31 Days of Horror Games: Days 3&4

Missed another day, so here’s another double feature for y’all. This time I’m returning to some classics. These two, above all else, I consider must plays for horror.

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Silent Hill 2 is the pinnacle of horror for me. It’s been the most influential to my personal sense of storytelling and the kind of horror I’m drawn towards. Sixteen years later, its unique style of psychological terror combined with strong visuals and a brilliant industrialized soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka still stands strong. It’s haunting and elegant, gorgeous in its grotesquerie. It’s a story about a selfish man caught in his own personal hell that’s still valuable today.

It’s also a game that deserves to be played the Right way. Grab a used PS2. Get a Greatest Hits copy off eBay. Avoid the PS3 collection at all costs, it’s an insulting cash grab. Revel in the fog.

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Fatal Frame is another PS2 oldie, one framed around a mechanic that I don’t think any other game franchise has really taken advantage of quite as well. You’ve got an old supernatural camera and you use it to take pictures of ghosts. Somehow, that’s fucking terrifying.

Fatal Frame and its sequels masterfully use suspense and the helplessness conceived from an added barrier between confrontation to create some of the scariest moments I’ve ever experienced in a game. It also feels like a quintessentially Japanese experience, drawing from Japanese horror cinema and 1980s culture.

Fatal Frame is available for PS3 on PSN.

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31 Days Of Horror Games: Day 1&2

I was out of town this weekend, so I wasn’t able to start this on October 1st as I would’ve liked. So I’ll start this project off with TWO games instead of one!

Anyway, sometimes people will say “horror video games are dead” and I think that’s pretty ignorant. Just like some of the best horror movies ever–It Follows, The Babadook, Get Out–have come out in this decade and tackle spectacularly more abstract and mundane terrors, so too have horror games been given a new lease on life through amazing game publishing sites like itch.io that give more space and visibility to developer’s small and more experimental titles.

I’d like to provide further spotlight to those small horror experiences. Throughout the month of October, I’ll write a small blurb and provide links to horror games I think are interesting and worth the time investment, whether they try new things with the medium and genre, or provide fun and scares with solid conventions. I’ll also throw in a few ‘bigger’ games that I consider part of my personal video game horror canon, that I believe are Must Plays for someone looking to dig into horror games.

Today, I’ll start off with Dead End Road and In The Kingdom.

Dead End Road is a simple tale of hubris. You’ve gone against an old woman’s warning and taken part in an ancient ritual that you must bring to completion. Now…something is chasing you. Drive, drive as fast as you can, obtain the ritual items you need, and return to the old woman and hope for the best.

DER is a driving obstacle course at its core, the majority of the game tasking you with avoiding other cars, trash, weather effects, and disturbing supernatural forces. You have to manage your fuel and pay attention or a fatal accident lies in your future. It’s a short, procedural game; expect to die a couple times. Luckily it doesn’t wear out its welcome. If you’ve ever driven at night down a dark, empty road, the eerie atmosphere will be familiar and more than enough to entertain.

Dead End Road is available on itch.io and Steam.

In The Kingdom is more proof of concept than complete game, but it’s still worth the half hour to hour investment. It’s in vein with classic 90s fps games like Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein, although in comparison its shooting is functional at best. What makes ITK interesting is its tonal strengths: its visuals and soundscape provide this violent, eldritch environment that’s beautiful and haunting in its hostility. You are not welcome here, but you must make it through.

In The Kingdom is available on itch.io.

The common link between Dead End Road and In The Kingdom lies in their lo-fi aesthetics. Horror video games are great at hinting at the gruesome and traumatic, at exploiting our paranoia.

Tomorrow I’ll return to a classic horror game, and continue with one game per day. I hope you enjoy these!

In Review – Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

I have a weird, complicated relationship with Uncharted, but one I’m sure is shared by many. I hate these games. I honestly detest the first three in the series. I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, say they were any good until Uncharted 4, and yet, here I am, having played five of them (I’m not counting the mobile game, which I have played, and like, but just uses the franchise as wallpaper, nor the Vita game, which I have no real interest in). What keeps drawing me back in, what compells me to return to these games of which the majority I dislike?

To be fair, there’s plenty to praise about the series. If you want Game As Movie, it’s your best bet. The setpieces have always been spectacular and memorable, the dialogue is genuinely charming and funny, and new things are always attempted with each installment. Naughty Dog has and continues to make an indelible mark on games that cant be easily imitated. They’re masters of their craft. They’ve landed on a successful formula that keeps even a grouch like me quizzically coming back for more.

Lost Legacy is a testament to that formula. It sits on a precipice point, stands almost as the thesis statement for this era of Naughty Dog, looking both fondly back and forward to new experiences.

After four Crash Bandicoot games, ND obviously wanted to attempt new things. The same followed with the Jak and Daxter games, and now so too are we standing audience and participant to ND’s continued evolution with Uncharted, Lost Legacy very likely being the last installment from the studio. It’s a fitting one. Spoilers ahead.

Lost Legacy (hereby LL) follows Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross, two supporting characters from previous games, as they search for the fabled Tusk of Ganesha in civil war-stricken India. They’re a classical odd pair, Nadine playing the straight man to Chloe’s funny man. Luckily, the two have excellent chemistry, and it’s very easy to accept and go along with them being thrust together despite never interacting in previous games.

It almost feels like officially sanctioned fanfiction, in a way, especially so because the idea of a AAA game with not one, but two leading women still feels fantastical. It exists, though, and it’s frankly quite good. It’s further testament to ND’s major strength as a developer: their drive to listen, learn, and try new things with their games.

Nadine and Chloe are allowed to get dirty and grimey, are allowed to have visible muscle, are allowed to be both professional and emotional without it ever being cast as an indictment of their gender. They’re fully realized women with inner lives shaped by that but never limited to it. After four games with Nathan, who’s about as generic as a rogue adventurer can get, it’s so refreshing to have protagonists I’m actually interested in learning about.

The biggest advantage Chloe and Nadine have lies in their origins as supporting cast. There was never any pretense that either of these women were good people, and that moral ambiguity follows them into LL. This alone makes it a more cohesive and coherent narrative than any previous Uncharted game despite following the same basic story structure: Nathan is unquestionably cast as a Hero, his countless murders conveniently ignored. For Chloe and Nadine, murder is an accepted risk. They know what kind of people they are and don’t shy away from it. The witty dialogue and jokes feel less jarring, less dissonant here.

It also helps that there’s simply less gunfights overall in LL. I got through approximately ninety percent of encounters with stealth alone, and those I couldn’t avoid were faster and more intense, keeping the game from slogging through ultraviolence.

LL is lean, and feels very much like a Best Hits Collection of Uncharted’s various setpieces and small moments. There’s callbacks abound, but they’re actually cool, or funny, and never overstay their welcome. It’s a very self-aware game without being insufferable about it.

This self-awareness extends to the narrative’s themes and the protagonists’ character arcs. LL is itself a metacommentary on gender, on, well, the legacies left behind by men vying for power, truth, and control, legacies left on the doorsteps of women then demanded to prove themselves and contextualize their relationships with them.

Likewise, what is an Uncharted game without Nathan Drake and his ultraviolence? Well, a damn good Uncharted game that confidently stands on its own, one that acknowledges the franchise’s legacy while being happy to leave it behind. A very bittersweet one, because LL is the game I wish Uncharted had been from the beginning. It feels like a starting point, an origin story for a team I’d gladly devour comics and pulp novels and cartoons and more games of, games that, in an ideal world, would push the narrative and mechanical concepts of Uncharted even further, into something that feels less formulaic and more thoughtful. Uncharted was never meant to be a puzzle game or thief simulator, but why only in the last game are these parts actually expanded upon? Why only in the last game are basic mechanics layered into something even slightly more mentally engaging and physically involved?

It’s frustrating, but at least it’s there. Lost Legacy is this frustration encapsulated, a solid experience, the best in a franchise, yearning for more, squandering potential but good at what it does do. It makes me excited to see what Naughty Dog will do next. Here’s hoping That Last of Us 2 blows LL out of the water.

Weapon Degradation In Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD.

I usually detest weapon degredation in games. I understand and appreciate the general conceit around it: ideally, it discourages hoarding and anxieties around permanence and ownership, it encourages experimenting with different weapons rather than sticking to ones the player knows, it can create interesting and tense situations that force players to improvise and use everything available to them.

Ideally. In execution, it’s usually at best a distraction or an exercise in frustration.

Breath of the Wild is the first game I’ve played in which I not only didn’t outright hate weapon degradation, but loved it! It felt intuitive and seamless within the rules of the game’s world. It felt like it genuinely and spectacularly achieved those previously mentioned aims. 

It’s due to several factors. First: BOTW’s world physics are clearly communicated and consistent across all objects. Everything is equivalent, there is generally not an illogical hieararchy of interactivity and systems. If I can set this piece of wood on fire, why not this other piece? Therefore, you can apply these rules to weapons. A Bokoblin club is not just a club, it is wooden, thus you can set it on fire and it becomes a flame-based blunt weapon. That’s cool!!!

It’s a gentle, enthusiastic, and positive encouragment of experimentation. What can I do with these weapons, how do they interact with the rest of the world? It makes -sense- that weapons degrade or can be adapted into other kinds of objects because they inhabit the world as much as anything else.

It also keeps ‘weaker’ weapons useful in certain contexts. At the beginning of BOTW, you’ve got a tree branch. By the end, I at least had 20-25 slots filled with all sorts of crazy spears, swords, clubs, boomerangs, axes, etc. made of a variety of materials such as steel, wood, and bone. In a thunderstorm, a wooden or bone weapon is essential for your safety. If you need wood for kindling, a basic axe is the most efficient in terms of time, effort, and weapon longevity. A club on fire can be used to light dry grass to create an updraft, and so on. Nothing completely loses its value, both as weapon and as a tool within a living world. BOTW encourages you to revisit things you may have thought you ‘moved on’ from. It still has value, only what that means has changed.

BOTW is downright the most cinematic game I’ve ever played. The only ones that come close are Proteus and 30 Flights of Loving. What these three games have in common is not cutscenes, wrestling control from the player, or big, scripted setpieces, but a masterful understanding of lighting, framing, and how to use music to create moments that are emotionally meaningful and personal. Proteus dredges up the vaguely foreboding mystery and wonder of 70s sci-fi, 30 Flights throws you into the best chase scenes from spy films, and BOTW feels like the best sort of Ghibli flight of fancy.

BOTW has damn good music and flowing, beautiful environments that all lend their strength towards combat that feels like living through a recitation of Greek myth. Fights in BOTW aren’t just a numbers game: they demand your attention, keeping you focused on so many elements at once in a way that’s not overwhelming, but rather thrilling. One, of course, is weapon degredation. A weapon breaking isn’t just loss, it presents an opportunity. When you strike an enemy or toss a weapon at them that’s about to break, the damage inflicted doubles and may also stun them. When to break a weapon then becomes a tactical decision and can turn the tide on a battle. It keeps every encounter exciting and tense and active.

Also: there’s just so many dang weapons lying around! I was never left wanting for a way to beat up a monster. Weapon degradation sucks when you’re just trying to have a weapon at all, but I always had some way to replace broken weapons. Maybe not always what I was hoping for, but again, everything’s useful and lends towards emergent moments that could be inventive, thrilling, or even funny in what ends up happening. Everything is an opportunity, and that’s what Breath of the Wild ends up evoking even through breaking your pointy sticks. Opportunity.

Digimon Adventure and the Internet

So I’m only about halfway through my rewatch of Digimon Adventure 01 but watching it now, as an adult that grew up through the internet, it feels like so much more is coming to the forefront that Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, Wolf Children, the upcoming The Boy and the Beast) wanted to communicate. Probably the most important episode in the series, the one which acts as the entire thesis of the series, and the one I want to focus on here, is episode 21, ‘Home Away From Home’, which was actually directed by Hosoda himself, who also directed the movies Digimon Adventure and Our War Game!

Episode 21 makes direct allusions to the first movie (which acted as a series pilot), both in Kairi’s debut in the tv series and through Hosoda’s powerful and iconic visual style. The sudden and drastic jump in animation quality is actually a bit jarring, but ends up working towards emphasizing the differences between the ‘digital world’ and the ‘real world’. The colour palette usually used in the series is typical, highly saturated, and cartoonlike.

With E21, Hosoda creates strong visual contrasts. The colour palette has been significantly muted, using colder colours and sharp lighting to create emotional separation and tension. Taichi has been flung back into the real world, and is taken aback by the, ironically enough, unreality of it. Does he return to help his friends in the digital world? Does he stay here at home? What responsibilities does he have towards himself and others?

I say E21 is the thesis of the series because it most directly confronts what previous episodes consider for a few minutes at best: what does it mean to be a person in digital contexts? How do our bodies relate to online communication, and what responsibilities do we retain?

Here, in 2016, we’re still figuring out how to combat online harassment. Our technologies are not neutral–Twitter’s weak blocking/reporting functions, for instance, are directly political because they value profit and brand engagement over providing protections for those most likely to be harassed (women, LGBT+ people, people of colour, etc). I don’t know if Digimon Adventure 01, having premiered in 1999, was the first series to consider the internet’s growing importance and impact, but it’s certainly impressive how it does it within the context of a children’s show.

That’s Adventure 01‘s greatest strength, really. It used the template of the Monster Collection genre to hone in on the personal stories of its characters and the impact of their interpersonal conflicts and relationships. The titular Digimon are ciphers for personal development. An example: Matt, the Cool Kid, the Lone Wolf, the kid who martyrs and burdens himself to protect his brother, develops a stronger sense of love, empathy, and self-care through Gabumon. The latter’s patience and compassion teaches Matt balance, and what friendship truly entails: loving relationships that empower everyone involved.

Returning to E21: Adventure 01 and Hosoda took the internet seriously. They took online relationships seriously. The digital world and the real world are layered over each other, inseparable and intricately tied together. Our actions online have impact in our day-to-day lives. Like the cartoony colour palette of the previous 20 episodes, and the subsequent return to that palette after Tai and Koramon return to File Island, the structures of our internet abodes work to create a sense of play, of unreality, and freedom from consequence. Logging out and returning to the “real world” can be a surreal experience that we have to reconcile to make peace with ourselves.

Digimon, as a franchise, started off as a humble spin-off of the Tamagotchi. These were virtual pets that you fed, trained, cleaned, and played with. They were fake, simply a few kilobytes and pixels. But like our Tamagotchis, our Neopets, and so on, their emotional impact was real. We bonded with them, assigned them value, mourned our losses. “Realness” is irrelevant. We behave in accordance. We reach our Ultimate potential through love and compassion and patience and a will to understand. We take each other seriously.

Stability

So Lulu Blue, a friend and game dev I truly admire, made this post today about their relationship with games and mental illness, particularly borderline personality disorder. It’s an illness I share with them, and I found myself deeply relating to a lot of what they wrote. So I wanted to share some of my own experiences.

I deal with depression and anxiety, physical disability due to chronic pain, all on top of borderline (hereafter referred to at BPD). My BPD makes my relationships and sense of self really unstable, with horrid bouts of paranoia, sudden mood swings, and no idea of who or where I am or how I relate to others.

Critically, a lot of things that I would normally detest in video games offer me a sense of comfort, control, and most importantly–stability. In Mass Effect or Dragon Age, I can pretend that I have choices, some modicum of agency, that what I do matters in this world and deeply impacts others. I can build relationships with these characters that are predictable and don’t feed into my paranoia. I can form a sense of self through Shepard, through the Inquisitor, even if only a temporary one.

One thing especially that I wanted to emphasize is the difference between embodying someone in the first-person as opposed to third-person. I find myself more grounded in the latter. Perhaps first-person is still too close, or the odd perspective, the ‘floatyness’ of these abstract bodies resembles too much the feelings of disassociation. I get overwhelmed, I fling the camera around, often get lost in my environment in ways I never do when playing a third-person game such as, say, Tomb Raider.

The kineaesthetics (er, ‘game feel’) of these games, which have solid shooting or a pleasant, ‘real’ weight to their motion and pacing offer a point in time and space that I can attach myself to and stay grounded within. I have a defined body I can place relative to an environment, and the importance of that can’t be understated. Saints Row 4 is a game I adore simply for its character customization. It’s a silly game, but it’s all about embodiment and power in a relatively safe arena of exploration.

And look, sorry, I can’t not bring up Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4 and their intense levels of micromanagement. It’s a magical, beautiful thing for a messy, erratic brain like my own. Lulu brings up ‘identityless’ games, those that focus more on management and abstract ideas. These are fantastic, and while Fallout is very much not one of them, the series ends up producing the same results for me.

Immersion, a trance state, the zone, whatever you wish to call it–losing yourself positively rather than negatively like in an episode of mania or disassociation is some great self-care. Similarly to ASMR, these kinds of games are repetitive, but ask enough engagement that they end up being therapeutic. It’s in this context that, while traditional Gamers might praise FO4’s ‘hardcore’ness, I instead indulge its gentle qualities, its quieter moments of exploration and settlement building.

These are all singular experiences, which is crucial for a person with BPD–at least for me. I’m pretty isolated, my need for attention and approval require some kind of fulfillment, but online interaction, counterintuively to what many other people experience, only stresses me out and worsens my anxiety. So having these worlds to myself, that I can express myself in at my own pace, are critical. I have to echo Lulu in saying I couldn’t survive without these works, however clumsy they may be.

WURRWALF.NET RELAUNCH | REVIEW – MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Yo, okay, so I’ve been pretty absent because I experienced some serious burnout when it came to writing about games and such. My heart wasn’t in it–the atmosphere around the games writing community at the time was something akin to inhaling secondhand smoke.

Anyway, I’ve decided to relaunch my site with some thoughts on the movie Mad Max: Fury Road.

I should clarify that I haven’t seen the previous three (though I’m gettin’ right on that). But holy hell was Fury Road a good movie. Frustratingly good, in the best and worst ways. See, it’s with a dash of cynicism that I have to say there probably won’t be anything that comes close to Fury Road in terms of execution for a while.

It’s stylish, vibrant, unreal to emphasize depravity and survival. For once, the boatloads of blues and oranges actually function–most stuff today will use these colour filters and pretty much ruin a movie visually. Every film now looks like the godawful low-budget horror flicks you find while trawling through Netflix. Oh boy, another zombie/vampire/whatever movie awash in in grey blues, sickly greens, and acid oranges that only work to make this the most boring thing to have to look at with my poor, abused eyes.

But colour is used in Mad Max skillfully, to set tone and atmosphere, and there ends my spiel about something really basic that I’m super sick of.

Also: great practical effects make for the best two hour car chase in movies. Old ladies doing their own stunts! Explosions that are actually cool! Downright amazing costume design! It’s all so ridiculous, but measured, the work of veterans, and it’s so much fun.

Mad Max remembers what makes action movies great, and that’s not action all the time, never ending, never giving you a moment to breath to actually absorb what the heck just occurred, to really chew the cud of that fight or car crash or whatnot. Rather, it builds tension, anticipation, it gives the characters and audience the space to explore themselves, and there might not be MUCH there, but there’s something, and it holds emotional weight–its substantive when it could’ve very easily been empty calories.

It’s just really satisfying, being able to sit for two hours watching a car chase and somehow be totally enthralled. Like, is this for real? Am I doing this and loving it? These are the same things I asked myself while playing Wolfenstein: The New Order. How did I manage fifteen some-odd hours killing Nazis and not be bored out of my skull? Did I forget how Liking Things felt?

Maybe it’s because for once, characters felt like people, women were treated as people (honestly, the bare minimum, so applauding anything that achieves this is a double-edged sword), and waves of lore obviously waiting for you to construct a whole wikia subdomain out of them are nowhere to be seen.

Don’t misunderstand, there’s a huge world under the hood there. There’s tons to see in the wasteland. The worldbuilding is respectable and impressive. But Mad Max gives you only what you need, enough to make its premise work, and a respect for audience that gives us room to figure the pieces together to our satisfaction and on our terms.

And this is what makes Fury Road frustrating in a way, because hey, it is good. It’s excellent even. Yet it’s even moreso in light of how bad so much stuff is. Marvel’s dumbfuck superheroes are the biggest movie franchises right now and I’m still like, crying a bit inside with amazement that I was able to actually sit through the entirety of Guardians of the Galaxy, let alone like it.

Mad Max: Fury Road should be a lesson to filmmakers and movie studios, and even with Jurassic World on the horizon, I’ll probably go back to ignoring basically every movie that comes out for the rest of the year because I’m too busy fuming at how good this one is.