BEARDED DEVIL

Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Month: July 2014

Outlast: Whistleblower – Review

Whistleblower

I have now finished Outlast: Whistleblower twice, once on Normal and once on Nightmare difficulty.  Not only is the game one of the best examples of quality DLC I’ve ever seen, it’s a brilliant follow-up to the original Outlast, deftly interweaving the two storylines in such a manner that they feel like halves of a single whole; on my second time through the game I began by replaying Outlast on Nightmare, seguing directly to Whistleblower afterwards, and the entire experience felt seamless and perfectly paced.  Those who enjoyed the first game will find this semi-sequel just as gruesome, harrowing, and delightfully disgusting as the last.  I heartily recommend it for anyone who likes horror games, especially those who enjoy the hyper-vulnerable weapons-free style of things like Amnesia.

Mild spoilers will follow, but I will refrain from revealing the details of the ending.

Slabs

The story of Whistleblower is, if anything, richer and more gratifying than that of Outlast; or, rather, it deepens and builds on the foundation Outlast created, transcending its workmanlike horror plot to offer a far more narratively satisfying experience.  Here you play as Waylon Park, the Murkoff employee who alerted Miles, the former protagonist, to the diabolic excesses of Mount Massive in the first place.  The scenario feels similar to something like Michael Crichton’s nano-disaster techno-thriller Prey: your character is a Snowden-esque programmer, so morally revolted by the actions of his employers that he can no longer stay silent.  The story is such that I almost want to recant some of the statements I made in my original Outlast review – specifically that the story was entirely incidental to the mechanics of hackle-raising horror that the game deployed so expertly.  In Whistleblower, the latent anti-corporatist critique in Outlast is made much more explicit, personified in the sinister and coldly calculating Jeremy Blaire, a ruthless executive who wants to keep the illegal experiments of Mount Massive secret.  The presence of Blaire – and his single-minded dedication to secrecy – gives the narrative a locus for the player’s hatred. In Outlast our antipathy towards Murkoff is essentially abstract, the organization faceless, its employees already dead or warped by the time the story begins, whereas in Whistleblower we actually see just how appallingly amoral they really are, up close and personal.  In Outlast, chronicling and exposing the horrors of the asylum always felt secondary to escaping, surviving.  In Whistleblower you really want to take Murkoff down: they’re so despicable, so ethically bankrupt, that you feel a real desire to see them stopped, shamed, and punished.  Whistleblower also leads me to reconsider my previous objection about the dearth of female inmates.  It’s now clear that the designers didn’t eschew female characters because they were squeamish or thoughtless: they are saving those characters for a sequel.

It’s important to note that most of the hate isn’t directed at the Variants but at the despicable economic and institutional forces that made them what they are.  This is made especially prominent in Whistleblower where you see one character, Eddie Gluskin before being subjected to the Treatment.  “I knew it was coming,” he declares.  “You filthy fucking machines! You fucking machines! No! No, not again. No! No! Jack-booted fucks, I know what you’ve been doing to me.”  Later, we see that the madness Gluskin exhibits is, in part, an internalized manifestation of his own violation at the hands of Murkoff employees.  In another memorable scene early on, strapped into a chair in the manner of Clockwork Orange and subjected to hypnogogic programming, Waylon has his face licked lasciviously by one of the scientists, heavily implying that the scientist is abusing patients.  Its moments like these that redirect our hatred away from the individual inmates – who we pity and fear, perhaps, more than we can truly hate them – and towards those in actual positions of power, the scientists and executives that constitute the vicious biopolitical machine that’s ultimately responsible for the horrors we’re exposed to.

Operating Room

One of my major worries was that Whistleblower was going to be a very by-the-numbers DLC, with recycled environments and gimmicks – a series of environments and enemies mostly identical to those from the first game.  Fortunately this was not the case at all.  While a few very brief segments of the game took place in the same parts of the asylum as the original, even these areas were drastically altered – different doors blocked off, rooms in a less severe state of disarray, etcetera.  The vast bulk of the game, however, took place in original environments, prominently the outbuildings of the asylum utilized for work and recreation (the Vocational Block), as well as a large area shrouded with clinical plastic wrap.  Great attention was paid to making these areas feel unique.  As with the original the atmosphere of Whistleblower was phenomenal, the paranoia palpable.  The twists from the first game – like losing the camcorder and thus night-vision capability – are not replicated, but there are new ways of complicating things for the player.  One sequence, more eerie than terrifying, takes place in a mist-shrouded series of tennis and basketball courts; the moisture in the air makes the night-vision mode a useless blur of white static.  Like Miles, Waylon is also injured badly at one point, but whereas Miles loses several fingers Waylon manages to sprain his ankle, slowing his speed to a limp for a tortuous segment of the game.  This is a brilliant move and ramps up the terror considerably.  Just as losing the camcorder pulled the rug out from under your feet, taking away something you’d taken for granted, so does injuring Waylon’s leg radically reshape your experienced, depriving you of your most valuable defense against Mount Massive’s inmates, your mobility.

Cat's Cradle

The enemies in Whistleblower are just as horrifying as those in Outlast, and the major, named Variants all feel unique.  The original antagonists (Chris Walker, Father Martin, the Brothers, Trager, the Walrider) make cameos or briefly pursue Waylon, but don’t take centre stage.  Instead we’re faced with the anthropophagic Frank Manera, whose insatiably ghoulish appetites complement Murkoff’s profit-driven voraciousness perfectly, and the sublimely disturbing Eddie Gluskin, AKA “The Groom.”  Like Trager in Outlast, Gluskin steals the show.  A misogynist murderer (possibly with an out-of-control Oedipus complex, judging from his obsession with Harry von Tilzer’s and William Dillon’s “I Want a Girl”), Gluskin’s gentlemanly demeanour and penchant for folksy twentieth-century barbershop songs belie his absolute brutality; he might’ve been stolen from the pages of de Sade, and his Freudian quest to fashion himself the perfect Bride in an asylum full of men somehow manages to surpass even Trager’s bloody cost-reduction-cum-experimental-surgery in its capacity for terror.  I will not spoil precise the details of Waylon’s encounter with the Groom (although the following paragraphs verge on spoilers, so read at your own risk), but they will sear themselves into your memory.  On this note, those who find sexual violence in games deeply off-putting to the point of being unable to play or enjoy games that include such themes should probably avoid Whistleblower.  While the game in no way glorifies or normalizes sexual assault – far, far from it – Gluskin’s sadism is undeniably sexual.

ick

I’ve heard some suggest that the Groom’s inclusion in the game makes Whistleblower transphobic and/or homophobic.  While I can understand this interpretation, I’d like to articulate a counter-reading, because I think there’s far more going on with Gluskin than mere transphobia or homophobia: what’s horrifying about Gluskin isn’t, in fact, his queerness or same-sex desire, but his relentless heteronormativity, his misogyny, his patriarchal violence.  Gluskin is not Buffalo Bill; he doesn’t want to become a woman, and nor do his Brides.  The game thus isn’t pathologizing transgender people or demonizing the rejection of binary gender: it’s actually criticizing the opposite impulse, the forced assignment of sex and gender.  The Groom’s all-pervading desire to produce Brides for himself directly mirrors the logic of heteronormative gender assignment: as Judith Butler might put it, any assignment of sex or gender is irreducibly a kind of violence, an oppressive act.  As she writes in Bodies That Matter:

…“sex” is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time.  It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve materialization through a forcible reiteration of norms. (Butler 1-2)

Our horror of Gluskin is not necessarily fear of the idea of gender transgression per se as it is horror at the idea of the forcible imposition of gender, an imposition carried out by the patriarchy in the name of the social order: hence, for example, Gluskin’s endless talk of happy families, the joy of childbirth, the supposed frailties of women.  “I want a family, a legacy,” Gluskin rhapsodizes.  “To be the father I never had. I’ll never let anything happen to our children.”  His obsessive reiteration of this ’50s ideal constitutes a kind of performance that he wants to trap Waylon and the other would-be Brides in.  It is no coincidence the character is associated with bonds and ropes, most notable in the cadaverous cat’s cradle at the heart of his domain, a graveyard of abjected Brides who failed to meet his misogynistic ideals of femininity.  Gluskin wants to produce women only to subjugate and destroy them, to reduce them to birthing-machines and, ultimately, corpses.  As Waylon scribbles in a note titled “Blue Beard’s Wives”: “Whatever story he’s telling himself, he’s not making women to bear his children, he’s making women to kill them.”  The Groom’s inevitable failure and frustration occurs in part because his Brides fail to live up to his idealized, unattainable image of womanhood.  Were Gluskin simply a rapist he would be boring and forgettable – “vulgar,” to use his own term.  What makes him both more compelling and infinitely more terrifying is the twisted ideology that underlies his impulses, an ideology all the more unnerving in its familiarity.  Through Gluskin, Whistleblower manages to make all that patriarchal society wants to seem wholesome and natural – binary gender, the nuclear family, the “biological destiny” of women – instead seem decidedly monstrous.

Frank!

The design of all three major antagonists – Blaire, Manera, and Gluskin – is perfect: Blaire, suited and unruffled, the perfect avatar of American capitalism-gone-wrong; Manera, nude and blood-spattered, with a hillbilly beard bedewed with blood; Gluskin, dapper and slick, not a hair out of place, a loving grin forever fixed on his disfigured face.  The gameplay is more or less identical to that of Outlast: barebones stealth segments and paranoid exploration interspersed with the occasional, impossibly intense parkour/chase scene.  There aren’t any significant innovations here, but I wasn’t particularly expecting any.  The game is short, but not all that much shorter than the original Outlast.  It could certainly be played in one sitting, though, and in fact the Insane mode of the game disallows saving, much like Justine.

I have a few minor criticisms, more nitpicks than anything.  While Waylon’s use of the camcorder is justified, his note-taking makes less sense than Miles’ (where did he even get a notepad?).  They just about justify it in that Waylon is writing to his wife in case he turns up dead, but why not speak into the camcorder instead?  Generally, Waylon’s voicelessness is more noticeable and jarring here than Miles’ was in Outlast.  Miles was all about being a witness, an observer, a cipher: his silence makes thematic sense.  Waylon, though, is all about spreading the word, about speaking out: for the early part of the game your goal is to find a radio.  There are scenes where you’d think Waylon would speak to other characters, especially Murkoff’s employees.  One could argue that he’s too nervous about the repercussions of his whistleblowing to speak, but that seems a bit unlikely.  I’ve seen some reviews with other nitpicks that actually aren’t accurate, such as this Joystiq review that claims that your character goes from naked to clothed instantly (he doesn’t: there’s an animation that’s easy to miss where he pulls on a pair of ragged pants).

Whistleblower sets up the tantalizing possibility of a sequel or sequels.  My fairly blind guesses as to the nature of the sequel(s) are that:

  • Female characters will be present in the sequel.
  • The protagonist will either be a government employee, possibly sent to infiltrate the facility, or an activist who wants to take Murkoff down (my hope is that the protagonist will also be female, since we’ve had two male protagonists so far).
  • The sequel will probably take place in the U.S. but in a fairly remote location – my guess is either the Alaskan wilderness, the Florida Everglades, or (in an homage to Half Life) New Mexico.  No idea where they’d go if it wasn’t in the US… an island somewhere?  Siberia?  Central America?
  • For at least part of the game the facility will be more operational.
  • While there will be no weapons (or perhaps very limited weapons, maybe a Taser) my guess is that the character will have some sort of additional equipment, or else the conceit will be slightly different (maybe a mobile phone instead of a camcorder).
  • There will probably be expanded stealth mechanics incorporating distractions, disguises, or technology.

These are just stabs in the dark, however.

Overall, I can thoroughly recommend Whistleblower to those who enjoyed the first game.  It is, if anything more deeply and lingeringly unsettling, but those with the stomach for viscerally graphic and psychologically disturbing horror will find a superbly dark and powerfully affective game.

Planescape Play Report – Olympus Burns

It’s been quite awhile since I posted, but here’s what my players have been up to in my Planescape game recently.

Battle_of_the_Milvian_Bridge_by_Giulio_Romano,_1520-24

Context:

  • Mount Olympus and its surrounds on the plane of Arborea has become a war-zone.  Anarchists (members of the Revolutionary League) posing as Athar have stirred up resentment and hostility towards the Olympian pantheon who reside on the Mountain, claiming them to be decadent and tyrannical rulers.  This, in turn, has caused the powers of the gods to wane as they lose worshippers.  The Revolutionary League is always aiming to dethrone authorities and undermine the fabric of society, which they believe is hopelessly corrupt.
  • As a result of the Anarchist machinations, war has broken out as inhabitants of Arborea rise up against the gods.  The gods, still powerful, are fighting back to put down the rebellion, but are reluctant to unleash the full force of their powers lest they appear to be the very vicious tyrants they’re being painted as.  Many, such as Apollo, have abandoned their palaces for Zeus’ temple-fortress at the top of the Mountain.
Fall of Rome
  • The slaughter, unfortunately, has “destabilized” the plane.  Each of the Outer Planes is associated with a set of Alignments; when events and beliefs on the plane shift, planes begin to “slide” into one another.  So, as a result of the war, parts of Arborea (Chaotic Good) are beginning to slide into the Abyss (Chaotic Evil).  This has been facilitated by the fact that Arborea, as a plane, is a place of grand passions – the plane actually amplifies emotions.  This includes emotions such as hatred, fear, and anger.
  • As the plane slides into the Abyss the Doomguard (crazed entropy-worshippers – basically the heavy metal Faction) have joined in the fun and started randomly burning, pillaging, and generally revelling in Arborea’s desecration.  The Doomguard have brought with them three flying Ships of Chaos, powerful “Entropy Weapons” capable of great destruction.
  • Meanwhile, Tanar’ri – that is, Demons – are emerging out of the Abyss and into Arborea at the places the planar boundaries are weakest.  They’re now running amok, some of them magically enslaving the native inhabitants to do their bidding (so, for example, there are hordes of cannibalistic Maenads running around who’ve been Charmed by incubi and succubi).  They seem to be allied with the Doomguard, and indeed Tanar’ri crew can be found on the Ships of Chaos.
bacchanalia
  • The Blood War – the eternal, now many-millennia-long conflict between the (Lawful Evil) Devils and the (Chaotic Evil) Demons – has started spilling into Arborea, as the Baatezu (Devils) suspect the Tanar’ri of attempting to “outflank” them using Arborea somehow.  So there are also platoons of Devils and their mercenaries stomping around Arborea’s hinterlands and attacking Tanar’ri wherever they find them.
  • The Harmonium (a Faction dedicated to stability and order) have arrived in force on Arborea to try and stop it from sliding whole-hog into the Abyss.  They’ve brought with them the Mercykillers (a Faction of executioners and bounty hunters) to help enforce order and try to end the conflict.  However, so far they seem to be having the opposite effect, their presence only leading to more fighting and carnage.
The whole situation is based on one of the players’ back-stories.  I’ve played it out as a hexcrawl, with Mount Olympus at one end of the map and a bunch of hexes in the middle full of forest fires, gorgons, mad minotaurs, Blood War skirmishes, and rebels.  The tone is sort of Apocalypse Now meets 300, with a little zombie/cannibal survival horror thrown in.  So far, my players have done the following:
  • Cut their way through swathes of Bacchae-infested wilderness, holing up for awhile in a ruinous trade-town stripped bare of every scrap of food from an orgiastic horde of the Raving Ones.
  • Rescued some prisoners from the anthropophagic Dionysian revellers, killing the Bacchae in mass numbers though liberal use of Fireball and Cloudkill.
  • Repaired one of the downed Ships of Chaos (Doomguard “Entropy Weapons” literally made from the souls of the damned) and psychically bonded with it.
  • Picked up an Earth Genasi mercenary (a new PC), a Lawful Evil Monk dedicated to becoming “One with Stone.”
  • Used the Ship to engage in high-stakes aerial combat with a flock of Harpies and Vrock before seizing a second vessel of the same sort, killing the mixed Tanar’ri/rebel crew and confronting the Anarchist wizard captaining the thing.
  • Joined up with a beleagured battalion of Harmonium and their Mercykiller death-squad (the Ranger also decided it was a great idea to sleep with the head torturer).
  • Raided the abandoned and thoroughly desecrated Temple of Apollo and re-took it from demented Baaetzu legionaries driven mad by prolonged exposure to the Chaotic/Good energies of Arborea – their passions eventually got the better of their discipline.  Their leader, a depraved Bone Devil, was keeping a Medusa as a kind of pet; the party freed her and used her to petrify the Devil’s lieutenant, an Erinyes.  The Hardheads have now adopted the Temple as a base of operations.

Oh, and they did this:

tumblr_n7fm3ncf8I1ro0bsbo1_1280

They have sort of a habit of taming & domesticating weird horrible things.

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