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 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.
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.
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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!
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.