the minor guilt of having it sat on my shelf, unplayed for so many years. Broadly, I had a good time (at least, when the appalling controls and horrifying camera weren’t trying to pitch me into oblivion at every opportunity), but it did remind me how much I enjoy[ed] the kind of 3D action-adventure/platform games of the PlayStation era that have kind of fallen out of favour: there’s an innocent charm in being an skeletal knight, barrelling around a cartoonish, Hallowe’en Town-esque gothic world with blocky textures and atrocious collision detection and terrible voice acting.

I now kind of have a hankering to follow it up with starting Pandemonium! again and hammer the shit out of some baddies by jumping on their heads, because Pandemonium! was pretty much the dictionary definition of “relentless, innocent fun”. I spent many, many hours of my childhood ploughing through the pseudo-3D platforming world of Lyr, bouncing on creatures’ heads and trying not to fall off platforms into pits of endless oblivion. Hopefully, though, I’m better at it than I was eighteen years ago; because, eighteen years ago, I was FUCKING TERRIBLE AT IT.

[tl;dr: Pandemonium! was awesome. You should play Pandemonium!.]   

Anyway, I’ve talked quite a lot here when both of us could totally be doing something way more entertaining than a Friday blog talking about the merits of inventing your own jokes and mini-games, so I’ll move myself on.

HAVE FUN.

[Zinar7]

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Hack / Slash

HackSlash

Just over a week ago, I hit the milestone of Thirty Years Old. Huh.

It’s kind of put me in an odd mental place. I’m supposed to be a grown-up now, right? I’m supposed to gotten to the point in life where I’ve nailed a secure job, become father to a loving family and stopped feeling like I’m still pretty lost in this whole Life™ business.

Oh well.

Perhaps I should be thankful that, instead of the tedium of a straightforward life, my life is still full of twists and turns and the opportunity for adventure. Maybe I should feel heartened that, even at this great age, I’m still a bit of a dreamer; one who still hasn’t given up on the dream of meeting someone new or falling into my ideal career or still having the time and energy to learn and have fun. I’ve never married, never had kids; (relatively) debt-free; still inquisitive, curious and open to new ideas; still just as passionate about the things I love as I ever was.

It’s just a sad twist of fate that, as I pass into my fourth decade on Starship: Earth, I still feel completely in limbo between being a child and being a grown-up. Since I’ve spent so long at University and living in student-type accommodation and hanging around with other University students/postgrads, I still feel very much like an adolescent; still working out where their calling is in life, and who it’s with. Yet, I’m now undeniably a thirtysomething now and that’s supposed to mean mortgage, childcare and family saloon until it’s all pallbearers and headstones. My age clearly denotes that should be a proper adult by now, with responsibility and a role to play in CamBot-5000’s ‘Big Society’; particularly in the light of The Lizard God’s re-election as leader of our great nation. I mean, It’s not like I’m not an actual grown-up (I feed myself, wash myself and clothe myself daily with only a minimal amount of difficulty), but it kind of feels like I’ve still got a lot of growing up still to do and a lot of things to discover about both myself and the world around me.

Because of my complex work and life situation, I’m still trapped (at least, in my head) in the wilderness between adolescence and proper adulthood; a no-man’s land between the two trenches sniping at me from either side. Mentally, this puts me in a tricky position – still feeling a connection to youth and naïvety because my friend group is – generally – slightly younger than me, and because the five or so years that I spent in the throes of PhD kind of sheltered me from the kind of ‘growing up’ that most people of my age have had to endure. I’m also well aware that my hobbies and interests still remain an anchor to ‘youth’; from my passion for gaming (console and tabletop) to my continuing aural commitment to musical genres that are typically seen as being primarily the domain of younger people.

Despite that, I feel proud to be a thirty year-old that still holds such fire for the things they’ve always believed in. I’ve been playing video and computer games for as long as I can remember, and I’ve never had a break from them being my biggest interest in life. Regardless of how I may feel about the state of the popular strand of video games (all Spunk Gargle Wee-Wee and Fee-Fuh), I still retain an intense passion for video gaming. It was, though, a bit of a shock when I realised that the game I’m currently ploughing through (the PlayStation hack ‘n’ slash-type thing set in a light-hearted gothic Hammer Horror-type world, MediEvil) is SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD; despite it feeling like the days of PlayStation action-adventure games were hardly any time ago at all.

Of course, I shouldn’t be too surprised, given that there are now two whole console generations separating the likes of MediEvil and the current PlayStation 4 roster, but perhaps it’s just a reminder at how many gaming years have passed without my brain really realising. I didn’t ever play MediEvil at the time of its release so I’m not drawing on any particular nostalgia shock, but more the fact that my years of hunching over mine and my friend’s PlayStations are still some of the years of gaming that I remember with most clarity. Before the PlayStation, I was predominantly a “PC” gamer – although, technically, I was an “Amiga” gamer since the Amiga-500+ was, technically, not a PC – but the PlayStation was my first proper console and hence there’s a special little patch of nostalgic warmth reserved in my heart for it and everything it brought forth. Either way, I felt like a bit of mindless, retro fun to counter the reality of adulthood and, hence, booted up some PlayStation nostalgia, and hence have recently lost myself in the hacky-slashy world of Gallowmere.

MediEvil is, in actual fact, pretty good. Sure, it’s no The Last of Us and time has hardly been kind to either the graphical fidelity or the game’s control system, but there’s charm enough to ward away the most intense criticism. It’s as close to Hallowe’en Town as one can get without infringing Tim Burton’s copyright on cartoonish, gothic horror; a brightly-coloured, trick-or-treat action-adventure game gone terrifyingly right. In many ways, I feel that MediEvil and ‘me’ share a lot in common: distinctly rough around the edges, difficult to control and bridging the gap between true horror and multi-coloured cartoon. Still, while we both continue to hack and slash away through unclear, blocky graphics with little in the way of instruction or tutorial, I’d like to think that I’ve aged marginally better than a seventeen year-old shiny disc.

[Zinar7]

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friday_011

F011

I’ve always said: celebrity deaths come in threes. Then again, so do the deaths of my treasured possessions, it seems.

The last week or two have mainly been spent trying to mend, or replace, pieces of electrical equipment that seem to have decided push up the daisies: first, my cellphone; then, bits of my car; and finally, my TV. I’m beginning to think that I have some sort of curse: a sort of Midas Touch that causes electrical equipment to expire by merely being in the same geographical location as me. Perhaps I’m made of magick.

[it’s worth pointing out at this juncture that my digital camera has also developed some sort of fault that I’ve not quite been able to get to the root of; which does mean that the ‘bad things come in threes’ rule has been shattered and that I may have actually broken the universe. If a gaping maw of inter-dimensional cataclysm has opened up near you, then I’m desperately sorry.]

While sorting out a new cellphone and repairs to Big Suze have been no great cause for festivity, this recent state of affairs has forced me to pick up a new TV to replace my old, enormous CRT monolith and finally join the world of High-Definition. I’m not usually one to crow about graphical fidelity or anything, but my, is it purdy. I’ve most recently been playing a lot of Need for Speed: Most Wanted (the PS3 one, although I still sort of maintain that the original one is better, if less pretty) and my goodness does it look good. Obviously, I’m a massive automotive nut and am “well into” motor racing and stuff so am already slightly aroused by the sight of attractive pieces of metal and carbon fibre moving at high speed, but NFS:MW it a delight to look at; with its lovely reflections and lens flare and sunset filtration and gorgeously cinematic, pre-race short films.

Oddly enough for an avid watcher of motor racing and things going fast and things, racing games have never, really, found a particularly special place in my heart: yet, I can’t really explain why. Somehow, the accurate racing simulations (Gran Turismo, Forza, Project Gotham Racing, etc.) have always felt too methodical and not enough like a game to me; requiring expenditure of countless hours in the digital garage, tweaking every last nut and bolt in order to shave hundredths-of-a-second off a lap time. Funnily enough, I adore stat-based /RPG elements in a story-based game with character development and adventurin’, but grow restlessly yawnsome when I’m forced to stare at too many stats and upgrades in other genres (strategy, simulation, etc.). My main motivation, when playing a video game, is still to have fun; whereas simulation games (be them racing, farming or goat simulators), for me, have always placed too many barriers in front of the important business of fun.

Need for Speed has always felt a little different, though; blending some aspects of the engine-tweaking upgradability with the sheer, foot-to-the-floor velocity of OutRun. The movement of Criterion Games developing many of the latter Need for Speeds (Hot Pursuit, Most Wanted and The Rivals) has meant that they’ve absorbed a lot of the features that Criterion previously introduced to Burnout; slow-mo, metal-bending crashes and friendship-ending revenge takedowns. Weirdly, then, NFS:MW feels like a public safety video highlighting the perils of street racing; with time slowing to render every smash, shunt and shimmer in a haunting ballet of wrangled metal. It’s been a genuine delight to take such a perverse amount of pleasure at watching digital cars crashing/breaking in high-definition, perhaps acting as some sort of poetic justice countering everything else that’s doing its best to self-destruct in my life.

In honesty, I’ve played a lot of Need for Speed: Most Wanted. I discovered some time ago that racing games were one of those rare instances where I can truly lose myself and forget, utterly about the outside world. Perhaps it’s something about focussing purely on whether the next apex is and how you can tread the very fine line between optimised speed and loss of control that stops the rest of my brain (the bit that constantly worries, questions and fears) from gaining any sort of traction [pun intended]. It’s not necessarily that I have any racing talent or skill (quite the opposite; I’m woefully – almost tediously – average when placed on a track), but more a mindset: I’m not the best at multi-tasking, so if I’m concentrating solely on getting ‘round the track in the most optimal time whilst attempting to keep pace with my competitors, then I can’t possibly be thinking about whether I’m wasting my life. [The delicious irony being that, if I’m spending my time playing video games, then I probably am wasting it to some extent.]

Still, with the long, cold Winter finally behind us and the Spring properly gaining traction, it’s relieving to know that that the motor racing season is once again underway and roaring through some of the world’s greatest arenas of asphalt and dirt. Formula One kicked off delightfully a couple of weekends ago and continues in Malaysia in the next few days; the World Touring Car Championship got started in Argentina a few weeks back, and the British Touring Car Championship kicks off at Brands Hatch next weekend. Formula One will always be my soulmate, but I’m aiming to do better at keeping up with both the WTCC and BTCC this year after losing track [pun sort of intended] of both at some point during the summer of last year. I’ll definitely be going to the BTCC at Thruxton for birthday-related shenanigans, and hopefully also the Formula E race that’ll be happening in London around Battersea Park. I’m still holding out a vague hope of being able to get to an F1 race abroad sometime during 2015, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely. Never say never, though.

But anyway, I’ve probably talked enough about shiny metallic things with wheels for the time being.

tl;dr: CARS.

[Zinar7]

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friday_009

F009

In my entry from last Friday, I qualified my thoughts on video games and gaming by explaining that I find the process of play to be fascinating.

It’s true, I do find the act of playing to be something that’s always an interesting process – partly due to some of the more obvious excursions that play allows (role-playing as some far-flung hero; making decisions or play-acting in a way that doesn’t affect anything meaningful in real life; etc.), but also because I really enjoy engaging with other people in a ‘play’ scenario. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy socialising with people in a normal setting or just offhand – I mean that I find it very interesting to see what other people do when they’re engaged in something that doesn’t have proper consequences in real life; to see what choices they make and what strategies they employ in winning the game or tackling the problem at hand.

For me, his fascination has, most prominently, been propagated through my expanding passion for board- and tabletop gaming; the social aspect of which still properly brings me a whole fuckton of joy. I miss the good times of the PlayStation/PS2 and Nintendo 64/GameCube console generation(s) where, routinely, four people would come together to hammer out a few rounds of GoldenEye 007, Micro Machines V3 or Mario Kart: Double Dash!!. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule but multiplayer video games now overwhelmingly force players to be separated by a connection barrier rather than just a simply sharing a multitap and a beanbag in front of the TV. Part of this feeling is borne of nostalgia, but it’s mainly a frustration at how good things used to be and how the community of gaming friends crouched around a tiny CRT monitor looking at a tinier quadrant of screen felt far more connected and social than the gargantuan, exhaustive ‘community’ that online play now elevates.

Part of the reason that I’ve grown so attached to tabletop gaming, I think, is that it helps propagate a worthwhile social aspect of play that has (rather disappointingly) all but vanished from digital gaming. Sure, text and voice chat still exists in PC and console gaming and it’s easy to arrange your friends to be connected to you in a virtual space, but it’s not the same as being able to gloat theatrically and extensively in the face of a friend – sitting right next to you – who’s just been blown up by a Blue Shell right before they cross the finish line and pipping them to the post.

In short: Sharing the same, physical, social space with a bunch of close friends while engaging in the process of play is infinitely more entertaining than getting 360noscoped and being called a homosexual by a fourteen year-old you’ve never met on the other side of the world.

The rise of German-style “designer” board games can, partly, be interpreted as a reaction to the ebbing sense of ‘social’ play in modern video games. As consoles have gained online capabilities in the last 10/12 years, (online) gaming has transitioned video gaming away from the “family” environment (with a small group of people in your own living room) to engaging with vast servers of unknown, random nodes across a gargantuan network. While board games have always been a popular activity – before and after the invention of video games –  I have definitely noticed a trend in how designer board games have swelled in number over the last six or seven years and even begun to infiltrate shelf-space in more mainstream shops (i.e. those that aren’t specialist gaming stores) on the High Street. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these trends tally up quite so well.

Naturally, there are likely a whole lot of other reasons why these trends exist and it’s unlikely to be so simple a correlation that one can say, without question, that the shift towards online multiplayer video gaming has stoked the fires of Euro-style board gaming. But I think that there’s definitely a pattern involved, and perhaps it’s one that’s associated with gamers becoming a little disillusioned with the state of modern, AAA video games and aching to rediscover a sense of community play that seems to be growing more absent with each console generation.

In parallel, I’ve noticed a growth in the establishment of more, local tabletop gaming groups, and the population of existing ones swelling in number as more people discover the hobby. From personal experience, the genetic make-up of most of these groups tends to be formed, predominantly, of blokes in their thirties and onwards; at least, among those that aren’t based at, or very near, University campuses and the like. I might be painting with some fairly broad brush-strokes here, but I often feel like quite a proportion serious board game hobbyists are, perhaps, the kind of people that used to play video games but, perhaps, have fallen out of favour with them in the last few years; turning to tabletop gaming as more of an alternative. Of course, I haven’t canvassed the opinions of many of the board gaming community as to whether this is a 100% accurate deduction, but I’d be willing to place some stake behind being at least partially on the money.

The fact of the matter is, I still get a major kick out of engaging with people while we’re playing together; be it in digital world, or in a physical space. That passion is something that is hard-wired into me; like breathing and walking. But, the biggest buzz still comes when I collect together people into the same geographic location to play, and any method of making that happen anywhere and everywhere  is all good in my book.

[Zinar7]

 

If you’re into board gaming and attractive ladies – or, more specifically, attractive ladies playing board games and writing about them in an amusing and intelligent way – then you should check out The Misery Farm: How to Win Games and Alienate Meeple [themiseryfarm.com] because it has all of that and more, and blogs about board game-type stuff way better than I ever could.

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friday_008

F008

This week’s Friday blog (and, likely, next week’s too) is going to be focussed a little bit on games of various sorts, because I find the whole subject of play to be totally fascinating.

It recently dawned on me that, as I approach my 30th birthday, very soon I will be taking my passion for playing video and computer games into my fourth decade on Planet Earth. Age-wise, I’m at the tail-end of the first proper generation of children that had video games as a major Thing in their lives, and I’ve been playing computer games as a serious hobby (and without any breaks) for 23-odd years now. Video games have been a constant presence in my life for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always fanned the flames of that passion by throwing myself into gaming at every possible opportunity and with every major console generation at, and since, the 16-bit era.

It’s only now, though, that I’ve sensed that I’m not really in touch with gaming anymore. I’m at a point, now, where I feel no great urge to make the leap into the current console generation of PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Wii U; nothing that draws me in to new hardware, nor encourages me to invest in the short-sighted output of AAA-studios and cash-hungry publishers. At least for the time being, I’m perfectly happy with my PS3 and my PC (and my Wii, my PS2, my GameCube, my DS, yada yada) and don’t feel like a few more pixels or some extra ultraFLOPs of processing power are going to lead to me having any more fun than the fun that I currently have with the machinery I already own, or owned in the past.

It used to be different, though: I remember the days of playing blocky, LucasArts point ‘n’ click adventure games where it was 100% about story and gameplay and not a jot about photorealistic textures, and hashy polygon-based stunt racing games where the absence of car physics and multi-reflective surfaces were no hindrance to the process of having a blast. I funnelled umpteen hours into Lemmings, The Simpsons: Bart Simpson vs. the Space Mutants, Sleepwalker, Soccer Kid and Lotus Turbo Challenge II, even though they looked like crap, didn’t necessarily play that well, and routinely broke or glitched out because of bugs or because the floppy disk was knackered. That was my era of gaming; one where I recall – with a misty-eyed expression – the simultaneous joy and frustration at having to constantly insert and eject Money Island 2’s ELEVEN floppy disks in order to load new scenes or dialogue to the game. Of course, while Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge has lost none of its charm and brilliance in the intervening fourteen years, the likes of Race Drivin’ on the Amiga 500+ have long since been eclipsed by genuine progress in design and mechanics, and all but forgotten except by Nostalgia-nerds like me.

Looking at the broad spectrum, games are better now than they were when I first engaged with the hobby: they’re more shiny, better written, work better and are far, far more accepted by the mainstream than I ever dreamt that they would be. The leaps that were made throughout the 32/64-bit era (PlayStation and Nintendo 64) and then onto the 128-bit one (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Dreamcast and Xbox) were genuinely mind-blowing; where the improvement in graphical fidelity was also joined by progress in game engines (and hence gameplay), along with improved cinematic awareness and well-written dialogue and storylines. There’s a reason why many of the most highly-regarded video games (Final Fantasy VII, Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life) came from those eras: it felt like mainstream/’AAA’-games were just improving in every way; but never at the expense of fun, and never forgetting that they were there for play.

In the last four-five years, though, I’ve sort of felt like I’m not the target of mainstream games anymore – The need for even better graphics (beyond what we have now; which I could call ‘perfectly adequate’ for representing an immersive virtual world) doesn’t really grab me, and the prevalence for newly-released games to have Day One bug patches or pay-unlockable DLC sort of makes me be a little sick in my mouth. Furthermore, I’m not into sports games like Fee-Fuh; nor ones where fourteen year-olds go around shooting each other with realistic military equipment whilst calling every other player a homosexual. The term “Gamer”, these days, conjures up visions of spotty teenagers playing FIFA 15, Call of Duty and Candy Crush Saga. I’m a person that plays games, but I’m not a gamer.

I’m also not loads into disrespecting women or doxxing anyone that doesn’t 100% believe in the same views as me, which seems to be a big part of calling yourself a “gamer” these days.

Nothing about the PlayStation 4/Xbox One output from their first 18 months or so has shown me that we’re any closer to the asymptote of Gaming Perfection than we were, say, eight to ten years ago, and there’s no sinew in me that feels the urge to make the leap to the next gen. I’m not here saying that “old games were better” or anything like that; my gaming collection still spans over 25 years’ worth of digital fun, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. All I am saying is that – Oculus Rift and VR aside – I don’t truthfully foresee anything truly revolutionary happening to my gaming palate as I turn the clock over from twenties to thirties. It’s been a long time since a new AAA video game truly took my breath away (BioShock Infinite was probably the last one that did that), so it seems like – for now –  it’s still up to the indie gaming scene and my existing collection to continue to produce the most interesting and relevant contributions to my gaming buffet.

So yeah, excuse me while I crack on with some Borderlands, Chrono Trigger and Citizens of Earth. Boom.

[Zinar7]

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friday_003

F003

On Wednesday, I resurrected an old friend and restarted the bi-weekly (ish) ritual of sitting down with a few friends and watching some crappy, cheesy, low-budget horror films. This used to a regular thing that we did a few years ago and many good times were had but, in more recent years, life sort of got in the way and we kind of forgot about it. Anyway, with the turn of the New Year, I felt it was time to shamble down to cemetary again and dig up the corpse of the magnificent ScareFest such that we may, once again, marvel at unconvincing acting, horrendous special “effects” and terrible storylines in the company of snacks, drinks and good friends.

The original idea was to establish a night dedicated to watching pairs of horror B-movies: one properly in the realm of Z-movie horror with crappy budgets; one relatively good one with a moderately bigger budget and fair critical acclaim. Such fun was kicked off on Wednesday with ScareFest #01: Dolls and Dogs, which married the low-budget Doll Graveyard with the minorly-higher-budget-but-still-not-a-huge-budget Dog Soliders. It turns out that both performed pretty much as expected; with much commentary on low-budget actors trying to ‘do’ the ‘acting’ thing, confusion as to why the back of the DVD box for Doll Graveyard recounts a completely different premise for the film than the one shown onscreen, and excitement at the appearance of Davos Seaworth from Game of Thrones as a Special Forces Captain in Dog Soliders.

Anyway, the proposed schedule for ScareFest: Season One is thus:

ScareFest #01: Dolls and Dogs
Doll Graveyard (Charles Band, 2005) and Dog Soldiers (Neil Marshall, 2002)

ScareFest #02: Creaturezoids
Creepozoids (David DeCoteau, 1987) and Feast (John Gulager, 2005)

ScareFest #03: Biohazard Detected
Spiders (Gary Jones, 2000) and The Rage (Robert Kurtzman, 2007)

ScareFest #04: You Had Me in Stitches
Skinned Deep (Gabriel Bartalos, 2004) and Stitches (Conor McMahon, 2012)

ScareFest #05: Cradle of Flesh
Cradle of Fear (Alex Chandon, 2001) and MindFlesh (Robert Pratten, 2008)

If you would like to join in the horror movie fun, then you are very welcome to – give me a shout or something and I’ll add you to the next event! Also, if you have any crappy B-movie suggestions then I’ll add them to the rota 😀

Anyway, onto less horror-film climes: today marks the start of #SotonGameJam, which is part of the Global Game Jam 2015; an initiative to have a whole bunch of people, scattered across the planet, to design a game (digital or tabletop) in 48 hours. The Southampton portion of #GGJ15 is being co-organised by a few people I know, and the jam itself will be happening all weekend in one of the computing labs at the University of Southampton. I don’t really know what my game will end up being about, but thinking about it has already sparked some ideas about designing some kind of card game that revolves about binary numbers and bit patterns – Of course, maybe that’ll go completely out the window when we learn the (as-yet unannounced) theme of #SotonGameJam, but it’s still exciting stuff and I’m mega looking forward to getting involved.

Whilst I’m clearly already getting excited about my next board game design project, it’s notable that I still haven’t gotten much further with my other game-design opus, Penny Black, since I last blogged about it – largely, I’m too scared to play-test it and discover its flaws, lest it shake my confidence in what my creative juices can help to lubricate. Like many artists, I’m often too much of a perfectionist to fully relinquish control of what creative output(s) I manage to spew forth and, likewise, am very sensitive to criticism (even If it’s constructive). I suppose that I should just fucking do it and set up a playtest night with a few friends to give it a try with four players, and see what happens. I’m not sure what I’m really scared of (perhaps it’s finding something game-breaking or fundamentally wrong with what I’ve dreamed up), but I trust the opinions – and compassion – of my tabletop friends not to completely slam it, so I really should just roll the dice, deal the cards and see what happens. Hey, who knows, maybe it’ll be really good? And hey, if it’s not, then the feedback will be constructive and make the game better and, maybe, somewhere along the line, something awesome might happen with it. You never know ‘til you try, do you?

On the subject of game dev that I’m totally taking undue credit for, this week Citizens of Earth came out on Steam and pretty much every console ever, and towards which I very minorly contributing by doing some beta-testing way back in 2014. I’ve not played the most recent build and haven’t played it all the way through (I was involving in bug-testing of the very early section of the story and in combat and stuff), but from what I was involved in, it looked exactly my kind of turn-based (J)RPG-type game and I’m heavily looking forward to actually giving it a bash. I didn’t delve into any code and I was mainly looking at playtesting and usability and in-game bugs/crashes, but it’s nice to feel like I helped to make it better in some way. I considered making a proper video game for #SotonGameJam, but my coding skills are totally not in prime physical fitness for making anything other than a very simple, turn-based/logical strategy-game-thing, and I figured that I could have more fun doing the same sort of thing in the physical realm (with cardboard tokens! And wooden cubes! And 3D-printed Cthulhu meeples!) anyway.

Anyway, I’d better get shiftin’; I’ve got game-jamming to do. Let’s get to it.

[Zinar7]

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Sinister Reviews #14: Gabriel Knight – Sins of the Fathers

GKSotF

Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
Platform: PC (version tested), Mac
Release Date: October 2014 remake
Developer: Pinkerton Road Studios
Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios

I missed Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (GKSotF) the first time around. Y’see, I was always a LucasArts brand of adventure-hound rather than a Sierra one; craving the comedy adventures in the vein of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Full Throttle (along with other, non-LucasArts games like Simon the Sorceror and Broken Sword) rather than more serious titles, like Gabriel Knight. However, since 2014 marked the twentieth anniversary of GKSotF’s release and saw release of an anniversary remake by Pinkerton Road Studios, the time seemed as good as any to leap into the world of Gabriel Knight and his roguish brand of amateur crime-solving.

GabrielKnight_1

Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight series still remains a heralded classic in the point-and-click canon, touching upon a tale of murder-mystery stuffed with conspiratorial happenings, secret voodoo cults and suspicious events. The titular Mr. Knight is a brash, book shop-owning novelist from New Orleans, who becomes increasingly involved in police investigation of a case known as the Voodoo Murders through his friend Detective Moseley, before getting in far over his head. Over the course of ten game-days, the player must manoeuvre Knight around various scenes and locales of New Orleans (and, later, Germany and Africa); examining objects, harassing the townsfolk and using objects with other objects in the time-honoured point-and-click fashion. However, what sets GKSotF aside from the average is Jensen’s superb narrative: where my childhood adventuring through the LucasArts catalogue mainly stroked the soft underbelly of light-hearted storylines and comedic set-pieces, GKSotF tackles far more dense subject matter; a true crime thriller, with its fair share of grisly crimes and decidedly ‘grown-up’ themes. It’s reminiscent of a page-turning detective novel, with some excellent story pacing and an array of suspicious characters all, inevitably, involved in a complex web of mystery that maintains a respectable level of tension throughout the experience.

A key part of maintaining this atmosphere lies in the engaging, well-balanced, puzzle design. While some puzzles will have you scratching head for a while, they rarely feel unsolvable; yet, never facile, either. Solutions are never made too obvious (nor is the player ever steered toward them using petty hand-holding), yet pose a median level of difficulty that don’t challenge either the player’s intelligence or stupidity. Furthermore, the puzzles all maintain relevance to the ongoing storyline and police/spiritual investigation, meaning that the game largely doesn’t feel padded out with extraneous hoop-jumping or completely bizarre, shoehorned puzzles. To my knowledge, there was only one occasion where I hit a puzzle that I would never, ever have solved without the hint system (spoilers: it was the exact wording for what I was supposed to write on the tomb wall in the voodoo code) and, of course, the ‘engage with the mime’ puzzle near the beginning of the game is possibly the most tedious puzzle that I’ve ever encountered in an adventure game, but we all make mistakes.

GabrielKnight_2

GKSotF should also be commended for not relying too much on the adventure games staple of constant back-and-forth between characters or scenes to progress the action; not that engagement with NPCs feels too much like a chore. Aside from the game’s abrasive voiced narration (which, thankfully, it is possible to mute), voice acting varies from ‘really good’ to merely just ‘acceptable’, and the initially-tedious dialogue animations certainly endear and lose their irritation. Dialogue trees are also well-constructed to avoid too much repetition and deliver the ongoing narrative in a focused, natural way. In this respect, the presence of a physical narrator of Gabriel’s actions feels like an alien concept (at least when compared to the LucasArts style of having the main character comment, narrate and break the fourth wall) since it disengages the player from Gabriel himself, but adds to the feeling of being involved in a detective serial or TV movie. Pretty much all of the dialogue, scenery and storyline are – I’m led to believe – faithfully recreated from the 1993 original version of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (except now rendered in prettier high-definition graphics and cut-scenes) and it’s satisfying to find that GKSotF has aged commendably in the intervening two decades.

In general, the updated character models are well-rendered; faithfully-recreated scenes are packed with prettiness to look at and it all represents a fairly solid modern take on Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. If there’s a weakness in the visual and atmospheric update, it’s in the game engine – the commitment to re-drawing scenes from the original leads to the limiting decision to use high-definition, 2D backgrounds with 3-D Unity-driven character models walking overtop, rather than fully-3D scenes. 99% of the time this raises no issues, but occasionally presents unfortunate graphical glitches and evidence that the gameworld is merely a 2D plane with characters pacing around atop a stationary texture. It’s not a game-breaker, but merely leads you to occasionally feel like you’re playing an adventure game version of The Sims.

[FYI, if you want to get hold of the original version of GKSotF, then head over to GOG.com]

GabrielKnight_3

But, I’m nitpicking: the fact that you notice such mild gremlins and glitches is simply because the rest of GKSotF is so solid and enjoyable. Sure, the storyline drifts off a little in the last third – away from the more interesting ‘police’-type investigation and toward a more linear path of “do this, then do this, then do this”, which feels just a teeny bit padded out – but it’s because the majority of the game feels so well-paced and –balanced in terms of both narrative and gameplay.

In truth, I was expecting to be a little disappointed by Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. My curiosity had been piqued by Yahztee & Gabe’s playthrough of the first hour or so on Let’s Drown Out, and I’d expected to be mildly engaged by the storyline but to find fault with the game’s mechanics and object/NPC interaction. Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, to discover that it’s one of the best adventure games that I’ve played in recent years. Despite a few flaws, it’s still a masterclass in adventure game design and well worth a visit for the narrative exposition alone. Perhaps it’s testament to the forward-thinking innovation of the original, or the persistence of the point-and-click genre in being stuck in the mid-Nineties, but if ever there were a time to discover the world of Gabriel Knight (or perhaps just revisit it), then it’s now.

[Zinar7]

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A Lament for the Video Game Manual

Lament

Next time you’re playing a new video game on one of those spangly-new, current-generation consoles, spare a thought for the poor, humble, forgotten video game manual. In this age of digital releases where physical copies of games are more at a premium, and pieces of floating paper coming bundled with the game disc are becoming more and more unwieldy and rare; the presence of printed DLC (Downloadable Content) codes, etc. aside. Even then, where disc-based games still come with some sort of instruction booklet, in many cases it’s woefully inadequate in providing context to the main game, given that many AAA-franchises now have so many complex facets of gameplay and control mechanics that you’d need most of a rainforest’s-worth of papyrus to catalogue them all. The days of gaming instructions being “press right to move right, press x to jump; jump on the enemy’s head to kill the enemy” are, sadly, behind us.

So: given that it’s someone’s job to reminisce about these archaic forms of printed communication and – in the absence of anyone else – that ‘someone’ may as well be me, let me take you on a journey of discovery and revelation about the mythical artform of the video game instruction manual. Together, perhaps, we can reclaim this forgotten land for the generations ahead.

P1030868

In the distant past, the instruction manual supplied with a video game was there to do one thing: to teach you how to play the game. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a game would rarely have any introductory backstory, let alone hints as to how to get along, before thrusting you headlong into some gameplay. Haunting back to the idea of the game being a machine and the means operation of that machine needing to be communicated to the user by means of some sort of instructive text, manuals were included in video game boxes as the conduit by which the user understood what the game was and how it worked, and also where to find contact information and telephone numbers to call when the software inevitably failed or caused her ZX Spectrum to spew out little bits of cartridge tape in a very violent manner.

As video games grew and became more cinematic and three-dimensional during the 1990s, the instruction manual became a way for more information about the plot, characters and universe to be documented, in addition to how to press the right buttons at the right time. Perhaps the reasons for this are down to the increasing ambition of video games to rival full-blown movie entertainment in terms of story and lore, and perhaps to save the developers time and money on creating extra hours of Full-Motion Video (FMV) cut-scenes or expensive animation by filling the instruction booklet with bonus information and history in written form (cf. Final Fantasy VII, Puppeteer, Chrono Trigger).

As a player who has passionately grown up amongst video games for twenty years now, I still reminisce about the thrill of buying a new video game at the shops and devouring the instruction manual (not literally; I’m not a monster) during the car ride home because, until I got home and could boot it up, reading the manual was the next closest thing to actually playing the game. This heritage naturally inspires me to view a game’s instruction manual more as a taster for the game itself than a simple set of operation codes for playing it; whetting the appetite with exciting artwork, design and (sometimes) additional game lore. As an aside, it’s worth noting that I’m like this with music, and physical media, too – I love leafing through an album’s sleeve flyer, awaiting what music will to come meet my ears and throwing myself headlong into the band’s artwork and lyrics.

However, whenever I’ve bought a pre-owned console game, particularly from the last couple of console generations, the manual is – with alarming regularity – often in mint condition and unsullied by human hand(s). It’s equally alarming how many pre-owned games are still delivered with pristine DLC/download codes hidden away in/with the user manual: a broad conclusion that may be drawn is that their owners are simply unaware that they exist; a symptom of gamers simply too impatient to get playing to investigate the other manual guff before they dive in. In these modern times, if a game isn’t packaged with an in-game tutorial teaching the user, step-by-patronising-step, how to do every little thing in the game, many players are likely to head to the internet at the first sign of confusion rather than consult the manual; or worse, ragequit and abandon the game entirely. Gamers expect a playable tutorial; not a written set of the rules and limits of the game and the primary operators and actions used to navigate it (unless it’s an in-game version that can called up from a start menu prompt). As a result, I’d wager that only a small proportional of video game manuals ever feel the touch of human flesh; merely the fleeting fondle of an excited gamer’s fingers as they scrabble through it.

Ain't Nobody Got Time Fo' That

In the last decade, I’ve noticed an increasing propensity for video game manuals (particularly from Western developers and publishers) to exist merely as a few sheets of paper held by some ragged staples; hastily thrown together to print the primary control mappings but with scant pickings of game-enhancing content. They’re now no longer a necessity, but a luxury; perhaps supplied in order to meet console licencing requirements or out of some, long-forgotten obligation to give the player something to look at before they properly delve into the game itself.

A manual is, by and large, one of the last things that will be created for a game’s release. It’s something to be done at the end, and with little effort spent on it in order to maximise the man-hours that are spent on the game itself. This means that plans for an engaging, informative instruction manual are often the first things to be cut from a development budget that’s pushing its time or financial deadline; with publishers typically finalising their printed material at the very last minute (right before shipping), seemingly assigning the task to the resident intern or work experience kid. Some culprits may be guilty of throwing a user guide together seemingly at random, with random or out-of-date concept art presented as the real thing, out-of-date screenshots and typos still embedded in the text, with no quality control. Also, some developers/publishers may eschew the opportunity to publish more of the games’ development/etc art in the manual; instead, choosing to use such content in coffee-table ‘art’ books for which the consumer may often pay a pretty penny for (Ubisoft, I’m looking at you).

Of course, game manuals must serve an important, legal purposes – details of guarantee, warranty, licencing details, epilepsy warnings, [ yada yada ] must all be presented to the consumer. For health/safety/Quality Assurance reasons, it is still – largely – necessary for every major video game to be packaged with something paper-based on which warranties, blah etc. are written for the consumer’s benefit. As such, a large number of manuals are merely this; no frills, just the facts. And, often, not even any facts about how to play the game at all: the user manual for the PlayStation 3 version of the BioShock – Ultimate Rapture Edition simply says: “Consult [url] for game instructions,” somewhat defeating the purpose of encouraging players to engage with the complex, rich world and artwork of the BioShock and Rapture universe. THANKS, 2K.

VideoGameManualNotes

But, despite the bleak message of this post so far, it’s good to see that some developers still like go to town on the accompanying user guide; seeing the instruction manual as a part of the game’s package and an equal part of the art and aesthetic of it as the game itself. Although this adds time and cost to the production of the final game, as a conscientious (and academic) gamer, this adds to my experience of the game and the value that I obtain from its universe:

Assassin’s Creed II (PlayStation 3 version tested) uses its instruction manual to enhance the experience of the game as a whole, being laid out in the form of a set of research notes from Abstergo Industries explaining how to operate the Animus 2.0 (the in-game ‘machine’ allowing Desmond Miles access to the memories of the historical assassin, Ezio Audiotore da Firenze) and annotated by Desmond’s Abstergo refugee, Lucy Stilman. For example, in one such annotation, the AC II manual makes fun of its preceding game and the insta-death the player experience upon landing in water by mentioning: “Please make sure to remove that annoying bug preventing swimming.” It may be just a small in-joke, but it rewards the stolid adventurer that delves into the user manual, and adds some local colour to an otherwise perfunctory explanation of the game’s operations and features.

More archaic instruction manuals also reflect other curiosities of gaming’s history: the ‘Notes’ section of pages which are common in many instruction guides, for example. These hark back to a time when it was necessary for players to write down level passwords or codes, when savegame functions weren’t a widespread feature of most console games and in-game cheat modes were abound. Back in the day, the instruction manual was also an important barrier against software piracy – I recall the efforts of publishers like LucasArts doing their best to stop pirates from distributing pirated games (copied from floppy disks) by requiring users to look up a code in the manual (randomised each time you play­; e.g. “page 34, line 3 ……….”) in order to access the game. Of course, there would be nothing to stop large-scale pirates simply reproducing the manual, as well, but it may have halted the disk-copying of bedroom pirates.

"Piracy harms consumers as well as legitimate developers, publishers and retailers."

Page one of the manual for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag ~ “Piracy harms consumers as well as legitimate developers, publishers and retailers.” /FAIL

What place do instruction manuals have, though, in a world where control schemes for many video games can be edited and mapped to a player’s particular tastes? If the primary operators for in-game control are not fixed, then what worth is there in publishing a list of them in hard copy form? Furthermore, with future consoles likely to ditch physical game discs altogether (Microsoft nearly managed to get away with doing it in the current console generation, but not quite), will we see an absence of all printed materials, with a reliance purely on download-only games a la PC gaming on Steam?

Of course, I have nothing against tutorials an in-game manuals per se – if they can be presented in the context of the coherent storyline and with due care and attention, then a tutorial is a highly effective way of inducting the user into the gameworld and setting up the rest of the game. But why waste the opportunity to present extra content to the consumer? Maybe I’m in a minority. Perhaps the evidence that many players don’t look at modern game manuals is evidence that they’re an archaic artform that should be retired; perhaps alongside physical copies of videogames altogether, I don’t know. But if I’m a last bastion of a bygone era where the physical world still musters a round of applause, then I’m happy to be its final pillar of support. Godspeed.

[Zinar7]

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Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites

Scary
Since tomorrow is the 2014 edition of the Capitalism-fest that is Hallowe’en and the “scary things” closet has already been opened once again and a whole bunch of horror media sent barrelling our way, I thought I’d consider the role that video games play in our annual celebration of creepiness. Hurrah!

I’m a sucker for horror movies: creepy ones, silly ones, gory ones; you name it, I’ll devour it. Horror video games, on the other hand, can GET THE FUCKING HELL AWAY FROM ME.

Joel Cuddles

Largely, horror films completely fail to give me the creeps: perhaps it’s the knowledge that it’s all just a big scam, and the girl being chased by the guy with the big axe isn’t really being chased, and the guy with the big axe doesn’t really want to examine the girl’s internal organs in minute detail and with the complete opposite of surgical precision. Like everything in the movies, it’s just a big ol’ fake and there’s really nothing to be scared about at all.

At best, a surprise set-piece will give a brief shock, but never nightmares: the only things in recent memory to actually, properly, scare me were the Spanish original of [.REC] (which, incidentally, I will never ever watch again; not because it was too scary, but because the next time I see it will be a disappointment and I want to maintain it as one of my favourite horror films of all time) and pretty much all of The Descent (which was largely an hour and a half of Scary Things Jumping Out at You in the Dark™). Aside from that, I’m pretty unshakeable even in the face of maddening terror. When it comes to horror video games though, then you can rewrite all the rule books and Consequences Will Never Be the Same.

It’s here that I should probably define what I mean when I say “horror game”:

Horror Game [hawr-er geym]

n.  A video game whose predominant function is to scare, or thrill, above and beyond a regular ‘action’ game.

“I played this horror game last night and it was so scary that I accidentally vomited out my internal organs.”

It’s not a necessary prerequisitive for horror-games to be action-based, but most fall under the well-trodden banner of ‘survival horror’: your Resident Evils, your Silent Hills and your Alone in the Darks. These (almost universally) place you in the scope of some city-wide outbreak of nasties keen to chew on your face; away from which you must navigate your way (from fixed camera angles) in a third-person manner whilst simultaneously trying to find your wife/daughter/dog and understand what the hell’s gone wrong with the world. Even so, there are plenty of other horror-filled titles that meander away from the standard ‘shoot at and run away from the monster things chasing you’ to encompass psychological horrors, as well as the physical ones. I can categorically say that I will never, ever ever ever play Amnesia: The Dark Descent: I may own it on Steam, thanks in some manner to some Humble Indie Bundle somewhere along the line, but I’ll never install it.

Broadly, I watch horror films to be amused (usually by their shocking production values, hilariously bad dialogue and entertaining special effects), not to sit on the edge of my seat. but I can at least appreciate that some find horror films “scary” in some way. Horror video games, on the other hand, require direct input and often an emotional attachment (likely with the main character or perhaps for a “damsel” in “distress” that provides the key focal point for the story slash action) which amplifies the terror through your desire to see them survive the ordeal.

With a horror film, you know everything’s on rails and that the horror will progress without your direct involvement; you’re just along for the ride until the credits roll. If you do get scared, the action will progress regardless and you’re safe in the knowledge that, in 1-2 hours’ time, it’ll be over; no matter how much (or little) you engage with the scares. Where horror movies largely stick to the same sort of tropes (meaning you can largely predict how and when the scares are going to take place, who’s going to die, when something’s going to jump out, yada yada), proper horror games don’t have the same heritage and traditions and are tend to be far more innovative and inventive with how they give you the creeps. Aside from the more direct input that the player has on the action in a horror game than horror movie, this might also arise because of the relative infancy in which horror games inhabit, at least when compared to the 100-odd-year history of cinema.

Around this time last year, Naughty Dog unleashed one of the defining games of the PS3 generation in the form of The Last of Us; a survival-horror (ish) adventure game combining tension, emotion and zombie-ish things into a snowball of praise and Game of the Year (GotY) nominations from gaming critics. A year on (and with its recent re-release on PS4 in the form of a ‘remastered’ edition), many critics still view it as the high point of the previous console generation, drawing comparison with some of the ‘greats’ of cinema and banding around nicknames like “the Citizen Kane of games”. Still, given that the first, proper, piece of horror cinema is almost a century old now (widely accepted to be the creepy, unsettling The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it’s unsurprising that video game developers have caught on to the main tricks of making a survival-horror game scare both physically and psychologically, becoming genuinely innovative with its horror engagement and leaving much of cinema’s generic horror output writhing in the dust.

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Given the immense (and almost universal) acclaim in which it is still held, I kind of feel I should play The Last of Us, but it just doesn’t grab me enough to give it a go (pun very much intended). I don’t go overboard for survival horror, and never have been: I think one reason why I dislike survival horror is that it takes itself so darned seriously (that Silent Hill dog ending aside), whereas all my favourite horror films (The Evil Dead, Saw, The Happiness of the KatakurisZombieland) are those ones that blow things over the top and deploy entertainment and/or comedy to complement the terror. The slow, tense styles of most survival horror titles hold no sway: the prospect of having to tensely save ammo/health and be frightened to death around every corner is often not the greatest motivator.

Instead, I prefer to be far more ‘gung-ho’ in my gaming style: it’s much more enjoyable to be charging around levels at full-tilt, full unloading clips of ammo in every available direction and trying to have as much fun (and cause as much chaos) as possible; preferably to a soundtrack delivered by Andrew W.K. or Turbonegro or something equally mental. This does, however,tend to make me a bit rubbish at stealth-based games like Thief and Hitman, let alone standard survival-horror games where you’re encouraged to save every last bullet and avoid alerting the entire zombie horde by careering around throwing grenades at the scenery. For shoot ’em ups of every colour and creed, I far prefer those that distribute copious amounts of ammunition and supply copious hordes of ghoulies/baddies to use it on; such as the glorious Bulletstorm or the masterpiece of Halo. “Saving some ammo for later” just isn’t in my dictionary, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I do stray into the darkened realms of horror gaming, I tend to to fall back on my love for zombies and zombie movies as a crucial pivot and gossamer connection to the world I know and love. And, even then, I like my zombie games to be entertaining struggles rather than bleak journeys of mere survival based on scavenging for crumbs of survival; the likes of Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead providing far more amusement than any number of repetitive, po-faced Resident Evils. I’ve recently been playing through Organ Trail (Director’s Cut) once again; clocking ever more hours into its cheesy, tongue-in-cheek conversion of the classic Oregon Trail into a homage-filled zombie survival adventure and enjoying every minute of it. And even then, if Plants vs. Zombies still isn’t the best zombie game ever made, then I’m a giant heron.

Okay, so enough about full-on ‘horror’ games; what about scary monsters and nice sprites in mainstream gaming at large? There’s an increasing trope for so-called ‘regular’ (non-scary, or mainly non-horror-based) games to artificially use ‘scary’ sequences to add to the drama or tension of a regular ‘action’ game, particularly in first-person person shooters, to varying degrees of success. Half-Life 2‘s superlative Ravenholm sequence is still one of the scariest (and most memorable) sequence in a modern first-person shooter, whilst the Sander Cohen section from BioShock – with all of its weeping angel-style mannequin-splicers and haunted theatre props – is one of gaming’s most expertly-executed creep-fests. Whilst Treyarch’s Call of Duty titles – with their schlocky zombies and undead Nazi footsoldiers – just feel like a tired resurrection of the same old trope of taking a standard game and trying to shoehorn some shocks into it, Red Dead Dedemption‘s glorious DLC/story expansion ‘Undead Nightmare‘ managed to implement a superlative zombie mode with infinite more care and grace.

Aside from traditional survival-horror games, there’s still a whole bunch of originality to be found within the ‘horror’ genre; resisting the mainstream horror genre’s tropes of endless wandering through endless dark, tight, grey corridors shooting zombies and collecting herbs. The likes of Project Zero (multi-platform, 2001-), Eternal Darkness (GameCube, 2002) and Cursed Mountain (Wii, 2009) come critically acclaimed by those in the know, demonstrating that there’s innovation to be found if players wander off the beaten survival-horror path, and the indie community also seems to be leading the charge in horror gaming of late; with particular successes such as the aforementioned Amnesia series, Penumbra: Black Plague and, this Hallowe’en’s breakout hit, Five Nights at Freddy’s. The equally-fascinating and terrifying Slender: The Eight Pages (which I have played; although not for long) demonstrate that terror can be inflicted without a bullet ever being fired.

So, despite the fact that I’m active only in the fringes of horror gaming, I’d wager that the genre is in fair health; so long as you steer clear of the kind of trash that The Evil Within appears to be peddling. With the growing success of Oculus Rift and true-VR gaming, I can only imagine that the successes of immersive, truly scary video games will also go interstellar. Schlocky, jumpscare games might not be my exact cup of tea, but I’m fully in favour of the injection of psychological, unsettling horrors into video gaming as a whole and engaging stories that place less emphasis on shooting space marines and more on tapping into the brain’s psychological fears. Game designers, take note plz.

Anyway, since this post has mainly been about scary things and personal gripes, I thought I’d leave you with a wonderful scene of beauty and harmony and everything that is ‘right’ with the world; don’t have nightmares.

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[Zinar7]

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