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About


Oh hey!

I'm celebrity author and renowned street mime Panzadolphin56. This is my blog. I write things here.

...in case the blog bit didn't give that away.

Anyway! To the left you'll find my latest blogs, and beneath this you'll find a fairly comprehensive list of most of what I've written over the years (unfortunately some stuff does eventually get bumped off the list.)

I like to write from a fairly critical standpoint about games, usually analysis or talking about issues that interest me, I also do retrospectives from time to time, talk about games I've been playing, write the funny things that come into my head, and very occasionally do some crappy art.

I hope you enjoy what you read!

I also make videos a little now, so check those out if you'd like - http://www.youtube.com/user/godi3400

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A little about me:

I am mostly a story person, good mechanics are good mechanics but button pressing never does anything for me. I like Horror, I like Cyberpunk, I like Neo-Noir (especially crossed with Cyberpunk), I like good art and good writing, I like games that cut against the grain or choose to challenge social or industry norms in some way.

I don't have a single favourite game but I am a big fan of the MGS games, Snatcher, the Forbidden Siren series, Silent Hill 2, the old-school Resident Evils, Advance Wars and Power Dolls, among many, many others.

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Critical Pieces:

Of Inventories and Horror Games
Crafting A Good Game of 'The Thing'
Alien(s), Creative license and Borrowed Ideas
Crossing from TV/Movie to Games
Scope and Depth in the world of gaming
Boss Battles - When do they ever make sense?
Survival Horror Essentials
Colonial Marines: Well, that kind of sucked...
Disability, Disease in Games
Blood 2 and Post-Modernism
Topics, Tropes and Atmosphere in Horror games
Realism Vs. Fantasy - Who Wins?
The gradual drift away from the mainstream
Is There Horror in The Ugly...?
The Fourth Wall and taking games seriously
Are You Always Online?
Hype: Aliens Vs. Predator
To shoot stuff or not to shoot stuff?
Character Design and Choice in Games
Culture Vs. Creativity: Where do Stories come from?
Where you go Isometric-Strategy Games?
What's the Point of Games?
Do Horror games even still exist...?
Why are Characters Always so White...?
Choice in Games: Heavy Rain

A Magical Dolphin Plays:

Sepulchre
The King of the Wood

Retrospectives:

Resident Evil Remake
Aliens Vs Predator 2
Sweet Home
Forbidden Siren
System Shock 2

Pick up and Plays:

Call of Cthulhu and the Spectre of Good Horror
Story Books and Nightmares in Rule of Rose
B-Movie Bliss: Extermination
Along for the ride with Michigan: Report From Hell
Some thoughts on Wargame: European Escalation
Skyrim: Impressions

Funny/Less Critical Stuff:

Get Yo Summer Game On
Lazyblog: Box Art
Escaping into the Darkness of Hellnight
Diversity what what?!?: Black Mamba Edition
Why Do We Still Have Exploding Barrels...?

Art:

Dead Space 3, in a nut shell.
CROSSOVER: Mario X Siren
Boss: Learning the Tools of the Trade

Front Pages:
Tales from Skyrim: The skinhead shopkeep
Player Profile
PSN ID:karatedolphin66
Steam ID:PD56
Mii code:Hell if I know!
Raptr ID:Anarchicheron
Follow me:
Twitter:@acidmphino
Panzadolphin56's sites
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Following (27)  


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.
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'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!

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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
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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.
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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 ...as 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.
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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!
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'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!

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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
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