Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: retrospectives

Condemned: Criminal Origins – Retrospective


I picked up Condemned: Criminal Origins some time ago, but only recently finished playing it, searching for something to scratch the survival horror itch until Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within hit Steam. It’s a grubby little linear neo-noir horror game that occasionally rises to rapturous heights of dread, but which remains fraught with frustrations. Despite its flaws the game remains a somewhat underrated title heavy on atmosphere and bone-crunchingly intimate action.


I’ll get my grievances out the way. First and most damningly, Condemned has absolutely terrible controls. I played the game on PC, which may have made things worse, but even on a console, the inability to jump or crouch at will in a first person game is pretty much inexcusable, in my opinion. The game also lacks any kind of stealth element, which is unfortunate, as stealth would have greatly contributed to the feeling of oppressive gloom the game relies on so strongly. While enemies can hide from you, you’re more or less unable to conceal yourself. You have pathetically low stamina, can only run for short distances, and walk at a snail’s pace, especially down stairs. There’s no ability to lean round corners, either, which is infuriating when fighting enemies with firearms. Limitations can be great in horror games, don’t get me wrong – one of the best things about Outlast and Amnesia is that you’re unarmed, for example – but the poor controls in Condemned don’t enhance the experience appreciably. Less vexing but still irksome are the clunky forensic tools, which feel grafted on rather than integrated organically; they’re only accessible at certain key points with one notable exception, a high point towards the end of the game where you wander round a mouldering old farmhouse using a UV light to follow trails of glyphs drawn in blood throughout the building. Though harder to execute it would have been much better to allow complete access to the entire roster of tools at all times, so that you could actually select the right tool for the right job instead of essentially being handed clues on a silver platter. As it stands the forensic minigame feels less like an exercise in puzzle-solving and observation and more like a hoop you have to jump through. What’s especially frustrating about this is that the tools themselves are quite cool, and you can sense the potential in the forensic element: the idea of a hybrid investigation/combat game with strong horror elements, built around forensic puzzles and violent setpieces, is incredibly compelling, but what we get instead is a combat game with a fringe of investigation and a façade of puzzle-solving. My final complaint pertains to the last area, which suffers from the classic “disappointing last level” syndrome (AKA “Xen Syndrome”) and feels unfinished and dissatisfying, with repetitive by-the-numbers boss-fights and a locale (an abandoned orchard) that throws the putrescent urban atmosphere the rest of the game had used to superb effect completely out the window. For orchards, the final level is bizarrely linear: a spooky farm is a fine idea, but it should either involve “Children of the Corn” style fields, hedge-mazes, or sprawling, open spaces filled with tress, not a series of fenced pathways leading you inexorably from one dull fight to the next with unlikely firearms and pill-bottles scattered around inexplicably. It’d have been much, much better if the game had simply ended in the farmhouse, which is a masterfully executed area – non-linear, creepy, requiring actual exploration and even a bit of puzzle-solving, with a final fight that feels bracing and genuinely scary rather than tacked on and frustrating.


Such deficiencies aside, Condemned is mostly very enjoyable in a pitch-black, hallucinatory sort of way, throwing visceral splatterpunk combat, psychological horror, and grungy noir atmosphere together into a blender and pureeing into thick, pinkish-black ooze. Obviously taking its cues from such films like Se7en, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Memento, the game takes place in Detroit Metro City, a rundown metropolis infested with vagrants, junkies, squatters, and criminals, an increasingly deranged and monstrous lot who menace the protagonist, Ethan Thomas, at every turn. Punning on the dual meaning of “condemned” – in reference both to Ethan’s quarry, the malevolent Serial Killer X, and to the series of decrepit stores, metro-stations, sewers, office complexes, and public buildings that Ethan has to trek through. Though the graphics are beginning to look a bit dated, the game remains very effective atmospherically, and despite taking place almost entirely in dilapidated buildings it somehow manages to avoid feeling homogenous. A mixture of scripted events and AI capable of stalking the player enhance the sense of paranoia the game cultivates: you can never quite be sure when an enemy is going to pop out or sneak up on you from behind, and several enemies are much more mobile than you, particularly the scrawny, ghoulish squatters encountered from the Metro Station onwards, who can scarper down low tunnels or haul themselves up walls. The tendency of enemies to run away if injured only to return is particularly commendable – there’s nothing creepier than landing a blow only for the enemy to dash off into some shadowy, slime-encrusted maze, a maze you’re going to have to slog through to reach the next area. Particularly effective sections include the burnt-out shell of a library, with holes in the ceiling and floor that you can fall through or climb down; the whole place is infested with what seem to be burn victims, but it’s never fully explained who these people are or why they’re here. This utter dearth of explanation really works in the game’s favour, giving the whole thing an air of sublime horror. Birds are inexplicably dying, the city’s homeless all seem to have suffered a psychotic break simultaneously, and Ethan is definitely losing his mind, but exactly why any of this is happening is unclear. I haven’t played the second game, but I’ve heard it explains some of these details, and while I understand the motive for doing so I like that this game keeps the overriding reason for the collective madness of the metropolis more or less mysterious.


Enemy design is largely very good: although there aren’t really any non-human enemies and most of the opponents can be described as some variant of “vagrant,” there’s quite a bit of variation in enemy types and armament. The vagrants all look like they’re slowly rotting, with some literally resembling the undead, but unlike most zombies the crazed homeless are twitchy and fast, moving more like rabid marionettes or the Infected from 28 Days Later than shambolic Romero-era flesh-eaters. The animations for the various enemies really sell the creepy; the putrescent Mannequin enemies are especially effective, hiding in plain sight amongst regular store mannequins only to advance with the slow, menacing stride of a slasher-movie villain. While, as I mentioned, I didn’t particularly like the final stretch of the game, the last boss has wonderfully horrific design, like something out of a Clive Barker novel or film. I will say, however, that the game shamelessly, unavoidably, and unapologetically exploits middle class anxieties about the homeless. There is literally no effort to make the homeless seem like anything more than a bunch of addled urban monsters. The addition of non-violent or even helpful homeless NPCs might have mitigated the feeling that the entire game is a kind of grotesque class war, but no such luck: the world we’re being painted is a kind of conservative nightmare, a hardboiled reality where whole districts of the city have been given over to the ravenous, deranged underclass. We are told of one part of the city for example, described as “a nasty area filled with nasty people, and the people down there are different, they go beyond nasty.” There’s no real effort made to make the homeless seem like victims; where in Outlast, for example, the game is very much aware that it’s presenting the inmates of Mount Massive as monstrous, it also shows us again and again that the current state of the inmates is the result of experiments carried out by institutional authorities, by people who should know better. Nothing of the sort is attempted in Condemned. I’ve heard in Condemned 2 that an evil cult is shown to be behind the whole thing, but, really, that’s not much of an improvement; a clichéd fear of non-Christian religion isn’t all that much better than fear of the subaltern. All that said, Condemned exploits bourgeois anxieties about the homeless very effectively. Spotting one of the inhuman squatters indulging in a cannibal feast produces an undeniable frisson of revulsion, a strong “get the fuck away from me or I will cave your face in with this sledgehammer” response, and that’s exactly the response the game is aiming for; in this sense it’s an aesthetic success.


Disturbing class dynamics aside, bashing in the skulls of the vagrant hordes in Condemned is another strong suit. Firearms are incredibly rare, as is ammunition for them, so most of the combat is melee – an unusual but highly effective choice, as it means you have to get up close and personal to dispatch your enemies. The various weapons – everything from sledgehammers and fire axes to paper cutters, piping, mannequin arms, a burning 2×4, and plenty of others – all come with advantages and drawbacks, and since you can only have a single weapon at a time (another stroke of genius), finding and choosing weapons becomes a major tactical element of the game. These choices are further complicated by the fact that certain weapons allow access to key areas – the sledgehammer, for instance, is required to break off padlocks. The actual nitty-gritty of combat is kinetic and brutal, a visceral back-and-forth requiring careful positioning, timing for blocks, and a gruesome selection of hands-on finishing moves. There aren’t any combos, which is a bit disappointing, but I’ve read that this is remedied in Condemned 2. You can however, effectively invent your own combos by learning the timings and habits of your enemies, knowing when they’re going to suddenly lurch into an attack and when to close in for the kill, when to kick and when to run while your Taser recharges – the addition of the Taser to your arsenal makes combat significantly easier, but the recharge time on the weapon means that its utility is limited when facing multiple foes, which is often. Condemned offers a lesson in how to do action right in survival horror: keep the player-character fairly fragile, restrict ammunition brutally, and force the player to get up close and personal with enemies.

condmned combat

As a narrative, Condemned isn’t wildly original – as I noted, it cribs quite heavily from various noir-horror sources – but it knows its genre well, and plays it to the hilt. The greatest strengths of the story are its various elisions, its gaps and unknowns. Why are the birds dying? Why are the city’s homeless all gone berserk? What is happening to Ethan? What motivates the sinister Serial Killer X, and who is the lurid, mutilated devil we catch glimpses of in visions? Many such questions are never given wholly satisfying answers, but such loose ends give the story a feeling of uneasy irresolution. The game is also quite effective at presenting what’s effectively an unreliable narrator – no mean feat for a first-person game. At many points throughout the story it’s unclear whether certain events, creatures, or phenomena are supernatural or psychological in nature: is Ethan just crazy, or is some occult power at work? This sort of ambivalence is central to certain subgenres of horror. As structuralist critics like Tzvetan Todorov and Terry Heller argue, when there is significant hesitation between a natural and supernatural explanation for events we have ventured into the world of what Tzvetan calls the “fantastic,” further subdivided into the “fantastic uncanny” – when the events receive a rational explanation by the story’s end – and the “fantastic marvelous” – when a supernatural explanation is accepted. In the middle is the “pure fantastic,” in which ambiguity is sustained to the very end of the story. Outlast, for example, is of the first class: what seems like a supernatural creature sealed under the mountain and summoned by a “conjuring” (the Walrider) is revealed to be a predatory nanobot swarm; Amnesia is firmly of the latter category, as supernatural forces are increasingly implicated and even what seemed potentially earthly (Alexander, the shaking of the castle, the darkness) are revealed as otherworldly. Condemned seems to vacillate between natural and supernatural explanations so thoroughly that it lands in this third, rare category, one shared by many of Poe’s stories as well as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Even what seem like patently supernatural elements – the weird, acrobatic monster that you face repeatedly at the end, for example – the possibility of a more rational explanation lingers, especially if Ethan is going mad. You receive injuries from what seem to be spectral foes, but they might be psychosomatic wounds “inflicted” by hallucinations; at certain points objects seem to shift of their own accord, but this could simply be Thomas’ addled mind “rearranging” his perceptions. Heller identifies horror tales of the pure fantastic as the “most terrifying” (14) and while this assertion seems to me to somewhat overstate things, there’s some merit to his suggestion that the pure fantastic is in some sense the most threatening of the three genres, insofar as it blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality. It’s a rare videogame that attempts the kind of ambiguity offered by a pure fantastic tale of terror, and a rarer one still to actually sustain and pull off such ambiguity, as Condemned manages.

Condemned-Criminal-Origins Background

Works Cited

Heller, Terry. The Delights of Terror. Chicago: U of Illionois P, 1987. Print.

Realms of the Haunting – Retrospective

Realms of the Haunting

I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of William Hope Hodgson recently as part of my academic research, and after finishing his Weird short novel The House on the Borderland (1908) I decided to begin replaying a game that features another strange inter-dimensional house, Gremlin’s Realms of the Haunting, a wonderful old diamond-in-the-rough that, for me, possesses immense nostalgic value.  Along with Heretic, Lands of Lore, Myst, and Diablo it holds a special place in my heart as one of the first computer games I played that didn’t involve shooting ducks or dying from dysentery somewhere in the American Midwest.  I picked up the game a couple of years ago from on a whim, expecting to find it nothing more than a quaint trip down memory lane, but after playing it through once again I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the game’s incredibly rich story, complex mythology, eerie atmosphere, and engaging gameplay combine to create an experience that holds up shockingly well nearly two decades after its initial release in late 1996.  The graphics, granted, show their age in a way that other adventure games from the same era (for example, the unfathomably gorgeous Riven or the stylish masterpiece Grim Fandango) avert; the pixelated 3D graphics, the lack of properly three-dimensional objects in the game, and the clunkiness of the Normality engine make for a game that now looks somewhat primitive and artificial, with a maximum resolution of 600×480.  The cutscenes are entirely live-action, the actors largely acting against a green screen and delivering campy but surprisingly competent performances, and while generally I’m not a huge fan of the strange effect seeing live actors transplanted into a computer-generated setting produces (increasingly, in fact, I dislike cutscenes in general), here the FMV works rather well: actors David Tuomi and Emma Powell portray the protagonists – moody, trench-coat wearing Adam Randall and alluring psychic Rebecca Trevisard – quite ably, and their physical performances give both characters much more personality than the sprites or 3D models of the day would have.  In an age of photo-realistic computer-generated cutscenes there’s something charming and quirky about the live-action performances, which are supplemented by a vast amount of voice work; every painting, suit of armour, door, weird sigil, candlestick, coat stand, and cartridge in the game can be examined, with Adam (and sometimes Rebecca) orally commenting on the object in question.  The clips aren’t so frequent that they become annoying, but they’re common enough that spread throughout the game there’s over 90 minutes of FMV.


As a whole, in fact, Realms of the Haunting almost benefits from its technological limitations.  Modern horror games and first person shooters tend to be relatively brief affairs, in part as a consequence of their graphical extravagance; even Half-Life 2, which I think of as quite a long game by today’s standards, clocks in at around fifteen hours on average and can certainly be completed in much less.  In contrast, Realms of the Haunting lasts for well over forty hours, and little of it feels repetitive in the way that some long games can.  The graphics may be crude but the levels are well designed, sprawling and intricate, filled with secret doors, sub-levels, portals, puzzles, mazes, Escheresque chambers, teleport pads, hidden nooks, and other curiosities.  Atmospheric details abound – like a typewriter spewing creepy, repetitious text of its own accord, or the Satanic carvings in the depths of the Mausoleum – and the game manages to cultivate a fairly unnerving atmosphere at times.  It never approaches the masterful terror elicited by the likes of Amnesia nor the frenetic, adrenaline-fuelled tension of something like Outlast or Bioshock, but it did occasionally startle me, and what it does manage very well is a dense aura of eldritch gloom and mystic strangeness.  It’s tempting to throw around the adjective “Lovecraftian” here, but as the game’s writer and producer Paul Green notes, the game’s mythos is based primarily on real-world religions and occult systems, a syncretic Judeo-Christian mishmash with bits stolen from various Eastern religions, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Spiritualism, Zoroastrianism, and Christian apocrypha.  Green also cites John Carpenter and that amusingly lurid bit of messianic crackpottery The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as influences, the latter of which is especially visible in the game’s depiction of a heretical secret society of corrupted Templars whose leader, the effetely nefarious Elias Camber (an anagram of “Bears Malice” and “Macabre Lies”), alias Claude Florentine, serves as one of the main antagonists.

The game’s slowly unfolding story (warning: mild spoilers to come) begins with what seems like a fairly hackneyed setup.  Following his father’s death, Adam is tormented by dreams of a peculiar house in Cornwall which he eventually seeks out and enters; the decrepit old mansion, with its animate portraits, rusting suits of armour, mildew, and similarly Gothic accoutrements at first appears to be a staple haunted house of the most typical sort, but the scenario quickly become more complicated with the manifestation of Adam’s father’s ghost, a rather Shakespearean spirit that beseeches his son to free him from the agonies of Hell before being dragged back to the pit by a number of menacing armoured shades.  Things only get odder as the game evolves and a complex tissue of associations between various angels, Goetic demons, elemental spirits, and mystic brotherhoods coalesces.  Complicating the Manichean dichotomy of Light and Dark that dominates the central conflict are such enigmatic entities as the bizarre and grumpy gatekeeper-creature and Keeper of Time known as the Gnarl; the gibbering, phantasmal horror of the Ire with its hypnotic song and its bestial avatar, the Dodger (which, I suspect, may owe its inspiration to Machin Shin, the “black wind” that haunts the Ways in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, though I can’t be sure); a water deity, Tishtrya, ripped straight from Zoroastrian mythology; and the benevolent ghost of Aelf, a medieval knight and reincarnation of St. Michael – to name a few.  Visions, weird magickal artefacts, relics, unholy brands, riddles, crypticisms, mouldering journals, and other miscellanea are scattered throughout, some of them providing clues as to the overall shape of events, others producing more questions than answers.


In fact, it takes quite some time (probably about 10 chapters or so) for a coherent picture of what the hell is going on to come into focus, and for much of the game you’re left physically and figuratively in the dark to a large extent, wandering the labyrinthine vastness of the old house and the tunnels beneath it, stumbling upon esoteric oddities and perils.  This works immensely to the game’s advantage.  Horror is a genre that really requires slow pacing; the best horror movies and stories know this, revealing their monstrosities only gradually, in an abominable striptease (as in, say, Alien).  There’s an entire school of thought – exemplified in The Philosophy of Horror by aesthetician Noël Carroll – that claims that when we consume horror media we’re not actually craving fear or disgust, the chief affects the genre produces, in and of themselves; rather, we’re seeking compensatory pleasures for which these emotions are mere concomitants.  The process of solving a mystery, of ratiocination and deduction and the play of proofs, imparts the actual pleasure, Carroll claims; everything else is a by-product.  I don’t find Carroll’s theory especially convincing, but it can’t be entirely dismissed, either; I do think there’s something to be said for the appeal of the unknown and the curiosity it incites.   Another, much older theory offered by weird fiction author and fin-de-siécle mystic Arthur Machen in his aesthetic treatise Hieroglyphics (1902) suggests that the best literature conjures a sense of “ecstasy,” by which Machen means the numinous, wondrous, and mysterious, and I think horror is uniquely capable in this regard, with its penchant for interstitial monstrosities and unknowable malevolences.  Certainly Realms of the Haunting knows the value of a good mystery and in not revealing too much too quickly.  In a certain sense, the game invites the player to become a bit of a mystic themselves, as you’re constantly compelled to seek a series of revelations, to uncover what has been hidden and, slowly, to piece together a picture of events from a confusion of disparate parts as your character participates in transformative rituals both sacred and profane.

ROTH Throne

Though the cosmic vistas Adam and Rebecca explore are intriguing, the house itself and its associated dungeons comprise the most compelling setting.  Like the sinister Spencer Mansion of Resident Evil (released in the same year as Realms of the Haunting) or the ooze-infested ruin of Amnesia’s Brennenburg, the house is a sort of character in and of itself, sometimes seeming to possess a capricious will of its own.  I have no idea if the eponymous house in Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland was actually an influence on the designers or not, but there are certainly some major similarities.  Of course, the trope of the haunted house is a well-worn one, but what’s interesting about the house in Realms, as in Borderland and in the more recent postmodern take on the haunted house, House of Leaves, is the way the house functions not only as an example of the Freudian uncanny with its Gothic subversion of domesticity (not to mention its cavernous, quasi-uterine spaces) but as a locus of what China Miѐville would call the abcanny.  If the uncanny or unheimlich is about the return of the repressed in a familiar-yet-not-familiar form – the manifestation of what Freud terms “womb-phantasies,” old wine in new bottles, and what Derrida calls the hauntological – then the abcanny is about a more radical unfamiliarity, an otherness and alterity utterly beyond our ken, always evading comprehension, resisting attempts to impose meaning or structuration.  This sense of the cosmic, the weird, the awesome and the awful, the unknown (perhaps the ecstatic, in Machen’s terms) suffuses the house in Realms of the Haunting, with its faceless guardians and its interminably winding, unpredictable corridors, its doors which sometimes lead into dank cellars but which also open on primordial caverns and alien cosmoses and gigantic demon-summoning clocks.  It’s this ambient numinousness erupting violently out of the quotidian architecture of Realms‘ house that makes it so special and surreal.

The gameplay itself is intriguing, as the whole thing is very much a hybrid of an adventure game, a Doom-style FPS, and a survival horror game; there are times when you’ll go for quite some time encountering only a few enemies, and others where you can’t go more than a room or two before activating some conjurer’s circle and summoning another fiend or three that require mowing down.  At the beginning you have to husband your resources carefully, as the game provides little ammunition for the pistol and shotgun you quickly acquire, and the only other weapon you initially possess, a sword, is difficult to use without being carved to ribbons yourself by the mostly melee-focused foes.  It doesn’t take too long, however, for rechargeable magic weapons to make an appearance, at which point I stopped using guns almost entirely and stopped worrying about searching every corner of every room for ammo.  The controls are clumsy in a way that the game kind of pulls off (again, the technological limitations here actually help as much as hurt), as when you’re fumbling with the controls for your sword, shield, or pistol while some hooded Thing bears down on you there’s a nice little spasm of panic that a smoother, more intuitive combat system would have effaced.  Large swathes of the game, however, are spent puzzle-solving, as in one strange sequence set in the Room of Riddles in one of the game’s four planes of existence (Realms), which seem loosely based on the four Kabbalistic layers of reality.  The game as a whole is fairly linear, but individual levels are quite open, and once you’ve dispelled some of the mystic seals that keep certain doors in the central house shut you can explore the entire non-linear sprawl of the mansion, with the game often requiring you to retrace your steps and return to particular rooms or other areas.  Dungeon-crawling fans will find much to enjoy in Realms’ maze-like passages, which are variegated enough not to get monotonous.

House Map

Realms of the Haunting absolutely cries out for a remake (though tragically I’m sure remaking an obscure 90s horror game with mediocre sales isn’t likely, even given Realms’ critical acclaim).  Frictional Games’ HPL engine would be perfect, I think, though I’m sure there are other choices that would also work well.  Even with the dated graphics and gameplay, however, the game still has a great deal of character.  I’m thinking of picking up Clive Barker’s Undying, which somehow I still haven’t played, in hopes of finding something that scratches the same itch (apparently, Undying suffered from exactly the same problem as Realms: strong critical acclaim, terrible sales).  What I’d really like to see is a modern game that combines the panic, dread, and visceral affective potency of recent survival horror offerings with the baroque storytelling style and weird atmosphere of Realms of the Haunting; if anyone knows of something that fits that bill, let me know!

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