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2:37 AM on 03.07.2015

A Masterclass in Art: The Legend of Roberto Plankton

Hello there, so I am Panzadolphin56 and I thought I would do something a little different with this blog from my usual writings. I do actually have a number of things written up that I need to find space to put up at some point but I felt as though this was something that needed to go up first.

So today I would like to tell you about a friend of mine, a very unique person, with a very special gift. His name is Roberto Plankton, and he is an artist. But Roberto Plankton is no ordinary artist, for he exist somewhere outside of the norm; a creature born of the darkness who brings terror to the minds of the young and weak of constitution. With his simple tools to hand he etches nightmares onto canvas, giving life to a humour most dark; and I think you should see some of them.

Once he painted me...

Other times he has sought to guide those who enter the forums...

Or even warn them about what to expect...

The only rhyme or reason to Plankton craftings being that somewhere, far off, in the deepest darkness, an elder god, entombed for eons must roll over and chuckle in its sleep before a picture is sanctified as a Plankton Original.

And his craftings are many...

Like a master craftsman he tirelessly labours at each new project, working night and day to terrify and bewilder. Like a less fat and altogether scarier Santa, bringing gifts most foul.

If you like to be afraid then I dare you to step into his domain, bask in the purity of the darkness that resides within him (and appreciate his work some), and find escape from this dire world of ours:

The Art of Roberto Plankton

Or better yet, step into a realm where nightmares are given birth...

A World of Nightmares.

(Just don't go through google search.)

And with that said, I would like to leave you with my own tribute to the genius, to the madness that is the man Roberto Plankton:


3:00 PM on 02.24.2015

9 People I like about Dtoid

Destructoid! Home of the brave, the fearless and the slightly incontinent.

I love coming to this place, and it is literally just for the community these days; I've been stooging around here for years now... must be nearly four, and I've interacted with a lot of people over that time. Most were honestly pretty forgettable, but a good number have been really amazing, really genuine people - especially those I've interacted with down in the darkest pit of Destructoid, so without further ado I would like to talk a little about the people who have helped make my daily internet adventures so enjoyable:

(mandatory tone-setting piece)

Glowbear – (Also known as front page superstar Claire Sharkey) How to describe Glowbear? Genuinely wonderful. You know I often make rude jokes about her, frequently on the Scary Granules podcast, in the show posts, and generally on the forums but I've honestly got to say all jokes aside she is quite probably one of the nicest people I've ever met. And that goes for online or offline. She's always easy-going and willing to share whatever she's got with others – even going so far as to share her food and lodgings with other Dtoiders for events and just for hang-time, and she's always looking out for people and trying to help them out when they're down. All round she's a classy dame and the best thing you could do all today would be to drop by one of her blogs and tell her she's amazing.

Philkensebben – (Also called Mike Martin now) is pretty awesome generally, and a really nice guy to boot. Don't get me wrong he's a fucking arsehole and if he doesn't call you a cunt within five minutes of first talking to you there's probably something drastically wrong with him that day; but underneath the many, many layers of crude language and child-like temper tantrums there's a really genuine, decent guy, who'll be telling you how much of a fucking shitlord you are one minute and the next helping you when you're having a bad day. He's also a lot of fun to game with, and pretty good at shit-talking. I only regret I couldn't do more to help him with the terrible shit he always seems to go through.

Roberto Plankton – It's not often I like to describe anything as sublime, it's even rarer that I'm moved by the art I see, but both these terms apply to how I feel about Plankton's work. He crafts pictures only a haunted mind, ever so slightly out of phase with reality and society could fathom; and I honestly consider him possibly one of the great masters of art of the modern age, just undiscovered and unpopularised as of yet. His art is a nightmarish juxtaposition of the mundane and the extreme, twisting the popular into the dark and letting the unwritten taboos of the modern world taste light for the first time. Almost like a reaction to the inane stupidity and unconsciousness of general society Plankton offers the chance at a potential cure need only twist the contours of the box one more time to taste it. It has been a treat to befriend him on the forums, and despite my having little to give in return he's created a number of pieces representing my avatar and username, which I am eternally grateful for. I think if I could hope for anything for him it would be to see his work recognised for the creative genius it is, and maybe to get to work on a project with him sometime.

...oh, and a 10% cut on whatever he makes and sells in his lifetime. Seriously, I'd never need to work again.

Usedtable – (Also known as Tubby now), is just basically a big ball of muscle on little legs. You'll often see him round the comments section on front page threads either challenging people to fights or slamming people (verbally) over one thing or another. Unlike a lot of internet tough guys though he's actually the real deal, and actually a really nice guy on top of it. He also really believed in me when others didn't think I was a dolphin, and I will always remember him for that.

Zombie Platypus – ZP doesn't seem to come round these parts much anymore, and honestly I can't blame him. A lot has changed about Dtoid and I guess he always felt as though he belonged to the older Dtoid, but I can't help but miss the guy. I know him primarily from the forums, where he had the privilege of being the most frequent poster in them there parts, but he also occasionally did a Cblog, and one time even wrote a short creepy pasta piece for a thing me and Glowbear were involved in, he's another really great artist and a really funny guy to boot. He did some really amazing username art for most of us forumites ages back, and I seem to remember he had a thing for knee-high socks :?

Stevil – I guess sans the older Dtoid regulars most people won't recognise Stevil as a big name on Dtoid, which is a shame. It probably isn't really surprising though as he hasn't written anything in ages and his blogs seem to have disappeared mysteriously. I remember Stevil though, admittedly I appeared on Dtoid just around the time Stevil stopped blogging properly, only catching the odd blog he continued to put out on occasion; but at the time at least, as a big survival horror fan, stumbling across the vast treasure trove of old blogs Stevil had accumulated was something else entirely. His keen insight into the mechanics of Survival Horror and its history made his blogs a delight to read, and it's really a shame he stopped writing. He's also been a guest on the Secret Moonbase podcast a few times, which is a treat to listen to, and he's even been on my podcast. He still pops up on the forums to regale us with pearls of pop culture wisdom but I remember him most as the guy it's really stupid Dtoid never hired as a horror writer... because seriously, wtf?!

Occams – I honestly don't know Occams too well, he's somebody on Destructoid that's mainly left an impression on me because of the trail he leaves behind rather than our actual interactions (and I mean that in the nicest way possible.) Like Plankton he's somebody who seems to have one foot perpetually wedged in the doorway to hell, and an ear against the gap to catch the whispers; I haven't seen any art he's made (if he makes any) but he definitely crafts nightmare fuel with his posts and tweets with what little materials he has to hand, and as somebody who's always existed somewhere closer to the weird than the normal his posts always seem to make me smile, and usually laugh.

Browneye – So Browneye is something of a mystery to me, he posts a lot but I don't know all that much about him. Seems like he hits the animu pretty hard, he also seems to like poop and probably wants to make out with Phil loads. Anyway, I like him for the same reason I like Phil, he's rude and obnoxious at times but seems genuinely lovely underneath it all. I guess the main reason he's on this list is because he's somebody who's about a lot but doesn't seem to throw himself in the spotlight too often ...and hey, I'd like him to feel as if somebody appreciates his posts.

Lion – I feel it hard to describe how I feel about Lion - that may just mostly be because of my stunted inability to express human emotion in any particularly effective way though. I will just say that he likes cool things that I quite like – like Dark Souls, the visual efforts of Junji Ito, and writing like you've just come out of an archaic fantasy novel, and that is super; and he's one of those people who I really feel it would be a shame if disappeared from Dtoid... though that's pretty much like everyone on this list (and many more I haven't the space to list.)

~Honourable mentions~

Marche & Firion – Sooo Weaboo. So so weaboo.

Strider – Reviewed one of my blogs before it had even been published one time. He loved it. What a star!

Corduroy – Reading his posts always make me feel as though I'm being shouted at by an old man who thinks I'm on his lawn.

PK Fire – Is 12, and teaches 12yr olds. Wow.

Nihil – Likes dark alleyways.

Luna – Possibly a wizard! Very Cool!

Brightside – Streams filth.


1:37 PM on 01.29.2015

A Magical Dolphin Plays... Babysitter Bloodbath

'A Magical Dolphin Plays...' is a series of short blogs where I write in-brief about my experiences with some of the lesser known games I've played and hopefully explain a little bit about what goes on in the game and how the game feels overall, before offering my thoughts on whether or not I think the game is worth recommending to others. Hope you enjoy!


Originally known as 'Halloween' before the developers were hit with some sort of copyright notice and had to rework elements of the game, and obviously inspired by the movie, Babysitter Bloodbath is probably the closest thing you'll get to a Resident Evil style Survival Horror game that pays homage to slasher movies. A spooky murder mystery experience where the murder is your own (that you're trying to avoid) and the mystery is who keeps letting all these psychotic mental patients loose at night.

What I did in the game:

I start in a modest house, being introduced to two particularly blocky parents.

I am apparently a babysitter. Hah.

I'm unsettled already...

So we basically spend about five or ten minutes here being introduced to the kid, our character, the basic mechanics and the setting of the game. It's very bare bones. I do a little exploring, get a few items and then make sure the kid is in bed before our plucky young heroine decides to dial out to make a bootycall to some dude she met at the mall the other day... don't judge.

What follows very quickly is we get our first blood sacrifice, seen hanging from a wooden fence, before we're introduced to an escape mental patient who thinks my face would look a whole lot better with a knife through it.

This does not end well.

Babysitter Bloodbath was certainly a surprising treat to play as a survival horror fan. For what it is this game really perfectly captures all the elements of those old-school survival horror games from the PS1 era, mixes them up with the things you'd expect to see most in a slasher and adds in a dash of modern game standards. What you end up with is a rather entertaining, albeit short, ode to survival horror games and slasher movies.

If you're the sort of person who really likes their games to challenge in that sort of overly frustrating, very tense, way that early survival horror games did so then you'll probably enjoy Babysitter Bloodbath a lot. Though it doesn't take it to the degree that a full-blown survival horror title might, if only because of time considerations, Babysitter Bloodbath will have you hunting for items, scared shitless as you're about to be murdered, and wondering why the fuck your character doesn't control more easily.

The only real problem I have with Babysitter Bloodbath is... well, it's just too short. I mean the game itself is really good, but playing through it, noticing all the key moments occur (the parents leaving, the news on the radio about the escaped mental patient, the weird call, etc), it just feels as though it happens too fast. Being a big fan of survival horror games it makes me think of other classic survival horror titles, and how much more awesome this would be if it were a few hours long, instead of half an hour - if the tension were stretched out a bit longer; and ratcheted up a bit more before the big reveal.

Overall I'm impressed enough with Babysitter Bloodbath to recommend it to horror fans, it's short and will probably leave you, like me, wondering why nobody has done something like this in the retail game market before but I think you'll get a kick out of all the obvious little nods to the slasher genre and to survival horror games.



3:07 AM on 08.01.2014

Inconsistent Appearance - How ugly should Horror really be?

Sex sells.

It's a cliche but it's true. The more attractive your characters are the more likely you are to catch a viewer's interest long enough to draw them in, get them interested in the rest of your 'product'.

This rules applies just as much to horror games as it does anything else.

But is there such a thing as too pretty to die? I mean the whole point of horror is that we expose ourselves to the things we like least, not the things we desire. Is there a point at which the attractiveness of a character becomes so absurd as to completely absolve a scene of any power over the viewer or player?

I was pondering this as I watched the trailer for the new Fatal Frame game the other day and the conclusion I came to was pretty much: Err... yeah.

I watched a series of ridiculously attractive girls wandering around muttering something (obviously ghost related) in little more than outdoor lingerie and I sort of realised, yeah, this seems a bit silly. These characters look way too attractive to seem real, to seem relatable. It wasn't so much just that they were abnormally pretty (which they were) but that they also looked dressed as if they belonged on a catwalk or in a doll house much more than in somebody's nightmare.

Perhaps it's just my own lack of imagination when it comes to the perils that the life of a catwalker must involve, but I really do feel as though the way the characters were presented totally disengaged me from any sense of the situation I was watching on-screen feeling scary in any 'real' way. And honestly, I'm not trying to say I don't think a game with such ridiculously attractive characters could ever invoke fear or scare me – I'm sure, even without having played it, that the game will have its moments. It's just that I feel as though there is a line there to be crossed, a point at which a character is so ridiculously attractive that it negates whatever else the game may throw at you because of how unrelatable the characters are.

Horror, at it's very basic, is about the ugly. It's about exposing ourselves to the things we really don't want in our lives in a very controlled, usually very santised way. We don't like death, disease, gore, etc, yet it's always that nagging presence in the back of our minds – we can't escape that we'll die, or that we'll catch something some day, or that we'll see somebody bleed in the near future, so we cope with that by exposing ourselves to it in a controlled manner. The best horror though is often about taking that ugliness as close to it's logical extreme as possible without turning the viewer off, you want to disgust them, scare them, horrify them, but you want them to stay in their seat the whole time. You want them to enjoy themselves while they're being horrifically scarred for life.

If you take for example a game like Silent Hill 2, it takes that ugliness to a very disturbing level, with graphic depictions of violence and bizarre sex acts (ok, one), environments dripping in decay, a grey seemingly soulless world that feels very depressing and a horrific menagerie of creatures that all invoke different reactions based off whatever vague connotations their design implies. Yet there's measure and reason to the madness, to the game's ugliness.

Resident Evil remake is another good example of that, especially when compared the original PS1 game. The environments in the remake are decayed, rotten; things are out of place, broken, or even just missing from where they should be. None of this is present in the original, where the mansion just feels like some old stately home full of monsters (you know, the usual), but in the remake this atmosphere of decay, this ugly setting where everything seems broke and 'wrong' in some way helps really build the character of the mansion that forms the backdrop of the game and increases the sense that all is not right in the world of Resident Evil Remake.

That ugliness is always present in horror on some level, it's intrinsic in the genre, because if you're making a 'scary' game your material will always have some sort of ugliness to it, it's just about the degree to which it's taken. Games like Silent Hill 2 and Resident Evil remake take it much further than a game say like the original Resident Evil or even say Doom but they're still doing the same thing essentially. The goals are different so the degree to which they really dredge the depths of the human psyche are different but they're essentially still going for the same reaction: Ew.

Viewed like that then it may seem as though there is no point to the attractive in horror, after all why remind somebody of the thing you least associate with disease or death or decay? Well, the obvious answer is for contrast. When you think about that stunningly beautiful blonde from down the street the first thing you do isn't to imagine her getting her skin melted off or writhing in agony on the floor... I mean, unless you have particularly bizarre interests :| in which case: just stop. That's super eww.

Why don't you associate the two? I guess for the same reason you don't think about maggots the second before you take a big bite out of your sandwich at lunch, or think about taking a dump just before you kiss somebody, because we don't like connecting the things we like with the things we don't really want to think about. We don't want to think about our loved ones dying, we don't want to think about that beautiful blonde lady's skin melting off, we don't want to contemplate the horrible things that may accidentally get into our food.

The two fall into very diametrically opposed areas of thought, one pleasant, one unpleasant. At their most basic. When we're really young we have trouble separating the two, reacting strongly to each, but obviously part of becoming an adult is coming to terms with the fact we can't always separate the two... I mean not that many beautiful women get their faces melted off; just that bad things happen to that which we like, regardless of our input or perspective on the matter.

The thing is though that reality is often more complicated than we'd like it to be as well, as we do grow up and learn to accommodate the two it often becomes inevitable that with accepting the two we also sort of realise the two are intrinsically linked. One part of that is because of the contrast they offer when set against each other; the other is the fact you can't really separate the two as in a sense they do feed into each other, death and disease don't directly cause the things we love in life, but they are a part of the cycle of life.

Beauty is also intrinsically linked to decay, because without something first being vibrant, full of life, and beautiful, it can't then decay; if something is decaying and it decays some more it's still just decaying generally. Most people don't get too upset about that. However if something is beautiful and then decays it has something to lose, and we have something to mourn the loss of. To some extent then the attractive, the beautiful, is necessary in horror – that contrast helps emphasise how easy it is to lose everything, how fragile life is, how easy it is to go from having everything to living a nightmare. Horror is after all about fear, and probably one of the most basic things we can be afraid of is just losing everything.

On a more obvious level though, like I said at the beginning: Sex sells. It would be stupid not to acknowledge that. We like looking at pretty things and if you put a hot lady or a hot guy in a film, game, TV show, etc then you're going to draw the audience in at least a little better than you would if the character were a few rungs down the ol' attractive ladder. And this isn't a new thing for horror to exploit: check out almost any classic horror movie and you're likely to find a rather demurely dressed ridiculously hot female lead. I know at least one luminous furry mammal that will be thoroughly disappointed in me for saying this but I've never really found Sigourney Weaver that attractive, but I'll admit she definitely has a certain sexual energy to her character as she darts around the inside of that shuttle in nothing than a top and panties in the original Alien. And I think that's intentional.

Hammer Productions were notorious back in the day for the degree to which they sexualised their female characters in their films, I mean we're not talking the sort of Dead or Alive level of retarded costume design but I think it was obligatory for every female character to have a dress that not only exposed the top of her breasts but pushed them up and together, causing a not unpleasant sight for the viewer.

And this is when they were wearing clothes; the few moments where they were wearing actual clothes and not smeared in blood or writhing orgasmically around the floor (seriously.) It was very much intentional, they were meant to be very sexual, meant to titillate and excite. Truth be told you were just as likely to recognise an actress in a Hammer film from the latest issue of Playboy as you were from another Hammer film.

Though I won't say that having such attractive female characters really defined the impact those movies had, because they do have a certain pulp horror entertainment value to them in and of themselves, it did give them an edge that they wouldn't otherwise have had. But there was a limit to how far they'd go with that, mostly governed by the unwritten (and sometimes written) rules of censorship in film at the time. And generally I do think Hammer were at the very extreme end of the sexual spectrum (so to speak) when it came to how they presented their characters, they tried to push the envelope (and the stamp too) compared to other film companies.

Hammer were British so those last few paragraphs may look like nonsense to a non-Brit but that sort of underlying sexual dynamism was just as prevalent in American film as British at the time, and is if not more so now. I've mentioned Alien, but you can look at pretty much any horror movie from the 80's onward and see the same thing, often very sexualised, very attractive (usually young) people getting into horrific situations.

The thing is though, as far as those films took it there was always a limit to the degree to which they'd sexualise their characters, the characters were usually just slightly more idealised (and better featured) exemplars of normal people at the time. This is something I really feel is missing from the Fatal Frame trailer, because as I watched it, even those brief two minutes or so of footage, I found the characters completely unrelatable.

Sexy is one thing, but your characters have to look as though they could be real people somewhere, at some point in time, and as I watched the trailer I couldn't really see any of the characters I watched as people.

I mean, look at this...

What is that?! Who wears that outside?!

And who did her hair? Seriously????

Maybe it's just me but aspects like this in horror games (or horror anything actually) really niggle me. I know at the end of the day horror is principally about the unreal (hello zombies!) but even so there has to be some underlying element of realism to whatever you're playing/watching/reading. I like a good bit of escapism as much as the next person but I feel the best horror is always grounded in realism – otherwise how do we relate to the fear of those on-screen?

To a degree I do think this is mostly a clothing issue for me, I do think there's a point at which you can take general attractiveness too far – and it's quite possible to say that the female leads in games like Haunting Ground and Resident Evil Remake (or any of the Resident Evils), seem too unrealistically attractive to ever find themselves in danger, which is a fair point, as in HG and the REmake the leads both look like supermodels (possibly the same one?)

I'm just not as bothered about that as general presentation. If a character can get bloodied, beaten, and covered in muck like anybody else then attractiveness doesn't necessarily matter too much; but when you pretty them up and dress them in almost doll-like outfits that seem totally out of place for the setting it does start to detract from whatever impact they may have had as an interesting and relatable character.

I guess that's in part what I'm reacting to with the trailer... That the characters really do just look like playthings and not people.

...I'm sorry doll-like Japanese women, I find you completely unrelatable as human beings : '(

More seriously though I feel as though the earlier Fatal Frame games had the same problem but managed to reign it in reasonably well, there was a balance between the characters looking attractive whilst also looking normal enough for it to be believable that they'd be in that situation. Miku in the first game did rock a particularly slutty 'plain girl' look, but she was definitely designed to look plain; and Mayu and Mio though admittedly almost definitely within 'creepy jailbait territory' could pass for two teenage girls dressed for a day out in the park... I mean if you imagine they're kind of odd goth girls.

I do think generally the first three games, though they did push the limit of 'Omg, would you really wear that to run away from ghosts?! Seriously?!?!', did feel like they had mostly realistic and relatable characters. Fatal Frame 4 is pretty much where the series seemed to have jumped the shark; I am admittedly not the biggest fan of Fatal Frame 4 so perhaps this is at least partly explains why, but I do feel as though there's a point at which it just becomes absurd that your main character is running around in little more than fancy lingerie. Seriously, WHO WEARS THIS TO LOOK FOR GHOSTS?!?

While I do think it's a matter of degree and intention with horror – if you're going for something a little softer or your intention is more to shock than to probe the depths of the human psyche then obviously you don't really need to be as concerned with how ugly your game world is, I do think regardless of what your angle is if your intention is to make horror that people can relate to, can be affected by, then you need characters who are relatable. Those characters need to look like real people, it's human nature that the characters we'll want to see most in our fiction and entertainment are more attractive versions of ourselves but there is a line there to be crossed, a limit to how attractive a character can be before it becomes absurd. If your characters look like they're wearing bizarre lingerie then I think you've probably crossed that line.

For me at least this is what I took from the Fatal Frame trailer, a reminder that regardless of whatever your horror game may be about, whether it be ghosts, or zombies, or creatures from the depths of the darkest ocean, if you forget that the point of horror is to connect your audience with relatable characters and stories then you kind of lose whatever impact anything else in the game could've had.

Real horror is ugly, and that's not really something you can escape, no matter how hard you try.   read

4:51 AM on 07.25.2014

A Magical Dolphin Plays... Claire

'A Magical Dolphin Plays...' is a series of short blogs where I write in-brief about my experiences with some of the lesser known games I've played and hopefully explain a little bit about what goes on in the game and how the game feels overall, before offering my thoughts on whether or not I think the game is worth recommending to others. Hope you enjoy!

Hey there guys. Panzadolphin56 here, I haven't really written anything for awhile but having picked up a copy of 'Claire' recently on Steam I found myself with the sudden urge to write about my experience with the game. Hope you enjoy der words!

This is going to be something of an extended 'A Magical Dolphin Plays...' as I basically want to touch on the same sort of stuff I have talked about with the other short games I've played so far but also want to go into a bit more detail about the game and do a sort of mini-review of Claire, as the game itself is too big to be classed a brief experience but not something I'd consider an epic journey either. It's a relatively short game.

So what is Claire?

Claire is an indie horror game about a young girl who finds herself trapped within a nightmare world filled with memories from her past. I won't go too much into specifics about the plot but it borrows a lot from games like Silent Hill 2, 3, a bit from Haunting Ground (I guess) and seemingly from Lone Survivor as well.

The game is story-driven for the most part, being more about Claire's psychological state of mind and past than anything, but the bits of story exposition are broken up by long sections of gameplay. The gameplay in Claire mostly consisting of you exploring 2D environments not too dissimilar to what you might find in a game like Silent Hill or Resident Evil – abandoned hospitals, schools and apartment buildings being the focus of the game.You explore, you hunt for key items and supplies, talk to the odd NPC, evade monsters and occasionally hide in the odd closet or two.

What I did in the game:

(I won't recount the whole experience here, just give you the general gist as the game is at least four hours long...)

The game starts on a black screen, with text popping up as some rather off-putting cutesy music plays in the background. Evidently I'm a little girl (and not just dressed up like one on this occasion! (oo-er) and I'm waking from a rather bizarre nightmare, into another nightmare, altogether much scarier. I am alone in my bedroom and need to find my parents, but the darkness won't let me escape.

I awake only to find myself in another nightmare, now trying to find my way out of a hospital. I stumble upon a dog that I seem to know and that seems to know me. As we explore we run across strange shadowy creatures, escaping sometimes through doorways other times by hiding in closets. Something begins to grow on the walls, strange fleshy aberrations. And then silent, faceless monsters pop up – they don't attack, they just wander around the environment, and are more creepy than anything you run across, if only because they do nothing.

After some more exploring I stumble across some NPCs, random characters who seem to each want something. An item. Each item takes me a little out of my way but they seem grateful once you help them. I keep picking up butterflies.

Much of the game consists of this, me exploring, stumbling upon clues to progress, all the while trying to escape the clutches of those bizarre shadow monsters. Every time you progress through an area you're rewarded with a bit more story, another piece of the puzzle. It mostly works.

For the most part it is an enjoyable game, especially if you're a fan of the Silent Hill games and enjoyed Lone Survivor's 2D horror style; it's a very story-focused game and despite the story sort of being predictable (it's pretty obvious from the start something isn't quite right) it still manages to have enough of an impact once it hits you. That said, the game does have some big problems - I will mostly overlook the reported bugs in the game, I think I got it after most of them had been ironed out but it's more the way the game plays that I have a problem with.

There's no way to kill monsters, you just have to run from them, but obviously they can kill you. So the game provides healing items. Pretty run-of-the mill so far. The problem is though that being the sort of run-and-hide game that Claire is there's nothing really to balance out your item use, there's no point in the game where you will definitely need to use an item. So unlike say Resident Evil where you know no matter how good you are you will need a certain number of bullets to get through a section of the game, there's no real sense that your supplies have purpose in Claire.

This is true of the healing items, but also of the flashlight batteries you get. Both are consumables you pick up, dotted around the environment, but if you play well you don't really need either. Personally I was using health like nobody's business early on, but once I'd figured out how to avoid the monsters I had way more than I needed. And in terms of the batteries, I decided early on I was fine with the lighter (the unlimited alternative to the more powerful flashlight) quite arbitrarily, and only realised as I got towards the last third of the game that that random decision had completely messed up the gameplay intent.

I had a similar problem with Amnesia when I played that through a second time, after I figured out all the game's tricks. Without the game really forcing you to use supplies at specific points it then becomes more about player skill, and the more skilled you are the more redundant those supplies become in terms of the gameplay experience. Feeding into this somewhat is how pointless the monster encounters feel too, sure they're surprising when they pop out but like with supplies once you've figured out the trick, the monsters aren't as troublesome. And again because you never have to necessarily use supplies to avoid the creatures they never feel that significant a part of the game. They chase you, the grating 'encounter' music plays, you run a few screens over, and that's it.

I also don't like that the monsters are never really explained, I mean I'm not looking for a birth certificate and baby photos but a little explanation as to why the nightmares take the forms they do would help – what's the significance of the growths on the walls? Why do the creatures look like children's scratchy drawings? What are the faceless monsters exactly?

If you've got this far I can imagine you can probably guess my feelings on Claire for the most part, and honestly it may seem as though I really don't like the game, but that's not true. I did enjoy Claire a lot, and I absolutely love a lot of where Claire draws its inspiration from in terms of story, feel, atmosphere and themes. It's just that as much as I love that and feel the story was done pretty well, I can't ignore the gameplay elements, I can't ignore how lightweight the survival aspects feel, or how pointless the monster encounters are.

For me at least a really good horror game is fundamentally about a great story, it's about horrifying you by touching on very basic, very primal aspects of being human, and as much as that is about good story-telling it's also about good gameplay mechanics as well. You can't draw a player in unless they feel the way the game itself plays is a part of the way the story is put across and experienced.

In that respect I can't really recommend Claire as something everybody should play, but if you are a fan of Silent Hill, are more of a story over gameplay person and don't mind a few hours of infuriatingly trying to navigate a bizarre maze, for the price point it's at Claire might be just the game for you! Still...

Not Recommended   read

7:02 AM on 01.15.2014

Call of Cthulhu and the Spectre of Good Horror

So I picked up Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth in the Steam Christmas sale and despite some minor problems was able to power through it quite quickly within a week or so; what I played left me intrigued enough to want to jot down a few of my thoughts on the game.

I think the first thing I'd say about this game is that I enjoyed it, it is sort of buggy and broken in a lot of respects but I also can't help but feel underneath all of its problems is an interesting game with a lot of potential.

Often with games they forget the story/narrative side of the experience and tend to just be 'games' – what does that mean? Well, the game isn't so much about playing the role of the character you're playing as but rather just repeating patterns of mechanics, for example, walk into room, shoot wave of enemies, engage with bit of story, enter next room, rinse and repeat. Which personally feels a bit soul-destroying to me, a game needs to be a good compromise between the mechanics and the intent – who am I pretending to be? What do I do in the game? Where's the fun supposed to come from?

If I'm a detective I need to feel like a detective, if I'm the commander of a starship I need to feel like one; if you spend your game days dipping into trash cans for snacks then there's a good chance you might undermine the sense your character is some sort of heroic (and thin) pinnacle of manliness, if your character never has to worry about stopping to reload or check their condition then you might undermine the sense that the player is in a scary horror game.

What stood out most about Call of Cthulhu for me is that for the most part I did feel I was playing the part of the character I was playing, even if buggy the developers did seem to have the right idea about how to construct the gameplay and story. I was playing a Lovecraft horror story for all intents and purposes, I was the weak (though apparently very debonair) protagonist, stuck in a world of madness and abhorrent horrors and trying desperately to find a way to escape, and I liked that, a lot.

In Dark Corners of the Earth you play Jack Walters, a detective who after a stint in a mental asylum (having seemingly lost a large chunk of his life and memories) takes a case to locate the missing manager of a small convenience store in a close-knit fishing town. Things go down hill very quickly though as Jack finds himself drawn into a very dark and otherworldly conspiracy.

This is what I think works best about Dark Corners of the Earth, as it does feel as though over the course of the game there's a steady downward spiral in terms of how bad the situation gets - the shit really hits the fan - as you go from tackling a conspiracy to battling otherworldly creatures.

One of the best/most interesting aspects of the game is that it initially starts off as a sort of stealth/detective game, it takes a fair amount of time for you to get a weapon and in the meantime the threats to your safety (not to mention your life) steadily increase. The very first sections of the game have you mostly exploring, talking to people and doing just enough sneaking and snooping to get the clues you need to figure out there might be more going on in the town of Innsmouth. The game then shifts into full-on sneakathon, as you're forced to make your escape after a botched attempt on your life; this lasts probably the first 1/3 or around 1/2 of the game as you desperately try to evade regular human enemies.

In the 2/3 or 2/2 of the game the dynamic shifts further towards action, you're still sneaking but you get access to firearms and are able to force your way through situations more. And as the game develops further still the enemies change also, becoming more challenging, and a lot less human. The nice thing is though it doesn't lose that horror edge, you don't actually gain anything from killing enemies (well, aside from them being dead obviously) and in some areas they respawn so you have to be careful about when you decide to start shooting everything in sight.

There's also a nice mixture of stages – the stealth aspects don't completely disappear, even when you do get guns, and even after you start to confront the larger, more otherworldly, threats of the game. Indeed, even though the action sections do seem to get longer as the game progresses they always seem sandwiched between sections where stealth is either required or heavily suggested.

I like this a lot, I think too many horror games (at least AAA ones) think of tension and atmosphere as something to use in the early stages of the game, to set the scene, to unsettle the player, then just completely forget about them and just throw action scene after action scene at the player. So it's nice that Call of Cthulhu never really forgets that it's a horror game.

The game isn't without its faults though, to start off with it is very buggy. Even alt-tabbing while in-game will make it crash, I patched the game prior to even booting it up but without the patch I've heard there's a fair few other crashes that can happen. It's very unstable.

The game is also very hard, at least without the fixed executable, which (separate from the patch) alters some of the in-game parameters to make it less of a ball-buster. Now, I don't mind hard, but a game has to be clear about its mechanics if you're going to challenge the player and Dark Corners of the Earth really isn't. There's no HUD and no real visual clues as to how what you're doing affects the game world so it's often impossible to know how you're failing except to know that you are failing and keep doing it. There is, for example, a sneaking section early on where you have to sneak into a room without being seen... sounds easy enough, but for some reason even without making any obvious noise as soon as you get in the room you're somehow seen, I replayed this section several times and regardless of how careful I was the guard seemed to be almost omniscient.

Aside from the bugs I think this is the biggest problem I have with the game, there's a lot of interesting aspects and mechanics to it but most of them feel pretty disconnected from the player – if you're going to have action and shooting sections (especially in horror) then guns need to have weight, presence, you need to feel that what you're doing has purpose, you need to feel in a certain amount of control.

Likewise if you're going to have sneaking sections the game needs to communicate to the player how effective their stealth is. In some games this is done in a very obvious way – with elements of the HUD displaying visibility or how alert guards are, but it could be more subtle – say, with environmental cues, perhaps guards' footsteps being louder the closer they are or your actions having relatives degrees of noise comparative to how likely to attract attention they are. Yet Call of Cthulhu has none of this, and it really suffers for it.

This is the real shame about Dark Corners of the Earth, as the story really is interesting and it is a pretty stand-out game in a lot of respects, it's just the mechanics really haven't been developed as much as they need to be, so at times it can feel like a very disconnected experience. That said I'm still pleased I bought it, though glad I didn't pay anything near full-price for it. I love Lovecraft stories so it's right up my alley (oo-er.)

Here's hoping in the future someone has the good sense to take the model the game provides and improve on it, I'd love to see that.   read

8:42 AM on 10.15.2013

Of Inventories and Horror Games

Could you carry this for me?

It's only small, it shouldn't take up much room; wait, have you checked you have the space? Do you need it for something else?

Nowhere does inventory space become more of a worry than in a good Survival Horror game – that little bit of extra room can mean all the difference between clear sailing to the next objective and a risky backtrack to reach somewhere where you can drop off or swap what you're carrying at the moment and the possibility of being attacked on the way.

I want to talk a little about inventory systems today, I say a little because obviously inventory systems are so integral to gaming that you could literally write a book on how all sorts of different games handle them. I'm not going to, that would be time-consuming, and sort of boring to write, and maybe boring to read too, honestly. I do feel as though it's an important topic to tackle when discussing what makes for good horror though, even if it's not as obvious a one as say atmosphere or gameplay mechanics.

It's a topic that's been rolling around in my head for awhile now, and indeed I think I've touched on it when I've written before about the essentials to horror, but mostly in passing; what crystalised its importance for me was getting to play Cry of Fear. As something of a surprise to me, I found myself inextricably drawn to a lot of what defines the game, as in many respects I found what made the early Resident Evils and Silent Hill so enjoyable to me replicated again in Cry of Fear, and part of how it does that is the inventory system.

I haven't quite finished Cry of Fear yet but I've gotten far enough to find myself pretty enamoured by the inventory system in the game. I think the beauty of it is it's actually relatively simple – it's a modified version of the grid inventory system we're used to in RPGs and adventure games for the most part. You have a series of boxes for items, where things you pick up go, key items fit in the same area as supplies and weapons, then to the right of that is some quick select slots.

I'm about half way through the game (I think) but so far there isn't really any body armour, protective clothing, or anything else you can equip on your body; it's all just hand items – mostly weapons but also tools and healing supplies. You do have to juggle items at times, usually having to give up a weapon or leave a key item but there isn't really the same sort of constant backtracking as in the Resident Evil games - there is though a definite sense that you have very little space to spare in your inventory.

One of the most interesting aspects of the inventory system – and indeed the game, is the ability to dual-wield items, using one hand to hold say a weapon – like a knife, or a gun, and the other hand your phone (which acts both as a means of receiving progression-related messages early on in the game and as a directional light source when held.) This comes with it's own downside though – since most items have more than one use when you dual-wield you give up that second use in order to use the two items' primary functions at once. For instance, your phone is a light source, but you can also club things with it, you can't do this when dual-wielding it; your gun... obviously fires bullets that hurt things, with only the gun equipped you can aim down the sights to aim more accurately or club attackers when out of bullets, you can't do either of these things when dual-wielding it.

What I really, really, like about the inventory system, and I think is the beauty of it (atleast so far) is the sense of control you have over everything you pick up. It's obviously not on par with real life in terms of how much you can do with each item but it does attempt to establish a sense that each item has multiple uses, like in real life, and then allows you to pick and choose what you think is most important. Your phone, for example, can be a directional light source when out, but when put away with the light on gives you a small area of effect light source, which is a nice touch. That way, you can choose to put the light away, whilst having a small circle of light around you and being able to fully use the pistol, OR dual-wield and be able to see what you're fighting but lose those useful secondary abilities of the pistol and phone and potentially complicate any sort of fight.

I like it because in some respects it emulates the versatility of how tools and objects work in real life, sure a gun fires bullets but it's also a solid object I can club stuff with, a phone can be a light aswell as a phone. On the other hand, sure my phone can be held out in one hand as a directional light but in real life couldn't I also put it in my top pocket or attach it to myself in some way so I can still use my gun at the same time? Ofcourse.

While Cry of Fear doesn't emulate just how versatile objects are in real life (you're going to use that gun to prop up the chair?!? WHAT?!) because obviously that would make for an incredibly complicated inventory system (hello, Arma!), it does go some way to making the player feel more in control of what they have on them between the quick slots – which allow you to draw items quickly like in real life and the dual-wielding, which lets you do something we all kind of take for granted in real-life but most games overlook – the fact we can actually do more than one thing at once, even if it might mean we don't really do either thing very well.

What it sort of made me realise is how much inventory systems as an aspect of gameplay have been overlooked as a key component of making the player immersed and really in control of their situation, even if weak. For the most part Horror games, and indeed games in general, have been designed around the philosophy of 'pick up, use and move on' - you start off with nothing, then you explore, find one item with a use, then another with a different use, and then there's some story, some more exploring, and the process repeats.

Items and weapons are usually designed to be singular in nature – a gun is a gun, it's not a door prop or a club, it just fires bullets. You use it till you find the next weapon up, which is slightly more shiny, and this cycle continues to the end of the game. A key is just that, a key, you can't use it to hook an out of reach item behind a bookshelf or to scrape away dirt from a grave. In real life you could, however badly, but the idea of tools, weapons and items having more than one practical use has mostly fallen by the wayside in games, exactly because there's an emphasis on keeping the player stimulated and rewarded for their actions, rather than practically challenged within games.

Predominantly why you have different weapons is to give you a greater range of ways to kill things, so you don't have to see the same animations over and over again and because it makes the game more 'fun' to have variety. Then it's for these reasons rather than for any practical reason that you have the range of weapons you do – obviously in real life there are practical reasons why soldiers may have a handgun and a larger rifle weapon of some sort – a handgun is smaller, more compact, takes up less space, is easier to pull out and makes a good backup weapon; rifle weapons are usually more powerful, more accurate, and potentially more stable. Each has a separate use and reason for existing. As far as I know soldiering doesn't involve any one-uping in terms of weaponry – you don't start with a handgun and by the time you're a colonel have worked your way upto a rocket launcher, and a Davy Crockett by general far as I know.

I think this feeds into why inventory systems have become so neglected, or atleast sidelined in games, because it's more important to wow and visually impress the player than necessarily arm them with different tools for different situations. The inventory system is then just a place for things to be dumped and not a space for the player to sort of MacGyver some sort of item combination to solve their current situation.

One of the best examples of this sort of 'dumping space' principle that I can think of (and in a damn fine Survival Horror game I might add) is actually the Silent Hill inventory system. In the Silent Hill games (atleast the early ones) you don't really have a defined space for items, your inventory has no limits. It's just a system by which you can pick and choose from a (seemingly) infinite selection of items you've picked up. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad system for the games – as the Silent Hill games do a lot of other things really well to create atmosphere and part of what defines the Silent Hill games is the pace, the constant momentum of the gameplay, as compared to say Resident Evil, where there's a lot of backtracking, so the infinite inventory/lack of magical item box aspect factors into that.

It is however a bad inventory system in the sense of creating pressure on the player, it doesn't, the inventory system barely factors into moment-to-moment decision making in the game; obviously because Silent Hill is the type of game that doesn't want to do this in the first place it's not such a big deal, but it shows how much in general that sort of 'pick up, use and move on' mentality is integral to some games. Now Silent Hill, like Resident Evil, does allow you to examine and combine some items, so you do have a certain degree of control over your inventory, but again, the inventory system remains largely flat – because for the most part items have only one use, and once that function comes into use they then either disappear from the inventory to later be replaced by something else or just become relegated to the background of the inventory, items to be used over and over again but barely noticed otherwise.

Though it's not infinite I'd say the Siren games have a similar problem with their inventory, though again because of the type of game it doesn't matter so much. Siren works by the player working through various scenarios as various people, never being one person long enough for it to matter what they have in their inventory or worry about whether they're carrying too much. And again the game creates it's horror in other ways, and admittedly I'd say it does a really, really good job of that, but even so I do think that lack of pressure, that lack of added interactivity with the inventory does little to add tension. I'm hesitant to say 'subtracts' but it's definitely not contributing anything.

The elephant in the room throughout all of this discussion is ofcourse the Resident Evil series, speaking mainly of the early numbered iterations (1, 2, 3, and ok, Code Veronica too) I think the series did a really good job of keeping a tension between having to achieve a goal and progress and forcing very real space limitations on the player. You do have to think about what you take with you, you do have to consider the merits of every item. You become a scavenger of sorts and have to carefully consider how much use every item you come across is going to give you.

Admittedly, I'm a little biased, as it was Resident Evil 2 that pretty much introduced me to inventory systems, so that's kind of my base point, but still, I think the Resident Evil games did do a really good job of forcing that pressure of limited space on the player, creating a tension between goal and inventory management, and limiting their power: - Sure, you can carry that grenade launcher and take down that Tyrant! But you don't have enough space for that tiny keycard if you're carrying all those herbs, you think you need, at the same time. That sort of compromise between the big and the essentially trivial is I think essential to good horror – it's like the zombie film equivalent of characters squabbling over something as petty as who gets the last can of beans when outside the whole world is going to shit.

Ofcourse, the system wasn't without it's flaws – why should a herb take up as much space as a handgun? Why are two herbs the same size as a shotgun? That's stupid. The system in the early Resident Evils was good (I like it anyway) but it was too simple. 4 had something a bit better in the attachι case, but really that was kind of stupid too – where exactly did super agent Leon put that bloody thing? Hm?

A much more modern example, though a less directly Horror-driven game and more like Adventure Horror, is the Last of Us. The Last of Us does something between Silent Hill's infinite inventory system and Resident Evil's magical box system, like with Silent Hill the game is based around a pretty much relentless pace - even more so given the design brief of modern AAA games, but it stills confines you in some respects. You have specific weapon and item slots, maximum capacities for each weapon... but you do still carry (in a very unrealistic way) multiple weapons at once – multiple handguns, a rifle, a shotgun, a bow, etc, etc. You just can't access them as easily as the stuff in your direct/immediate inventory because Joel has to root around in his backpack for them. I like the way this constricts the player whilst still giving them plenty of options, it too though stresses the unrealistic side a bit too much for my liking – atleast for Survival Horror to borrow from it in the future.

I think if Survival Horror is going to become a powerhouse of creativity again then it has to step out from the crowd a bit more, even though inventory systems are generally unrealistic go for something a bit more realistic. Either give your character very limited space or give them a (visible) backpack of some sort. A character in loose jeans and a top could probably carry a rifle (with a sling) and a handgun, and ofcourse a few supplies, but much more than that and it starts to become silly.

Personally I'm kind of leaning towards something somewhere between the Resident Evil block inventory and the more RPG-style 'body outline' inventory system – where you have an inventory based off the parts of the body where items of certain sizes could be carried or stored (well, in the clothes, I guess you could stick stuff up your nose or ass, but probably not much.) I'm not keen on overly stringent or stat-led inventories in Survival Horror but I do think there has to be some pressure on the player to manage their inventory, and future Survival Horror games also have to avoid the pitfall of a system like the early Resident Evils' where two herbs can be the same size as a rocket launcher... that's just silly.

What I don't want is full-on, realistic inventory replication, games like Arma do that; it's not a horror game (well... it is a type of horror, just not the intentional kind), but it does try to realistically replicate how much space a person has on them. I think that would be too complicated. Like I say, we want something vaguely realistic, but not so realistic you need a keyboard or a controller with 30 buttons on just to use it properly – it needs to be complicated enough to realistically reflect space but at the same time simple enough that your Survival Horror game doesn't become a pen and paper RPG.

Maybe something more akin to the system in the Last of Us but with a proper inventory screen? You have a slot for a rifle, a hand weapon, and some easy-access supplies and you arrange what you want where yourself, with those slots acting as quick access slots. Then the rest of your supplies go in a limited area in a backpack of some sort (if you have one); maybe the backpack itself could be a bonus find, like the sidepack in Resident Evil 2? I'd definitely like to see more realism like that in Survival Horror games, atleast if one can pull it off, I think as well there has to be a shift in general away from seeing guns as shiny toys in games and more towards tools to handle difficult situations – just like medkits or keys or any sort of item.

While I'm doubtful over the certainty as to which system is really 'perfect', since it does depend a lot on the game, I do think the future of Survival Horror, good Survival Horror, will in part be reliant upon games that consider the inventory system just as important a factor of a game's 'punch' as atmosphere or tension. After all, if a game makes you worry about whether you should lug the shotgun or the rifle around with you, because of how much space they each take up, then it's already a step ahead of the game that just lets you carry both, without worrying about it, in terms of crafting good horror, because it's already making you worry.

And if anything defines really good horror its being able to create tension and anxiety before you've even seen your first monster.   read

11:37 AM on 10.01.2013

Dead Space 3, in a nut shell.

So I finished Dead Space 3 the other day and was going to write a blog detailing why it made me want to claw my eyes out, but I found the subject almost as boring as the game, fortunately (or not) for you I decided instead to make a terrible picture to illustrate my impressions of the game.

Much larger version (but less blurry.)

Well, that's the art world revolutionised for today, g'night everyone!   read

6:38 AM on 09.19.2013

A Magical Dolphin Plays... Sepulchre

'A Magical Dolphin Plays...' is a series of short blogs where I write in-brief about my experiences with some of the lesser known games I've played and hopefully explain a little bit about what goes on in the game and how the game feels overall, before offering my thoughts on whether or not I think the game is worth recommending to others. Hope you enjoy!


Sepulchre is a short point-and-click indie game in which you play an academic who wakes up on a train not really having a clear idea of what's going on. You explore your immediate environment and a story quickly begins to unfold before you.

Note: I'm going to keep this relatively spoiler free since it's story-heavy but obviously I will be mentioning some of the events that happened...

What I did in the game:

So the game starts.

I'm in a room. I've just finished reading a book.

The game feels sort of weird, sort of eerie and already the name of the game is unsettling me. I look around a little, I try to click on things.

The scenery doesn't really seem to do anything but I find a bag on the floor and some things in there.

I find a man in the corridor, a ticket collector I guess? He's friendly but seems strange, after some discussion I agree to find him some Whisky. The player character refers to him as near his own age but the two look like they have atleast twenty years between them, I am slightly confused :S

I explore the corridor some, all the doors have 1's on them and aside from the middle door (my room) they're all locked.

I move through the corridor to a new corridor.

More rooms.

The door to the restaurant is closed but the last but one isn't.

There's an odd man in there, he doesn't seem to be able to speak but just mutters.

It's all very odd.

Much of the rest of my experience is a constant back and forth between rooms as new clues pop up, I'm enjoying myself but there's an increasing sense of being unsettled by the story that's unfolding before me. The scenery, the backgrounds, even the rooms seem to all be clues as to my unfortunate fate. I found the ending abrupt but satisfying given how the story played out.

I really like Sepulchre, it is relatively short but what you get is a very concise and entertaining narrative-heavy experience. Personally I guessed where things were headed pretty early on but nonetheless I found the way the story was weaved, between the simple series of actions you have to perform to move events forward, quite nice. I don't think length should count against Sepulchre really, because the length is appropriate for the kind of story its telling.

I definitely think the story could have lasted a bit longer, I've read it's about 15 minutes long but it felt more like 30 to me, I didn't really check the clock though. Regardless Sepulchre is a well-made, well-written short but enjoyable piece of free point and click gaming.

Recommended   read

9:14 AM on 09.13.2013

Crafting A Good Game of 'The Thing'

So only a few days ago I happened to stumble across a video of 'The Thing', the game, on YouTube, and it brought back a lot of memories. Released around 2002, prior to getting my hands on it it had been a game I was very excited for – I'm a big fan of the film (the original), so a game about that sounded like a win-win situation, unfortunately despite being an enjoyable enough shooter the game never really hit the same high notes the film does.

I thought I'd talk a little about why I think that is.

So The Thing (1982) is a horror film. It's a film about a small Antarctic research base that is invaded (for lack of a better word) by a creature from outer space. Discovered in the ice by another research team, it comes back to life and begins to absorb every living thing it comes into contact with. Able to mimic the people and animals it absorbs it hides in plain sight till exposed, attempting to spread and absorb everything it can.

The only way to kill it is with fire.

In many respects the film plays out like a game of Werewolf ...but with flamethrowers; you have a small group of people, trapped in a small location together, who know that among them are creatures intent on their destruction, that they have to kill, but without really knowing what's what none of them really wants to risk killing other human beings. So it becomes a guessing game of sorts, a mystery to be unravelled before it's too late for any of them to survive.

I think as well the film is very much about identity and doubt – we know we are who we are but how do we know the same of others? Whether we realise it or not in day to day life we rely on our sense of knowing that the people we see over and over again are familiar to us, and that they don't mean us any harm.

In the film the characters lose that, as they realise that potentially several of those within their group are not who they say they are. It becomes about suspicion, doubt, trust and only really knowing they can rely on themselves; though none of them really know the others are who they say they are they know at the same time they will have to trust one another to a certain degree if they're not going to die... and it becomes about where to place that trust. I think that's the crux of the film, that sense of tension between wanting to survive but not wanting to survive by becoming another sort of monster entirely – i.e. by becoming a murderer, because honestly there were points in the film where they could have easily massacred one another and ended things there and then.

Obviously on top of that you have everything else – the body horror elements, the characters, the setting, the actual story and dialogue, and they all add up to make for a compelling horror film.

Unfortunately the game covers elements of the last paragraph – the body horror, the setting, even mentioning characters, but it doesn't really do any of the other things that made the film work so well. And that for me is why the game fails in the way it does – and it's not a particularly bad game, it's just not a great game nor really a very good The Thing game.

Overall there wasn't really a sense of tension to it, atleast not one that ran throughout the game. For the most part The Thing was just a regular shooter - you'd walk through areas, creatures would spring out, you'd shoot them. Rinse and repeat through multiple levels. You did have to worry about infection if you got too exposed to enemies but for the most part it was easy going. You did also have to worry about teammates turning, and testing them, but in both respects the game never really followed through on the premise – the testing aspect, for example, never really made a lot of sense.

There was no real apparent cause for infection (since most teammates were never out of your sight long enough to be 'absorbed' like people were in the film.) Initially in previews it was explained how you'd need to constantly be testing your teammates to work out whether they were human or not, and to establish trust, and obviously you wouldn't have enough testkits to go around all the time and part of the tension of the game would spring from that. However, that's really not how it worked.

It also seemed like there were specific points in the game where teammates would suddenly turn regardless of whether they were infected or not – test them, they're fine; walk over an invisible line and they turn (usually before a boss). That made no logical sense, and made no sense in terms of how infection was said to work in the game or the film.

The game did have a certain degree of atmosphere, but I feel like the faults in the infection model and the emphasis on constant shoot-outs negated any strong sense of atmosphere developing.

Another thing I think really didn't help any (especially in terms of atmosphere) was the complete lack of character to the lead character. He was really just bland – this sort of emotionless, gruff-sounding white guy with cropped hair. Granted, MacReady isn't likely to win any 'Sassiest Black Lesbian in Film' awards anytime soon but he atleast had some character.

The lead in the game sees a lot more fucked up stuff than MacReady did (and actually ends up murdering a lot of black-ops goons as well) and still remains level and, honestly, indifferent to it all. While I'm not saying every character has to go nuts at the mere sight of blood, if you're crafting good horror you need your character to be affected by fucked up shit else it stops the player from relating to how horrible the situation is.

I do think the story is pretty clichι as well, something about evil government scientists conducting experiments blah blah blah (you can guess the rest), but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing if the story is done well. I won't fault it for that. Just like hammy acting can be good in the right context so can a clichι story.

I also find it hard to fault a game wanting to be a shooter – I don't think there's anything wrong with shooting in games. I like shooters, one of the games that first got me into gaming at a young age, and indeed into horror in particular, was Resident Evil 2, and I always used to love gunning down zombies, looking over each new gun I picked up or hunting for ammo. The shooting doesn't bother me per se, but the fact the game is almost a constant procession of shooting galleries, where you just move from room to room, shoot things, pick up some goodies, maybe get a bit of story (if you're lucky) and then move on to do more of the same, does annoy me.

There has to be a happy medium between constant shooting and games where there is no shooting whatsoever. Sure there are games like Gears of War and Halo, where the constant shooting fits, and I'm definitely not saying a game of The Thing should have no shooting, I don't want Dear Esther Alien Edition, but I think the shooting has to have context, especially within a horror game.

I think in a horror game there has to be a certain degree of realism when it comes to firearms use and if you don't have that it ruins any sense of immersion – if you were trapped in a haunted house or an abandoned amusement park or on a space station would you really expect to find dozens of guns and thousands of rounds of ammo just lying around?

No, me neither.

This is true on an Antarctic research base as well. Why would they have guns and ammo lying around all over the place?

It's also true in a secret underground government research base – sure they'd have guns, they're evil government people, but they wouldn't just leave them lying around.

You also have to think about how having those plentiful supplies of weapons and ammunition just lying around affects the dynamic of the game and removes any sense of desperation or just surviving from the player's mind. If they don't have to worry about supplies then they're not worrying, and that's not good in Survival Horror.

Tied in to all this is the structure of the game – simply put it's a linear progression from point A to point B, a series of rooms with successive waves of changing enemies, that eventually leads to a final boss. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – it's how a lot of games play out, and indeed how a lot of shooters work, essentially because it leads to quite a satisfying gameplay experience: As in books or movies or any medium, we like our story to start with the character building themselves up from nothing, facing ever increasing challenges before they face a 'final boss' of some sort.

The problem is though that it doesn't really fit with The Thing, or atleast what made the film work in the way it did. What made the film work was that sort of claustrophobic, cramped, feel, the fact that you had this small cast of characters stuck in an even smaller space having to face immeasurable odds as they struggled to survive against the onslaught of the creature really defined the film. If the film had kept jumping to new characters and new areas, it really wouldn't have been as scary as it was.

This is true of movies and books as well but one of the things I've started to realise the more I've thought about why the best Survival Horror games work in the way they do, scare us and create tension in the way they do, is how contained they feel, how little space they give their characters to breath.

It's a little like if you're stuck in one room for too long with nothing to do. The tension slowly builds, you become antsy, frustrated; we all feel that need to move on, to go to new places to quell that frustration. Good horror though exploits that internal tension, forcing us to retread those same corridors, visit those same rooms, while constantly upping the danger. You need that frustration, that 'stuck' feeling if any sense of real tension is going to build.

Good Horror is always about perverting what works well in games to a certain degree – A well structured game relies on progression, on constantly moving on to new areas, new challenges, new enemies. It's why big budget games are so expensive now, because creating that continuous stream of non-repetitive elements, of ever-changing rooms and environments is expensive, very expensive. The best horror though is about doing the opposite – it's about frustrating you, letting that frustration and annoyance at seeing the same rooms and locations over and over again build, and then manipulating it for effect to scare you.

Part of why action horror games fail at creating a real sense of atmosphere and tension and end up relying more on jump scares is because as you progress the environments around you change aswell, so there's no real sense of building frustration. I think this is part of why The Thing game doesn't work, especially given the type of film The Thing is; the film is stuck in that same claustrophobic loop, retreading old territory over and over again, whereas the game completely sidesteps that and negates any of the same tension the film sought to build.

As a sort of addendum to all this, but really a more minor overall point: There was no real mystery, no real sense of doubt over identity within the game. Your character was really the only constant and you knew you were human, so apart from dying horrible there was nothing to be afraid of, no need to worry about getting stabbed in the back – unlike in the film.

I think part of what made the eventual exposure of individual creatures in the film so scary was the sense of tension and build up that had taken place prior to their reveal – mere moments ago, and indeed for large chunks of the film before that, that 'Thing' in front of you had seemingly been a normal person, and the gulf between the two states of being is what, in part, made the creatures so scary. Obviously the fact they sprouted tentacles, split in half and then proceeded to eat or absorb people helped with the whole scary thing but the build up was key too.

The game didn't have any of that.

What would have made for a good game of The Thing?

O) I think either a point-and-click/visual novel game or something more akin to Resident Evil Remake or maybe like the Siren games, maybe some sort of slower-paced, very atmospheric 3rd person survival horror game. 

O) Very tight, compact environments – it wouldn't necessarily have to be in the Antarctic but obviously similar enough for the creature to have to stay where it is and the player to feel hemmed in.

O) It would need to have a relatively small cast of characters, and you'd need to see them repeatedly for some reason – with the potential for them to mutate at any time in the story.

O) Something relatively non-linear in nature as well, possibly with multiple end game scenarios – the player has a single goal but multiple ways to achieve that goal. Potentially in some playthroughs you would be able to save everybody if you did the right thing at the right time, in others even you wouldn't survive and the creature would get out.

I don't think it'd be necessarily hard to make a game that made sense in the context of the original film, but finding somebody to make it is a different issue. To a large extent we're still stuck with the same problem in gaming that stopped the The Thing game being better than it was in the first place - the perception that there's really only a few ways to make a game if it's going to succeed - as a first-person shooter, as a third-person shooter, linear with ever changing rooms and enemies, etc, when really that's not true.

Granted we do seemingly live in an era where it seems as if everything has to copy the biggest selling games in some way to succeed but that's not true either. It's true that some genres are very popular but it's also true that good games sell (well, mostly), whether they fit the mould or not.

I think what matters most of all is really whether the gameplay and the story make sense in terms of the premise. The thing about The Thing (heh) is it's very old-school horror, for lack of a better word: it's cheap. It's designed to be a story about as few people using as few props as possible and as such it's centred around the drama that can be created between a small group of people - again, like a game of Werewolf.

In many respects it's a product of its time - a little like Alien and Aliens actually, sure directors had money but never enough (unlike now), so it was mostly about smoke and mirrors, never showing too much, creating atmosphere but also tension through a very minimalist approach to constructing scenes and emphasising characterisation above constant streams of special effects, and the end result is a very scary film because it's so reserved in it's approach to the horror.

The game's problem though is that it throws all that out of the window and instead jumps on the Action Horror train, presenting a constant procession of enemies for you to kill, within constantly changing environments, leading up to some sort of final boss.

What we got was not a bad game as such, but neither was it one that really did the film justice, and that I think is the biggest shame.   read

5:13 AM on 08.02.2013

Alien(s), Creative license and Borrowed Ideas

Maybe it's because Stasis Interrupted's been released and I've been watching a few gameplay videos of it but for some reason lately I've been (again) thinking a lot about Aliens games and where they've gone wrong over the years.

Colonial Marines was obviously terrible, but Aliens Vs Predator (2010) was also pretty mediocre, and though there has been the odd good game (Aliens Infestation being a good example) I feel as though it's one of those franchises that was really good in concept but now has gotten milked to retardation (see: Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Halo, etc, etc) in terms of games, and really just needs to be given a fresh lease of life. We've sort of been stuck in this continual loop of whatever formula's popular atm being taken and applied to Aliens and the end result (usually an FPS) being pretty mediocre. We really just need fresh blood.

Actually, scratch that, I'm not that much of a starry-eyed optimist, I doubt there will ever be big enough of a direction change when it comes to what's expected of an Aliens game by Sega or Fox for them to push for more original games to be made, so unless the AAA market shifts away from FPSs we're pretty much stuck with mediocrity (I mean I hope it's not true but it seems a safe bet atm.)

That said, it doesn't mean we couldn't see some good Aliens-inspired games.

It used to be a big thing back in the late 80's/early 90's to wear your influences on your sleeve (apparently copyright infringement wasn't a thing back then, who knew!) So for example playing through Syndicate (the original) you'll see references to Blade Runner but also nods to Aliens (a few of the character names are in the agent pool and the military APC bears a striking resemblance to the one from Aliens); it's also why Snatcher features a main character who resembles Deckard from Blade Runner and why the eponymous snatchers of the game resemble T-800s from Terminator; why Rebelstar 2's cover features what can only be described as a 'motherfucking xenomorph for christsake!', why Contra (atleast on the cover) features two guys who look a little like Arnie and Stallone (circa Predator and Rambo), and why the covers of Streets of Rage games sometimes feature multiple Jean-Claude Van Dammes...

what in the...?!

The point is early games features a lot, and I mean A LOT, of free and easy creative license - seriously it was like the 60's but instead of having sex everybody was stealing other people's ideas! FREE LOVE MAN!

This is good and bad, on the plus side it came at a time when games literally had no ideas of their own and people were desperate to make something interesting, so they borrowed from great movies (among other reference material), and if you're going to borrow from anything to make your game then I'm relatively comfortable with it being Aliens or Blade Runner, or in fact anything from 80's/early 90's popular culture, because I love that shit. Developers used this source of potentially good ideas and tried to translate them into games, whilst skimming past the whole 'copyright infringement' thing, (though if you're Revenge of Shinobi that didn't quite go so well!) and that's not necessarily a bad thing – it still happens occasionally today, and the end results can sometimes be really awesome – look at Uncharted 2 for example, poor man's Indiana Jones it is not.

The negative side though is pretty clear: if you're borrowing from existing IPs, even if borrowing between mediums, you're still borrowing those ideas and they're not completely fresh. And if the last ten or so years of AAA gaming has shown anything then it's that creative stagnation is not great for an industry, even in small doses, even when like with AAA gaming now it's just the characters and setting that tend to remain the same.

While I'm hesitant about saying more games that borrow from existing sources would be a good thing, I think usually what puts me off that sort of borrowing with games is that what developers borrow is usually more mechanics and archetypes rather than themes.

It's usually stuff like 'gruff, bearded white dude' and 'cover shooting' that get borrowed, when really what needs to be borrowed is the themes, the feel, the atmosphere. The industry already borrows a lot from film as it is, but sometimes it feels as though they borrow the wrong things. It often strikes me watching films that developers/publishers/whoever creates game projects misses a trick sometimes when it comes to what would make money as a game – there's so many great ideas out there floating about and nobody's taking advantage of them.

The thought really struck me watching Minority Report not too long back, I didn't love the movie but I enjoyed it and I thought the concept was interesting so I wondered - why hasn't anybody tried to do this in a game? I mean we've had plenty of detective games before – Snatcher, J.B. Harold Murder Club, Ace Attorney, Hotel Dusk, Tex Murphy, being just a few examples. The classic detective game genre is pretty well established, mostly in visual novel games, so why not a game where you tackle pre-crime? You'd have this interesting detective game with the added element of forcing the player to tackle the moral quandary of whether arresting somebody before they commit the crime really makes them a criminal.

I've had this thought a few times actually watching films or reading books/short stories – reading through a lot of Philip K. Dick's short stories, a fair number of them could make interesting games, and reading Neuromancer I can see why people were inspired by that. H.P. Lovecraft's works are another good example, though he sometimes crafted creatures of pure terror that can only truly exist as figments of the imagination a fair number of his stories would work really well if they were taken and merged with existing styles of gameplay to create original games. Even if they ended up being terrible it's hardly like we're drowning in horror games set in the late 19th/early 20th century at the moment.

The point being there are more places that games can go, more themes, more issues, more content that can be explored.

It's what's borrowed and not that it's borrowed that I think's the problem a lot of the time with games. This is what I think the shame about pretty much every Alien(s) games is, (and indeed a lot of movie/TV/anything popular tie-ins), it's that instead of trying to emulate or borrow from the creative property the themes, the feel, the dynamic of the original and expand upon that, they just borrow recognisable elements, they borrow the 'skin' of the show, the surface-level detail and plaster that over just some random ill-thought-out game.

I mean look at Colonial Marines, in many respects it's the antithesis of everything Alien(s) represented – the lone heroine defying gender convention to survive and escape impossible odds/that military and scientific might alone can't tame nature; it's just a bunch of dumb dudebros and some token women blowing shit up, being boring and surviving just because they're two-dimensional hero characters but hey, somebody says Weyland-Yutani and Lance Henriksen is in it so it must be a faithful continuation of the franchise!

What I'd really love to see is someone (a developer, big or small) take the barebones of what made Alien or Aliens good and make a game from that.

Alien was a sort of claustrophobic, very tense, very dark and almost suggestive horror story set in a very realistic, hard sci-fi future. It was about a very primal fear of the 'other', and also about sexuality, wrapped up in this story about some space truckers who stumble upon something they really shouldn't of.

Aliens was more about the arrogance that comes with military might and the power of science, and how sometimes the two can fail when confronted with a force of nature that doesn't bow to that power – with obvious Vietnam parallels. Again it was also about this force of nature, this creature, but tackling that same horror from Alien on a macro rather than micro scale – the xenomorphs weren't so much evil antagonists as just wild animals whose perceived territory had been invaded.

Hell, even if it was just a thinly-veiled homage to Alien(s), I'd be cool with that. One of my favourite games is Snatcher, and that's basically a thinly (very thinly) veiled homage to Blade Runner, Terminator and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (among others), it does it well enough and innovates enough turning that into a game that it works though. This is kind of true of a lot of Hideo Kojima games though, he innovates through heavy pastiche/obvious influence but the things he creates are original enough for it not to matter.

Again while I don't like the idea of encouraging more copying from different creative properties I do want to see that when ideas are borrowed they borrow the right kind – the more abstract qualities, the themes, the feel, etc, rather than the obvious, concrete things – the characters, the props, the logos, etc. Kojima isn't alone in this but I'd say he has the right kind of attitude when it comes to how to make good games (most of the time) and be influenced by outside sources, he borrows the ideas not the skin of a creative property, and one of the reasons why his games are often so popular is because he strikes the same chord the popular media he borrows from does.

An Aliens game doesn't necessarily need marines, nor Weyland-Yutani, nor even combat, what it needs is to be scary, it needs atmosphere, it needs to be about a group of people coming into contact with this oppresive invading entity, this force of nature, that can't simply be controlled by technology or firepower.

That's more Aliens than anything in Colonial Marines was.

One of the ideas that struck me while thinking about how Aliens could work as a game is why haven't we had some sort of visual novel Alien/Aliens game? Something maybe played a little like those detective games I mentioned earlier, with you investigating locations, mostly powerless, as you look for some way to escape and have to keep a good eye on your motion tracker so you know when to hide in a locker, between trips away from your safe haven to look for supplies.

I've mentioned it before but I also felt the Alien game for the Zx Spectrum did a pretty awesome job of mimicking the feel of the film for a game that old, merging a sort of top-down strategic view of the Nostromo deck by deck with a visual window in which the xenomorph could pop-up when nearby (accompanied by the steady thum of your motion tracker), that was good. The game feels tense at times, despite the limited graphics, and the fact it's so raw (you die about as easily as most of the characters in the film do) makes it a very challenging experience.

Or even if it was something less horror-based I'd be cool with that – maybe the corporate flunkey simulator I joked about in the other blog I wrote about Aliens games not long after Colonial Marines befouled my senses. Say a game with a cutesy/Super-Deformed graphical style where you play a corporate flunkey who has to balance researching xenomorph specimens with micromanaging running a colony, and has to avoid too many devastating xenomorph outbreaks to protect their bottom line (oh no, not the atmospheric processor again, those things cost a bundle! *60,000 people already dead*), in a sort of tongue-in-cheek nod to Carter Burke's role in the Aliens' story. Even something like that would be more Aliens than Colonial Marines, because atleast it would have some sense of the film in it, some connection to what made the film good.

I can't think of too many films that have had such a fundamental effect on me as Alien and Aliens have (Blade Runner being another actually, and Ghost in the Shell is actually another) and though I think mostly there's enough original ideas for games not to have to borrow I'm so desperate for something that emulates the feel of Alien(s) that I'd settle for a knock-off of either, aslong as it had the atmosphere, the tension, the feel, and the themes of the films (the first two anyway.)

So many games have been influenced by film and other media that we have to recognise there's always going to be an element of borrowed content in games (as there is in any medium), and that's not necessarily a bad thing. From Rambo to Blade Runner, from Jacob's Ladder to Event Horizon, from Jurassic Park to Indiana Jones, all have helped inspire great games.

My hope is that the industry tries to remember it's the ideas that matter and not the things when it comes to inspiration and license.

...oh, and that somebody totally makes a cool Alien(s) rip-off soon! WOO!   read

1:09 PM on 07.15.2013

A Magical Dolphin Plays... The King of the Wood

So lately I've been thinking I want to do more casual, regular pieces on some of the games I play, I'm hoping 'A Magical Dolphin Plays...' will scratch that itch as I talk a little about my experiences with some of the indie PC games I come across. Enjoy!


The King of the Wood is a short indie game where you play a character tasked with eliminating a rogue cyborg, in the process of which you explore a small world and learn a little about the simple story you're playing. It's presented in a simple, blocky visual style, and largely based on a synthesis of elements from Deus Ex (the original) and Blade Runner.

What I did in the game:

I awoke/appeared/came into existence inside an office.

There was a gun on the table.

I did the only logical thing: I picked up the gun and attempted to shoot everything in sight, repeatedly.

Apparently that achieves nothing. Then a note pushed under the door informs me I'm after a cyborg, and I'm off. I come to a large house, surrounded by a wall, poke around a little - noting some telephone lines connecting the house to god knows where, before stumbling inside.

What's fun about the game really starts when you reach the house, as to get inside you need a passcode, and for that you need to check this guy's mailbox. Inside is the code, but you have to read a short letter from the guy you're after to get it. A weirdly inviting warning.

Inside the house you pretty much just look for clues as to where to go, you don't really know what you're doing so it's more about exploring than anything, trying to interact with everything you find and reading the books and notes scattered round the rooms. There's no real danger in the game but you can 'die' technically, as there are traps and sentries round the house, but when you do die all that happens is you're warped back to an earlier room, so it's obvious the game is more about the exploration side of things and the clues scattered round the house than anything.

The King of the Wood does that thing that really good horror movies do, where they signpost what's going to happen ahead of time and it's more the tension in getting to there that affects you than the actual end result; and even though you can guess ahead of time how it's going to end it works.

I really like The King of the Wood, I'm not usually super into indie games, I'm no graphics whore but I tend to be drawn to AA or AAA games where things are often more story focused, but The King of the Wood impressed me. It's one of those games that proves the rule that it's sometimes better to do something simple really well rather than try to do lots of different complicated things all at once.

It's no Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Blade Runner, you won't find any stunning cyberpunk vistas here or high-action combat sequences, but there's an elegant charm to it's 15 minutes of playtime and it's definitely enjoyable.

Recommended   read

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