Monthly Archives: October 2016
This past week, I tried something a little different for my Halloween Gaming series. I was able to try VR for the first time on the new Playstation VR headset from Sony. When I say “for the first time”, I’m not including the old Nintendo Virtual Boy, which I played a ton after I was able to snag one for cheap when it was discontinued. You want to know something weird? The first time I put on the PSVR headset, I immediately recognized that it smelled like my old Virtual Boy did. I think it’s the foam around the eyepieces (the part that makes contact with the player’s face) that gives the two such similar odors.
Anyway, weird Virtual Boy sense memories aside, one of the PSVR games that I’ve been most eager to try is the spinoff to last year’s excellent PS4 horror title, Until Dawn. Until Dawn was one of the highlights of 2015 for me, and I had a great time writing about it for last year’s Halloween Gaming series. While I’ve been really hoping to see the game get a proper sequel, the announcement of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, an arcade-action spinoff of the original Until Dawn’s story, naturally had my interests piqued.
I don’t know if I can think of two games more different than the original Until Dawn and its spin-off, Rush of Blood. Rush of Blood replaces the somber tone, slow pacing, and nuanced character development of its progenitor with a bombastic on-rails action experience. The story of Rush of Blood is somewhat abstract and obtuse, but from what I can gather, the game is essentially a nightmare sequence being had by one of the original story’s cast members. It’s never said specifically which character, but those who have seen Until Dawn all the way through should be able to figure out which one.
The game starts with the player character entering an eerily destitute amusement park where a carnival barker implores him to take a ride on a rollercoaster that was once the site’s star attraction. This is one of those rides where the attendees are given toy guns to shoot at targets that line the sides of the tracks, and so it serves as an interesting tutorial for what’s to come. As the ride nears its conclusion, the psychopath from Until Dawn suddenly appears and switches the rails so that the player is separated from the barker and enters the park’s abandoned haunted house, where the psychopath leads a gang of clowns in an ambush. From then on out, the player is facing live targets whose ranks are largely composed of standard nightmare fuel such as clowns, mannequins, spiders, and a particular gang of beasties that Until Dawn fans will immediately recognize. Since the game takes place in a nightmare or a hallucination or whatever it is, the ride becomes increasingly surreal and dangerous as it begins to wind through locations that are clearly beyond the limits of the park, such as a slaughterhouse, a haunted hotel, and an abandoned mine.
Rush of Blood is pretty much a standard House of the Dead-style light gun shooter, outside of the VR hook. The player has two guns which can be aimed independently with two different Playstation Move controllers. The standard DualShock 4 gamepad can also be used as a motion controller in lieu of the Move wands, but in this mode of play, the two guns are always pointed at the same target (since there is only one controller being used). The action side of the gameplay is reasonably competent, although aiming and reloading two guns simultaneously can get a bit hairy sometimes. There were times when I was being rushed by large groups of enemies that I had trouble keeping track of which gun needed to be reloaded, and it resulted in a lot of spastic frustration as the monsters just overwhelmed me. I suppose you could chalk these moments up to my poor skill. The game definitely wants you to replay each of its seven chapters to the point of mastering them. True to the game’s arcade roots, there’s a secondary focus on maximizing score through playing at an expert level, and each chapter features numerous branching paths which encourage replay.
Since the advantage that VR brings to gaming is a greatly increased level of immersion, horror games are something that could hypothetically benefit enormously from the technology. Rush of Blood is half horror game/half arcade-action, so it’s a bit of an unusual sample for what this new hardware can do for the horror genre. Regardless, I think the VR aspect of the game did manage to enhance the title’s atmosphere and immersion. I think it’s the head tracking that really does it. There were several moments when I turned my head to the left or right or maybe upwards and caught a glimpse of something spooky that I wasn’t aware was there before. When you move your real-life head and realize that something was lurking just right outside of your own eyes’ field of view, it’s actually quite creepy and unsettling.
Outside of atmosphere and the creep-factor, Rush of Blood uses a lot of jump scares. Cheap jump scares at that. And they’re usually telegraphed in the most obvious ways. Like, the lights will go off and you just know that something’s going to be standing right in front of you making loud noises when they flip back on. In general, a lot of stuff yells in your face in this game. The first time it happened, I found I was actually kind of fascinated by it, because I reflexively leaned away in my chair, since it was standing right next to me. I would never actually move my body away from something on a TV screen. I was impressed by how the immersion of VR was able to provoke such a “realistic” reaction out of me.
Unfortunately, after the initial excitement, the jump scares wore thin pretty quickly. Like I said, there’s a fair few things in this game which just pop up and scream right into your face, and it’s really unpleasant after the initial novelty. To mitigate the obnoxiousness of it all, I actually decided to unplug the earbuds from the VR headset and just listen to the game audio off the TV, so the jump scares wouldn’t be so overwhelming. Jump scares are one of the simplest and oldest methods that horror games have used to startle the player and create tension. Some would argue that they are a really lazy way of creating cheap scares, but I would specifically argue they have no place in VR, especially to the extent that Rush of Blood likes to use them, simply because they’re just so aggravatingly unpleasant.
Ultimately, I thought Rush of Blood was a fun time. I definitely do have some frustrations with it, such as the aforementioned issue with jump scares. In addition, the game has seven chapters, but will only take about two hours to beat, and the finale is unfortunately rather anti-climactic. But to be fair, the game is only $20 (not including the steep cost of the VR headset, of course), which helps me forgive many of its stumbling points. Beyond those issues I have with it, it is suitably kooky and spooky for a game that is essentially a launch title for a whole new type of gaming experience. And most importantly, it impresses me enough to leave me excited to see how future VR horror games will take advantage of the technology.
Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion by Lag Studios is the next game on my Halloween playlist. As an avid enthusiast of history, you, the player, decide to embark on a mission to explore a local abandoned mansion whose past is shrouded in mystery. Upon entering the abode, you are greeted by the gal ghost Spooky, who challenges you to survive all 1000 rooms of her haunted lair.
The layout of the massive titular mansion is procedurally generated. The player is tasked with overcoming 1000 rooms in the house, and a little counter exists at the top of the screen which keeps track of progress. The house is mostly composed of a limited set of pre-designed rooms which are put together in a random sequence that changes each time the player starts up the game. Because there’s a much smaller number of these pre-made rooms than the 1000 total, you’ll see a lot of them repeated over and over again across the course of the game. There are certain specific rooms, however, that always appear at the same spot in the overall sequence. These rooms are usually considerably more elaborate than the others and serve to give some story to the game and usually set up the appearance of a new monstrous resident of the mansion.
The monsters of the game, called specimens, are the source of the adventure’s challenge, along with the player’s nerve to move forward. When specimens appear, they give chase to the main character through the randomized rooms of the mansion. It’s not the most complex game, and often it is pretty easy to outrun the various specters. They doggedly pursue you from room to room, but will stop after predetermined points. Things get a little more complicated later in the game, as there are certain tricks the player needs to figure out to escape the more advanced specimens. Eventually, the player also gets a weapon of dubious effectiveness.
The story in SJSM is rather minimal and exists purely to provide flavor to the haunted adventure. The Jump Scare Mansion and its mistress possess a mish-mash of chilling horrors and flippant comedy. Despite being home to some truly evil supernatural entities, the mansion sometimes feels like an elaborate practical joke. Spooky comes off like a juvenile prankster who has assembled the horrific deathtrap not out of prime malevolence, but more for her own dark yet frivolous amusement. In addition to the more elaborate story-centric rooms I described above, little snippets of story tend to emerge here and there. The player can find bits of text, like notes left behind by other foolish trespassers, and occasionally, Spooky, herself, will come out to interact with the player for a short bit. But otherwise, there’s not much of grandiose plot behind the game. All of these little story bits exist merely to enhance the mood and atmosphere.
Despite the fact that the game is built from a fairly small set of simple rooms strung together by procedural generation, I felt like it still managed to be highly effective at creating atmosphere and tension. Much of this was due to how the game continually subverted my expectations. For the first several rooms, you are faced only with goofy pop-out haunted house scares, until you meet the first specimen, a fairly uninspired creature which only slowly gives chase. But from then on out, the specimens become increasingly disturbing, and eventually the game began to challenge the “rules” by which I thought it worked. There were times I felt like I was safe, only to be desperately alarmed to find out otherwise. Eventually, even during the down periods in which there were no monsters present, I felt constantly uneasy, because I realized anything could happen at anytime. By keeping the player on their toes in this way, the designers were able to create a level of tension and suspense that I felt was highly effective.
It’s often said that the fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all. It might be a trite saying, but I find that it is especially true with games. I’ve noticed in SJSM that the scariest parts of the game are when there are no active threats against the player. It was those times when there was nothing chasing me that I began to psyche myself out while waiting for the next monster to dreadfully appear. When the monsters finally did present themselves, I found my stress rapidly dropped off, since I could more rationally assess the threat.
I often find people say that video games can’t be scary, because the player can just reset to the last save point if they die, and thus there is no real danger to be fearful. That point isn’t really wrong, but I think it misses a huge element of video game horror. The true horror of video games, like the true horror of any fiction, comes from withinside the player, themselves. It’s the dreadful anticipation of what might be lying around the next corner, the internal struggle of the player against their own imagination of the frights to come, that makes us terrified when we otherwise have no rational reason to be. In reality, I think the monsters are the least scary part of any horror game. Rather, it’s the atmosphere which creates true tension and dread in these games.
Despite its simplistic gameplay and primitive Doom-like graphics, I found Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion to be a great horror game. It’s not the most elaborate game, but the setting and atmosphere really make up for it. I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet, which is that the game is free on Steam. And with such unsophisticated graphics, it’ll run on even the most basic PCs, so I encourage everyone whose interest I might have piqued to give the game a try.
October rolls around once again, which means it’s time to get into the Halloween spirit. For the past couple years, I’ve tried to spend the duration of the spooky season festively writing about horror games. Last year, in particular, I had a fun time with it, and hopefully this year will be just as successful. For those who missed those old posts and might be curious, I’ve collected all of the previous years’ essays on this page. First up this time is Oxenfree, a narrative adventure game released earlier this year.
Oxenfree is at its core a ghost story in which a group of teens set out for a night of unsupervised revelry on the beaches of the mostly deserted Edwards Island. During the course of the night’s events, the teens test out a local urban legend, and, unsurprisingly to the audience, the proceedings go terribly awry. The group becomes trapped on the island while being harrowed and tormented by reality-bending paranormal entities from the island’s apocryphal past.
The struggle of a group of teenagers against an overpowering and inescapable threat makes Oxenfree somewhat similar to last year’s teen slasher title, Until Dawn. But unlike the shifting perspectives of Until Dawn, the player only controls one central character, Alex, in Oxenfree. Alex is joined by four other protagonists, the most important of whom is Jonas, her new step-brother that she met immediately before the opening of the story. In addition to Jonas, she is accompanied by childhood friend Ren, slacker Nona, and Clarissa, the ex-girlfriend of Alex’s tragically deceased brother, Michael. Alex’s growing relationship with Jonas and the tension that exists between her and Clarissa are the biggest focus of her character arc.
Oxenfree could maybe best be described as one of the much dreaded “walking simulators,” although, as this genre has started to grow significantly in the past years, I seriously wish a better common term for it would take hold. Essentially, Oxenfree is more focused on story, dialogue, and exploring characters than on providing a solid challenge to the player. Conversations are a particularly strong focus of the game.
The game’s conversation system is relatively simple, but also fairly versatile. When Alex can chime in during exchanges, three text bubbles will pop up above her head, each with a potential reaction the player can select. The player can also always choose to ignore these text bubbles, in which case Alex will stay silent. Furthermore, the timing of the reply is also important, since Alex can interrupt other characters while they’re talking. And of course, the game features branching dialogue based on the choices the player makes, although I’ve only given this game one playthrough, so I can’t really speak to how drastically the conversations can differ.
As the teens progress in their quest to escape the island, the unseen ghostly forces vie to impede their progress. At certain points in the story, the ghosts trap Alex and company in time loops during which unearthly and threatening paranormal events occur. Escaping these time loops requires a light (and I mean very light) amount of puzzle solving, and, after the conversation system, serves as the second pillar of Oxenfree’s gameplay. These time loops, I think, were meant to add an element of a more traditional gameplay style, but they aren’t really much of a challenge. The solutions are all very simple and more often than not are repeated in later segments. It’s clear that the designers of the game were far more interested in developing out their branching conversation system than they were in adding these more traditional adventure game segments that require puzzle solving.
Horror is a highly subjective, hit-or-miss sort of thing. What’s scary to me might not be scary to you, and vice versa. I try to keep that in mind when assessing stuff like this. Regardless, I don’t really think anyone would find Oxenfree all that scary. There are some freaky sequences, but I don’t think the story really develops much tension. Despite some vain attempts to make the player think otherwise, the teens are never really in “true” danger, or at least it didn’t seem that way during my playthrough. It’s not like in Until Dawn where the wrong move can have one of the central characters eliminated for the rest of the story. As a consequence, there’s never really the feeling of dread and apprehension that appears in a good horror game.
But I’ve always felt that horror fiction can get away with not being scary if the mystery elements of the story make up for it. A good horror story has twists and turns that keep the audience on their toes till the very end. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that Oxenfree executes so well on this point either. The plot felt very by the numbers, and there really wasn’t much mystery at all to the game. Key story points, like the identities of the ghosts, are all pretty obvious, and there weren’t really any surprising revelations to be had. By the end of it, I had a “that was it?” kind of moment. It really felt like there should have been more here than there was.
I’m a bit perplexed by Oxenfree. I don’t mean to come off like I didn’t like the game. I did enjoy many parts of it. But since earlier this year, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of positive buzz for this title on various different gaming communities. Personally, my experience didn’t really leave me feeling like the game was worthy of the praise lavished on it. I’m left wondering if there’s something here that I just “don’t get” that others do. You know, I can only ever really speak for myself. Oxenfree has some branching story paths, so maybe it’s possible that I’ve missed something big, but looking over various online discussions of the game’s story, I doubt that’s the case. Ultimately, Oxenfree is not really a game that I can personally recommend unqualified to everyone. However, I did like the game well enough to recommend it to people who resonate strongly with story and conversation-driven games like Firewatch or Telltale’s various series. It’s not the strongest of that category of games, but on a Steam sale, it’s worth checking out.