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.
Can't live with 'em, can't have closure with genuinely satisfying gameplay segments without them.
...well, atleast that's what we generally tend to believe.
And who could blame us for thinking it, bosses have been an integral part of gaming for a long time now - but why do bosses exist in the first place? Do we need them?
While I can't sit here and argue about who was the first developer or what was the first game to decide that a boss was a good idea I think speaking more generally they've risen to prominence in games specifically because of what they represent. Much like the 'big bad' character that the protagonist ends up fighting at the end of a movie or book, or like the set piece action sequences you get, bosses in games help to signify the end of a block of story or a section of a game in much the same way as you might change location between chapters or levels; its a sort of mental marker for our experience. They also offer a more prominent challenge or obstacle for the player, a change of pace a unique character to fight who isn't 'just another' indistinguishable supernumerary.
Broadly speaking I think this is why bosses have been so integral to games for as long as they have unlike in movies or books where obviously you don't have hardware limitations as to what action can go on (though you obviously might have financial and logistical limitations in terms of making a movie and Stephenie Meyer's hormonal teenager imagination with a book), games have hardware but also disc space limitations.
Hardware limitations are a big problem even today but were an bigger problem for earlier generations of console. You couldn't put a whole lot on-screen - nor in a whole lot of detail, and you also didn't have a whole lot of storage space for multiple sprites/models/textures.
So rather than doing less and keeping each fight sequence unique games instead opted to use repeated instances of the same enemies (think of games like Streets of Rage where you fight the same gutter thugs over and over again, that sort of thing), and supplement those repetitive fight sequences with (relatively) unique boss fights. It was a compromise based off the limitations they had to work with hardware but also financial and physical afterall, unlike with a movie or book if a game's developer does choose to add extra unique content that means more work for somebody. Bosses in that sense played (and still do play) a vital compromise role in a lot of games to keep them feeling memorable but also not unnecessarily limit the game in terms of scope.
However, the thing is that as the definition of a game has expanded in the last few decades, and the sort of things we can expect in terms of experience from a game have diversified, bosses in games have become one of those aspects of games that for some have just been taken for granted as necessary even when they don't make a whole lot of sense to the game in question.
I mean where do we think it makes sense to have bosses?
Personally, I always think that Survival Horror and Shooters have tended to have bosses that have stuck in my mind as making sense, but does every Survival Horror game need bosses? Does every Shooter?
What about Adventure games? Or Puzzle games? Or Visual Novel games?
Where do bosses make sense and where don't they?
Arguably throughout much of what I write there are trends and recurrent themes, among them the sense that giving the player an experience that fits the point of the game is key to how much of an impact the game has on the individual.
What does this mean? Well, generally what we want from a game is a bit of fantasy but also a bit of vaguely realistic enjoyable entertainment even when we're playing the most fantastical of games or watching the most fantastical of movies we still look for inconsistencies and things that don't quite work, even though we accept the more ridiculous aspects; I'm sure we all know somebody who watches Star Wars or any sort of Sci-Fi show or movie and points out the minor inconsistencies yet happily overlooks the fact it's set in space on starships and there are aliens all over the place.
The best films, the best books, the best games, are those that seem to click for us, they may be fantasy, they may be unrealistic in a lot of ways but they're coherent within themselves even if they don't make sense in the real world, they make sense in a world (their own), a little like dreams really.
Why does any of this matter?
Well, bosses like any other aspect of a game have to fit into the whole, the player has to feel they connect well with the rest of the game. If they don't then the game starts to make no sense and sort of falls apart.
Looking at why Shooters have bosses it's pretty obvious that it's a challenge thing the point of those types of games is that you're challenged to fight your way through levels to finish them, and the boss is the last speed bump before you move onto the next level. Likewise they make sense in some (not all) Survival Horror games because essentially those games are also about challenge a different sort of challenge, one based more around the weakness of the character and the need to survive rather than an empowering fantasy like most shooters are, but a challenge all the same. So again, it usually makes sense for them to have bosses.
The boss, again, represents that heightened bump along the difficulty curve as you progress towards your next objective, and serves to remind the player that even if they aren't particularly afraid or challenged by the regular monsters that there are always more dangerous foes about.
Take Resident Evil for example, principally say 2 (though we could easily be talking about any of them), the average zombie/zombie dog/licker, does offer some challenge and is a threat, but they can die. And once eliminated they're no longer a threat, unless more repopulate an area. William Birkin on the other hand represents a recurring threat, sure he's not all that tough compared to some bosses in other Survival Horror titles but in terms of the story he doesn't die, he keeps coming back, and the few fights you do have with him are tense and challenging.
In that sense, having William Birkin (and the other bosses in the game), makes sense to the type of story, the type of game, Resident Evil 2 is. The Resident Evil games are fundamentally about that sort of action-movie experience. They're hero stories, and having those boss moments, and emphasising the difference between those moments and ones with ordinary enemies, helps build that sense of accomplishment in the player when they finally do beat the game.
We probably don't need that in a puzzle game or an adventure game necessarily though though again it depends on the type of game it is, maybe the point of the game is to encourage a sense of accomplishment through the challenge of overcoming unique enemies.
Probably the worst instance of bosses in a game not really making a whole lot of sense for me was Silent Hill 4. You play a man who one day realises he's trapped in his apartment and is unable to leave, as meanwhile a series of weird events seem to occur around the apartment building he's in really his only way of monitoring the outside world being to watch out his window or spy through a hole in the wall, that is until a mysterious cavernous tunnel appears in his bathroom and he's able to climb through that hole to explore bizarre worlds to piece together the story of what's going on.
It's a really interesting premise, unfortunately the game is bogged down in rather mediocre gameplay, kind of pointless level design and crappy combat.
Oh, and terrible boss fights.
Admittedly, probably a large part of how terrible the boss fights are is how crappy the combat is, but generally they also don't make a whole lot of sense (like a lot of what makes up the actual gameplay). You end up fighting one of those classic 'hit the special weakpoint till an event happens' type final bosses, having to dodge and attack as the boss slowly alters.
It's boring to say the least.
It also doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the context of the story.
Whereas a game like Resident Evil 2 is about being a sort of action hero, and games like Streets of Rage or say Contra or even Gears of War are also to some extent also about playing the hero, and so it largely makes sense for them to have bosses, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense with Silent Hill 4.
It's been awhile now since I've played it, but principally I remember the game was about the story, a very slow, very old-fashioned story I mean christ, you were 'stuck' in your apartment for most of the game, it was one of those stories that was by it's nature meant to be slow, if it was going to work properly. It was haunting in a sense, the premise atleast you were basically exploring this sort of spooky ghost tale, and into that was shoe-horned combat and bosses because (I guess) they assumed it being a Silent Hill game meant it had to have those things, when really it would have made more sense for the game to have almost no combat and just left you to explore spooky, empty corridors.
I mean imagine if somebody took a Gothic Horror story and then inserted dudes with bazookas into it, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense and would probably ruin the point of it being Gothic Horror :/
It wasn't quite as bad as that with Silent Hill 4 but it's that sort of attempt to merge two very opposing types of experience that they tried to do, and it ended up sucking. I daresay a part of why it sucked was how poor the enemy design was in general but having bosses didn't help any.
Which is rather ironic, considering personally I always felt that the bosses in the earlier Silent Hill games had worked really well and made sense overall, but with 4 it just felt nonsensical. And generally speaking this is where I think bosses either work or don't work - if they don't make sense in the context of the game then they may well fail as part of the game, or at the very least leave the player feeling indifferent.
Siren is another example of a game where the bosses feel a little odd, I wouldn't say they outright fail as with Silent Hill 4 - indeed some are very fun, but it never made sense to me that the game is essentially about survival and escape ...right up until the end when your character, despite being pathetically weak, decides to challenge the boss rather than escape (and this is true of the second game aswell actually.)
Again, it's that sense that having the bosses in the game doesn't quite match the intent of the game the survival and escape aspect. Yet they put it in because they felt that games need bosses if people are going to want to play them. I don't think it helped Siren much that every level ended with the words 'Mission Accomplished' emblazoned across the screen (and not an aircraft carrier in sight) either, but that's another matter.
In the end bosses are like any other aspect of games, they have to feel like they largely fit the context of the game if they're going to work; obviously mechanics is a bit part of that, but if you're making a game that is primarily a slow ponderous puzzle game then a high-action boss fight at the end of the game might not make all that much sense.
Then again, it might just, it always depends on the game.
So I picked up a copy of Extermination a week or so ago, and was able to play through the game pretty quickly (in about four or fives hours), and that made me think about and then eventually do a pretty long write-up about Survival Horror essentials, but even though it inspired the piece Extermination only really got mentioned in passing. I liked the game though, so I thought I'd do a short write-up about how the game plays.
Extermination is a PS2 Survival Horror game that follows the story of a squad of marines who are sent to investigate a top-secret Antarctic research base when contact is lost with the facility; unbeknownst to them the scientists at the facility have been working on reviving a prehistoric bacteria frozen in an alien artifact for thousands of years. This bacteria is unleashed on the facility, revealing itself to be a pseudo-intelligent lifeforce capable of infecting and mutating living creatures and turning them into monsters, driven only by the urge to in-turn infect others.
Now, granted even at the time I'm not sure the description sounded particularly ground-breaking, and you can probably already tell where Extermination is taking its cues from in terms of story The Thing mostly, but nevertheless I found it interesting as it also borrows a lot from the Resident Evil games in terms of the general outline of the plot and the way events progress in the game. You have similar sorts of boss fights, and you spend much of the game doing those same sorts of fetch quests.
Overall the game could pass for being pretty forgettable for some (especially if the dialogue has anything to say about it!), but for a Survival Horror fan, and especially a fan of a lot of the mechanics at work in a Resident Evil game I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of the nice little things the game does differently.
The game features a fairly unusual enemy dynamic whereas most games would have you fighting pretty fearsome or imposing enemies right off the bat, Extermination doesn't. For the first, maybe forty minutes, you don't really meet any of the usual sort of man-sized enemies you might expect.
Much of the first quarter of the game is actually spent avoiding or hunting down these small, leech-like creatures, that slide absently across the scenery and whose only real aggressive action is to spit infectious liquid at you. I'm guessing that probably sounds kind of dumb, and not all that exciting, and individually the creatures really aren't much of a threat or atleast they don't seem it, but it's more a cumulative thing.
A big part of the game is your having to avoid getting infected, because if you do get infected then you have very little time (or the supplies) to get to somewhere where you can cure yourself. Though individually the 'bugs' (atleast that's what the game calls them, they look more like leeches) don't offer much of a challenge, as a group they can be very dangerous, and they often swarm areas in large numbers and a fair few of the areas are dark and claustrophobic, just the sort of situation where you might find yourself slipping up.
For the type of game it is, telling the type of story it is, it actually works really well. The game centres around the idea of this infection getting out, yeah? And how do we often think about disease or infection working? Often we imagine a single case of whatever it is infecting somebody, then that spreading to other individuals, before it explodes outward and becomes incredibly dangerous as it spreads to the general populous. The virus in the story works a lot like this, and the way the gameplay and levels and enemy progression, is designed reflects this really well.
Though the leech-like creatures don't initially pose much danger by themselves, as the game progresses that threat increases as both their number and the other threats in the environment increase. I think it also reflects the nature of the game that the biggest threat those small creatures pose is not one of bodily injury but rather infection you're more afraid of losing your humanity and becoming a monster than you are of dying in those early stages.
The infection system itself is pretty interesting too, you have two 0/100 meters, one for your health, one for your infection level. Health works as you'd expect, if it falls to 0 you just drop dead. Infection on the other hand doesn't lead to death but rather you enter this sort of limbo state in which you have reduced health, a large prominent patch of mutated flesh appears on your back, and you have limited time to find a recovery station.
Another important mechanic worth mentioning (especially in the context of what I just said) is that you have health supplies but you also have these sort of 'instant recovery pills' that completely recover your health and infection rate, but you can only use them at recovery stations. And once you are infected they're the only cure you have, and though the game does give you a generous amount of these pills there are a finite number of them overall. So you have to be careful.
I do also want to mention in brief the ammo system and how the gun(s) work. Unlike other survival horror games you actually have unlimited ammo in Extermination, but you can only carry so much at a time (determined by how many 'magazines' you have), so when you are low on ammo you have to find a supply room with an ammo dispenser in it. Essentially you have limitless ammo but given how few and far between the supply points are, and how dangerous it often is to get to them, you're forced to be very frugal with your ammo. It struck me as an interesting take on the usual survival horror mechanic of scarce supplies.
The way the weapon system works is also interesting, rather than having multiple weapons you have a single weapon an assault rifle, but that assault rifle can have a myriad of attachments that offer you different options in combat, including different sights, enemy tracking scopes, an underbarrel shotgun, grenade launcher and even rocket launcher.
Though one or two extra, secondary weapons, might have been nice, I do like the focus on having this one weapon with a single ammo reserve. I found myself worrying a lot more about having enough ammo than I did in other survival horror games, which is funny when you think about it - whereas most survival horror games give you a very finite, definite ammo supply, Extermination gives you unlimited ammo at limited supply points.
Admittedly there are a fair few things I didn't think were so hot about the game, I've mostly focused on the mechanics because they piqued my interest in the game it messes with the standard survival horror mechanics (well, standard to Resident Evil atleast) to do something interesting, whilst keeping a lot of the plot and narrative elements very standard, which I liked a lot.
On the other hand though those actual plot points are pretty standard B-movie material, you have the heroic lead character, his ill-fated friend(s), the (sort of) love interest, and a general confuddle of events and happenings that don't make a whole lot of logical sense at one point you discover that a few of the scientists have somehow survived and been leaving notes for one another around the infected base to meet up. How it makes any sense that two civilians could survive that long without having to be huddled in a closet somewhere and not a single soldier from the base manages to survive is beyond me!
I quite like B-movies though so I liked the plot generally, but it is admittedly very dumb at times. I don't think it helps very much how wooden and forced the dialogue sounds. And when I say wooden I do emphatically mean wooden, we're talking 80's anime/D-list movie level performances. For the most part it's ok, but like with a lot of not very well dubbed/translated foreign games I get the sense the original Japanese version probably made more sense and affected the player more (I could be wrong, the plot is still very B-movie, even ignoring the voice acting).
Overall I doubt Extermination is the sort of game that'd impress anybody whose not a fan of the genre but for a Survival Horror fan like myself I was pleasantly surprised by my experience with the game. Kinda glad I got it for next to nothing though!
So last week I happened to pick up a copy of Extermination, an old PS2 title from the early days of the console, a survival horror game. This year I've been a lot more interested in trying to look into old games from consoles that I never really got a chance to play when they first came out for whatever reason, predominantly horror games.
Having read up a little on the game I was interested to find out that some of the people who worked on it had also worked on Resident Evil, something which some actual playtime with the game confirmed for me. Though it's not Resident Evil, it has a fair few of the tried and tested mechanics of the early games.
That got me thinking again about the mechanics and tropes that help define Survival Horror, I've written about this before but I felt as though it could be interesting to write about again, especially considering how much there is to talk about.
And hey, it's not like I've ever said I wasn't a broken record on the subject, right?
First and foremost I think perception of challenge in survival horror is important; not challenge in the sense that everything in the game must be hard to do necessarily, but rather the game must feel like a struggle of sorts. The player has to feel as though they're fighting an uphill battle as they play, they have to feel that they're going against the odds, and surviving through some combination of luck and skill.
Though we don't often think about it a whole lot most games are centred around the premise that you have power, or that you will have power, incredible power. And because of this they tend to fall into more action movie territory in terms of the kind of engaging experience you have. Survival horror necessarily has to try and oppose that if it's going to have any effect on the player and note that the game doesn't necessarily have to be literally difficult or set large-scale obstacles in your way, it's more that the player has to feel challenged, they have to feel as though there's no surefire, easy way to solve their problems. Otherwise the game will lose it's sense of tension.
Good examples of this are Forbidden Siren (just Siren in the US) and Resident Evil: Code Veronica.
The Siren games feature purposefully clumsy controls, slow-moving, weak characters, they poorly handle firearms (the few there are) and are mostly useless with hand weapons. As such you as the player are forced to be a lot more careful about how you play, which keeps you on your toes. Your overall goal in Siren is never to 'win' or to succeed in some dramatic fashion, you're not launching a nuke or saving the world, you're just trying to survive, but the player's perception of how difficult that task is, given the gameplay, is in part what makes it scary.
Code Veronica (and infact many of the earlier Resident Evil games) is(/are) a good example of the other way that perception of challenge can work, though the game can be challenging and difficult at times it's largely designed to be a smooth ride (atleast smoother than Siren), and the tasks you have to do to complete the game are relatively simple, but the nature of the way the tasks are presented in the game is such that you as the player are made to feel that you're near enough the last survivor and that each sequence of events, each boss battle, is you surmounting ever larger obstacles, as still even larger obstacles are placed before you.
In both games you have the perception of challenge, but each handles it differently, with Siren the challenge is in the actual gameplay, your goal is relatively simple (to survive) but made difficult by the gameplay. With Code Veronica the challenge is more about how the narrative portrays your tasks and their scale, more than the difficulty of the gameplay.
More generally speaking it should be pretty obvious to say that if the ghosts you're fighting, or the werewolves you have to sneak past to end the level, don't pose any threat, and don't make the player feel afraid, then there's not going to be any sense of tension or danger, and hence no fear.
Realism is kind of a big part of that.
Though we don't tend to think about it a whole lot, a lot of the games we play are very unrealistic, and that's not just a reference to the obvious stuff like Mario or Sonic, but also more generally to games like Modern Warfare or Uncharted. True those games may have a high level of visual fidelity, but you do play as characters capable of absorbing large amounts of gunfire, who are often capable of feats of inhuman skill, dexterity or strength and seem almost 'unique' in their ability to avoid death.
Not to say this is necessarily a bad thing, just that it's a fact about the games we play. Recharging health, respawning supplies (and enemies), boss battles, high scores, even stuff like cutscenes or how attractive videogame leads are, are some distance away from reality. There's a point to all this though, which is the enjoyability factor. A lot of these concessions to fantasy are made because we want the game to be fun, we want a smooth ride, and we want an experience that feels empowering in some way.
Like in an action film, if the lead character got (realistically) cut down by the first group of thugs he came across it'd be a pretty boring film, and over very quickly. He (or she) has to do inhuman feats because it's the fantasy of it. With games, different sorts of concessions are made to fantasy, with characters being bullet-sponges, capable of using firearms or heavy weapons with little or no training, recharging health, etc. It's also to some degree an acknowledgement of gaming's less technologically sophisticated origins, and also how complicated it would be for games to have 1-for-1 control systems, but that's less important here.
And note: again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the point is that with survival horror that distance between reality and fantasy must be considered carefully. You may want your character to be able to pick up a grenade launcher and take down groups of zombies but would letting them dropkick the zombies across the level be empowering them too much for the type of horror game you want?
It's very much a balancing act between the type of fun you want the player to have, and the type of story you're telling. You obviously don't want the player to be bored, but you also don't want to make them too powerful, in-case it ruins whatever tension and atmosphere you've created elsewhere in the game.
Again, using Forbidden Siren and Code Veronica as examples.
Siren made you weak, made you relatively incapable of using any weapon with any competence, and because of this it's punishingly hard at times but it's fun and very scary. The fact the gap between reality and fantasy in the game is so small makes the horror come alive in a sense.
Whereas in Code Veronica (and indeed all of the Resident Evil games) there's a definite edge of unrealism Claire's ability to fit an ample supply of herbs, small arms and even a rocket launcher into those tight pants is the stuff of legend.
It's unrealistic but for the type of horror experience the game is trying to create i.e. a sort of action-movie-esque one, it wouldn't do to have the main character (realistically) having to carry around a huge backpack and wearing body armour. It's also obviously unrealistic that Claire could get bitten or injured as much as she is during a zombie apocalypse and go onto to survive and be healthy, but it's a concession to the type of experience they're going for. Because the game is about fun at the end of the day, and the realism is just there to facilitate that entertainment more than anything.
With survival horror the emphasis on realism is paramount, sure like with an action movie or an action-anything your character may have moments of superhuman ability, but more generally they have to be shown to be fallible, to be just human, if you want the player to be scared.
I think a good example of how to look at how it works from outside of horror is the difference between playing multiplayer in a game like Modern Warfare and a game like Counter-Strike. Sure in Modern Warfare things can get tense but the almost instant respawns, the plentiful ammo and the (relatively) high health mean you don't worry too much about dying.
With Counter-Strike things are a lot different, you can die in just one shot if you're not careful, you often don't have much ammo (unless you've been playing for awhile) and you don't instantly respawn. You have to consider your actions a bit more, and because of that the experience is a lot more tense and can involve a lot more forethought.
A good survival horror game tries to give you that same feeling, it just tries to scare you at the same time.
I think it goes without saying that most people know a big part of survival horror is limited ammo and supplies, and it's a point worth making again. It's not just about limited ammo though but also about ammo and supply placement, and the way the gameplay is set up to encourage scrounging and to make the player feel as though they're lucky to find any supplies.
A good example of this is System Shock 2, where any large supply caches (only relatively speaking, you don't tend to pick up all that much ammo) are hidden away in boxes or at the back of storerooms. The enemies you do fight don't tend to drop much, so in many respects it's better not to fight (given the cost in health and other supplies there is to fight); and you spend much of the game weighing up whether it's worth the fight or whether you should try to sneak or run past an enemy.
I think part of the reason why Resident Evil 4 and onward (5 and 6) don't really work very well as true horror games is partly because of how they monetise combat, they make it profitable to kill enemies, to get more ammo and supplies, rather than encouraging the player to avoid combat so it's less scary. If you have to worry that you might not be able to find anymore supplies if you use them up fighting then you think more about what you're doing, you weigh your choices more.
It's also worth noting that how you fit those pick-ups into the game world has a big effect on the player's perception of the game. For example, if your random Spanish villagers drop submachine gun ammo or grenades (something real Spanish villagers don't do when they die, trust me, I've tested it) it does take away from the sense of realism somewhat. For the most part if you want your survival horror game to feel real then where the player picks up and finds those supplies has to feel real too that means putting ammunition where one might expect to find ammunition, healing items where you might expect to find healing items, etc.
I've talked about atmosphere a lot before so it probably doesn't need expanding on a whole lot, but needless to say it's important that as you play a game that you feel a certain way: the environments you wander through, the situations you find yourself in, they all have to provide a certain kind of response, and note: this doesn't have to necessarily be about scaring the player shitless, but rather more about unsettling them. It's often better to be very subtle about the way you create atmosphere aswell, dead bodies hanging from walls have their place, but you might want to make the uncomfortability more subconscious a broken window here, a smeared bloody handprint there, spent shell casings on the floor maybe. The point is to infer a story to everything, and let the player's mind fill in the blanks. Because frankly, their imagination is probably the scariest tool you have.
I have a feeling I've mentioned this before (possibly multiple times) but it's worth mentioning again, because I think it's one of those things that often gets ignored or overlooked in a lot of more modern horror games:
Any really good horror game needs good breaks between the fighting if it's going to have an effect on the player. Like in a good horror movie you need those moments where you don't know where the monster is, where you're sure something's going to pop out but you don't know exactly when. You need a sense of tension, a sense that you've sort of escaped but on some level you know you're not out of the woods yet (obviously, since the game hasn't ended.)
Long walks down quiet corridors, exploring empty rooms or moments where you have to backtrack are often good for this. You don't necessarily need to have something jump out at you, indeed sometimes it's better to just throw a few red-herrings the player's way have a window randomly break with no consequences when the player's nearby, have a monster growl in the distance, have a door slam shut. Whatever makes sense to the type of story you're telling.
Build-up and tension is a big part of making horror work.
Sort of leading on from that is a sense of forethought to the world you create in the game.
Again, this is one of those things that I think doesn't get talked about too much in games, we tend to focus on the foreground elements a lot, but in horror games it's often the background that's most important to the effect you have on the player.
I think with horror, and particularly survival horror, you need to set the scene, you need to create environments that feel lived in, with characters and enemies that feel like a realised part of that world this can be anything from having a table cluttered with personal belongings, to having a corridor smeared in the bloody hand prints of recently deceased scientists, to a security guard-turned-monster who still has an identifiable ID tag on the tattered rags clinging to his chest.
Again, it's part of atmosphere, tension and build-up, it's important to establish a sense, even if it's just subconscious for the player, that the things in the game world relate to each other in a real way.
Part of the reason why Resident Evil for the GameCube worked so well was it's attention to detail in the environments and backgrounds, everything felt a part of the story and that helped immerse the player. Siren: Blood Curse is another good example of this I think the game has 1-for-1 unique zombies, and each environment has obviously seen a lot of attention to detail, with a lot of emphasis put on making them feel like really lived in rooms before the apocalypse. It's not about running through a series of empty, box-shaped rooms but rather realistic-seeming environments. So as the player you get this sense that you really are in this zombie-apocalypse village, trying to escape, and that in turn heightens the fear.
Though I don't have a whole lot that I can say about it, I do think music is also key. Music can play a huge part in the atmosphere a game creates, and as such it should always be an important factor. One of the more interesting ways I've seen (heard) it used was in Silent Hill 2, where in the background you can often hear what sounds like *something* without really knowing what's there. It creates a sense of dread and anticipation for a completely imaginary danger.
That's more direct, because it makes you feel as though there may be enemies about, even when there isn't, but even just background music can have an effect on the mood, if you quicken the pace of the background music while the player walks down a corridor, how will that change their mood? Will it make the game more or less tense for those fleeting moments?
Horror is often as much about confusion as fear - as the two are linked. Silent Hill 2 is a good example of a game knowing that and using its music to that end.
Something else I did want to mention that I think doesn't often get mentioned is the random element, or the unpredictable.
It's not often something that comes up in a lot of games because it's too much effort to implement but part of what makes us so scared is not knowing what's ahead. If we don't know what's ahead we can't be prepared. Hence why a lot of games stop being (as) scary when you replay them.
Once we know where the monsters are coming from we can know how to prepare for them, which makes them less scary.
Though I can't think of a proper example of a survival horror game that randomised enemy locations I think, funnily enough, Resident Evil 3 is the game that really solidified this principle for me.
Though it only does it in a limited way the locations of supplies randomly shifts between playthrough, and though you can know roughly where they'll be you won't know for sure till you check the rooms where the supplies randomly pop up.
Resident Evil 3's a pretty easy game, so apart from making speed-runs slightly more troublesome it's no big deal, but applied more generally random or unpredictable events, supply locations and enemy spawn points could have a big effect on how we play, and increase the sense of tension, as we lose our certainty about where we're safe.
And since Extermination and Resident Evil started this off, how about some runner-ups when it comes to what makes survival horror survival horror, huh?
-An annoying amount of backtracking -Multi-stage bosses that just won't die -Escaping on some sort of transport -Heroes who don't know how to run away -Tank controls -Journals written by people who actually write ellipses in their journals -Dialogue that sounds like it was written by a 10 yr old -A master of unlocking
...And those are my thoughts! Thank you for entering the world of...
I played a lot of games as a kid, and I mean A LOT, pretty much all demos really because we didn't have any money. Some stuck with me, some didn't. I have vivid memories of playing (and loving) Midnight Resistance on my cousin's Amiga, the early Sonic games on the Megadrive, Streets of Rage, Sol Feace, Revenge of Shinobi, Virtua Racing 32X. I'm leaving a lot out here obviously.
One of the games I remember most vividly though is Doom.
Doom scared the hell out of me as a kid (I think I was about 6 or 7 when I first played it), I remember booting it up and creeping through corridors, fighting off imps, rushing to grab the chaingun or a rocket launcher the first chance I got, and a cold shiver running down my spine at the oh so familiar cry of a Baron of Hell. I don't think it helped much that I first played it on the Sega 32X (FPS gamepad controls weren't up to much in those days.)
What I remember most about Doom though, and specifically the first Doom, was it's box art.
(check the gallery below for a much larger version of the picture)
As a seven year old confronted with the cover of Doom I was terrified. Though I obviously wasn't the man on the front cover (despite having the best damn six-pack of any child in the neighbourhood!) I could relate to him and feel the horror of his situation to the best of the ability of my child mind. Assailed from every direction by nightmareish creatures, desperately struggling to beat them back as they reach out to snatch him away, it was the stuff of nightmares.
I don't think it helps much that I come from a part of England that is sort of atheist, sort of agnostic, but values the Christian traditions as part of it's middle-class identity, so the idea of demons and angels were familiar to me, and here I was, a little kid, face to face with actual demons ...atleast as actual as a really good painting seems to a kid.
It made an impression on me, to be sure.
I think the one thing I remember most about the picture, and that sort of sealed the deal (so to speak), when it came down to scaring me, was the single demon at the forefront of the box, to the left, closest to you. He's not looking at Doomguy like the others, he's looking straight at you. An almost mischievous smile on his face (on one of the covers his tongue actually comes down over the border on the box, almost as if the box is just a window), and a knowing looking in his eyes. As a kid used to reading and watching pretty passive media, to be able to 'play' a game like Doom and to be looking at this piece of art that almost seemed to break the rules of how pictures worked (in the mind of a child) with a character looking at us, it offered the terrifying prospect that what I was seeing and playing might not just be entertainment but real aswell.
Even now the picture still unsettles me a little.
Why is this important?
I think box art for games is important, not just as decoration for the cover of your game but to draw people in, to excite them. We may not be kids anymore, excited by dumb stories about muscle-bound action heroes and princesses that need rescuing, but that doesn't mean as adults we've lost our imaginations. Why else do we play games? Surely we'd just mess with spreadsheets or wireframe games if all that mattered were the mechanics.
Games are about imagination, action, excitement, exploring fantasies and worlds we never could in real-life, and I think the box art of a game can say a lot about the experience you're in for.
Maybe it's because of the gaming era I grew up in in the 90's but 'box art' for me (and I include board game art, videogame art, book covers and CD sleeves in this) is about conveying a sense of what the thing is about, sure some games work best with non-descript covers but I think there are games that would benefit from a strong piece of art on the cover, and for the most part games seem to have forgotten that they can impress us.
Granted I'm now a jaded old man so maybe my judgement's a little obscured, but I haven't really seen a piece of box art that really blew me away in quite awhile. I should probably admit aswell that I am pretty biased towards the old-school oil paintings that primarily used to end up being used on covers. The Doom cover is a brilliant example, but I remember the cover art for Revenge of Shinobi, Streets of Rage, Dune 2, Golden Axe and X-Com the cover to X-Com especially I remember giving me similar vibes to Doom, with the alien seemingly lunging out of the cover.
I guess it's a part of the way the medium's changed that the covers have changed so dramatically the culture around gaming was much more nerdy and closeted in the 90's, and tbh sort of orientated around children and the idea that you had to capture the imagination of the consumer to get them interested in your game, which considering the graphics of the day and the attitude that most people had to games was understandable. The culture hadn't really grown up properly yet, people didn't really know where to look to really find out about games so cover art could be a big factor in whether a game stood out to you and piqued your interest enough to make you buy it.
So the art was a lot more over the top at times, and a lot more focused on emphasising drawing the viewer in (hence using the fourth-wall so much). Now things tend to be a bit more subdued, most people know about a game before they pick it up (atleast there are generally more people 'in the know' than there were back then), so games don't try to wow people so much.
I kinda miss the art though, like I said I think good cover art serves an important purpose with anything we consume, we can't instantly know what a book, or a DVD, or a game, is about, and having that visual element can be important to making a good first impression on the consumer. Arguably the rise of digital has reduced the importance of box art, but aslong as physical retail exists, and indeed aslong as publishers try to foist collector's editions on us, there will always be some importance to good box art.
I think the MGS games were probably the last thing to impress me with their boxart, though that's probably more because I like Yoji Shinkawa's art than because they really captured the atmosphere of the game or made an impression on me.
I was kind of hoping given the topics and themes it seemed to be tackling that Bioshock Infinite would do something interesting for it's box art, but then it just turned out to be a white guy with a gun, and I felt somewhat under-impressed.
I 'd love to see a few games come out though and try to impress you with their box art. I know it'll never matter anywhere near as much as anything else about a game like the graphics, or the gameplay, or the sound - and rightly so, but it'd still be interesting to see how the box art may in the end help shape the impression of the game that the player has.
So what do you think? Is there a piece of box art that you think really stood out to you?
So... there's this game that released this week, and err... it was kind of sucky...
Like, really sucky.
I am ofcourse speaking of: Panza's Creepy LovehouseALIENS: COLONIAL MARINES
As an Aliens fans, and an AvP fan (THE GAMES, THE GAMES DAMN YOU) I have to say I'm really, really disappointed. I was expecting, well yeah, a shooter, but maybe an intelligent one which maybe tried to make some clever points like Aliens whilst also being a lot of fun and a fitting tribute to a franchise of films of which about half I love.
It was not this.
It was so not this.
I don't want this to descend into a diatribe about the faults of the game itself, rather I thought I'd talk a bit about why the premise of the game sucks as far as I'm concerned. So, less 'hey, the motion tracker's useless!' and more 'why is this a dumb shooter?!'
Why is this a dumb shooter?!
I mean I get why it's a shooter Aliens has always been seen as action-heavy, and I get that Alien(s) is the sort of big-budget IP that a publisher would probably want to see out there as a AAA game, top-shelf material, and at the moment pretty much every best-seller is some sort of action-heavy, run-and-gun macho shooter.
I get that, and from the sounds of things the game has had a LOT of development problems. I just don't get why more generally there seems to be this notion that all you can make from the Alien(s) franchise is a straight shooter.
Don't get me wrong, I love shooters, and I'm not saying it shouldn't have been a shooter, I'm just saying why did it have to be this kind of shooter? Why a linear shooter? Why a game about a male white marine shooting stuff up? Why all the same clichι gung-ho tropes?
I mean I don't want to get pretentious sounding, or holier than thou about it, because at the end of the day Aliens is just a piece of fiction, an IP like any other, and I think a certain amount of twisting or contorting of source material to cross mediums is not necessarily a bad thing the series has had plenty of spin-off games that have taken liberties with the source material to do what they want, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that. One of my favourite Aliens games is AvP Arcade, a game that borrows from Aliens, borrows from Predator, mixed into together with a typical arcade game storyline and a host of stock game tropes (end of level bosses, heroic action hero characters, etc). It does all this in a very easy-going sort of way, taking a lot of liberties with the license (Dutch from Predator gets a cool cyborg gun arm!), and by doing so removes a lot of what made the movies the kind of movies they were (the atmosphere and realistic themes), and shifts the tone quite a bit.
However, it does this well.
It's fun for what it is. Which is the point.
Another of my favourite game's is Aliens vs Predator 2, released for the PC in 2001, it was an FPS that allowed you to play as all three races Aliens, Marine, Predator, but interwove a plot between the three campaigns and tried to add something of the cinematic depth of the films to the game, whilst still remaining A GAME. In doing so it added a lot of stuff but also changed things, it cut and merged the two universes until they fit, it took elements from the films and expanded on them the colony for example in AvP2 is much larger, and more like a mini-city than the frontier-town that the one in Aliens is.
In short it took liberties, but it did it in such a way as to capture the spirit of the films whilst observing the conventions of how a game works. It adapted the source material, but did it in such a way that it still felt like an 'Aliens' thing. It felt like it fit somewhere in the fiction, even if it wouldn't fit in the canon. Much like AvP Arcade.
While obviously the bugs, the poor graphics (at times) and the lacklustre narrative frustrate me a lot, they don't annoy me half as much as the apparent lack of thought and sense of integrity to the IP that's been displayed in Colonial Marines. Maybe integrity's the wrong word, it comes off sounding almost draconian, authoritative, as if there's only one way to make an Aliens game, and that's really not what I'm trying to say.
It's that sense of capturing some of the point behind the original films that matters so much, Alien was a horror movie, slow-paced, tense, agonising to watch; Aliens was a fast-paced scary action film, making a point about war and also the self-defeating aspect of human nature the corruption, corporate evil, that sort of thing. AvP Arcade was so good in part because it discarded a lot of that it wouldn't have made sense in an arcade game (though aspects of those points are brought up, just without the atmosphere of the films), it just made it about beating aliens and soldiers up, and cobbled together events that echoed parts of the film. AvP2, meanwhile, because it could make more sense (and make for a more engaging shooter) kept those themes, and explored them, using the starting point of 'well, what if Weyland-Yutani found an Alien planet and decided to put a research facility there, what would happen then?'
It's fun not just because the gameplay and levels are well put together, but also because there's an intelligent hook at work a story to reel us in. My biggest disappointment with Colonial Marines is that it doesn't have that. It just feels like a dumb shooter, designed to be a dumb shooter, with lots of fan service to an old film. Which is disappointing.
I think I could have atleast enjoyed it as a shooter if there had been sort of intelligent hook, or if the game had done something different compared to other games say had a black heroine as the lead, or multiple viewpoints to play from.
It's especially frustrating considering how fundamental challenge is to the franchise, Alien in part succeeded because it was challenging the norm in films at the time of the helpless heroine; with the monster as an allegory for the darker side of sexuality, and reversing the male/female dynamic; aswell as the different stages of the xenomorph life cycle having vaguely sexual connotations. Whilst Aliens was a reaction to the hawkish war-hungry attitude, the bravado, corruption and the sometimes self-destructive quality of human nature.
....HEY DEVELOPERS THOSE ARE REALLY COOL THINGS TO PUT IN A GAME!
ESPECIALLY AN ALIEN(S) GAME!
It's not even like you have to force them down people's throats, just have them going in the background, hinted at in dialogue or whatever. That's how AvP2 did it so well - most of the story you learn from overheard conversations or the occasional notepad.
At the very least they could have made you a female marine, as a nod to Ripley, or shifted up the dynamic in some other way. For example, with multiple marine characters, a story that branches, or perhaps a WY secret campaign, where you have to fight for the opposite side as a corporate merc, that unlocks after you finish as the marine.
Any of those would have been interesting.
It's terribly sad to me that the best thing to come out of Colonial Marines is that I found out that there was a 1984 game that was more imaginative about what to do with an entry in the franchise than Colonial Marines.
In 'Alien' you play as the crew of the Nostromo, and have to try and eradicate a single xenomorph. The interesting part being that it's a 'what if?' scenario, where the facehugger randomly attacks one of the crew members, and how you play, and how the game reacts to how you play, effects the eventual outcome whether you end up with everybody surviving or nobody.
Sure, it's simple, it's butt ugly, but atleast it's interesting. It's a 29 year-old game, that does something more interesting than a game that's been in development for 6 years and probably had dozens (if not more) of people working on it. That's depressing, SERIOUSLY. What's more, its a good adaptation of the source material, it gets the point of Alien and runs with it to create an interesting game. Why can't they do that with Aliens?
It's sad that we now have the technology, and publishers the resource might, to create really engaging, immersive worlds for games, yet instead of publishers saying 'this is what we want you to do!' or developers pushing for that themselves, seemingly the best thing they think they can make with the license is just a game where you move from room to room, shooting stuff, and waiting for your useless AI partners to open doors for you, because hey, if you could open them yourself then you'd be able to skip the boring combat sequences. Also, that might seem like choice or interacting with the world, and that's scary.
I think what Colonial Marines shows, apart from that buggy games are incredibly annoying, is that like with RE6, not everything can be a current-gen style, straight-shooter. Not every property or idea works that way. And note: I'm not saying that not everything can be a shooter, I'm saying that not everything can do things the way shooters at the moment do them and work not everything needs refilling health, waves of enemies, quick-time events, unlimited pistol ammo, AI partners, co-op, etc all that stuff. If something ruins the atmosphere or harms the point you're trying to make with your game it's probably a good idea not to stick it in, and you definitely shouldn't put anything in a game just because other games have it.
It annoys me especially because the fact they made the kind of game they did kind of implies that they thought that that was all they could do with the story and the gameplay, like as if somehow if they'd instead opted for a very claustrophobic, atmospheric experience with lots of build-up and downtime between fighting the xenomorphs, that somehow that wouldn't have worked. The 2010 AvP was a lot like this aswell, a very dull, middling shooter with really no sense of originality to it, that sort of felt as though it was trying to say 'well, what do you expect? This is all games can do!' Which I don't think is true.
I like the idea of the Spectrum Alien game, even though I think the game's probably long past it's sell-by date in terms of what consumers expect from a user interface and the graphics of a game. Still, it's interesting. I guess in the end what I'm saying is, of all the IPs out there I think Alien(s) is one of the most open to being adapted in all sorts of ways. Perhaps they could make a shooter with a branching story or levels; perhaps procedurally generated gameplay; perhaps a game with multiple characters to play as, each who add something different to the story, and give you a different kind of gameplay. Even if said game ended up being only a few hours long, if you could replay it over and over again in different ways and the plot was interesting, that would be awesome.
It's just generally a shame nobody seems to want to do anything interesting with the IP, so all we get is mediocre shooters.
5 random ideas for Alien(s) themed games that I think would be cool:
Corporate Exec you play a Weyland-Yutani corporate type (think Burke, you lucky dog you), and you have to move your way up the corporate ladder helping Weyland-Yutani collect xenomorph specimens, harvest eggs, avoid detection by the government, and generally being all sneaky and underhanded in order to exploit the aliens for the good of the company. With your end goal either being xenomorphs taking over the Earth (bad ending) or retiring to a tropical island somewhere (good ending) ...not long before xenomorphs take over the Earth.
Xenoworld Let's not kid around here: this is just Jurassic Park with aliens. You're the David Attenborough's brother of the Aliens universe and you're desperate to show everybody these super cool aliens you've found! Now try to show all those nice people what they look like without too much chest-bursting, lest the colonial space authorities come down on you!
Alien Just remake the Spectrum game. That sounds awesome.
Prisoner: Cell Block Xeno you run a prison, on a lifeless planet somewhere in the depths of space. It's desperately hard work, having to balance incoming funds against expenditures... I so hope a xenomorph doesn't pop up and ruin everything! WOOPS, spoke too soon. Now try running that prison without too many 'unfortunate prisoner accidents'!
Another Glorious Day in the Corps! This would be a bit more like a standard shooter, a bit like Battlefield 3 or Medal of Honor (the 2010, slightly less shit, one), only better: you play different marines, each having different experiences of some sort of xeno-infestation. Say, a regular marine, a smart-gunner, a co-pilot, the gunner on an APC, that sort of thing. Each sees something different that adds in a different way to the plot, and potentially you could use different characters for different purposes for instance making the gameplay for one horror-orientated maybe the co-pilot's involved in a crash and then has to survive with just a pistol, whilst another could be used for the full-on action sequences, say the smart-gunner. Also, the game would include proper female characters, not just ones shoe-horned in after the fact.
Nothing. The darkened passageway is empty. I'm alone. I relax my grip on the controller, letting my finger slide off the shoulder button, my view swinging back forward.
Then a roar erupts ahead of me, as a mishapen, lumbering form charges from the darkness, and I scrabble to turn and run before it can reach me. Hoping that if I can just overrun it then maybe the darkened corridor will hold some respite from my pursuer...
This is Hellnight. This is every playthrough of Hellnight.
Of all the games I had to pick up and play, I chose Hellnight.
A game designed to torment, to dangle the prospect of freedom before me repeatedly, before wrenching it from me at the very last second.
Escape is always only a few steps ahead, a stairway out, an elevator up, but over and over again obstacles are put in your way, and your progress is pushed back, forcing you deeper and deeper underground.
All the while chased by that thing, as you desperately try to figure out why you're involved in all this, and how you can escape.
As games go Hellnight is pretty interesting, and also relatively unique, forcing the player to rely on their wits over brawn (which even when you have it is relatively useless); it's also somewhat unknown outside of survival-horror gaming circles, and should never be confused with the film starring Linda Blair ever, ever.
Released back in 1998/1999 for the Playstation by Atlus, it's a survival-horror, puzzle game where you play the part of an anonymous male lead, who after the subway train he's on is freakishly derailed by some unknown creature, finds his only escape is to head deeper underground with the only other survivor of the crash, into the network of tunnels and passageways that lie hidden beneath modern Toyko, in a desperate attempt to escape their pursuer.
You spend much of that time creeping round corridors, desperate not to run into the creature. Aside from a few niggling problems (hello sloppy translation!) it's probably one of the most unique experiences I've had in a survival horror game; while what exactly it is the game manages to capture so well remains difficult to pin down exactly.
Is it the sound? The visuals? The atmosphere?
Maybe a little of all of the above. It's not a difficult game to explain, just difficult to effectively convey just how terrifying an experience it can be at times.
It's not even like the game is complicated, you don't have to push ten different buttons at once, you don't have to worry about micromanaging ammo or even supplies - there are none! Yet when it works, when you're in the moment, it's possibly one of the scariest games you'll ever play.
It's scary simply because of how helpless and weak you really are in it, one touch is all it takes to kill, and you'll never really know how long you've got between encounters with the creature, you just know you have to push on and hope it doesn't show.
Because you are the prey.
And out there, somewhere, is a creature whose sole intent is to hunt you down and kill you.
If you remember what it was like to be hunted by Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, then you're getting close to how it feels, but not quite. Nemesis had limits to where he could go, and you had guns. Here, the only sanctuary you have is the odd room or branching corridor, out in the open it can get you anywhere. And as the game progresses the threat from the creature increases, as it itself evolves into more and more deadlier forms.
You spend much of the game either exploring, collecting or figuring out the pieces to the puzzles that let you move ahead or running from the creature, slipping into rooms to hide and hoping that when you leave again it'll be gone.
When it came to deciding what I wanted to write about for this blog I had a few thoughts - I've had my fair share of scares with the Fatal Frame series, the Siren games, System Shock 2, REmake, and even Dead Space, but my experiences with Hellnight stood out.
It stood out because in all those other games I was at one point or another in control, I was powerful, even if momentarily, I had the upperhand, but I never do with Hellnight. All you can ever do is slow the creature, never stop it. You will always be running.
One of the most vivid memories I have of playing the game is from about midway through, when you find yourself in a sort of livestock area - a large open space that's been converted to house animals, with a series of small sheds and pens, all orderly arranged along a grid system, but equating to little more than an open maze for me.
I knew it was coming. I hadn't heard it, or seen it, but I knew it was somewhere out there in the darkness; I hadn't seen it for a long time, so I knew I was due a visit. So I was being careful: cautiously moving forward, never moving too quickly, lest I use up the stamina I might need in a tight squeeze. I felt ready, ready enough atleast.
I was wrong.
I had to search the sheds, one by one, explore every inch of the map. I had to escape but I didn't really know what I needed to escape. I'd left the shed behind me, having found nothing - most of them were empty, and I found myself absently turning and walking to the next shed, glancing over my shoulder, expecting it to come from behind me. Only to let go the shoulder button and hear the creature roar ahead of me. I found myself caught between pens as I desperately scrabbled to turn and run, to get out of there. To somehow escape back into the dark unseen.
Hellnight is the sort of game that would never have won awards for best graphics, or most bombastic, energetic, singleplayer experience even at the time, but it does something with its atmosphere, the sights, sounds, and gameplay, that most games never do. And that's without even getting onto the story, which though obscured by the poor translation hides a number of subtle nods to some classic Sci-Fi movies.
I remember Hellnight most though for those moments: those slow, silent pauses between the monster popping up (and it does literally seem to just 'pop' up); the ones when I'd run and hide, and find a piece of a puzzle; and those other moments when I'd leave a room, confident that I was safe only to find the creature right in front of me.
Because those moments, those are the ones that real horror stories are made of.