Scared Hitless: Bloodborne

From Software has an incredible track record of making games that, while definitely critical darlings, seem to split the gaming universe pretty evenly in half. Some people actively love the challenge set forward in the Souls series, spending countless hours getting destroyed by enemies to slowly learn how to parry and counter-attack at just the right moments. Others get easily frustrated by the admittedly steep learning curve, and back away entirely, never to look back. Everything else that accompanies the games seem to be of minor note, when held up against the difficulty of the titles. I clearly count myself heavily in the first group, or this post wouldn’t even be getting written.

So, what happens when From Software dips their toes into something even more steeped in horror than the Souls series? Does the transition from a straight-up medieval setting into a more Victorian feel work? And what about the advent of the player suddenly carrying a gun? These are questions that get pondered as we step deep into the lore of the city of Yarnham, and find out what exactly is

via Forbes.com

Aw, who wants some snausages?via Forbes.com

Bloodborne

Alright, that last sentence is actually a little bit of a lie. We never find out anything EXACTLY. And that’s part of what makes, for some, the entire Souls series, and the clear spiritual successor, Bloodborne, so interesting for so many. Information is trickled out, but through the game, some of it is immediately discounted with other pieces of lore. While there may be a unifying theory about what exactly is going on, one thing that From wants the player to do is to determine their own version of events. Yes, some things are set in stone, but there’s enough vagueness about everything to keep the player guessing, and spouting theories. That vagueness definitely helps in any horror setting, as often, the most terrifying creature is the one that isn’t fully fleshed out until the end scenes.

But enough about the vagueness of the lore. What about the other questions posed above? Well, first off, by setting Bloodborne in a more modern world, From Software has allowed themselves to play with more of the tropes of that time, instead of relying on the more fantasy-based ones utilized for a medieval setting. It also allows for some a bit of a criticism of modern times. After all, a church making all of the wrong decisions, while city leaders either stand idly by or are corrupted on their own was something that resonated in Victorian times, and still has meaning today. Beautiful architecture filled with dark corners, cast against the backdrop of an increasingly problematic night set the scene. Add a little rain, and you could almost believe that you’re in 19th century London, instead of wandering through the city of Yarnham. In fact, Bloodborne did a pretty job creating a feel for England than The Order: 1886 did, and the second games specifically WAS set in that time and place. The setting works as the perfect backdrop for a Gothic horror game, filled with werewolves and an untrusting populace.

There’s something deeper, and more sinister going on within Bloodborne, however, and the setting lends itself incredibly well to that, too. On the surface, and for the first large portion of the game, it fits well into the mindsets of writers like Stoker and Shelley; the tale is one of humanity falling to darker beasts within themselves. Yes, the game is a bit bloodier in its presentation than authors of that time might have been inclined towards, but you can’t very well call your game Bloodborne and avoid the stuff. As the challenge ramps up, your hunter hears about others who have fallen to their inner beasts, and the first couple of boss fights really drive that point home. As the story progresses, however, you slowly come to realize that From Software is not pulling from Stoker or Shelley; they’re pulling from Lovecraft.

Translating Lovecraft from the written word has traditionally been a tricky task. Some adaptations have worked incredibly well, and others have fallen flat. Bloodborne is one of the examples that works great. The game hints at Elder Ones, and some sort of celestial interference, but it is also clearly planted in the world of dreams. The events happen over the course of one night, and, as the hunter exerts more control over the dreamscape they’ve been placed in, stranger and stranger things happen. One of the most disturbing moments happens when you, as the player, see something lurking outside of one of the early areas, and slowly realize that it’s been there the entire time, but invisible prior to that moment. Also, given Lovecraft’s seeming anxiety towards women, it’s not much of a surprise that Bloodborne plays with themes around menstruation, birth, and the ever-present blood. From Software delivered a story heavily influenced with Lovecraftian themes, and added their signature style of punishing-but-fair game play over the top of it.

But what about scares? Does Bloodborne deliver on the concept of being a horror game? It does, and, much to my own surprise, the risk/reward of more aggressive playing doesn’t detract from the feeling of dread. The lighting of the world is generally just enough to see around a corner or two, and the game utilizes jump scares at just the right moments, to keep the player guessing. Yes, some of these scares get lessened with repeated runs through the same area (and, given that this is ostensibly a Souls game, you WILL be running through areas again), but they are never minimized completely. This is partially because of the “blood echoes” mechanic. After all, there’s always a nagging fear at the back of the player’s mind that they might be a little too aggressive, and run the risk of losing all of their character progress for the last hour or more. This gets even trickier in certain levels where other players can invade your world. There’s nothing quite so terrifying as battling a fierce enemy, running low on healing supplies, and seeing the words that someone has entered your world.

Overall, Bloodborne is a game that seems to relish in its horror roots, while dabbling with Victorian themes. Combat is brutal, but, as is the case in the Souls games, it is fair once you learn the mechanics. Having a gun instead of a shield actually increases the strategy potential, allowing for stuns, but, personally, it didn’t come into play as often as the game would seem to imply it should, based on the supplies provided. The shift from more standard Victorian horror to Lovecraftian works surprisingly well, too, when you think about how much of a disconnect it could have been. As for whether or not you’ll end up enjoying a stroll through the blood-soaked streets of Yarnham? That all depends on how much you enjoy having the prickly sensation dance across the back of your neck, while also warding off frustration from yet another death at the hands of your enemies.

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Scared Hitless: Dying Light

A few years back, a video game trailer was released that made the target audience go absolutely batty. It was a very well-done piece of theater, showcasing a family suffering through the beginnings of a zombie plague. The score and the action were cut together in a way to truly play off of the emotions of the viewer, as we witnessed the transition of a young girl from scared prey to reanimated predator. I’m speaking, of course, about the original trailer for Dead Island, which portrayed this family dynamic uncomfortably well, and danced around the well-understood notion that children are generally off-limits when it comes to displayed death, especially in video games. Whether it was done for shock value, or to highlight the brutality of a world where zombies are real, there is no doubt that the trailer helped boost early sales of Dead Island.

As well done as the trailer was, the actual game was a bit hit or miss. Yes, you were transported to a tropical paradise, after a night of debauchery turns into a nightmare, with zombies at every turn. Yes, you had the ability to find weapons in the most mundane of things, and upgrade them to an extent. Dead Island had an element of being at the beginning of a zombie apocalypse, and the game made sure that no area was ever completely cleared of the living dead for long, so that players could never feel truly safe. On the flip side, the game definitely experienced some pretty large difficulty spikes, and the fact that the zombies continuously leveled up with the player, making real progress feel like a fleeting dream, soured some players on the world that had been created.

Because of this, there was both an eagerness and a dread surrounding Techland’s return to the world of zombies with their newest outing, Dying Light. This time around, the developer would be combining an open-world zombie infestation with parkour mechanics. Is the end result akin to putting peanut butter in chocolate, or is it a mix that should have been left by the wayside. The game’s tagline is “Good night, and good luck”, which just seems fitting as you approach the end of the day with its…

DyingLight

DYING LIGHT

Zombies have been really basking in popularity as of late, and no place does that seem more perfect than in the world of video gaming. After all, throughout gaming’s history, there have been plenty of games that have revolved around the idea of mowing down tons of enemies, generally devoid of personality, and with very few real strategic needs to defeating them. Zombies fit that bill perfectly, and they also allow the player to fulfill a survivor fantasy, all from the safety of their own homes. Dying Light isn’t setting out to really change the core of zombie games; it’s simply looking to add a few more pieces of flavor to choose from.

In some ways, Dying Light could almost be viewed as something of a spiritual successor to Dead Island. Yes, there’s a sequel to Dead Island coming out soon, but Techland isn’t involved with it, and Dying Light has a lot of the familiar trappings while clearly existing in its own world. Instead of the fictional Banoi of Dead Island, this time the game is set in the city of Harran, loosely based on the city from ancient Turkey. Both games feature a first-person view, weapons crafted from random household implements, and hordes of zombies created by a strange infection. Throughout both games, the world is so densely packed with zombies that there’s never really a safe route through, and you will need to use brains and brawn to survive. And yet, for all of their similarities, the two games are also very different, and those differences help make Dying Light shine. Let’s look at some of the specifics to Dying Light.

Movement

In Dying Light, there’s a heavy emphasis on using parkour in your overall movement through the city. Later in the game, you receive a grappling hook to help you traverse the world as well, but there are very few areas where the grappling hook is necessary. Running, climbing, jumping, and vaulting all play major parts, and the set-up to the final boss of the game contains some very precise parkour elements, to make sure you’ve been paying attention along the way. So how does it work? Extremely well. Over the course of the game, climbing a fence in order to reach a nearby rooftop, leaping down into a pile of garbage, and vaulting over the hordes of undead directly in front of you in order to get to a safe house started to feel natural. The early tutorial on the parkour elements had me fearing that everything that was climbable would be distinctly marked, and that wasn’t the case. Instead, as you make your way through the environments, your eyes start to naturally look both for where the next zombie is coming from, and where your parkour skills could help propel you to a different space. The dynamic never really felt forced, and it was integrated into the game incredibly well. Even better, because Dying Light features a first-person view, you aren’t as likely to run into Assassin’s Creed syndrome, where you’re trying to climb a wall, but accidentally bump your controller to send your character leaping off to their demise from a great height.

Enemies

This is first and foremost, a zombie game. Clearly, your enemies are going to be the recently reanimated, along with some bad survivors who just want to gum up the works. That said, one thing that Dying Light does well is to vary the types of enemies. The zombies come in a few different forms (personally, Bombers were the most irritating, because of their penchant for hiding behind doors), all with their own different tweaks to how they engage the main character. The humans present yet another challenge in their method of attack. This variety keeps the game fresh and engaging, even if you spend the majority of the time honing one specific type of weapon and repeatedly spamming the attack button. If that’s not enough, Dying Light also plays with the differences in ambient light. In many ways, the game comes most alive once the sun has set on Harran, as now all of the zombies are stronger, and another couple of new types have been introduced to the mix. Especially in the early goings, it isn’t uncommon to run somewhat blindly through the streets, while being pursued by angry undead, just hoping you can make it to a safe house in time. In fact, the chases are the places where the game really hits home the terror of being caught in a zombie apocalypse. Yes, you might be able to clear a path at least somewhat, but numbers are going to be against you in the long run.

Story

Admittedly, the story isn’t really breaking new ground. You play as Kyle Crane, who has been sent in to Harran to retrieve a sensitive file. You make friends, you make enemies. There are some clever points over the course of the main story, such as the message you try to send to the world outside of Harran, but, overall, it isn’t really doing anything new. It doesn’t need to. Crane is seemingly set up as one of the only practical people left in the city, and, because of his skills, he’s one of the few who can survive the challenges of completing the tasks needed to help those trapped within, which really just paints a glossy layer over the whole “run around the city doing cool parkour moves and killing zombies” thing. Honestly, while a story is clearly needed to give the game a framework, in these types of games it’s very rarely the thing that people remember. People don’t talk about their time playing Dead Rising and how they loved the convoluted story; they talk about how much fun it was to drive over hordes of zombies with a lawnmower, or to create a weapon out of a kayak paddle and a couple of chainsaws. The fact that the story doesn’t terribly get in the way is a good thing, and it does provide a nice framework to create the world around.

Challenges

These are completely optional aspects of the game, and, because they ARE optional, they don’t really take away from it. Most of them are actually pretty straight-forward, and help you get better at the mechanics of the game itself. Some are seemingly designed for luck to play a major role. It’s nice to have the opportunity to step away once in a while from the frenetic pace of the main story and the side quests, but a few of the challenges were more frustrating than seemed worth it. Overall, they serve as a diversion, to give the player new ways to focus on destroying the dead or navigating the city. Regularly popping into these challenges not only makes Crane stronger, but improves the player’s skill. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for me to play a challenge, and then use those exact techniques shortly thereafter in the main game.

Gripes

It wouldn’t be a video game review, or a review of any kind by me, if there weren’t some gripes. These didn’t take away from the fact that, overall, Dying Light was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed my time in Harran, but, if they hadn’t been there, it would have improved my perceptions. First off is the handling of Jade, who is set up throughout the early part of the game to be just as capable, if not more so, than Crane, but ends up being heavily devolved into little more than a damsel in distress. The way her story ended left a sour taste in my mouth, especially since it seemed like it was merely done to make sure that Crane knew the bad guy was a REALLY bad guy (something that had already been well established in my eyes). Secondly, while the game doesn’t step into it often, there is some usage of Quick Time Events that’s just a little off-putting. Most of the time QTEs jump up, it isn’t a big deal, but there are a few moments where giving the player a little more autonomy would have helped. Finally, the game boasts a huge array of weaponry, and a lot of different ways to upgrade. Now, clearly different players will choose different weapons, but it seemed like, by the end game, only a few options were actually viable. Thankfully, those options weren’t limited to firearms, because the game does a good job of highlighting exactly why guns would potentially be a bad idea when dealing with a zombie infestation, but it didn’t seem like there were as many worthwhile choices by the end of it.

All of that said, Dying Light is a game that was definitely fun to play around with. The story served as a nice way to link the passage from one zombie slaughter to the next, with a few pit stops for dealing with humans gone bad, and the characters were just engaging enough to keep it going. There are scares, as pointed out above, with the most notable coming during night-time chases, where one wrong move can lead to Crane being surrounded by a huge horde of zombies with no chance to escape. Smooth movement and a decent combat mechanic helped make the game flow naturally from combat to escape and back again, and I know I’m already thinking about the next time I’ll visit Harran.

Scared Hitless: The Evil Within – A Mental Exercise

I know, I know. This is a bit of a weird entry for me to write on a Monday night. First off, it isn’t the typical Monday night post, but that’s unavoidable until after February 8th (oh, Walking Dead, I miss making fun of your lapses in anything approaching solid thought). Secondly, Scared Hitless is usually reserved for Wednesday writing, but timing, coupled with never really knowing when Nugget will actually sleep, could make that tricky. And finally, if you’ve been a consistent follower of the SH posts, then you’ll recognize the subject matter as being the exact same subject matter I covered last time. That said, what was written a couple of weeks ago was merely the first impressions of someone who was reaching the midpoint of the game. I can now actually take the time to write about it in its entirety. With that said, let’s get ready to go back inside, where we find…

THE EVIL WITHIN

Via theevilwithin.com

Via theevilwithin.com

The Evil Within is an odd game, in that it feels like it’s establishing something relatively new in the realm of survival horror, while clearly rehashing ground that has been covered before. The game takes plenty of influences from previous entries in the genre, with notable nods to Resident Evil, Outlast, and Silent Hill. It’s fair to say that, without their legacy, The Evil Within might never have seen the light of day. It certainly would have had a bit tougher road ahead of itself.

When assembling a game clearly taking nods from what came before, can it be done well? After all, the idea of Frankenstein-ing parts together to make a new whole isn’t new to any genre, and is a well-worn path for horror specifically. Resident Evil pretty much locked down the action aspect of the survival horror genre, and, for many entries in the series, did so incredibly well. Silent Hill took the action down a few pegs (for most of their games), but decided to up the psychological aspects. And Outlast, or at least what little I’ve been able to get through, definitely drives home the concept of survival; hide or be killed. The Evil Within makes an attempt to take those three aspects and blend them together into a new whole, but is it one that works throughout? Maybe more importantly, especially in such a dollar-and-cents business, is the attempt one that will bring audiences back for future installments? To answer those questions, you really have to look at the different parts that make up The Evil Within, breaking them down before re-assembling everything to come to the conclusion.

The Protagonist

Throughout the game, you are playing as Sebastian Castellanos, a detective for the Krimson City police force. Seb starts out investigating a mass murder that took place at Beacon Mental Hospital before things start to go terribly, horribly wrong. Sebastian is the clear veteran, trying to be the somewhat calming influence on his partners Joseph and Juli, but the mechanics of the world gone mad consistently leave him left to his own devices. As a blank slate for the player to inhabit, Seb works. Seb is specifically drawn to be an emotionless persona, and, while often dumbfounded by the world around him, he remains a fairly calm island in the midst of all of the turbulent events around him. In many ways, Seb is almost written to be a caricature of the standard veteran cop trope that tends to pop up in horror properties.

Over the course of the game, however, you proceed to learn that there are reasons behind Sebastian’s cool demeanor, and reading all of his personal documents not only gives you some insight into why he’s been so intent on pursuing the villain, but also why he has created an impersonal shell around himself. Because of his life story, Seb almost needs to shut down everything except his logical side just to make it through, which actually makes him somewhat of a perfect counterpoint to the craziness going on around him. That doesn’t mean that Seb is the most engaging or appealing of characters. This stands out the most during regular game play, where repeated lines about the state of the world come across as a detective who hasn’t really been able to piece together the clues. However, Seb being a relatively blank slate is, if anything, more of an annoyance than an actual slight. Flesh him out too much, and the player may not feel any real connection, especially in this incredibly claustrophobic world. Not every hero can be Ash from The Evil Dead, and not every hero should try to be, either.

The Supporting Cast

While Seb is a fairly blank slate, a lot of the rest of the cast is painted in broad strokes, with a lot of the details being left out. For example, Seb’s partner, Joseph Oda, is someone who we, as Seb, are supposed to care about, but we really only know that he is pretty much Seb’s opposite, and that he wears glasses. Dr. Jimenez starts out as a concerned doctor, but his machinations regarding his patients are quickly laid out, and he slips to being a fairly standard man trying to improve his own standing through questionable means. Leslie is the patient of Dr. Jimenez, and seems to have some sort of connection to what’s happening in the world, but isn’t really developed as much more than an asylum patient with a crippling inability to communicate clearly, and an almost preternatural ability to sense wrongs before they happen. Juli Kidman is incredibly new on the police force, doesn’t seem as affected by what’s happening around them, and clearly has a larger role to play, but none of her motivations are really put on display. That said, future DLC is reported to be Kidman’s story, so perhaps her character won’t seem so empty down the line.

That leaves the enemy, Ruvik. He is the only other character that gets any real sense of development, although, much like Sebastian, the person he is at the start of the game is not terribly different than the person he is at the end of it. Instead, Ruvik’s character is shown both through a few glimpses into actual events of his past, and through written details, explaining pieces along the way. Ruvik starts out as an unrepentant monster, killing indiscriminately, but at least The Evil Within attempts to show how he ended up where he did. Starting out from somewhat humble beginnings, the man who would become Ruvik is shown growing, both in his mental gifts, and in his disconnection from the world due to the traumas he experienced. He is clearly a foil for Sebastian, as both have similar tragedies marring their pasts, but each chose a different path to follow afterwards. By really only detailing the pasts of Sebastian and Ruvik to any real degree, the two become intimately linked. That link drives the player to want to find out more.

The Monsters

The subject of the enemies is one place where The Evil Within seemed to crib most thoroughly from Silent Hill. However, where the Silent Hill monsters generally stem from the sins committed by the main characters over time, left to populate their shadowy world, the monsters from The Evil Within are all clearly spawned from one person and one person only: Ruvik. Instead of being personal issues that must be overcome, they become extensions of the villain’s psyche, and can be somewhat directed to act as roadblocks for the hero. The most common are twisted versions of real people, and these will run the gamut from the average shambling zombie-esque creature to smart assailants, armed with firearms and wearing metal harlequin masks. Peppered throughout are larger creatures, clearly coming from aspects of Ruvik’s own personality, the special shout-outs to The Sadist and The Keeper. All of the monsters have a sort of intelligence, and, if not careful, they will pin Sebastian into a corner that he won’t escape from. Also, the character design of the heroes is somewhat flawed, but the design of the monsters is incredible. Each monster requires its own strategies to get past, and part of the challenge is determining which enemies need to be destroyed and which ones can simply be run from. It isn’t always the easy choice, or even the most logical one, that prevails, and the creatures are able to make players pay for their errors.

The Atmosphere

As I stated in my “First Thoughts” for this game, The Evil Within is delightfully creepy. The dark lighting, coupled with narrow spaces to maneuver makes the game feel more claustrophobic than it is. The sounds heard down the hall could be enemies ready to pounce all over you, or they could be trapped behind bars, unable to do anything more than sound incredibly unnerving. Setting the camera just behind Seb’s shoulder gives the player the ability to see almost exactly what he is seeing in each passageway, with the added benefit of giving a split second of warning if you’re about to be ambushed from behind. Even once the game reaches the midpoint and things start to stray from straight-up creepy into truly weird, the atmosphere remains tense, and there are no real easy answers.

However, that lack of ease coupled with the ramping up of tension can also be a bit of a downfall. The pacing of the game is generally solid throughout. Well-placed chapter breaks provide an easy opportunity to step away and clear the head for a bit, and the upgrade system can also provide a breather. That said, there are times where the game could benefit from easing up on the frustration factor. At least twice, there were (mostly) unavoidable conflicts that had to be gotten past so that I could progress the story further. These conflicts were met with death after death, which meant having to do it all over again. A certain frustration level starts to seep in when you’re about to fight the same fight for the 5th time (or more), and that, coupled with repeated aspects caused by the deaths, actually took some of the power of the story away, and served to remind me that I was definitely playing a game. Thankfully, those moments weren’t too frequent, but they definitely lessened the horror factor when they did happen. After all, there’s a difference between prescience and simply redoing something. One can be terrifying. The other, not so much.

The Take-Away

Even with the complaints about The Evil Within (bland characters, unnecessary frustration at points, the story goes WAY off the rails), it was still an enjoyable game. Yes, the end of the game had moments that seemingly came out of nowhere (seriously, rocket launcher?!?!), but they almost served as exhalation points for the developers as well as a chance for the players to take out some of their tension in a more familiar, video-gamey way. Of course the game ended with a sequel hook, but a really good story will try to get you to crave more. Thankfully, for The Evil Within, horror doesn’t always need a really good story to get audiences to want to be scared again. All it needs is something to keep people on the edge of their chairs, concerned about what could be behind them. In that capacity, The Evil Within delivers a strong entry into the survival horror field, and one that will hopefully see a continuation in the future.

Scared Hitless: The Evil Within – First Impressions

The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.

With the holidays, I’ve been having a tough time fitting in a lot of new (to me) horror into my schedule. There have been a number of different things that have popped up recently that have kept me away from stepping deeply into the genre that I adore. However, now that the calendar has turned to 2015, time has opened up a bit again, and I’ve been able to step lightly back into the things that scare me, which fills me with both dread and joy.

One of the ways that I’ve been able to return to being scared is through the game The Evil Within. Created by a man viewed by some as the father of the survival horror genre, Shinji Mikami, The Evil Within feels like a game that grew somewhat out of what Resident Evil had become, but then elaborated on it. I haven’t completed the story yet, but that isn’t going to stop me from talking about what I’ve experienced so far.

Via theevilwithin.com

Via theevilwithin.com

THE EVIL WITHIN

A relatively short time ago, a game called Outlast was produced. In this game, you play the part of an investigative reporter sent to an asylum, armed only with your notebook and a video camera. Truth be told, I tried playing Outlast, but haven’t been able to get deeply into the game. This isn’t to say that it isn’t a stunning feat for what I’ve seen. Honestly, I want to get further into that game, but can’t because I’ve honestly been too scared by it to continue. The game is a first-person story, and is a true piece of “survival” in survival horror, as you survive by running, hiding, and probably hiding some more. The IR camera view adds to the creepiness, and, when played in a darkened room late at night with assorted house-settling sounds, the creep factor was just a little much to keep me going.

Why do I mention Outlast when talking about The Evil Within? Because I feel that the two games share a bit of DNA, at least in the opening portions. Where Outlast is a first-person story, The Evil Within delivers your character, Sebastian Castellanos, in a third-person perspective. That separation alone helps immensely. Gone is the IR view, and it’s replaced with ambient lighting that is often just dark enough to hide the creepy crawlies that are lurking around the corner. Of course, the DNA of the Resident Evil series is also on display through The Evil Within, as weapons are provided to help fight back against the spirits of evil, but that doesn’t mean you can just blast your way through every encounter. The Evil Within actually rewards players for taking a more cautious approach, especially in the early going. In fact, the first real moment of danger in the game was only solvable through a system of actions that, as a horror film enthusiast, I felt I should have realized earlier, but as a horror gamer seemed contrary to everything I’d ever done before.

The Evil Within is broken up into decent-sized chapters, which helps keep the game from getting too frenetic. The chapter break-up also allows players an easy and obvious time to step away from the controller for a bit, to ease their tensions and shake out whatever may have troubled them. After all, the combat in The Evil Within is never simple. Players need to conserve ammo, either by running, sneaking, or finding alternate ways to defeat enemies, and the monsters in the game are deliciously creepy, especially in the early going. Presenting players with a challenge can be tricky, which is why the Dark Souls series seems to split gamers into two very different camps, but The Evil Within seems to want the player to experience the sheer discomfort of the protagonist, while avoiding the intense frustration of dying repeatedly in a short span of time.

As the game progresses, more and more of the reality of the world gets torn away, which makes things weirder, if not intrinsically creepier. Again, I haven’t finished the story yet, but it does seem like The Evil Within is playing with the mental state of Sebastian, and, in turn, playing with that of the player. Physics gets turned on its head, paths are altered, and all the while, more and more hordes of monsters pursue the hero.

The Evil Within isn’t necessarily carving out a new niche in the survival horror genre of video games, but, so far, it doesn’t really need to. The design of the world is deliciously creepy. Presenting the game through a third-person perspective creates just enough separation that the player CAN invest in the story if they so choose, without being incredibly in-your-face like Outlast is, even if the camera is disturbingly close to Seb most of the time. The game plays with light, with rooms illuminated just enough to conceal the danger, or the occasional bright light of day which provides absolutely no safety. Extra light can be generated via Sebastian’s lantern, but doing so brings its own dangers. Monsters are gruesome and disturbing, and the bigger challenges in the game seem to be in how to defeat them, not in the correct way to position a specific chess piece so as to unlock a door in a completely different part of the mansion.

Overall, just barely under half-way through The Evil Within, and the game has been scratching my horror itch. While the story is just starting to step firmly into “bizarre” territory, the creep factor has remained, and it’s been what has kept me returning to Sebastian’s world, one chapter at a time.

Scared Hitless: Bioshock

The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.

To help resurrect this column from its own untimely demise, I’ve decided to reach back a few years, and to talk about an experience that I absolutely loved. In fact, I loved it so much that the inevitable sequel didn’t terribly ruin everything for me. This week, we’re stepping into the world of video games, and talking about one that, depending upon your personal definitions, may not actually resonate as horror, even though it has plenty of the elements. Gather your Big Daddy and Little Sister, because it’s time to head beyond the sea to Rapture. After all, it all begins with a man, and a lighthouse.

BIOSHOCK (2007)

A spiritual successor to the System Shock games, Bioshock follows the exploits of Jack, a character without much personality or motivation, as he navigates his way through a dystopian, underwater world. Jack is spurred on thanks to the helpful radio connection he shares with a man named Atlas. Along the way, Jack starts to see what caused the downfall of this model city under the sea, along with what became of the survivors. He also runs across numerous Little Sisters and their Big Daddies, providing the moral toggle for the game.

Admittedly, Bioshock is lighter on the horror angle than a lot of games out there. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get to carry forward the horror genre, however. The game presents a number of horror elements, and definitely leans on atmospheric creep to help underline the story. For those who desire a bit more visceral of an experience, there are a few strong jump scares that are set up to shock the player, but, for the most part, the game just feels “off”. That, coupled with the fact that the game actually brings to the table discussions regarding the free will of man, along with the nature of Objectivism, make Bioshock more than just a straight-forward shoot-em-up, and one worthy of standing at least partway in the horror genre.

The Protagonist

For and foremost, Jack, as your eyes into the world of Rapture, is a stand-in for the player. He has a few small elements to help flesh out his personality, but, for the most part, he’s a relatively blank slate. This allows the player to develop a deeper connection to the world as seen through Jack’s eyes. True, Jack has abilities that help him to stand apart and survive in Rapture, but, while those help ramp up some of the fun of the game, they don’t provide its heart. That burden falls squarely on Jack, and what information you can glean from the audio recordings, the exchanges with Tenenbaum, and the almost incessant pestering of Atlas.

Of course, there’s a reason why Jack is needed to be a relatively blank slate. As you discover late in the game, just about the only thing that you’ve done that’s had any free will to it is how you handle the Little Sisters. For everything else, there’s a nice little catch that keeps you on the path. It’s a clever way to both explain why Jack would continue to willingly throw himself headlong at the dangers ahead of him, and why the player keeps moving towards the predetermined objectives. Even better, the code phrase is such an innocuous one that, on first blush, many players get to be surprised when the reveal is handed down. Jack not only allows the player to identify with parts of themselves as they move through Rapture, but he also shows how they might react, should they learn that their own free will has been subsumed.

The Atmosphere

Rapture is unapologetic in how disturbing it’s presented. There is a lot of beautiful scenery, but all of it is a little off-putting when it’s also filled with bloody bodies, dismembered corpses, and overgrown plants. It clearly hasn’t been long since disaster brought Rapture low, as there are still plenty of survivors, but the dead are in abundance. In fact, it’s the survivors that add some of the most off-putting elements to the atmosphere of the game, as they’ve not only been driven mad, but are often depicted with disfigurements only really noticeable when they get up close. And get up close they will, as a lot of the enemy tactics revolve around rushing at Jack, closing the distance to tilt the tables in their favor.

Then there’s the issue of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. While you don’t find out a lot about the creation of the Big Daddies in the first game, you learn enough to know that they are determined to defend their personal Little Sister to the death. The parent-child bond is made incredibly strong between these two, which is even creepier when later explanations make it clear that the two are not generally parent and child before the transition. The Big Daddies are hulking brutes, trapped forever in a diving suit, while the Little Sisters are sallow, hollow-eyed girls, toting around syringes with which to drain dead bodies of their magical life force (ADAM). That sort of interconnectedness could actually be considered as sweet in other genres, but, because the choice is taken away from both in Bioshock, it’s very clearly a disturbing relationship. It adds to the sense of wrong that permeates throughout the game, and continues to resonate long after the encounter with Sander Cohen.

The Humor

Bioshock is NOT a funny game. It isn’t meant to be. But, like so much of horror, it’s clear that there is a purpose for humor to get dropped in once in a while. Within Bioshock, the humor is largely contained within the quick snippets of dialogue, and CAN serve as a tension break, provided said dialogue comes in a quieter moment. There are also plenty of times where the humor helps to underscore how disturbing the scene unfolding before you actually is; for example, everything related to Dr. Steinman has an air of humor to it, and he’s definitely not an amusing character. Finally, the humor sometimes appears in places to actually set up the player for a bigger emotional reaction. Look no further than most of what Atlas asks of you, especially before you approach Andrew Ryan’s office.

The Monsters

Not to take away from the Big Daddies that exist throughout the game, but they’re honestly probably even more of victims than Jack is. The true monsters are the splicers; people who got so comfortable with having everything they ever dreamed of, they decided to take one step further and start changing their very genetic code. In some ways, it could be seen as an extreme end-game to the concepts of Objectivism, but, either way, it really helps set up the world as being wrong and frightening. The bodies that lay scattered around are most likely their close friends and neighbors, but, once the switch was flipped and madness became the rule of Rapture, they were forgotten. Madness certainly is the rule, and the splicers, in all of their varied forms, serve to show how, in a world such as Bioshock‘s, sanity is not far from the razor’s edge.

In fact, the splicers are so effective as monsters (even when they AREN’T actively trying to kill Jack), they ultimately mute the power of the game’s final boss. Instead of continuing to ramp up the fear and general wrongness of the enemies, the game ends with a fairly standard boss-fight, albeit one with a satisfying finish.

The Take-Away

Bioshock is not a perfect game, and, in many ways, it isn’t really a horror game. That said, it certainly plays with a lot of atmospheric creep, a pervading sense of always being watched, and the question of free will. Its strong visuals and steady reminders of just how close to “normal” this world could be help to keep the player unsettled. The morality aspect of the game isn’t remarkable, but it does help ground Jack in something other than simply running around, shooting people with lightning before braining them with a wrench. If you’re looking for a game that has some scares, but asks its audience to think more than jump, would you kindly consider giving Bioshock a look?

Gaming as a Father

So, really aside from the Tuesday and Thursday posts, this blog is going to probably be a little more sparse. Partially because, well, I only want to write when I actually have something to say, and, partially because, if you’ve been reading The Nugget Chronicles, you know that I’ve recently transitioned to being home all of the time with my daughter. This is an incredibly rewarding choice, but it means that computer time is definitely limited to whenever she’s taking a nap, and even that is kind of a crap shoot.

That being said, there are a couple of games that came out over the course of 2013 that really resonated. And, truth be told, both of these games came out when Nugget was still hanging out, doing her pre-being-born growing. However, I made a point of getting through both of these games relatively quickly (which is a rarity for me… as I’m currently still plodding my way through Final Fantasy XIII-2), because, well, I wasn’t sure if I’d get much of a chance to play them after Nugget was born. See, there’s just something about playing a fairly violent video game in the general vicinity of a small, impressionable person that is kind of off-putting (it’s one of the reasons why I also don’t play video games around my short friends). Little did I know when I started the games that they would resonate much more deeply than I had anticipated. Clearly, the stories had something to do with that, but it was really the way the characters were allowed to interact that hit home. Those two games are Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us.

Now, to talk about why Bioshock Infinite resonated, it’s impossible to avoid spoilers. That being said, come on, people. The game’s almost a year old, and we’re encroaching on the next (last) piece of DLC. For those few people with an interest in the game but haven’t played it to completion, I’m going to ruin the surprise for you. See, you’re playing as Booker DeWitt, and you’re getting help from a woman named Elizabeth. Near the end of the game, you discover that Elizabeth, the most helpful escort in the history of video game escort missions, is actually Booker’s daughter. When that point was reached for gamers far and wide, you could practically hear the screeching of brakes being applied as millions of Booker/Elizabeth slash-fictions suddenly became a lot worse (and, for some writers, a few probably became better). For me, it struck home because, well, I was about to have a daughter. The whole fear of losing your child (or, in this case, “voluntarily” giving them up) filled me with dread even before I’d ever met Nugget, and seeing how Booker dealt with it hit home. Mind you, if I was ever in a similar situation, I’d like to think that I’d deal with it better. When the game reaches it’s conclusion, the father/daughter connection really hits home, as Booker is willing to sacrifice everything he is to try and save Elizabeth from any pain, both in the past and the future. Finishing Bioshock Infinite made me immediately go and hug my wife, and made we want to hug my daughter, even though I still had months to wait.

And, almost as soon as I had finished processing my thoughts and feelings regarding Bioshock Infinite, I picked up The Last of Us. Hey, look, it’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s a story of survival, against the odds. There’s scrounging and fighting and stuff to do to allow your character, Joel, the best chances to make it in this world. Oh, and there’s a connection to an amazingly strong female character, who, along the way, becomes a surrogate daughter for Joel.

Yup. Waiting for my daughter to be born, I basically engulfed myself in two different games about fathers making their way in the world to save their daughters.

Now, in The Last of Us, Ellie isn’t Joel’s actual daughter. In fact, before they start on their voyage together, they’d never met. However, when the virus breaks out, turning the planet into a walking mushroom colony, Joel loses his actual daughter while trying to escape. This clearly haunts him, as the next time we see Joel, he’s a shell of his former self. We don’t know all of the other things that affected him, but it’s very apparent that losing his daughter has made him take a much more cynical look at the world, and he just isn’t really prepared to let anyone get close. Even when he first meets Ellie, it’s clear that he’s only taking her along because it’s a job. Over time, Ellie grows on him (because, seriously, how can she not? The jokes alone are worth getting to know this kid), and, by the end of everything, we’re again seeing a man willing to sacrifice everything to protect his “daughter”. The parental protection instinct is strong, and it’s clear that the writers for both games understood that desire to ensure the safety of family that exists.

While these father/daughter exchanges are truly powerful, and they show the sacrifices willingly made by the male characters, if it hadn’t been for the fact that Elizabeth and Ellie were both such strong characters in their own rights, they whole thing would have come off as being hokey. In fact, it can be argued that it didn’t matter that either Elizabeth or Ellie were women. Neither character needs to rely on being a “girl” to help them out of situations, and the game developers clearly wanted to show that both women are perfectly capable, which is a nice breath of fresh air, especially when compared to characters like Ashley from Resident Evil 4. Elizabeth is kept locked away until Booker breaks her free, not because she can’t get herself out, but because there seems to be little point when she knows far more of the truth about the world she’s living in. Ellie is no less capable of surviving than a boy would be in her shoes, as the only thing that really sets her apart from Joel as far as skills go are things that are learned over time. The characters could have been written as being male, without any real changes made to the story, which is key. Too often the media makes women foils, or props, and doesn’t seem willing to accept that they are simply people. The man doesn’t have to always be the hero, and the woman doesn’t always have to be the damsel in distress. While the father/daughter connection is struck upon in both games, it isn’t a stretch to say that a father/son relationship would be just as fulfilling.

I haven’t revisited either game since Nugget was born, with the exception of a little time in Bioshock Infinite‘s DLC, but I know that I’ll go back some day. Truth be told, that day may not come until I feel that Nugget can actually glean something from the story. After all, while I know that she’s got a multitude of strong women in her life, I think it’s important for her to see strong women in the media, as well, and ones that are not simply there to portray the “feminine perspective”.

I only hope that more games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us come out, with strongly written characters and well-crafted storylines. It’s certainly better than when I was a kid, trying to get a plumber through pipes to go and save a princess who was always in another castle, and who could have walked five feet over to get the ax and free herself.

Changed Pace

So, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending time (re-)playing through Final Fantasy XIII. This is so I can play XIII-2 (which I missed out on), and Lightning Returns (which, if you’ve been following gaming news pretty much anywhere, you know is recently out). Now, I’ve been plodding away through FFXIII for a couple of weeks now, partially because I tend to only play in the wee hours of the night after Nugget and HawtWife have gone to bed, and partially because, well, even without a lot of exploration available, it’s still a pretty darned dense game. Clearly it’s a game that I enjoyed, otherwise I never would have wanted to revisit it. I mean, I could have caught up on the whole story again by visiting the internet and devouring article after (thinly veiled attack) article. But, I’m going back, and reliving through it all, partially because of the admission that I had fun, and partially because I don’t want to just read more gripes about how FFXIII isn’t a “real” Final Fantasy game.

Anyway, I’ve finally reached the point in the game where everything opens up. This is both a good and a bad thing. See, it’s awesome, because now the whole concept of linearity is thrown out the window (at least, for a bit). Suddenly, I get to wander around and look at all of the gorgeous scenery that’s been built and, truth be told, the world of Gran Pulse is a beautiful place to wander (especially if, like me, you live in a place where the only color outside of the window is white, thanks to a combination of snow and road salt). Beautiful vistas abound, and, everywhere you look, there are dangerous monsters that you can either fight or avoid, as you see fit.

The bad part? This is the part of the game that taps into the lizard brain portion of my mind. It’s where I remember all of the time I spent as a younger person, playing through earlier Final Fantasy games. It brings the need for level-grinding back to the forefront, which means I’m going to spend probably as much time on Gran Pulse trying to make my characters the strongest they can be as I spent even GETTING to Gran Pulse in the first place. This, coupled with the fact that there is no real way to know if you can handle the monsters until they’ve curbstomped you will lead to some very long sessions, and a whole pile of time spent ticking away, just trying to get Lightning and crew to not have any more little dots on their character progression charts.

Even though I’m griping somewhat about all the time I’m going to spend in Gran Pulse, it’s a very nice change of pace. I may not push my characters to be the best of the best (of the best, sir), but I’m certainly going to let them get to a point where they can’t be defeated by a little leg sweep, either. It’s comforting to remember that, once I get bored of (over-)leveling my party, I can return to the adventure as I see fit, and move the story forward again. From what I’ve heard about some of the mechanics behind Lightning Returns, I actually might end up missing out on this element, because being able to take your time exploring a game world has always been a bit of a joy for me. It’s how I lose myself in the Elder Scrolls, and why Assassin’s Creed IV has kept me going. Exploration of these worlds has been joyous, and, honestly, it’s nice to be able to do it on my time.

After all, if I was always beholden to the timeframe established by the game developers, I’d probably never even see past the midpoint of any game I’ve ever played. I get too easily distracted by what might be lurking beyond the horizon. Give me open vistas, and allow me to set my own pace, at least for a portion of my time in your game world, and you’ve got a contented gamer.