Archive for the 'Survival Horror' Category

Dino Crisis: Its place in the history of Survival Horror

I mentioned in my last post that I never really understood the appeal of Resident Evil. Well, Tom Bissell devotes an entire chapter of Extra Lives, his recent book on the videogaming experience, explaining it to me. The key is that I approached it from a background of playing games on computers, while Bissell is purely a console gamer. What difference does this make? First of all, it means that he had never played Alone in the Dark, and thus the the gameplay in RE seemed new and different to him. Beyond that, he writes about how the game created a sense of unease by subverting the console gamer’s expectations. “Plenty of games have given you spaces around which to wander”, he says, “but they always took care to provide you with a maximal vantage point. This is not a maximal angle; this is not at all how your eye has been trained by video games to work.” Or about the awkwardness of the gunplay: “Video-game armaments have always seemed to you 1In this chapter, Bissell makes the odd choice of describing his own experiences in the second person. It’s especially weird if, like me, your actual experiences with the game are completely unlike his. a kind of voodoo. If you wanted some digital effigy to die, you simply lined it up and pushed in the requisite photonic pin. Here, however, there is no crosshair or reticule.” Later, he describes the discovery that you can’t move while shooting, and describes it as violating “another convention of the form”: “In video games, you can shoot your sluggish bullets while running, jumping, falling off a cliff, swimming underwater.” These unaccustomed limitations create a sense of helplessness conducive to panic. “A ‘scary game’,” he concludes, “seems a far less laughable notion than it did only a few moments ago.”

But who said the notion was laughable? I come from text adventures; I had known ever since The Lurking Horror how interactivity could heighten a sense of fear even in cliché situations. Moreover, the awkward controls were probably less effective on the PC, because to a PC gamer, awkward controls were the norm. Even back then — especially back then — the lower barriers to entry and complete lack of enforceable standards meant that PCs were friendlier to experimentation on the part of game designers, for good and for ill.

Finally, it’s always seemed to me that RE severely undercut the horror element by making the player character part of an elite special-tactics police team, and therefore already more prepared than most to deal with a zombie uprising. To console gamers at the time, this may have been unremarkable; console games were mainly action games, which tended to have highly-trained, technologically-augmented, or even outright superhuman protagonists, to both justify how you could singlehandedly defeat scores of computer-controlled enemies and to appeal to the target audience’s power fantasies. Again, I was a fan of adventure games, which are more given to everyman heroes. But adventure games have never been big on consoles.

So, how does all this relate to Dino Crisis? For starters, it carries the highly-trained player character part even farther. You’re military this time, part of a G.I. Joe-like special-forces team, sent to extract a scientist from a secret laboratory on a remote island. The intro cutscene shows you parachuting onto the island with a kind of gee-whiz feel, clearly aimed at kind of kid who doodles tanks in his notebook. This is horror?

Well, maybe it’s not. Those subversions of expectation that Bissel described as contributing to the sense of fear? The designers of Dino Crisis seem to have generally regarded them as flaws, and removed them. This time, you can walk around with your gun drawn. Abrupt changes of camera angle still exist, but to a much lesser degree: unlike RE, DC is in a fully 3D-rendered environment, which allows the camera to move smoothly with you. The gun seems to auto-aim, or perhaps it’s just that the dinosaurs are big enough (and, whenever I encounter one, close enough) to be hard to miss. Either way, it makes the lack of aiming aids unimportant. The movement controls are still as awkward as non-camera-relative directional movement always is, but that’s as far as it goes for interfering with convention.

It’s still a blatant RE imitation, but it’s as if Capcom decided that the way forward, the way to make the genre to appeal to more people, was to play it safe and make it more like a typical console game. Meanwhile, I’m approaching it from the opposite direction, so it seems like a step backward.

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1. In this chapter, Bissell makes the odd choice of describing his own experiences in the second person. It’s especially weird if, like me, your actual experiences with the game are completely unlike his.

Dino Crisis

Not a lot of time to post today, and not a lot of play-time to post about, so I’ll just briefly introduce our next item. Dino Crisis is another one of those games with an easily-stated high concept: it’s Resident Evil with dinosaurs instead of zombies. I’m playing the PC version, but it’s blatantly a port from the original Playstation. A surprisingly robust one, too. I’ve more or less skipped past the PC’s first fumbling contacts with 3D graphics hardware here. By 1999, Direct3D was on solid enough ground that the game works effortlessly on my current system, albeit at a maximum resolution of 640×480. However solid their foundations, though, the 3D objects themselves are quite wobbly, especially when the camera is pitched at an oblique angle, as happens a lot in Resident Evil imitators. But I’ll tack this up to faithfulness to the original experience.

The survival horror genre, like the rhythm game, is primarily a console phenomenon. There really aren’t any survival horror games native to PC other than proto-example Alone in the Dark, which is sort of like the genre’s Pete Best, a franchise that left before the genre became famous. As such, I think I felt almost obliged at the time to pick up what few PC ports there were, once they became cheap. It wasn’t until Silent Hill 2 that I found one that I unreservedly liked. Resident Evil itself confounded me: here it was, staggeringly popular, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. When I bought Dino Crisis, it was in part in the hope that another data point would help me to understand. This is a point I’ll return to.

One other thing: I don’t like to talk about my professional life on this blog, but readers who know me will recognize that choosing this game at this time was really no choice at all. Playing this game is essential research.

Penumbra: Cured

The ending of Penumbra: Black Plague, and the events leading up to it, confirm some of the speculation in my last post about the role of the virus in ancient times — at least, if you trust the central virus hive mind, which can’t be completely objective on the matter. (Yes, it’s another story about a misunderstood alien hive mind. The more I play of Penumbra, the more I notice ideas from other games I’ve played recently, including ones written later. It’s as if the attempt at so many formal genres at once has turned it into a kind of cliché nexus.) It claims that it was once benevolent, but has been fighting for its life ever since the Archaic (the secret organization that built the laboratories) decided that it was a disease and had to be cured. Ah, but what about the zombies? Just infected individuals sent out to patrol the outer reaches; their zombie-like behavior is a consequence of being too far separated from the core to participate in the hive intelligence properly.

Clarence, now. He’s a different kettle of fish. “Clarence” is the name that the player character’s infection gives to himself, sardonically choosing it after inspecting your memory of It’s a Wonderful Life. A complaining bully with an Oscar-the-Grouch accent, he’s both individually smart and unambiguously malevolent, even if he does sometimes help you survive. Furthermore, he has an unnerving amount of power over your mind. He can occasionally take control of your senses, make you see things the way he wants you to see them — for example, eliminating doors that he doesn’t want you to go through, giving an excuse for Silent Hill-style variable geography. He can even erase your memories to make more room for himself. There’s one bit where Clarence implies that you didn’t actually kill Red in the first game, but that your memory of doing so is just him messing with your head for lulz. He could be lying about that, of course. He lies a lot.

I’ve talked before about how annoying the “disembodied sidekick” in an adventure game can be even when the authors don’t intend it that way, but in this game, they just ran with it. In one scene in a library, Clarence repeatedly gives obvious hints that there’s a secret passage behind one of the bookshelves. It takes a while to find the fake book that triggers it, and while you’re looking, Clarence repeatedly berates the player’s intelligence. In most other games, this would be a bad thing, but here, it serves the authors’ purpose, which is, to make you hate Clarence even more.

When you eventually find a way to cure the virus, Clarence does everything he can to try to stop you, including, in the end, simply pleading for his life. (Strange behavior for a disease!) And despite everything he’s done to you, the simple abjectness of his position provokes some pity. You are, after all, murdering a conscious being, but what choice do you have? You can’t trust him to leave you alone. It’s him or you.

But having been infected once, you retain the ability to contact and be contacted by the hive mind, and thereby get the exposition I described back in the first paragraph. The hive mind isn’t like Clarence — it’s far more menacing. It doesn’t blame you for murder, because it too wanted Clarence dead. Not because he was evil, but because because he was too individual, too human. Fortunately, all it wants at this point is to be left alone, to have the outside world forget that it exists.

But that isn’t going to happen. We still have one more game to go.

Penumbra: Black Plague

Black Plague, the second installment of the Penumbra trilogy, starts shortly after the first left off, with Philip, the player character, waking up in a cell in a secret research station hidden under the mines. I’m immediately struck by a number of surface similarities to Half-Life: ruined-laboratory look, mutated zombie-like monsters, booby-traps made of explosives wired to laser tripwires across hallways. It’s a pretty big contrast to Penumbra: Overture in style, but the gameplay hasn’t changed much — if anything, it’s this episode plays less like Half-Life than its predecessor, as I haven’t found anything that can be used as a weapon, except perhaps some bricks I could throw. Presumably the creators got complaints about the awkwardness of melee in Overture and decided to just eliminate it.

This means that stealth is even more paramount, especially since some of those zombies have flashlights. They’re pretty smart for zombies, really, capable of speaking in coherent sentences and everything. “Zombie” is probably the wrong word. Call them “infected” if you like, because documents in the game are pretty clear that we’re dealing with an alien virus here. One that takes over your mind, or, at first, just produces a second mind, which the infected hear as a voice in their head. Red, the madman in the previous episode, wasn’t just insane from isolation, he was infected and knew it. And now Philip is too. There’s a point where you find documents describing the early symptoms of the virus, such as auditory hallucinations and déjà vu, and realize that you’ve already experienced most of them. Shortly afterward, you get a full-fledged voice in your head telling you what to do, taking over Red’s previous role as disembodied sidekick, but more antagonistic.

The interesting thing here is that it seems like the virus-personality might not be necessarily evil. It might, in your case at least, be more of a symbiosis than a disease. It’s certainly capable of being helpful, and there’s been mention made of the virus helping its host to survive (or, as in Red’s case, forcing its host to survive). To a large extent, Philip’s new brain-buddy is as new to this whole situation as Philip is; its whole personality seems to be formed from reading his memories, which means that its notion of what it is and what it should be doing is informed by its host’s expectations. The whole phenomenon is linked somehow to pre-Columbian Inuit superstitions and practices that were abandoned as demonic with the conversion to Christianity (as described in a document in the previous game — this story is starting to pull together elements that didn’t seem connected before). When the infection takes hold, you have a series of nightmarish interactive visions/hallucinations/ordeals involving elements of ritual sacrifice and elements of events in the previous game (with Red’s death qualifying as both). Until you reach the end and come back to the real world, the game basically stops feeling like Half-Life and instead feels like Silent Hill. This whole bit seems like a kind of initiatory passage through the Abyss, and I can easily imagine ancient shamans, who hadn’t yet been told that the spirits are evil, deliberately becoming infected/possessed to share their wisdom.

But then again, zombies. If the infection is supposed to be benevolent, something has clearly gone wrong. If I understand right, the virus has basically killed the original personality in these cases, and, in the process, left itself stunted. But perhaps it did this in self-defense.

Penumbra: End of the Overture

Penumbra: Overture ends inconclusively, which I suppose is its right, as the start of a series. There are certainly loathsome things in the depths — there are a couple of harrowing chase scenes involving gigantic annelids that remind me of D&D‘s Purple Worms — but the one character who talks to you is convinced that there’s something worse beyond the sealed door at the game’s very end.

penumbra-furnaceAbout that one NPC: He calls himself “Red”, and you never meet him directly; the closest you ever get to him is the other side of an unopenable door. He communicates with you by radio (don’t ask me how that works in a mine). He’s been trapped in the mine for a long time, and has gone quite mad, and talks very oddly 1At one point he says “There is much that should leave my throat box now, but words elude me”, which immediately made me think of “My blood pumper is wronged!” and is apparently a cannibal as well, if his stilted rantings are to be believed. But he talks as if he expects you to come meet him (despite the obvious danger), and his messages provide you with cryptic guidance through most of the game. And in the end, you kill him. Or he uses you to kill himself — he admits that he really guided you to him for that specific purpose, because the entities that share his head won’t let him do the deed himself. He’s locked himself in an incinerator, along with a key you need to open that final door, the one he desperately wants to remain closed. And it’s a peculiar moment, one of those uncomfortable places where you hesitate to go where the game is leading you. The floor of the room is littered with crude planking crosses — one of the writeups at Gamefaqs sees this as evidence that Red is a vampire, but that interpretation strikes me as bizarre and out-of-place; more likely it’s intended as a somewhat confusing comparison of Christ’s self-sacrifice to Red’s suicide-by-proxy, implicitly casting the player in the role of Judas. There’s definitely a sense of agency about turning the furnace on — you can choose to just poke around avoiding the issue for long as you want, but the consequence of not doing it is that you can’t finish the game and get stuck there forever in the bottom of the mine, just like Red, which presumably means you have a lifetime of eating rats and losing your mind to look forward to. So I make the unpleasant choice.

There’s one more slight detour before you can get through that final game-ending door, and that’s going into Red’s living quarters. You get to see how this unfortunate man lived, and the things he surrounded himself with, and suddenly the dominant emotion isn’t fear but sadness. A letter reveals that he’s been trapped for 30 years, since the age of 14. And that, for me, is the emotional climax of the game. Actually going through the forbidden door and getting jumped in the dark by persons unknown is denouement.

And that’s probably where I’ll leave it for a while. Near the end, I started having those graphics card issues I’ve been having lately. Taking the system apart and blowing the dust out seems like it might have helped me get through the ending, but I want to do a fuller investigation before I start any more graphically-intensive titles.

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1. At one point he says “There is much that should leave my throat box now, but words elude me”, which immediately made me think of “My blood pumper is wronged!”

Penumbra: Overture

When I lived within easy walking distance of a good art theatre, I used to go to a lot of movies that I had never heard of. There was something enjoyable about coming into the experience with no expectations beyond the title. It was in something of this spirit that I bought the Penumbra series when Steam put it on sale a few months ago. They were billed as horror adventure games, and seemed to have gotten pretty good reviews, and that’s about all I knew — and, since people who categorize games often have only a vague notion of what the adventure genre is 1For example, Steam also gives the Adventure designation to such titles as Earthworm Jim, Rayman Raving Rabbids, and Terminator: Salvation. , even that much was uncertain. From the title, I vaguely expected something sci-fi — “penumbra” connotes eclipses to me, which suggests a plot involving orbital mechanics, but I suppose to another person it would connote constitutional law, and that person would be as wrong as me. The setting of the first game is an abandoned mine in the cold wastes of northern Greenland, where the people apparently dug too greedily and too deep, and awoke something ancient and terrible in the darkness, as tends to happen in mines in games. 2I myself have used this premise multiple times when I needed a plot for a RPG session and couldn’t think of anything else. One time I even used it in Dogs in the Vineyard, which is a real stretch.

It turns out to be a blend of adventure, survival horror, and stealth game, all done from a first-person perspective with the familiar FPS-style control scheme. (It was quite pleasant trying the standard keys and seeing that they all worked. Can I run? Yes! OK, can I crouch? Yes! Oh, man, I can even lean!) Stealth and horror are such a natural fit that it’s surprising that they’re not explicitly blended more often. After all, given the presence of a horrible monster, what’s more natural than hiding from it? One of my big complaints about the Resident Evil style of game is that fighting monsters and winning tends to weaken the sense of fear. And it had something of that effect here, once I realized that the most common monsters can actually be fought. (There are no guns, but a hammer or a pickaxe can be used as a melee weapon.) Still, fighting is extraordinarily risky, due in part to the awkwardness of the weapon-swinging interface, so stealth is your best bet most of the time. Monster dogs of some sort (rabid? demonic? zombie?) prowl the mines; if you crouch in the darkness without moving for a second or so, your view stretches out and turns blue, simultaneously signaling that you’re safe from canine eyes and putting an unnatural cast to the experience. The best part is that hiding makes the player character anxious: if you look directly at a dog, you start to shake and can give away your location. This is a brilliant touch. Scary stuff is often scariest when merely glimpsed, and here the player is given a game-mechanical motivation to choose mere glimpsing.

The monster-avoidance parts have a certain amount of adventure-game-like content, but not more than is typical for a survival horror. It’s in the isolated safe places that the adventure content really comes to the fore and the game turns into a self-contained puzzle scenario. It’s also in these sections that the game seems least like a horror story. It’s all about repairing machinery and improvising explosives and other such hard-headed masculine activities. Much of it is physics-based, too, with things you can stack on top of each other or throw onto ledges or whatever. Inventory items are typically applied in point-and-click fashion, but most items don’t go into your inventory at all, and instead have to be dragged around with the mouse cursor. Sometimes this can be difficult; I’ve had a terrible time trying to turn valve handles this way. Still, I find it satisfying to see adventure content in a full-freedom-of-movement first-person system, a combination that hasn’t been done enough for my liking.

The overall structure so far seems to be a linear sequence of hub areas made of dog-infested corridors, each of which has several adventure-game rooms on its periphery. Backtracking is made impossible by frequent cave-ins. I could make sarcastic comments about that, but I actually think the cave-ins are presented really well. Especially the cloud of dust that they raise. I can practically smell the dust clouds in this game.

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1. For example, Steam also gives the Adventure designation to such titles as Earthworm Jim, Rayman Raving Rabbids, and Terminator: Salvation.
2. I myself have used this premise multiple times when I needed a plot for a RPG session and couldn’t think of anything else. One time I even used it in Dogs in the Vineyard, which is a real stretch.

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