Category Archives: Halloween Gaming

Halloween Gaming: Spooky’s Jump Scare Mansion

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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Halloween Gaming: Oxenfree

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

 

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