Monthly Archives: October 2015

Halloween Gaming: Until Dawn

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The explosion of the indie gaming scene over the last couple of years has led to the popularization of a handful of new genres like survival games, run-and-hide horror games, “walking simulators”, etc.  And every once in awhile these new types of games manage to pierce into the highly homogenized world of $60 boxed releases.  As a game, Until Dawn easily falls in line with the “interactive movie” style adventure game that was popularized by The Walking Dead.  There’s less a focus on puzzle-solving and more a focus on rich storytelling that gives the player some choices to make in the game which ostensibly controls the trajectory of the plot.

Until Dawn can best be described as a game made in the mold of a teen slasher movie.  The template of the slasher movie is an interesting thing for gaming to broach.  The vast majority of gaming is focused on powerful lone heroes overcoming massive quantities of enemies.  Even most horror games are made in this mold with protagonists like Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Isaac Clarke, Harry Mason, etc. forcing their way through armies of horrible abominations that are meant to be scarier than the average video game enemy, but nonetheless go down in great numbers to the protagonist.  The slasher film, on the other hand, is an inversion of this.  You have a group of protagonists that are facing a single overwhelming and resilient enemy who will inevitably succeed in thinning out the heroes to some extent.  So as someone who has been playing games all his life and is interested in seeing creative new directions take form in this realm, Until Dawn had my interests piqued.

Until Dawn focuses on a group of eight teenagers who have come together for a night of partying on the secluded Blackwood Mountain.  The mountain is owned by the parents of one of the teens, Josh Washington, who we’re told (and shown) are exorbitantly wealthy.  This is no cabin retreat, rather it is a massive lodge that once served as a high-end hotel before the mountain was abandoned by its previous owner.  This same previous owner also ran a sanitorium and mining operation on the mountaintop until the mine collapsed.  The sanitorium and mine are now abandoned.  And one year prior to this particular party, Josh’s sisters went missing on the mountaintop, and he’s throwing the party in their honor.  Can you see where all this is starting to go?

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The only way up and down the mountain from the lodge is by cable car.  And of course, the cable cars become cut off as an escape option, and the teens find themselves assailed by a murderous “mystery man”, as well as facing the dangerous secrets of the mountain’s dark past.  You trade-off controlling each teen as the story dictates.  Sam is the closest to what I would consider to being the main character, as she’s the most morally-centered and shows the most focused-thinking.  She’s also the only female character that doesn’t turn into a whimpering mess when faced with harrowing situations.  Aside from her, the teens mostly follow very well established tropes.  There’s the funny guy, the funny guy’s girl next door love interest, the athlete, the class president, the hot girl, etc.  But I thought there was a small amount of subversion of these tropes.  For instance, I found Matt the Athlete, who would in other forms of this template be the most self-centered of the characters, to be the most reasonable and diplomatic in the face of interpersonal conflict.  Meanwhile, the more academically-accomplished and intelligent Mike and Emily are the most manipulative and cruel of the protagonists, far from the meek, socially-inept nerds that they would be in other uses of this trope.  And the “hot girl” Jess, who to the others appears shallow and superficial, shows real depth in moments of self-reflection and confessions of her insecurities.

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Over the course of the story, we see conflict and betrayal as well as selflessness and loyalty evolve in these characters.  Some might call these individuals “flawed”, but I’m not sure that I would use that exact wording.  Rather, I just think they’re very realistic.  They can be cruel to each other, they make mistakes, but they also have redeeming qualities and moments.  The game features a “celebrity” voice cast led by Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare. I’m usually very skeptical and annoyed by big name voice actors, since most of the time they don’t take gaming seriously and do poor jobs.  But I have to say that this crew mostly does quite well in their roles.  

Choice is something that developers have been enamored with for quite some time now.  After all, video games are an interactive medium, so it’s logical that players should have some ability to influence the course of events that occurs in a game’s plot.  Unfortunately while this is a great ideal, in the real world it’s a rather hard thing to implement probably because having significantly deviating paths in a game requires the production of a lot of additional content by the developer.  As a consequence, most choices in games tend to work like little diamonds.  The player’s choices can have some impact on the unfolding of immediate short-term events, but the story is set up such that in the long-term the divergent story paths find a way to come back to the same point.  I think most gamers have caught on to this, but developers still love to use the concept of highly consequential “choices” as a selling point for their games.

And Until Dawn is no exception considering its genre.  The game begins by introducing the player to the butterfly effect and explaining how their choices will result in significantly diverging events in the game’s story.  There’s also a menu in the pause screen that shows you the critical determinant choices and actions the player has made.  I’ve only played through the game once, so at this time I can’t really say how radically different the story can play out.  But as far as I know, the three acts play out roughly the same regardless, with the first act introducing us to the characters and setting up the rest of the night’s events, the second act sees the slasher’s plans set in motion, and the third act brings together all the mysteries surrounding the teens’ ordeal.  There are pre-scripted parts where a specific teen can die if the wrong decisions or actions happen, but, as I understand, that doesn’t change the story beats.  I think it just changes which characters are involved in each event (and their collective survival odds), not which events happen.  But like I said, I really can’t say for sure, as I haven’t exhaustively explored the game’s many divergent paths.  

But what about Until Dawn as a scary game?  After all, this is a Halloween Gaming post.  I have to say Until Dawn probably isn’t one of the scariest games I’ve played.  It does have an appropriate atmosphere and mood for the story it’s trying to tell, but I was never really spooked by it.  There were a few exceptions that did really rattle me, though.  In particular, the abandoned sanitorium that the player must visit really set my teeth on edge for some reason.  It might have just been the mood I was in at the time, and maybe a function of how many drinks I had that night.  I did worry about the teens survival, but it wasn’t really dread or fear I felt for them.  It was just that I liked these characters and wanted to see their stories play out.  I managed to keep all the teens alive until the climax of the game, and the first time one died I was so disappointed with myself that I turned the game off in anger at myself.  

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One thing I will say about this game is that it likes its jump scares.  This is particularly true in the first act of the game where there’s really not a lot of danger, and the focus is on introducing the protagonists, their relationships with each other, and the mountain location that they find themselves on.  This part of the game, in particular, has a lot of cheap “BOO!” moments even though there’s really not much threat to them.  I suspect this is because the developers didn’t want the player to forget that they were in a horror game considering how peaceful things were at the start.  I have to say, the jump scares got kind of annoying after a while.  

One thing I did like about the game was the fixed camera that it employs.  It made me nostalgic for the survival horror games of old that used this perspective, even though this game isn’t survival horror, itself.  I definitely think the camera was a big part of the tension I felt in the sanitorium that I mentioned above.

Although I didn’t necessarily find the game to be among the scariest I’ve ever played, I do think I really enjoyed it in the end.  It does have a good atmosphere and mood and creates a cast of characters that are compelling to watch and play.  The third act goes in a direction that I felt was less interesting than what was set up earlier in the game, but I still found myself suitably invested in the game’s climax and seeing the protagonists through to the end of the story.  I actually would really like to talk about the story and characters more in-depth, so I hope to get a spoiler-tagged post on this game out in November, after I’ve finished my final Halloween gaming post.

Thanks for reading!

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Halloween Gaming: Alan Wake and Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

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Halloween Gaming at The Maximum Utmost rolls on.  This time with an insanely long post about one of my favorite games of all time, the cult thriller Alan Wake.

Some would probably consider Alan Wake to be one of the greatest tragedies of the Xbox  360.  A truly underappreciated gem that completely flopped in sales,  Alan Wake was the extensively long in development project (it took ~5 years to complete after being announced in 2005) of Remedy Games, who were best known for the excellent Max Payne 1 and 2, and was published by Microsoft Games Studios.  While I really enjoyed Alan Wake, one of the highlights of the Xbox 360, it’s not hard for me to see why it did so bad in terms of sales.  There were several controversies surrounding the game pre-release, one of which was that the PC version (which had been previewed for nearly 4 years) was cancelled before release.

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Long story short, a lot of (vocal) gamers were justifiably disgruntled at Alan Wake before its release on May 18, 2010.  But all of that controversy was merely a drop in the puddle compared to Alan Wake’s true problem.  You may remember this little game from a few years back called Red Dead Redemption.  You know…made by Rockstar Games…. kind of like Grand Theft Auto but with cowboys and horses…ring any bells?  Well, Red Dead also released on May 18, 2010 and was an utterly massive hit.  Alan Wake was completely steamrolled in sales, and after so many long years of development, the once proud developer of Max Payne had a commercial flop on its hands.

It’s unfortunate that all of these dark clouds hang over Alan Wake, as I actually really enjoy it as a game.  Of course, Remedy and Microsoft have no one but themselves to blame for the game’s commercial failure.  Controversies aside, at the very least they should have been smart enough not to release the game on the same day as the next major release from %&#&ing Rockstar Games!!!!!!  But one good thing about this was failure was that Remedy was able to convince Microsoft to allow them to self-publish the game on Steam to recoup their losses.  Time (and Steam sales) heal all wounds, and now there is at least a decent-sized contingent of PC gamers out there who have come to appreciate Alan Wake.

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In Alan Wake, Remedy sought to do with pop horror what they did with noir crime fiction in Max Payne.  The prime influence here is David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but there’s also some Stephen King in here as well.  When I say Twin Peaks is the prime influence, I mean this game is really built around the template of the cult early ‘90s TV series.  Alan Wake arrives in the small, northwestern town of Bright Falls and soon becomes captured in the mysteries of the supernatural horrors that use the town as a portal into our world.  If you’ve ever seen Twin Peaks, you can clearly see the similarities in this setup with that of Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the town of Twin Peaks.  

But while Alan Wake uses the formula of Twin Peaks, I felt it managed to create its own distinct narrative.  And the story is the real draw of this game.  It’s full of many twists and turns to keep the player hooked into uncovering the secret of Bright Falls.  It features a stellar cast of characters, both friends and foes to Alan, that possess real depth that is rarely seen in video games.  And as Alan’s journey into the night progresses, he has actual character growth, something that also rarely happens in even the most lauded video game plots.

At the beginning of the game, we are introduced to Alan and Alice Wake, a married couple who are arriving by ferry for a vacation in the small, northwestern town of Bright Falls.  Alan is an enormously popular celebrity novelist but has lately been dogged by a severe case of writer’s block.  The couple has come to stay in a cabin on the shore of nearby Cauldron Lake, hoping that the peacefulness of the wilderness will help stimulate Alan’s writing.  While Alan and Alice appear to have a loving relationship, we see that it is strained by Alan’s arrogance and temperament combined with his hard-partying celebrity lifestyle that Alice deplores.  Alice blames Alan’s personal issues on Barry Wheeler, Alan’s agent who she often comes into conflict with.

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Alan and Alice Wake

The couple arrive at the cabin and bizarre, increasingly unnatural events begin to transpire.  These events culminate with Alice being abducted by a shadowy entity and drug into the dark depths of Cauldron Lake, as Alan watches horrified.

Fast forward a week and Alan wakes up after having crashed his car in the woods surrounding Bright Falls.  He has no memory of the preceding week, the last thing he remembers is Alice being taken into Cauldron Lake.  He approaches a mysterious stranger for help, but the encounter soon turns hostile, and Alan finds himself being pursued through the night by possessed men that are shrouded in shadow.  This is where Alan’s long journey into the night begins.  During the following events, Alan searches for a way to save his wife while also coming to understand The Dark Presence, the supernatural denizen of Cauldron Lake that seeks to use Alan for its own nightmarish purposes.

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The story from here on out gets rather….complex, with Alan attempting to find his vanished wife and understand what happened to him during the missing week.  The story is the true star of Alan Wake, and in my opinion it more than makes up for its deficiencies in other areas (more on that in a moment).  I have to restrain myself here, because as you may can tell I really love this game and could go on and on about this aspect of it, but I don’t want to a) spoil too much for potential players, and b) hype up expectations for potential players to a point that the actual game can never meet.

I will though reiterate how much I liked the characters in this game.  Even the Dark Presence is far more interesting than your typical Lovecraftian abomination.  She is single-mindedly evil, but the mechanism by which she influences the world and seeks to control it were wholly original (to me at least).  But as far as great characters go, I’d also like to specifically mention Barry Wheeler, Alan’s agent and best friend, who arrives in Bright Falls as Alan finds himself increasingly in over his head.  From Alice’s initial description of Barry, I assumed he was a bloodsucking agent that exploited his client for his own gains.  But while Alice and Barry have no love lost and Barry is certainly obsessed with maintaining Alan’s fame and fortune, you come to realize during the game that he is Alan’s most loyal and truest friend and unhesitatingly follows him into the nightmares that Alan must face.  These two make a duo that compete with the likes of Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan or Solid Snake and Otacon for all-time best bros in gaming.

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While I consider the story of Alan Wake to be top tier, the combat design, on the other hand, is a bit more flawed.  The at-times iffy combat system is actually one of the reasons that makes this game hit-or-miss for a lot of people.  I won’t say the combat design is bad, but there are definitely parts of it that need fine-tuning (and were fine-tuned in the sequel), and in certain areas of the game, the less polished aspects of it can become rather irritating.  And that’s not to say there aren’t some really epic battles in the game.  People who have played the game would probably agree that the farm and the hedge maze are some really spectacular levels.  It’s just that there are more than a few areas where the player will probably end up gritting their teeth a fair bit to push through.

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I would call Alan Wake an action-horror game, more similar to FEAR or Dead Space than a survival-horror game like Fatal Frame or Silent Hill.  Ammo and firearms are rather plentiful, and the player will need to kill pretty much everything that crawls out of the woods at them.  During his quest, Alan is pursued by the Taken, people who have gone missing from Bright Falls and have had their souls sucked out by the Dark Presence and are now under her control.  The Taken are more like Ganados from Resident Evil 4 than zombies.  They have some intelligence and work to flank and overwhelm Adam, and attack using crude melee weapons, mostly axes and hatchets.  They are also initially invulnerable, being clouded in a shadow substance that protects them from bullet fire.  To defeat them, Alan must focus his flashlight on them which melts away the darkness that protects them.  After they’ve been exposed by the light, they are weak to attack, and Alan can finish them off.  There are also some other light-based weapons that Alan can use strategically such as flares (that stun and send the Taken stumbling backwards) and flash grenades (which insta-kill any Taken nearby, essentially your get out of jail free card).

As I mentioned, the game really needed a bit better fine tuning when it came to the design of the combat system.  There are a lot of little annoyances that can on occasion become rather irritating.  For instance, when Alan is blasting his flashlight at an enemy, the camera zooms in closer to that enemy.    But this cuts off the player’s peripheral vision leaving them exposed to attacks from the side (as the Taken move silently), which is a problem since the it the Taken can take quite a bit of light before they’re actually exposed.  In encounters featuring large groups of Taken that are attacking from every direction, you’ll often find yourself just getting annoyed by how much you’re being hit while just trying to get a single enemy exposed by the light.  In addition, the game could use a bit more variety in the enemy design.  There are a few different types of human Taken, but sometimes you’ll also be attacked by flocks of “taken birds,” and those things are just super frustrating to fight, no fun at all.

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I will say that Alan Wake isn’t exactly a scary game.  The tension and unnerving dread that I’ve felt in the better horror games I’ve played just isn’t present here.  Rather, it’s more true to its inspiration, Twin Peaks, in that its intrigue comes from a bizarre supernatural mystery that is slowly unravelled by the main characters and which mystifies the audience.  And it’s a well-written mystery at that.  And while it’s doesn’t posses an exactly dreadful mood, the game has a very strong atmosphere to it.  It’s one of the few games I know that captures the feeling of the solitude and quiet of the wilderness at night.  And each chapter is absolutely sprawling in geographic size, which only reinforces Alan’s isolation.  This game started off as an open-world game before becoming more of a linear Resident Evil 4-style game, and you can easily see that from how large the wilderness is in the game.

While the game doesn’t end on what I would call a cliffhanger, the ending is clearly meant to set up future games in a series.  Unfortunately, the failure in sales meant that Microsoft was unwilling to provide further funding for a sequel.  In 2012, Remedy would release Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a much smaller successor to Alan Wake that released for $15 on XBLA and Steam.  Presumably this was done to maintain gamers’ interest in the series as Remedy searched for the funds needed to build a full-fledged sequel.   

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Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

Although a much smaller game, American Nightmare makes significant improvements to the combat design of the original game.  It is a much more fine-tuned experience, more what you would expect from the designers of Max Payne.  So confident was Remedy in this aspect of the game that they included an “Arcade Action” mode in the release that is similar to Gears of War’s horde mode.

The story, on the other hand, is far less grandiose than its predecessor.  After the events that transpired in Bright Falls, Alan travels to the desert town of Night Springs in search of the depraved serial killer, Mr. Scratch, a doppleganger of Alan that was released during the climax of the previous game.  (This is another reference to Twin Peaks.)  Mr. Scratch originates from Cauldron Lake, and consequently also has powers to fill men with darkness and create Taken to once again hunt Alan through the night.  As a $15 downloadable-only game, American Nightmare is nowhere near as large as the previous game.  The game is essentially a time-loop (think Groundhog Day) of the same night in Night Springs, with Alan visiting the same three areas through each iteration of the night.  Reusing the same three levels over and over in this way is of course a consequence of the small budget this game was created on (again, it’s a smaller downloadable title), but events play out differently in these areas through each iteration of the time loop, so it manages to stay decently fresh as the game’s story progresses.  The story might not be as fulfilling as the original, but I regardlessly still easily recommend this game to anyone who was a fan of the first, but I would not recommend it to newcomers unfamiliar with Alan Wake, as they will be completely lost with the narrative.  Play the first game first in other words.

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In the end, although the credits of American Nightmare promises that Alan’s journey through the night will continue, the series has come to an unfortunate end.  As it stands, we have two games in the series, one with an amazing story and the other with amazing combat.  It appears that Remedy was unable to secure funding for a full-fledged Alan Wake 2, and unfulfilled plot threads created in the original game will never be resolved.  Instead, Remedy are now focusing their attention on Quantum Break, a third person shooter funded by Microsoft as an Xbox One exclusive. It goes without saying there will be no PC release of this game.  I don’t want to parrot the “definition” of insanity, but I have to wonder why Remedy has gone back to the same well that ultimately poisoned Alan Wake.  (I promise I’m not bitter about it!  Honest!)  In the ideal world, we would have gotten a conclusion to Alan’s story in a game that would have combined the scope and scale of the story of Alan Wake with the greatly refined combat of American Nightmare, but alas, that is never to be.

Halloween Gaming: Into the Gloom

It’s October again which of course means Halloween gaming!  Last year I did a short series of posts called “Utmost Spookiest Games” on a few of the horror games I played last October and….. they were incredibly unpopular…..some of the worst viewed and liked posts I’ve ever written!  (Un)Fortunately, I have no capacity to learn from prior failures, so I’m back here again to kick off another month of spooky game posts starting with Steam indie horror title Into the Gloom.

Since the success of Five Nights at Freddy’s, there’s been a boom of low-budget horror games on Steam looking to make it big on the YouTube reaction videos circuit.  At merely $2.99, most would probably categorize Into the Gloom with the rest of the cheap jump-scare gold rushers, but actually the game predates the popularity of FNAF.  Even if you didn’t know that though, you probably would reconsider it as a “me too” game, simply because it’s a decently well-constructed experience which makes the most of its low-fi potential.  While you’ll have no illusions that this wasn’t created on a very narrow budget of resources and time, it makes the most of what it has and stands up as an respectable underrated horror game for what it is.

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Into the Gloom can best be described as an exploration puzzle game.  You wake up in the operating room of an abandoned hospital and set out to find your way to safety.  Along the way, you’ll find several dead bodies and blood scrawled messages on the walls that hint toward a terrible danger that pervades the world.  I’ll go ahead and say this, but there are some rather disturbing images in this game.  Nothing too extreme if you’re accustomed to survival horror games like Silent Hill or Fatal Frame or Outlast, but if you’ve only ever played the Capcom survival horror games like Resident Evil and Dino Crisis, you might be a bit taken aback by what you’ll find in this game.  

The first thing you’ll notice about Into the Gloom is its stark, low-fi graphics.  The simplistic, stylized aesthetic is used quite well in creating a creepy atmosphere that is just deeply tense.  Grey-scale dominates this game’s appearance with most of the environment being rather morosely shaded with black, white, and grey.  Otherwise, the only color used is red which adds a an unsettling flair throughout the scene.  Red is used to depict bloodstains, artificial lights, and, most ominously, the bloody sky itself which drapes the disquieting world of the Gloom.  The other major thing you’ll notice that adds to the oppressive atmosphere is that the game runs with a very limited draw distance.  There’s a general fogginess that pervades your surroundings which results in a mood that feels all the more insecure.  If this game nails one thing, it’s atmosphere and mood.  I was quite impressed with the feeling of dread I had while playing this game late at night, something I didn’t expect from the screenshots I had seen beforehand.

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Moment-to-moment gameplay is mainly centered around exploring new areas, finding items, and solving puzzles that block further progress.  Puzzles come in two forms.  The first requires you to find certain items to progress, say a set of bolt cutters to get a lock off a door.  Sometimes you’ll need to combine items in your inventory to open the way forward, but in general these puzzles are pretty simple and you’ll never really be stumped by them.  The hardest part is just finding the items, but even that is far from a pixel hunt or anything.  The second type of puzzle is more problematic.  These generally involve some sort of brain teaser set to a panel on the wall.  For instance, the first puzzle in the game requires you to solve a sliding tile puzzle to open a safe.  These puzzles can get a bit annoying, and I generally just had to solve them by semi-randomly clicking around until I happened upon the solution.  

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An example of one of the more annoying puzzles.

Aside from the puzzles, the other component of the game comes from the monster that occasionally shows up to give chase.  Basically, when the monster shows up, the player will need to book it until they reach safety.  These encounters typically aren’t so hard, but the monster does move fast so there’s little room to dawdle when making an escape.

I will say this about the monster: there is a long build-up to the monster’s introduction, and I found the build-up to be a lot scarier than the actual encounters with the monster.  This I think happens in a lot of horror games, and I made note of it last year when I played Fatal Frame.  In a lot of horror games, there’s a tension and dread that comes with the player psyching themselves out as they wait for the monsters to make their ambush.  But when the monsters finally reveal themselves, I personally find it to be a bit of a relief.  

Another phenomenon that I felt occurs in Into the Gloom and that occurs throughout the horror game spectrum was that the later parts of the game become significantly less scary, as I figured out how the game “works.”  What I mean by that is that I was pretty confident in knowing when I was safe and when the monster was about to attack.  This is something that I’ve felt in many other horror games, particularly those which require you to run rather than fight the enemy such as Amnesia and Outlast.  To Into the Gloom’s credit, though, there was a great moment at the end where my feeling of complacency was completely subverted.  In addition, in the “safe” parts of the game, there are still some (non-damaging) jump scares that occur, although I found these to be cheap at times.  Regardless, the generally disturbing and creepy atmosphere was something that I felt pervaded the entire game.

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The game took me almost exactly 2 hours to beat.  However, I found out through YouTube that there is almost another hour of the game that I didn’t unlock.  There is an optional puzzle that can be found midway through the game that if completed opens up additional levels that occur after the “normal” ending of the game.  This additional content actually goes into much greater detail as to the nature of the “Gloom” world,  gives some explanation as to the nature of the monster, and introduces new characters.  Seeing as how the 2 hours I played was rather scant in story, I’m a bit disappointed in missing out on this extra content.

Ultimately, some annoying puzzles and a monster that isn’t super-threatening didn’t undermine the intense atmosphere and mood that this game managed to exude.  At an investment of 3 buck and a few hours of play, Into the Gloom is probably a worthwhile experience for most horror game fans.

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