It’s way past redundant to say at this point, but I can’t help but feel a little jaded about the eighth generation of consoles, even almost a year after all have become present and accounted for. There’s promise, of course, but promise in the video game industry can ultimately amount to nothing, and does so quite often due to marketing over-compensation and, with sad frequency, flat out lies. Like, say, this one, for example:
When Two Worlds came out in August of 2007, I was a recent hire of a particularly misguided used game retail shop, and at that point I was still using my PS2 – rarely – and knew nothing of what the seventh gen offered. The only glimpses I had of Two Worlds were commercials promising of vast, unknown experiences and customers drooling on the cashwrap as they laid down pre-orders. Being an expansive, epic Western RPG experience that I had yet to play, I could only dream of what a game like this had to offer to gamers. It was a naive time for me; I hadn’t played video games regular in probably five or six years, so I knew nothing about Ultima or even Elder Scrolls. All of my RPGs came out of Japan, and that was pretty much it. So on release day, I looked on with envy as customers bustled into the shop that morning to pick their copies up, one guy telling me that he took the day off from work for an all-day gaming session. Two hours later, that guy came back with Two Worlds, telling me it was the ugliest, most broken game he had ever played, and demanded a refund.
The anger that customers displayed towards Two Worlds (and me for selling it to them as if I was intentionally misleading them) was palpable, and when I finally got myself an Xbox 360, I kept far away from Two Worlds and stuck to credible WRPGs. Years later, when conceiving this project, Two Worlds was one of the first games that came to mind. I had to know what exactly “Oblivion on steroids” looked like.
Hmm... it's not looking good.
This infamous bit of hype-bait was designed and measured to turn some heads. Releasing nearly a year and a half before Two Worlds would blight the gaming world, ESIV: Oblivion achieved incredible heights of immersion and collected a sickening amount of GOTY awards for Bethesda. So the temptation to believe that Reality Pump had reached those heights and beyond was far too tempting for RPG enthusiasts. Not only this, but being two years into the 360’s life cycle, it isn’t unreasonable to understand the belief that Two Worlds may have delivered advancement in Western RPG gaming.
But this was not the case; the game received a critical curb-stomping upon its release. One review from Game Almighty puts it out there with no subtlety: “I hate this game. It’s an embarrassment, a misfire in every respect.” Another from Game Spy says that Two Worlds is “cause for a sort of celebration, because every other game will seem better by comparison.” (Naughty Bear had yet to be released.) One of my favorite blurbs from Metacritic is from My Gamer’s review of Two Worlds, their reviewer declaring that Burger King’s advertisement-as-game Sneak King is a superior game. Damn.
But who could blame them when this is what the opening cutscene of the game that is supposed to put Oblivion to shame looks like?
GAH! THOSE TEETH! THE FUCK?
One may wonder “why not just make your character NOT ugly as sin? This is a Western RPG after all – the bedrock of character customization.” Well, Two Worlds gives you the ability to customize your character, but in the most generic and unimpressive ways that amount to nothing and barely change any physical features. Regardless, with a face like that you’ll want to stick a bucket on his head (his head, no gender or race choices) and leave it there for the rest of the game. Things don’t go much better from there, as that dialogue is basically what you have to look forward to for the next several hours or before you smash the disc. The Mercenary (the protagonist’s only name) is a brick-headed goober whose communication with other characters could only be improved if he abandoned the English language and spoke in a series of grunts he formed through punching himself in the groin. And everyone who talks to the Mercenary isn’t much better; the cast of Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King is more convincing.
These unimpressive voice actors play out an equally unimpressive narrative. The Mercenary’s questionably busty sister Kyra is kidnapped by a nefarious group of Orcs, led by a man named Reist, bent on raising an Orc god-warrior utilizing a relic passed down through the Merc and Kyra’s family. The plot is insanely simple but difficult to follow because following it would require the player to give a shit about anything that’s happening, which you won’t because you’ll likely be mashing the skip button through every line so you won’t have to linger on the painful character models or painful conversation. I’m sad that I can’t really go into much more in-depth analysis than that, but Two Worlds defies you to get invested in the game’s events, which is an utter impossibility due to how forgettable the writing is. IMDB doesn’t even list a writing credit, which doesn’t surprise me because whoever wrote Two Worlds probably forgot they wrote it too. Mercifully, getting through the campaign took about ten hours, but really it would’ve taken even less time had the fast-travel system been better conceived.
This is another problem of Two Worlds – getting around is a pain in the adventurer’s ass. Instead of being able to fast travel directly to locations, Reality Pump implemented teleportation hubs that you can travel between. While there are many hubs, they are not always right where you need them to be, so traveling on foot is going to be essential for a lot of getting around. This was done perhaps to highlight one of the main features of Two Worlds, the horseback riding. The cover of the box even shows the Merc riding on a horse, so this was supposed to be a main selling point of the game. But horses can’t go through teleportation hubs, so unless you park a horse at every single hub in Antaloor, you’ll be working on your cardio for most of the game.
So we have a Western RPG meant to “Oblivion on steroids” with terrible acting, a terrible story, and a terrible fast travel system. What about the combat? Well, there is some variety. You could use a sword, a staff, an axe, a club, a shield, a bow, spells, summoned creatures, or traps. The problem is that you won’t use any of that. Why? Because a pole arm absolutely breaks almost every encounter you have with enemies. It’s got better reach than all other weapons, usually has high damage output, and can hit enemies in all directions, including ones behind you. And since most enemies are melee and will swarm you, you’ll be slapping them and their hilarious ragdoll physics all over the place with little effort. It is wise to keep another weapon that features a different sort of weapon damage (for example, swords have piercing damage, clubs have bludgeon damage, etc.) for when a random enemy type is weaker to that sort of damage, but most of the time I never found that a necessity. You’re best off making your Merc as much of a tank as you can and bash enemies to smithereens. I appreciate that the point of Western RPGs is experimentation, but why experiment when one character-build works so much better than anything else?
There’s also the choice to fight on horseback, but you won’t use this option either. For one, you can’t use a pole arm on a horse’s back, so that’s a big strike. Secondly, the horse controls are beyond loose, so most encounters on horseback will involve you running back and forth begging for a hit to connect. For the sake of efficiency you might as well jump off the fucker and just stab them in the face. Oddly enough, the horseback battle seems like it was meant to be a bigger part of the game. There is a perk that allows you to more easily dismount enemies on horseback. The biggest drawback to this perk? NO ENEMIES RIDE HORSES. They’d be too incompetent to do so anyway. So there you go; a completely useless perk that was supposed to enhance one of the main features of the game that Reality Pump completely left out. Impromptu jousting sessions would have been pretty awesome, but alas…
So Two Worlds is no “Oblivion on steroids.” It’s Oblivion, malnourished, suffering from brain damage, living only on Pop Rocks and drinking its own urine. There are things that I do enjoy about it more than Oblivion. Being able to allocate skill points to whatever you want and re-spec your character as you see fit is nice and can be helpful if you do something like sink a skill point into a useless perk that you can never use. You can also break down items such as armor and swords and use them to improve existing ones, making every item you pick up more than just something to sell later. But the rest of the package is such a cynical exercise in apathy that it might as well not even exist. As a sixty dollar game it more than deserved the flogging it received from critics and gamers alike. Seven years since its release, even being a $3 game, I have difficulty recommending it even for the so-good-it’s-bad enthusiast. If you’re going to play a Two Worlds game, its sequel is a much more engaging experience in that particular territory.
Two Worlds II is vastly more competent and well-intentioned in its presentation than its predecessor; dare I say, it’s Two Worlds on steroids (surely I'm the first to say that). It keeps what works – the skill re-specing, breaking down items – and improves on (almost) everything else. Travelling is much more enjoyable, mainly because the environments are much more realized and have quite a nice diversity. It puts exploration in more competent WRPGs like Dragon Age II to shame – there are forests, swamps, ravaged lands, savannahs, and jungles. It truly gives the world of Antaloor a much more epic scale, making you really feel like you’re intimately exploring what the landscape has to offer. There’s even a variety in cities you visit, one of my favorites being an Asian-inspired city dedicated to academics. Horseback riding is still a thing and, though I found getting around on foot was still just easier, it wasn’t nearly as unwieldy as the first game. Still no enemies on horseback, but you DO get to stab velociraptors, so that's a definite plus.
The narrative is still nothing to speak of – Kyra again becomes the focus for summoning a great evil – but Two Worlds II fairs much better by making the dialogue intentionally comical, like the voice-acting director basically told the cast to forget how to act. As such, conversations always feel like they got an awkward bit of cheese to go with them, making the characters all the more charming. The protagonist (this time just referred to as “Hero”) is played by Alden Adair, and he talks like he was trying to audition for the lead in Dead to Rights but his agent could only get him an audition for TWII and out of spite he refused to change his tone. As such, any time Hero speaks, it is beyond hilarious. This bit is my favorite:
Combat hasn’t really improved much – the pole arm still puts all other weapons to shame, and even though there are enemies who are resistant to the pole arm’s type of damage, you’ll rarely ever need anything else. It’s also a major issue to go between attack mode and stand-around mode, which is set with the d-pad. This system will consistently present problems as you advance on a giant spider, ready to stab it to smithereens, only to start kicking it in the shin as it shakes its head in embarrassment for you. But since the rest of the package of Two Worlds II is more competent and entertaining, it is much easier to forgive this oversight. If you’re a fan of hack-n’-slash RPGs who likes an extra bit of cheese in your narrative, you could do worse than Two Worlds II. Really, it’s a shame that this wasn’t the first game released, but perhaps if it had been, TWII wouldn’t be the game that it is.
If there’s any credence to the first Two Worlds, I suppose it had to exist as it is just so Two Worlds II could exist as it does: a love letter to its own shallow and deceptive beginnings, stripping away all the pretentiousness and giving gamers the cheesy goods. All of the adorable, hokey charm of TWII would have been lost if the original was a more straight-forward, mediocre WRPG. Ultimately, the Two Worlds franchise claim to gaming history is yet another reminder of the importance of responsible anticipation, to ignore the hype, and serves a staunch warning to publishers and developers that sometimes you at least have to try a little and lie less, because the game-buying public will eventually get wise to your deception. And thank goodness we learned our lesson then so that future atrocities such as this would never happen again…
We live in a world where more people have played Medal of Honor: Warfighter than have played The Cat Lady. Hmm… when you put it down on a page it sadly seems all too obvious…
Mr. Yoshida’s comments on the single-minded desire for most gamers to prefer the golden showers of big-budget titles is something I find myself reflecting on often. Since truly discovering gaming as passion, I’ve challenged myself to try and play a little of everything, in the hopes that the appreciation I have for games that I already love will be deepened further, or that I’ll discover something wonderful I didn’t expect. So when I go over to a friend’s house and see a pile of Maddens, Call of Duties, and Assassin’s Creeds sitting sloppily next to his console, I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness that there is so much they are missing out on. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a good ol’ AAA game myself – I’m no prude – but how could they deny themselves the quiet, sad beauty of LIMBO? How could they not get sucked-in to the maddening challenge of Rogue Legacy? How could they resist the fecal-inducing terror of Amnesia: The Dark Descent?
But really, these questions are almost completely rhetorical. All I really have to do is go back to the early 2000s and examine my own behaviors as a gamer during that time. I was in college, part 1, and during that time, the only way you were getting in my PS2 was if you were Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, or a DVD. It was the Dark Age for me as a gamer, ironic considering many consider the PS2 to have one of the greatest gaming libraries in the history of consoles. But I never played any of it, at least not until the PS2 was ultimately on its deathbed. So why was it that, for almost a decade, I only wanted the biggest games and paid no attention to any of the other games of the time? I boil it down the four c’s: comfort, convenience, casualness, and conditioning.
Human beings ultimately desire comfort. Yes, there are those who push themselves out of planes, but ideally when they hit the ground they’re going to go home and sit on their couch while they tell their Xbox to turn on. You could probably say that for most animals in general – comfort is necessary to provide cushioning between the rigors of survival. To live healthy, comfort must be a feature.
After a day of busting my ass (see: zoning out) in lectures, coming back to my dorm and devoting my all of my attention to Tommy Vercetti’s rampage or Tidus’ taint-shaking laugh was a comforting escape from the day’s rigors. And like me, I imagine most people after a busy day at work or school just would like to go home and rest on the couch as they allow their mind to turn off and play some big-budget action game they don’t have to think about much. Why go out of your way combing through a bunch of indie games you’ve never heard of when you’ve got the go-to dependables like Final Fantasy or Grand Theft Auto? These titles provide the comfort of previous familiarity, which also leads us right into the next c.
Familiarity not only feeds into comfort, it feeds into convenience as well. Playing a diversity of games is not always an easy task. There’s the time-constraint for one thing. Unless you’re either bankrolled already or a YouTube Let’s Player, finding the time to play everything possible is going to be done at the expense of time for something else, and that’s not even mentioning that you also have to take the time to look through all of the possible indie games that are out there which is – to say the least – staggering at this point, especially with the likes of Greenlight and Kickstarter making game publishing more accessible. That’s why the AAA gaming landscape is far more convenient for someone looking to access something quick and specific. There are many AAA games, but usually shoppers go for the biggest names of the biggest names. “I need to jump on something.” Bam, Mario. “I need an adventure.” Bam, Uncharted. “I need to shoot somebody.” Bam, Halo. “I need to explore my misogynistic tendencies.” Bam, Duke Nukem Forever. Ultimately, it was the same for me in the 2000s. I wanted an RPG; Final Fantasy. I wanted to rampage; Grand Theft Auto.
These convenient, go-to titles are sometimes all a gaming enthusiast needs, providing that quick-fix of entertainment. They are established games that even those completely unfamiliar with gaming will probably be at least familiar with the property on a name basis. So not only is it convenient for gamers looking for something quick, it’s also convenient for non-gamers looking for gifts for their gaming friends or relatives. It is true that the great game franchising slows down this convenience a bit – “Which Call of Duty game should I buy for Timmy? Let’s see… Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2, Modern Warfare 3, Call of Duty 3, Black Ops, World at War, Black Ops 2, Ghosts, nosebleed.” – but Timmy could get any one of those games and likely be at least marginally satisfied with the experience. I mean, it’s all the kid plays! Which leads to the next c.
The word “casual” has come to take on all kinds of negative connotations during the seventh generation of consoles. When I use the word, I use it in its most rudimentary sense – that of an action performed irregularly. When I was selling video games, I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they exclusively buy only two games a year: one being a big name sports game, the other being a big name shooter. That isn’t to say that these gamers aren’t deeply delving into the games they’ve purchased and are trying their best to master them. But one cannot deny that these infrequent explorations into what gaming offers as a whole demonstrate tendencies of a causal relationship with the medium. You certainly wouldn’t be given credence to calling yourself a hardcore movie buff if you exclusively watched Chris Farley films. I would call my experience with gaming in the 2000s a very casual affair, as my PS2 likely saw more action from film than from gaming.
The discussion of casualness is a touchy subject since the word’s meaning has become synonymous with hack budget games or family-friendly cash-ins festering in the seventh gen library. But casualness truly is a part of what makes AAA gaming so appealing. The big name games that fulfill those specific entertainment desires are always going to be swept up by the masses, as they’ll provide that entertainment to those who play two games a year as well as those who look for a variety of games. But if there is any reason for people exclusively playing AAA games, the last c should be the most telling.
Ever since competing businesses have been involved in gaming, gaming has been capital-creating arms race. Of course it’s capable of cripplingly beautiful creativity, but those who have funded our favorite pastime are often guilty of utilizing escalation as a means to differentiate their products from others, just like in about any other business. Bigger is better, so the biggest is the best! This philosophy has been crammed down our throats since we were young, impressionable gamers, and today that philosophy is being crammed down the throats of the new generation. One need only look to the cultural anxiety sparked by the emergence of the eighth generation of consoles, or read about Bobby Kotick saying Destiny is a 500 million dollar project. The gaming industry shows no signs of slowing down in this philosophy, keeping shoppers convinced that to get to the next gaming plateau there is no choice but to go bigger! Flashier! Graphicsy-er!
So, yah! What do you think the gaming public is going to do when you keep telling them that the only way to get the best is to buy the biggest games? Well, they’re probably going to keep buying the biggest games and ignore everything else! The industry has purposefully conditioned gamers to want the biggest, perhaps under the assumption that gamers are also conditioned to shell out as much as they can to access that big experience. Having grown up through the Bit Wars, my previous thoughts on gaming were very much in-tune with this philosophy. Final Fantasy X and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City seemed to me like the biggest experiences possible for their respective genres, so why try anything else until the next iteration of them comes along? They looked the best and played the best because they were, well, big games, and games were about getting bigger (see: better) experiences! Many others will follow this philosophy as well as it is crammed into their brains, saving up their dollars or waiting for Christmas to get their next round of AAA gaming euphoria.
It truly is delightful to see games like Outlast and Transistor being focal points in Sony’s branding establishment for the PS4. It shows a marked shift in previous business philosophies: that they feel confident that smaller-budgeted, more intimate experiences truly can stand toe-to-toe with their AAA counterparts. Hopefully, we can anticipate a future in which gaming becomes an even more adventurous landscape, with gamers becoming conditioned to feel that indie games are comforting, convenient, and also open to casual enjoyment.
As I've grown as a gamer, I rarely get disappointed anymore by a game not meeting expectations upon release. It's an important lesson we all have to learn at some point. As a personal historical note, that’s what Alone in the Dark (’08) left me with – to responsibly anticipate instead of put my undying faith in a game’s quality before proving itself. As a part of public gaming history, Alone in the Dark has taken on legendary status of bad game singularity – broken in the most fundamental ways that would prevent the game from being playable in the most rudimentary sense to the point that Eden Games inserted a failsafe that allows you to skip sections you get stuck on. I certainly felt that it was a disaster taking it home the midnight of its release, starting it up with a head full of hopes only to find out that Alone in the Dark was a shoddy, poorly implemented, poorly written shite storm. And then… the driving section… St. Peter, Mighty Cthulhu, Flying Sea Serpent of the Seventh Moon of Neptune, the driving section. I wasn’t sad to let that copy go, and many others shared my sentiment.
Alone in the Dark is easily my greatest disappointment of the seventh console generation. For all that seemed to be going right from the outside, there was so much wrong that its failure was inevitable. This disappointment has been a heavy cloud that has hung on my experience as a gamer for six years. I’ve grown a lot as a gaming enthusiast since then, so when I started thinking about this project, Alone in the Dark seemed like the perfect candidate for a retrial, even if the thought of dealing with the game’s car physics shook me to my soul’s anus. Soul-anus shaking aside, the two important questions to pose is what of Alone in the Dark’s disastrous package make it such a historically derided game, and can anything of value be taken from it outside of what not do ? In this analysis, there be spoilers, but trust me, it's no big deal. It should also be noted that the version I am analyzing is the Xbox 360 version, so the gameplay updates from Inferno are not being considered. I wanted my experience to be the closest it could be back in 2008 when I first picked up the game.
Interview w/ Nour Pollini, E3, 2006.
Yet another franchise doing the reboot approach, Alone in the Dark opens with Edward Carnby – consistent protagonist of the series – waking up with… urgh… amnesia, embroiled in some cult shenanigans that threaten to unleash ultimate evil. Edward, accompanied by his shoe-horned love interest Sarah, must regain his memory and unravel an ancient conspiracy underneath Central Park. While the set-up is pretty standard, Alone in the Dark does have the advantage of treating itself as more of a horror adventure than a straight-up survival horror game. It can be scary, but its strategy is to shoot more for atmosphere and thrills, so this sort of story can be an effective way to include supernatural horror elements in an adventure story of secrets and mystery, not unlike Indiana Jones and its ilk.
But Alone in the Dark is a complete failure as a story, told with such broad strokes and, to borrow a phrase, “cinematic shorthand,” that it registers about as deep as a bead of sweat in a gnat’s taint. In reference to an Indiana Jones movie, I’d say Alone in the Dark ranks below Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in storytelling prowess. And you may say that a comparison between game and movie is void on its own merits, but the game invites the comparison, right down to the DVD inspired menu, not to mention Pollini's interview where she discusses "movie structure" and using the "season format to maintain the interest of the story throughout the game." (1:34) Interestingly enough, the script for the game is credited to Lorenzo Carcaterra, writer of the controversial book Sleepers, best known for its 1996 film adaptation. Having never read any of his other works, I can't really comment on whether Alone in the Dark is representational of his work at large, but what I can say is that he either must not cared about writing for a video game, or thinks that relationships between men and women hinge upon embarrassing, irritating dialogue.
The greatest failing of Alone in the Dark’s story is that much of its emotional weight is put upon the relationship budding between Edward and Sarah as opposed to the cult conspiracy, and what’s supposed to be this adult romance is insultingly lacking and pretty much derails the entire narrative experience. The two meet soon after Edward wakes up in the crumbling hotel, escaping together to Central Park where Sarah seems oddly compelled to assist Edward in his quest to save the world. Admittedly, it’s not impossible that a person when confronted with the end of the world would step up and do what had to be done, but you learn nothing about her that helps contextualize anything about her actions or her behavior. It’s never made clear why she loves Edwards outside of his rugged manly awesomeness and ability to throw bottles in slow motion, nor is it made clear why Edward loves her. We learn nothing about her as a character that’s worth loving. She enjoys complaining about people who save her and utilizing bitchy banter Carcaterra mistook for charming. Seriously, the woman tells an ancient self-mutilated man with his eyes sewn shut that she’s going to kick him in the balls. Just... just no, Alone in the Dark.
*HURK* Sorry, threw up on my goatee a little.
I don’t mean to imply that Sarah is the only one at fault here; the game doesn’t really give you a whole lot of insight into who Edward Carnby is either or why she should love him. As you learn about Edward’s past, you find out that he was a paranormal detective from the early 20th century who disappeared, marginally tying his roots to previous Alone in the Dark games. A man you meet named Theophile Paddington, who appears much older than Edward, turns out to be a former student of Edward who became caught up in seeking the Philosopher’s Stone which Edward had taken into possession, unintentionally becoming immortal as a result. That’s all fine and well - magic and demons and immortality and all that - but there’s nothing consistent with Edward’s backstory and his behavior.
The way Edward is written demonstrates nothing of a detective, a teacher, not even a gym instructor. The guy is essentially a hard-boiled cop who shoots first and then shoots again because questions are for girls and girls are gross, ew. Just listen to this witty retort Carnby has ready for this demonic entity!
Nothing about the guy screams particularly intelligent – the pieces of his past are essentially spoon fed to him rather than intellectually acquired. Sarah is the one playing detective, off-screen, as she texts you plot updates. In this interpretation, Carnby is just another tough guy action hero who owns a Glock and can jump out of moving cars. And as bad as Sarah’s romantic repartee can be, Edward’s is even worse, ranging from vaguely misogynistic – like telling her she’s “beautiful when she’s quiet” – to directly physically threatening. In the beginning of Episode 3 when the two are parting ways, Edward threatens to shoot her if she doesn’t stay with Dr. Hartford. Truly this budding romance shall rival the likes of Wuthering Heights! I totally appreciate that antagonistic relationships can sprout into love (see 1970’s Love Story), but Carnby is no one to love with his growly veneer and shallow tough guy mannerisms.
Funny enough, I found myself thinking how much this interpretation of Edward Carnby made me think of Max Payne, right down to the voice acting. I researched the voice actor for Edward, only to find out that it really is James McCaffrey, the voice of Max Payne. Upon discovering that, the similarities between the way McCaffrey talks in Alone in the Dark and Max Payne 3 are intensely similar. Payne is certainly an archetype of noir bad ass, and Eden Games truly wants Carnby to be this sort of character just looking at the way the character’s dialogue is written. So how could you not cast McCaffrey since his voice is from the archetype of video game manly toughness? The main difference between the two is that Payne – for being a singularity of the tough guy image – feels much more complex and tragic. Carnby is… not complex. He only has the aesthetics of noir complexity: aggressive comebacks, shooting in slow motion, McCaffrey’s voice, etc. It almost feels like Alone in the Dark is an unintentional sequel to The Fall of Max Payne where Max Payne gets amnesia and discovers he’s on a mission to defeat Satan.
*Side note: I love how all of the promotional artwork of Edward Carnby is way better than how Carnby looks in the game. What the hell?
Oh, yes, there’s a spoiler for you. Satan’s the bad guy. That’s who the cult wants to summon. Satan. Why? To what end? What person would assume that Satan would give them power as opposed to having their inner-being sodomized by a maypole? The villains aren’t a part of a doom cult or anything. They’re your stereotypical adventure story bad guys who want ultimate power. So the motivation for summoning Satan seems to be because… well, what’s more generically evil than the Devil? Again, this ties back into the broad strokes of the story, so desperate to feel big that it just puts the most cliché bigness it can think of – random passionate love! Angry detectives! SATAN!
But worse than all these clichés is the game’s endings, a good one and a bad one, both which are bad. In the bad ending, Edward becomes the vehicle for Satan to salt the Earth. In the good ending, Satan possesses Sarah instead, which stops him... somehow... Carnby leaving her standing at the gate to hell, talking about how he’s “used to being alone.” IN THE DARK! So what’s the message here? That it’s okay for Sarah to be possessed by the universe’s most evil entity because she did it for love? Love for Edward Carnby, a guy who she met in an elevator just hours ago and even fewer hours ago threatened to shoot her? She would’ve been better off just dying in the hotel at the beginning of the game! Even if this ending was set up for a sequel, it’s an incredibly unsatisfying ending that in no way reflects the tone of the narrative, other than it being bad like the rest of the story. I realize I’ve belabored the point, but Alone in the Dark’s story is so poorly realized that it boggles the mind with its fantastic, epic awfulness.
Interview wTodd Seplian, NA Re-publishing producer, 2008. (Posted by GGLWire)
I haven’t even touched on the gameplay, which in itself is a Master’s thesis in terrible execution and disastrous design decisions. And forgive me as I explain, because there are so many problems that it may start getting unnecessarily complex. Playing in both first and third-person, the game demands that you not just pick which style you like the most, but be able to successfully navigate either mode. You can only shoot your gun freely in first-person, and you can only melee or throw things in third-person (which then allows you to shoot in third). Being in first-person for many encounters is pointless due to the fact that the only way many enemies die is by being set on fire; you can make fire bullets to kill smaller creatures, but they must be fired into Humanz (HumanZ??? Really, Carcaterra?) body “fissures” which just isn’t a viable option unless desperate or lucky. So why not just stay in third-person through most of the game? Because navigating in third is crippled due to Eden Games assigning melee attacks to the right analog stick, meaning that the left analog controls both Carnby’s movements and the camera. In first-person, the game controls like a normal and clunky FPS, so sometimes it’s either more convenient or absolutely necessary to move like this when a fixed camera makes it impossible for you to get a bearing on how exactly you’re supposed to be guiding Edward.
Not pictured above: you pulling your hair out.
Then there is the inventory system and combining items. The idea seems straight-forward enough; a la Resident Evil 4 cache case, Edward looks down into his jacket to reveal his inventory, allowing the player to directly choose items and experiment with combinations. Though I don’t totally get why this was such an important gameplay feature that the cover of the freaking game shows Carnby taking shit out of his jacket, this could have all been immersive enough and functional in theory. In practice, Eden Games jacks the whole thing up by giving the player an aggressively limited inventory. You have a gun and a flashlight, two essentials that always take up space in the center of your inventory. In the left side are your clerical items – batteries, bandages, tape, and cloth rags – while the right is for bottles and cans of spray, medical or otherwise, up to four. This set up is fine at first, but as the game goes, two other items become mandatory for the left side of your jacket, not to mention that you’re going to want another of those slots for your ammo box, so the time spent managing what your immediate and long-term needs are begins to become overwhelming. I suppose this is why it’s on the box – inventory management is one of the most time consuming parts of the experience.
Inventory management, intentional or not, is also one of the greatest threats of Alone in the Dark, due mostly to its real-time occurrence which leaves Carnby open for attack. Combat is made challenging enough for a multitude of reasons: the fact that the enemies can only die from fire, and the fact that you’re dealing with crippled movement from a control scheme utilizing a single analog stick for camera and movement because they wanted you to hit things with the other. But being prepared for combat is the most vital element. If you get ambushed by a group of Humanz and you don’t have a decent amount of explosive bottles, bug spray to light, or fire bullets in your gun, the chance of you getting that together is going to be contingent on whether the A.I. can figure out that it’s supposed to be advancing on you to ragdoll your dopey ass, which is a pretty good likelihood. Hot-keying your combat combinations is essential, but that’s a mess too, because you access your hotkeys with the d-pad, just as you do with looking into your inventory, and on instinct there will be times you go for the d-pad and hit down to look into your jacket.
But worse of all, the driving sections. Yes, there is lots of driving in Alone in the Dark, and though getting around Central Park in a car isn’t too bad, the driving sections themselves are insufferable in their trial-and-error execution. Every car has the same physics, which is fine enough just for the sake of consistency I suppose, but every car feels lighter than air. The first time I played, I ran over a bump in the road that rocketed my car into the stratosphere! It was after beating the first car section in 2008 that I decided there was no way I would subject myself to more of that. Sure enough, there are two more driving sections in the game, one timed, and one with enemiez pulling your car around and fucking with the broken physics even more. If Alone in the Dark were a body that had fallen off of a cliff, its car physics would be an arm that snapped off so hard it jettisoned back up the mountain.
So, yes, Alone in the Dark is a mess. Sloppy – hammy – irritating. These are all fine words for the game, and critical opinion certainly captured these elements when the game released. Alone in the Dark deserved it. But you know what it also deserves? It deserves a second chance.
Alone in the Dark is a special game not seen often in AAA gaming development today. Honestly, I can’t help but admire it, kind of like the way you admire something like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. It’s a game that dreams of being big and emotional and intense, but it tries so spectacularly poorly that its cultural face-plant demonstrates the scope of its own intent. In Seplian's interview, he discusses the immersive qualities the developers intended, and it is clear through their choices of gameplay that the intent and will was there. Alone in the Dark wanted it all – to be that game that redefines a genre, much like Resident Evil 4 did three years earlier. But Eden Games just couldn’t make it work. And instead of doing what Two Worlds did and embarrassingly wink to the audience every once and awhile, Alone in the Dark plays the cheese with desperate straightness, making its narrative even more delightful.
And though the controls can be quite a handle to get ahold of, they do eventually yield to a certain degree of understanding, and you get used to what James Rolfe would refer to as their “crap factor.” Once you understand the fundamentals of the controls’ quirks, there are moments of gratification, like throwing an explosive bottle into a pack of Humanz and detonating it with a well-timed bullet, sending those poorly-named assholes packing with a mid-air explosion. The free-roaming sections in Central Park can also prove tense. Hunting for supplies and cars to hotwire becomes nerve-wracking when you know that you just don’t have the tools for taking on enemies.
The driving physics notwithstanding, some of the game’s other physics can be fun. As many have stated before, Alone in the Dark’s fire physics are very well-executed, and usually solutions to something like a locked door will have logical solutions like blasting it open with explosives. While it annoyed me a lot when I initially played Alone in the Dark, this time around I felt myself more receptive to certain cues the game would give to make me realize that I could manipulate something physically in the environment to figure out how to progress. The final section of the game has some interesting puzzles as well and, though not perfectly executed, were still a nice touch. But don’t expect a final boss. I mean, what do you want? It was either spending the budget on a final boss or making the scene where you have to give Sarah CPR. (Yugh.)
Ultimately, Alone in the Dark is such an impressively, delightfully bad game that it deserves a solid place in gaming history, right there with games like Deadly Premonition, Two Worlds II, and Earth Defense Force. It’s a game for those who are adventurous, willing to swallow down the harsh pill of awful narrative and gameplay design for the good vibes of cheap laughter and even cheaper gaming experience, as you can usually pick up the game for pretty cheap, not to mention the aforementioned Inferno edition for PS3. Alone in the Dark becomes a classic in its own right – a classic so-bad-it's-good game for the seventh generation, as well as an important lesson for gamers, developers, and the expectations we put on our favorite pastime.
Tomorrow Corporation’s recent announcement of the success of Little Inferno, having sold 250,000 copies, has got me thinking a lot about its counter news story, Square Enix’s list of their fourth quarter failures – Tomb Raider (3.4 mill), Hitman: Absolution (3.6 mill), and Sleeping Dogs(1.76 mill) – despite each of the game’s figures dwarfing Little Inferno’s sales by ludicrous margins. It’s almost unfathomable for me to consider this discrepancy.
I preface my conversation on the basis that I am no Michael Patcher (though some would say that’s a good thing). I am no sort of trained business analyst. My views are informed about what I see in the industry and what I read, so take my perspective for what it is. But I would highly doubt anyone else would look at these two stories together and not get frontal lobe whiplash. How exactly is it that Tomorrow Corporation can claim its fireplace simulator which has only sold a quarter of a million a success when the behemoths of industry fail in their pursuits and sell 15 times as much as Inferno?
In all honesty, it isn’t really that hard to explain. Tomorrow Corporation boasts a staff of three, whereas Square Enix (and other big publishers) craft development teams of 200 plus; obviously, there’s a lot more mouths to feed. It’s great that such large quantities of people are getting work, but that still causes financial burden to the AAA developer and publisher. That’s not to even mention the development of cutting-edge graphics technology, to which such a financial risk must be countered with a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to try to make sure the consumer is aware of your financial investment. When you just look at it, it’s not hard to see why the independently developed Little Inferno gets to claim an easier victory. In fact, you could almost say that Little Inferno is an apt metaphor for the AAA philosophy: burning itself out through excess.
But when you think about it, the story seems all wrong. Aren’t the independent devs the ones who are supposed to be scrounging for every dollar they can find? I mean, they’re supposed to be like the gaming industry’s starving artist, aren’t they? Well then why does it seem like the only one starving these days are AAA developers? I realize that not all indie studios are rousing successes, but when you see success stories the likes Team Meat, or Supergiant, or Dennaton Games, it clashes with what you hear on the opposite side of the industry. Not only have development teams been steadily downsized by publishers over the past several years, but publishers themselves have been collapsing while indie development grows. THQ has sold more games than Tomorrow Corporation will likely ever sell in its lifetime, but THQ could not withstand the financial pressures of the AAA industry.
What makes things stranger is how rapidly this all seems to be happening. Deus Ex: Human Revolution sold 2.18 million copies between its release in 2011 to November of that year. This was considered successful at the time. But in 2013, Tomb Raider shatters those figures in a month, but is deemed a failure. Resident Evil 6 suffered the same fate, and the Dead Space franchise is on hiatus due to what EA considered poor sales figures for Dead Space 3. For as much as it puts out, AAA development really does seem to be grinding its gears in the background, starting to fear its own productions will start hemorrhaging money.
Meanwhile, games like Hotline Miami and The Binding of Isaac are doing so well that they are getting adopted onto mainstream consoles. These two games buck about every norm of AAA philosophy. They are not graphically flashy. They do not cater to wide audiences. They feature themes in games that are wholly unmarketable from a cultural perspective; Binding of Isaac suffered for that very reason in its restriction from Nintendo’s eShop, though since then, Sony has opened its door to them, and Dennaton Games as well. And it’s not that these games shouldn’t be this successful, but when comparing them to the likes of AAA developed games, they shouldn’t appear so much more successful.
The heart of the matter seems to be in a growing separation of development philosophy between AAA development and indie development. And it’s not to say that the philosophies are vastly different. Both take place within the context of capitalistic intent, to make a product and sell the product at a profit. But AAA philosophy seems completely broken in its utilization of capitalism. The philosophy seems to be to throw as much money into a project as possible, but only in the ways to see the return of investment and not on a personal vision of the game, the identity that can draw in a consumer. The goal has become to flatten the identity of the game to garnish the broadest sense of appeal and lose the risk of not appealing, the great “greyification,” as I’ve come to call it. Irrational Games and Yager Development certainly seem the strange beasts in the AAA industry these days, considering what they explore in games like BioShock Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line. It’s not like AAA development is the first to take part in greyification – it’s a natural part of capitalist endeavors, to be able to sell to as massive an audience as possible. But while their audience is massive, their returns are paltry, at least according to them.
Again, indie philosophy is in tune with capitalistic endeavors, but their pursuits seem to utilize capitalism in all the right ways. Perhaps their greatest advantage comes in the way they treat the consumer. Speaking from personal experience, when DLC Quest recently released on Steam, I contacted Going Loud Studios to ask if they were by any chance giving Steam codes to people who had purchased the game on Desura, letting them know that I obviously would understand if they weren’t. Their reply: a Steam code. No questions asked. No excuses. Just a Steam code and a thank you for my participation in their game. I thought to myself about what kind of hassle it would be to get the same treatment from an AAA publisher, especially considering the fact that its digital content. EA certainly wasn’t willing to honor refunds for Sim City, and Ubisoft has consistently demonstrated an antagonistic relationship with digital consumers. One could also use Anodyne's recent success for an example of consumer-friendly capitalistic strategy. Its makers literally give the game out for free as a torrent and then ask for donations from those who enjoyed it. All in all, buying an indie game just seems more worth it and rewarding from a consumer standpoint, not only because its makers treat their consumers better (well, most of the time anyway, Hammerpoint, cough), but because it feels good to be a part of something that will likely be considered successful in the future, at least creatively if not financially.
My intent here is not to make the AAA industry out to be bad guys, or say that indie devs are just soooooo much better, or that AAA development is doooooomed or the like. I love playing AAA games. I love their bigness – their lavishness. And, again, without it games like BioShock might not be around. But perhaps that’s part of the issue; their bigness. Capitalism often pushes the “go big or go home” ideology, making the grandest experience you can. But all that bigness does come at a high price, and for AAA development that price isn’t nearly justifying itself. I adore the beauty of a fine crafted AAA game environment, but I realize that there are people needing to put food on the table. I don’t want AAA developers to sacrifice themselves on the spiked-bed of graphics perfection. If we want everyone to win, there’s going to have to be some acceptance of the financial limitations from the AAA publisher and the AAA consumer.
If AAA development is going to regain the success of its past, it is going to require a serious consideration of their philosophy. Indie philosophy, on the other hand, appears to have a pretty good beat on itself at the moment, with the exception of some of its more polarizing figures. Furthermore, its growing success and popularity should erase any of the mounting anxiety current AAA philosophy evokes. People like to talk of an industry collapse, but if that was to happen, it would likely only be on the AAA side of the industry. Indie development and games would still be around, and the leaders of the indie world would then eventually become the next generation of AAA developers, hopefully bringing their own philosophy to the bigness of AAA games. Rather than come to that, however, I would prefer to see AAA publishers rethink their philosophy, hopefully in a way so that all of us can win. Maybe that’s optimistic to hope for, but it’s not beyond impossible.
What are your thoughts, Dtoid community? Do you see the AAA and indie philosophies growing further apart, or do you see them as more similar than would appear?
Like many others who have played through the beginning hours of the new Tomb Raider, I have found myself pondering on the recreation of Lara Croft and the methods in which Crystal Dynamics attempts in order to expand the character and help her find relevancy in today’s gaming culture. And yes, the game isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t help but myself really getting behind Lara as a character. I mean, I’m only human, and witnessing the kind of abuse she endures in those first few hours is gut-wrenching. But, more importantly, the abuse that she suffers is explored through the way the character reacts to her suffering. Camilla Luddington gives a stellar vocal performance as Lara, and when Lara hurts, Camilla can perfectly capture that empathic suffering – her pain just doesn’t physically hurt, it emotionally hurts. The pain is destroying the fabric of the person that Lara Croft is.
That’s the tragedy of the new Tomb Raider that, at least narratively, helps it surpass its similar island-survival simulator Far Cry 3. Both Lara Croft and Jason Brody start out as wet-behind-the-ears, and both have their share fair of pains, both emotional and physical (watching Jason repair his dislocated thumb made me squirm every time). But with Jason, I never got the full brunt of that emotional destruction that I felt with Lara. Jason never seems to have any kind of identity before the events of Far Cry 3 and discovers himself through its story, whereas Lara – though physically active – sees herself as more of a marginally withdrawn academic, engaging with her family lineage while rejecting the darker side of it, a dark side that she finally must succumb to in order to survive and save her friends. My intention here is not to pass judgment on Far Cry 3, but instead frame a significant difference between the narratives: Far Cry 3 is about power, Tomb Raider is about trauma.
You could extend this claim into the very different island representations the games portray. Far Cry 3, while having a few dilapidated structures, flourishes with wondrous jungle landscape, bright and colorful, urging primal instincts and releasing the animal in the human. Tomb Raider’s environments are far more unpleasant and repulsive; the game is littered with crumbling structures centuries old, dark and ugly caves, rooms of corpses, pits of blood, and unpredictable nature. Even forest areas can appear dingy and uninviting at best. The island of Tomb Raider is a world traumatized, broken by the depravity required to escape and survive. And even if Lara Croft escaped that island, she died there. Trauma killed the person she was.
Trauma is Crystal Dynamics’ tool for getting us to relate to Lara Croft, and it has proven quite effective. And why shouldn’t it? Trauma represents a huge part of empathic connection from the audience to the protagonist. When I say trauma, I’m directly referring to the mentally scarring sort. As Tomb Raider proves, physical trauma is more than capable of rendering an empathic response from the audience, but I think it has to go deeper than just specifically the physical. Take Nathan Drake, a character whose current incarnation is much like Lara Croft’s original character. Drake has suffered a series of physical traumas on his adventures, but the guy just never seems that shaken up about the whole thing. “Oh, climbed a train falling over a cliff. Okay.” Again, I’m not badgering this portrayal; I’m just saying that it’s not empathic. The physical trauma of Nathan Drake is just that, a physical ailment that he can shrug off. It asks the audience to admire him, but not necessarily relate to him. You should just feel good about being empowered.
And that’s the core of emotional trauma and why it causes so much discomfort, it implies weakness; that something was taken forcefully from the protagonist and – by extension – the player. Furthermore, this kind of trauma takes something intangible away, something that you can't get back,no matter how hard you try. Popular gaming tends to gear itself more towards power fantasies, so trauma in the mainstream market is often ignored or portrayed as kitsch. That, of course, isn’t always the case, as Tomb Raider has proven, along with a variety of other popular games which have thrived due to their honest and personal analysis of trauma.
The survival horror genre itself has been built upon player depowerment, often utilizing trauma in the stories in order to make the horror of the narrative to appear all the more impactful. Trauma could essentially be rendered as the most significant element of the Silent Hill games. You feel the mental and emotional exhaustion of characters like James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2, and the above pictured "There was a hole here" is a direct ironic commentary on James' own trauma; the hole is still there, just covered up by flimsy paper. Perhaps more importantly than James is Alessa from the first game, as she personifies the trauma of Silent Hill's narrative and, by her mother’s admission, she “Suffers a fate worse than death.” Alessa’s physical trauma transcends into the emotional, which then transcends back into the physical, and it is the center of the entire set-up for the Silent Hill franchise. More modernly, Daniel from Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a walking disaster of trauma, driven to madness by the monstrosities chasing him to the point of complete divorce from any kind of resistance other than flight.
Speaking on Amnesia, the indie market often gets an opportunity to analyze the nature of trauma in gaming narrative with a bit more leniency than mainstream games. Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac is the very definition of a gaming narrative about trauma. McMillen has talked about his religious upbringing, and how he wanted Isaac to demonstrate the “self-hate and isolation it instilled” in him. What makes this so interesting is the fact that the story of the game is fairly bare-bones – Isaac escapes his zealot mother and then must defeat her in mortal combat in the depths under his house. McMillen opts to tell the story of Isaac’s trauma through visuals and gameplay. It’s not enough that Isaac battles enemies with his tears, but the physical effects of items do much to portray Isaac’s abuse and subsequent trauma. One power-up in particular, the Wooden Spoon, increases Isaac’s speed, which at first seems strange – that is until you look at the back of Isaac’s head to see a huge spoon-shaped welt, indicating Isaac running from his mother as she struck him with it. It’s some really chilling stuff, and showing Isaac’s trauma elevates the maturity of the game, despite the game's immature artistic aesthetic.
The success of Telltale Games’ Walking Dead series has attributed much of that success to the game’s story, and the franchise as a whole is a narrative about trauma. Getting into spoilery territory, the story of Telltale’s Walking Dead isn’t really about protagonist Lee Everett. Rather, The Walking Dead is the story of Clementine and her coming to grips with trauma at a young age. Clementine has often received accolades as one of the best (if not the best) child character in gaming. Again, much like Camilla Luddington’s voice work with Lara Croft, Melissa Hutchison knows how to show trauma, and has won awards for her work with the character. Hutchinson’s work notwithstanding, I’d argue that Clementine’s appeal comes from the way in which she absorbs and processes the traumas we see her endure. We feel for her, knowing that she has to carry these events with her for the rest of her life, her childhood robbed from her by a horrific fate. The ending furthers this as Clementine and Everett’s story comes to a close, and the events of Walking Dead will be carried with Clementine into Season 2, and perhaps through the rest of the Telltale series.
We could even take Rocksteady Studios’ work with the recent Batman games as more proof of how demonstrating trauma helps to elevate narrative. The Arkham series is the break-out hit of the Batman video games, Rocksteady opting to demonstrate a true Batman simulation moreso than any other game starring the character, which they do in two ways. First, they make you feel like Batman in the gameplay, allowing you to be the master crime fighter Batman is in stealth, combat, and detection. Second, Rocksteady understands that to truly simulate the Batman experience, they must hit on one of the significant points of the character: the trauma he experienced witnessing the death of his parents. Batman’s trauma is portrayed both in Asylum through a Scarecrow sequence, and in City by seeing both visions of his parents and visiting their murder scene in Crime Alley. And much like Lara Croft “dies” on the island due to trauma, Crime Alley is where the child Bruce Wayne “dies” to be eventually reborn as Batman. Capturing this trauma was essential for Rocksteady to explore the Batman mythos, as it truly is the defining feature of the character, not to mention that doing so helped elevate the Arkham series, both games receiving “Game of the Year” acclamations.
My intention here is not to say that, for a game to be good, it has to examine trauma. There are plenty of light-hearted games that are artistically rich and satisfying, and those games need to exist. We also need games like Far Cry 3 because, dammit, power fantasies are fun and a joy to adventure in. My point is that anything with true aspirations of tackling mature narrative themes must take trauma into account. All of us experience something that affects us on a deep level, something that changed the person we would be forever, perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. It is an uncomfortable truth of the adult life. And when writers and developers can tap into that truth, the work they do becomes all the more provocative. While the future of the Tomb Raider franchise is yet to be seen, I'll always feel the trauma of it, and Crystal Dynamics would be wise to keep that in mind for the future as well.
Every time someone has brought that up to me, they say it to me like, “Oh God, Nick, you’re going to be… *thunder clap* thirty. Starting to feel… old… yet? He he he cackle!” I never really know how to respond to this kind of talk. I mean, 30 is still so young in the broad scheme of things. Sure, it’s not my twenties, but given that there is still so much more for me to experience it’s hard for me to say that I feel old at all. Turning 30 isn’t going to magically transform me into some sort of age-bracket appropriate automaton. It’ll be a process of learning and adapting, just like all other decades of your life.
These discussions on turning 30 have left me wondering about my age in relationship with my passion for gaming. I remember being a kid, burning away on multi-hour gaming session, my mother and father shouting at me from the bottom of the stairs to “turn off those games and do something constructive, like read a book or go outside!” It’s not like I never went outside, and I read extensively too, but to them, more than thirty minutes playing a video game was over-doing it. Who could blame them? To them, being raised very traditionally in a southern, small town, video games looked like Pong and flashing colors on a screen with no true substance. They were a purely childish endeavor that gave nothing meaningful back to the user, like eating a pile of Snickers. And, perhaps not surprisingly, that stigma persists to this day in culture. Yes, video games are more widely-accepted than ever, even getting use as educational tools, but gaming’s relationship with youth identity seems continuously purveyed, probably one of the biggest reasons any pundit who advocates for banning violent video games is given any sort of credence. So it leaves me to wonder – if gaming is to be associated with youth, does that mean that the gaming community has tapped into the fountain of youth?
Though I realize I’m talking metaphorically, it still stands to reason that gaming culture has a knack for making me feel youthful. If I’m ever feeling the oppressions of aging and responsibility, all I need to do is boot up a game and *poof, I’m casting spells and/or punching aliens/Nazis/zombies in the face with the butt of my shotgun. When I think of all of the wonderfully goofy, surreal, over-the-top things I’ve seen and done playing video games, I can’t help but feel giddily exuberant about it all to the point of geeking out like a six-year-old on a Surge binge:
Like chasing down a purple octopus hell bent on disrupting the opera by dropping an implausible four ton weight on my ice mage.
Or riding and jumping from missle to missle as they are launched at in impenetrable alien-ship that I for some reason can take down with my machine gun much easier.
Or crawling all over a giant bee to pick star pieces out of her hair.
Or slicing up thugs with a laser katana while they explode into a shower of blood and coins.
Or flying around a tropical island on a hang glider before dropping from like 30 ft only for my fall to be broken by landing on a pirate.
Or racing against my nemesis’ anthropomorphic turd.
Even games with a serious tone do little to completely sway my mind away from youthful exuberance. I giggle along at Max Payne’s constant string of glum statements as he effortlessly guns down five guys, or Niko Bellic’s swearing of reform while he’s backing the car over grandmothers, or Alex Mercer’s pseudo-heroism while he’s running a tank over a street of pedestrians before hopping out and eating a couple. The aesthetics of maturity aside, today’s popular gaming scene features many games that run the gamut of all sorts of cartoonish activities. And I’m certainly not calling them out for this – Saint's Row as a franchise has for a while now ditched any pretense of adult melodramatics, and the series is all the better for it. They do it to be fun, and that’s where it counts.
But what am I suggesting? That older people don’t like to have fun? All older people are trying to get the ski lodge shut down so those pesky teenagers got nowhere to hang out? Looking at the ESA’s 2012 Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry, the average age of today’s gaming public is 30, and 37% of those who game are 36 and older, the largest slice of the pie. And as time goes on, that slice is going to get bigger. If anything, statistics would indicate that gaming is done predominantly by older people, and as a 29-year-old I’m currently BELOW the average, which is pretty strange for something that is supposedly comprised of "the young people." So is it fair to say that perhaps all of the things that I associate with youth culture are actually more and more largely being adopted into adult culture?
Not only that, but what about games that are oppressively adult in the themes that they explore? Games like DepressionQuest, or The Cat Lady, or Cart Life are all games that take inspiration from the uncomfortable realities of the mature life. Even Max Payne 3, cartoonish action notwithstanding, utilizes a portrayal of Max that is often a very heart-breaking representation of depression and addiction. And while it is all too possible for these things to happen to kids (Limbo and The Binding of Isaac would attest to that), these themes’ proper understanding require time and experience, both of which are part of the aging process.
I feel like I’m spinning my wheels here, but then again I don’t know if I’m qualified to make a conclusive statement on the nature of gaming and its relationship to age. The human condition often attempts to make meaning of events by categorizing activities with certain levels of appropriateness, and the youth-stigma that clings to gaming culture seems more or less systemic of such. But regardless of that narrow categorization, games tend to mean a lot of things to a lot of people, and even more multiplicities within those meanings. I can be just as enthralled by frantic levels of goofiness just as much as I can be immersed in unflinchingly mature situations. I will always appreciate that games have the impact on me that they do, and whether or not the contradictions of youth-stigma and adult content ever come to a settling point, I will still be gaming until I can’t game no more.
I was in a game store, looking at the wall of new releases, and while scanning I came across an ugly-looking cover of some weird face screaming. Deadly Premonition, it said, and seeing that it only had a $20 price tag, I couldn't resist picking it up to look at it. But one look at the back of the box and I instantly became suspicious of its quality. I mean, those graphics... what year was it again? It seemed obvious to me that this box was attempting to over-assert the game's graphic, mature horror, and the price tag was a last-ditch effort by some publisher who left this game on top of the closet during Spring cleaning and now was trying to make a little back off of its investment. Needless to say, Deadly Premonition seemed like a gag, and I left it to the shelf.
Writing all that with hindsight is hard, because little did I realize how special that game really was. I was willing to let first impressions cloud and rule my judgement, even at a time in my life when I really should have already been passed that. But a trip to Destructoid helped me put things in perspective, and now I can say I have played Deadly Premontion, twice.
When Deadly Premonition came out in 2010, I was just starting to get into Destructoid. I appreciated the site for its honesty and frankness in delivering opinions on gaming culture, and I appreciated the persona and demeanor of the community. Getting on one day, I was surprised to see a big banner depicting the review of Deadly Premontion, confused as to how this game had gained any kind of attention. I figured that the reason this review was front page material was due to it being really as bad as I thought, so I opened the page to get myself ready for a good dose of schadenfreude. Even though it can be a nasty habit, I scrolled to the bottom of the page just to see what the score was before I read the review.
And then, staring at me in the face, was a "10/10."
I took a hard look at my computer screen. The words "Flawless Victory" danced beside the numbers, mocking my preconceived notions on how Deadly Premonition would fair. I immediately went back up and started to read through the review, determined to understand how something that looked so low-budget could be a superior gaming experience. This review persists to be one of the most notorious of the site, but one cannot deny Sterling's passion for the experience that he felt for the game. And his case for it ultimately made sense to me - I watched films all the time that were "bad" but still entertaining. Why couldn't games do the same things? So, taking the review to heart, I went and purchased Deadly Premonition just to find out for myself what I thought about it, and I didn't regret it a single moment.
I blasted zombie-ghouls limbo-ing towards me! I outran an axe-wielding maniac with glowing eyes! I solved a series of grizzly murders based around a seed! I filled my gas tank! Deadly Premonition offered me such a bizarre experience that I too was swept up by it. I thought back to the day where I had first looked at its box, shaking my head that this was a game that I had almost passed up on just because of its budget veneer. The proverbial "egg" was on my face, and I felt foolish for passing such a rash judgement on something that, while terribly flawed, was all the more compelling for its flaws.
This moment for me really can be described as your typical "Looks Can Be Deceiving" lesson, which I had learned before (and obviously needed to learn again), but this really changed my relationship with Destructoid. It made me realize the true potential that games can have, not only in what they can be, but what you can experience through them. That's what's so surprising about Deadly Premonition as a gaming experience; to think that something so self-aware and absurd could present a character-arch that is emotionally gripping, bittersweet, and rewarding all at the same time. Regardless of aesthetics, the game finds a way to make you feel something.
I will always remember Destructoid for helping me get to that clarity. Giving Deadly Premonition a 10 indirectly opened up an avenue of gaming experiences that I would have never experienced in the first place, had I continuously turned a blind eye to them just for being aesthetically unpleasing and creating false impressions of what a game can be. Sometimes I'm rewarded for my branching out (Jurassic the Hunted, Two Worlds II), and sometimes I'm punished (Arcania: Gothic 4, Alone in the Dark 2008), but regardless, I still know that I give any game a chance to surprise me. So Happy Birthday, Destructoid! Many others and I wish you many more!
So I purchased The Cat Lady on Desura a couple of nights ago. I beat it the next day. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to make the game sound like it scrimps on content. In the midst of getting school work finished ahead of schedule that morning, I decided to indulge myself with an all-day gaming session. I had picked up a few new games with my tax return, Cat Lady being one of them, so I figured it’d be a good time to put a dent into them before they vanished into the obscurity of the backlog. But after I started getting deeper into The Cat Lady, it was clear to me that it was the only game I was going to be playing that day. Call it a hunch...
Actually, call it more than that. Call it a lot more things. You'll have to play The Cat Lady to figure out what you're going to call it, but for me, I call it something so brutally honest in its portrayal of heart-breaking psychological damage and human depravity that I can only call it one thing: beautiful. You need to play The Cat Lady.
Created by Harvester Games, The Cat Lady is horror-adventure game that offers a sober meditation on depression, friendship, and brutal violence, amongst other things. Playing as Susan Ashworth, you just might be the most unlikely of gaming protagonists – a forty-year-old plus cat lady suffering from extreme (and likely clinical) depression. She keeps to herself in her lonely flat, only allowing herself the company of cats. Within moments of the game introducing her to us, she attempts to take her own life with sleeping pills. Following her suicide, Susan enters a surreal world and meets an old woman with a ghastly voice who tasks her with eliminating five “parasites,” psychopaths who torture and kill. These murderers aren’t your colorful cooky types like in Suda 51 games, nor do they attain the level of cathartic glee one sees in the likes of villains such as The Joker or Handsome Jack, nor do they provide some kind of psychological confrontation with Susan. These parasites are visceral, vile outliers of the social fringes, and Susan’s pain and death is their perverse joy. They are awful, significantly disturbed people.
In order to complete her task, the old woman grants Susan immortality, but her definition of immortality is a spin on the concept of player immortality; while she can be killed, she can never stay dead. This is the first thing about The Cat Lady that stayed with me as I went through the game. Yes, we, the player, are accustomed to experiencing a multitude of pains and deaths in the course of a game. But once that checkpoint or save state has been loaded, that death is ultimately irrelevant in the course of the story. But for Susan, that’s not the case. She must endure each death, and after death, transcend back into the world of the living. So regardless of her immortality, Susan experiences each death, victimized time and time again by savages with only her wits to defeat them.
For fans of classic adventure games (your Monkey Islands and the like), The Cat Lady will be right up your alley, though you won't be pointing-and-clicking through the game. Gameplay takes place in a 2D plane, controlling Susan's movement with the left-right arrows, and observing environments and items with up. Once Susan has picked up an item, the down arrow will take you into your inventory, which is always displayed at the bottom of the screen. It's an incredibly easy game to pick up and play, granted that you are willing to observe some bleak nastiness and gore.
“Bleak” may be one of the best adjectives for The Cat Lady. It’s not enough that this is a game in which a defenseless sufferer of depression is killed and tortured; the game’s color-palette is filled with black and grey. The graphics very much evoke a sort of bizarre graphic novel style, using real pictures as backdrops for the animated characters. There are moments of color, and though it can be beautiful, color is rarely soothing. Red blood looks filthy as it spills over ugly walls, and other colors generally create more of an off-set other-worldliness to environments, some environments providing mind-fuckery on the level of Silent Hill. Speaking of other-worldliness, character animation sets out to create this atmosphere as well. Many characters often move about like freakish marionettes. It looks like a Monty Python animation if Monty Python was off its anti-depressants. It adds to the detachment Susan feels with humanity, making all other characters appear… well, off, which compounds the game’s bleak feeling.
But while The Cat Lady is chocked with bleakness, the game is incredibly heartfelt. Susan eventually meets someone who won't let herself be pushed away, a twenty-something woman named Mitzi, and the growing friendship between Susan and Mitzi becomes a driving force of hope in the game. Initially coming to her as a potential and pushy flatmate, Susan is none too happy to have an interloper in her sad life, but as they spend more time together, Susan comes to depend on Mitzi’s friendship more and more, and the audience depends on that friendship as well. Through Mitzi, we are able to learn Susan’s past and understand her depression better. Soon, you appreciate Mitzi not just for her moments of social relief for Susan, but you also appreciate that knowing her means knowing Susan. The game's dialogue is especially noteworthy. While some may find an occasional melodramatic line, the voice acting is exceptional from basically the entire cast, and the way in which people talk to one another is often genuine and believable. When characters speak, their sincerity and their feelings are clear.
And that's what makes The Cat Lady such a haunting experience; its dedication to feeling. Borrowing something from a fellow Dtoider, Xenoxen, when discussing alternate names for To the Moon, The Cat Lady is a game in which the "feel train never stops." There is not a single moment in the game that doesn't try and make you feel something. Every new room and new scene is ripe with atmosphere, the emotions of the characters spilling into the physical world. With this game, you can just feel the personalness of it all. In an industry where creative teams are 300-600 sized behemoths, often getting lost behind a myriad of explosions and quick-time-events, it is so wonderful when you really feel an intimate connection with those who make their game.
There's more to say about The Cat Lady, but it I feel it would be a disservice to go on any longer and just let you experience it for yourself. If you're a fan of horror, of adventure games, of bizarre graphics, or of great game narratives, you should do yourself a favor and dig twelve bucks out of your pocket and go pick this up. A game like this is a rarity, and much like Lone Survivor, its essentially made by a single person who has been seeking to publish the game on Steam through Greenlight, but so far to no avail. But people should take notice. The story of Susan Ashworth is not for the squeamish, but it is a story that beautifully haunts my psyche. I've often been haunted by games before, but not quite like The Cat Lady.