Twenty four years ago I was adorable. Now I'm inquisitive and hilarious.
I have a plastic tooth to replace one lost in a mosh pit during my more ridiculous high school years. I speak shitty German and I ride a bike. My Xbox gets so much use, I'm sometimes embarassed. But I'm unemployed, so my time is spent writing blogs on the internet, reading good literary fiction, and playing video games.
In the grand scale of things, I'm a late-bloomer. My parents banned all consoles from my house as a kid. See what you've done? Now I game constantly to make up for years of lost time.
I won't list my favorites, because you've probably seen ten lists like it before me.
There's a life-sized Boba Fett standee in my living room.
The following contains spoilers for Condemned: Criminal Origins
Everything begins with a start, a moment designed to make you jump. Your partner raps on your window with a flashlight. “People are scared,” he says with behest. “We’ve got to get this one.” A precedent is quietly set. He doesn’t make it clear who it is that is scared. Whether it’s you he refers to or the people in the neighborhood with the potential to become victims. All of us are scared he has told you – everyone - and, more alarmingly than all of this, is the fact that he hasn’t excluded himself.
Little do I know that the darkness of the hallway as I crouch through the police tape isn’t an anomaly. I recall double checking my gamma and brightness levels. It’s nearly overdone, too dark, but my partner doesn’t seem to care. So I squint and follow his shadowy outline up the stairs.
Your crime tool works better in the dark, my partner told me moments earlier. Alone now, I think to myself “Of course it does.” My friend in forensics, Rosa tells me of vagrants and vaguely defined ‘psychotics,’ teeming with rage brought on by the unknown. Some new drug is to blame, a beat cop surmises. His transmission is cut off by the sounds of scuffling, loud crashing, and muffled gun shots. I’m told one of these crazed homeless is near me, making such a racket to reach me that everyone else is aware of it before I am.
I draw my weapon and announce my presence, alerting him that I am, in fact, a police officer. He shouts in a way that sounds close, in a real way, yet still echoes in the empty dingy warehouse rooms. “F#@k you,” he tells me through the vacant hallways, his location still indeterminate despite the volume. My roommate jumps. “Oh shit,” he says. “That dude is going to get you.” This is the first enemy and I haven’t even seen him yet.
I’ll be the first to admit it, I bought Condemned: Criminal Origins not because I saw an ad for it or because a I followed its hype in a magazine like a paranoid schizophrenic. No. I bought it because I had just bought an Xbox 360 and Perfect Dark Zero was more of a disappointment than watching your own son graduate from clowning school. Condemned was an anomaly for someone like myself, who tracks video game news and subscribes to at least three different gaming magazines. I had no expectations and nothing to prepare me for any of it.
Condemned was the first game people asked me to play in front of them. Later, the same would be said for Portal, Uncharted, and Bioshock. One roommate scolded me profusely for having played a bit further without letting her watch, as if I had jumped ahead an episode of LOST. I offered to replay it for her, but she denied me. “You’d know what happens,” she said. “It wouldn’t be as scary.” She settled instead for being told what she had missed, so that she could continue to see the story unfold.
These are games that are mislabeled as cinematic experiences. No one would complain about watching a horror film with someone who had already seen it. As long as that person restrained from the obnoxious “Oh, this next part is great,” the experience is unaltered. The same promiscuous campers will get slaughtered in the same order. But a video game is different, because the player is creating the cinematography on the fly. If he or she knows, generally, when an enemy will come whipping around the corner with a shotgun or when the floor is programmed to give way, the illusion is destroyed.
I recall, vividly, the moment when my detective partner left me, because I would never see another ally for a very long time. He will be the last person for quite awhile who didn’t want to swing a hatchet through my skull. Every other friend will appear only as a detached voice on the other end of a phone, the unannounced author of redacted words in my personnel file, or represented only by the distant and unreachable pulsating flash of police siren lights.
Horror games are best delivered heavy with limitations. Resident Evil stripped the player of a free camera and, in that sense, of perspective. Hallways couldn’t be properly looked down and, often, the way you’d just gone disappeared off-screen. It was difficult to keep track of your path and your perception was completely askew from all the constantly changing camera angles. It taunted your desperate need to see oncoming enemies and made their arrival all the more terrifying.
Condemned gives you full first-person camera range, but it tears way plenty to compensate. Your HUD is nearly non-existent. All information is delivered through phone calls and detective tools. Your pistol has an on-screen ammo counter, but only if you pause to remove the clip, and even then it fades away after you’ve reinserted it into your weapon. The game demands, instead, that it stay in your memory and then accepts the challenge of scaring that information right out of your head, to ensure you hear that gut-wrenching click at the most inopportune times.
Weapons are a constant fight and, unlike so many games that equip you with rocket launcher shoulder pads, you’re left to merciless beat your enemies to death with pipes ripped from walls and loose rebar. I killed three men in a panicked torrent of swings, my brow drenched in sweat as they lay at my feet with a paper-cutter I tore from its stand in my fist. Whatever building material or abandoned baseball bat you can find will hurriedly become your close, close friend. But you can’t get too cocky, as the enemies will be wielding the same equipment.
They’re deviously clever, too. Watch and they will tail you through hallways for whole tracks of time before actually making an assault. Rattling window bars and knocking shelves over. They mime injury when you swing, only to lurch forward with a terrifying assault when you take a step closer. They lure you into traps, jump you all at once, and will leap on top of you, tearing at you with their bare hands and howling inches from your face. The game provides you with execution moves, which seem cartoony and out-of-place at first. But after you've struck an enemy over and over with wet thuds to keep him from tearing you apart, the bone-snap that ends his assault is somehow satisfying. What has the game done to my moral compass?
I’ve never been more scared of an enemy in a game before. My roommates – my audience – validate my terror with genuine screams and gripping tight to my arm. At one point, my roommate begs me not to enter a room. I can hear the enemy, his heavy breathing is very audible with each panicked intake of air twitching with desperation to come at me. I can see the slight shape of a blunt weapon in his hand poking around the edge of a corner. “He’s going to f#*king kill you,” she tells me. It’s not helping.
Condemend seems to delight in tearing at your sense of comfort. Each twist makes you more vulnerable. You lose comrades and credibility. The game begins with a murder investigation and you are a murder investigator. Simple, right? But, soon, it seems the serial killer responsible for the original crime scene is actually dead already. Where does that put you? On the trail of the killer’s killer. But it’s still not that simple. The quickly-named Serial Killer X has orchestrated the facts to make you look guilty. Now you’re chasing a killer killer and the police think you’re the killer.
It becomes a labyrinth of complications. Slowly, it stops being a police detective’s story and becomes something personal. Serial Killer X knows you, has been monitoring you. He’s taken photos of you in your home and trailed your crime scene progress. You’re his unknowing informant, his incidental accomplice. Your fate is tied to his now and you will not know safety until he is dead by your own hands and you, the player, go along with it because the game has made regaining your safety tantamount.
Condemned engages in a torrent of ‘meta-scares,’ programmed scare-tactics in which the designers accept the fact that you’re playing a game, rather than try to make you forget it. They embrace the idea that you can’t look two ways and send enemies from two directions. They deny you the information you take for granted in other games and play upon gaming tropes. Piling on ammunition supplies and then giving you no boss to fight. Scaring you in forced perspective animations, when you can’t react immediately, and jarring you in moments where you expect to be safe from enemies.
A traverse through an abandoned shopping market is made infinitely more terrifying by the groupings of mannequins that line hallways and rooms. Some wear dingy Santa hats. I smacked a few upon arrival, to double check their inanimate appearance. It seems inevitable that one will jump to life and come at me, but eventually there are too many to check in a single room and after whole minutes pass without your paranoia validated, I start to forgo the wrench-to-the-head checks. That’s when one pounces on me with a guttural scream. Somewhere, a designer laughs manically. “I knew it!” I shout, my confidence bruised and my nerves completely shot.
Condemned undergoes some radical departure from its origins. Drifting into the supernatural, it never deviates from the formula it originally introduced, but never stops heightening all of it. Detective tools are for murder scene investigations, until you’re using them to track and read the cryptic wall-scratching of a maniac. You’re a dutiful police investigator, until you are framed for multiple murders and find your cryptic personnel file with, perhaps most disturbing, your x-rays with whole organs redacted. Heck, even your firearm, which should be for shooting, is re purposed as a blunt tool in desperate times.
The game wants you unnerved and never comfortable with your location, your weapons, or your allies. It succeeds here, as for the first time I found myself having to pause before to move into rooms, and it accomplishes a horror experience so effectively, that it became a group activity to play it. Condemend: Criminal Origins set a high precedent with horror games for me. It showed remarkably cunning design, with carefully laid traps and constant psychological warfare designed to undermine the player, and did so with a tight-lipped, twist-laden story. It is terrifying, riveting, and just plain amazing.