Monsters, Horror, Gaming

Tag: reviews

Griffin McElroy’s Crystal Kingdom OST

Those looking for game table music should have a gander at Griffin McElroy’s Crystal Kingdom OST, a soundtrack he created for his brilliant 5E D&D/comedy podcast The Adventure Zone.

The Adventure Zone often comes off as (intentionally) silly in a Pythonesque, surreal sort of way, but like Python its silliness is partly deceptive, intermingled with big ideas that can suprise you – like a gigantic jellyfish entity that can espistemically quarantine objects and information from the collective memories of everyone who hasn’t drunk of its weird juices. His game reminds me a lot of Zelda, in a good way – there’s a kind of adventure-game quality with a lot of magical puzzles.There’s a very well worked-out backstory and setting operating under the surface of pop culture references and goofiness. The soundtrack definitely reflects this well.

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.

Outlast: Whistleblower – Review


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.


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.


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.


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.

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!

Podcast Halloween Episode

I’ve been featured on S.S. Librarianship once again, in Episode 9.  This time I talk about horror and its aesthetics as well as some of my favorite horror films and games.

Outlast – Review


The horror gaming world is much abuzz about Outlast right now, a found-footage horror game that’s been compared to Amnesia and its ilk.  I just finished the game myself over a period of about two weeks.  I must admit that a part of me is cathartically relieved the game is over, because it’s an absolutely nerve-fraying experience, exquisitely paced, calibrated to precisely balance unrelenting panic with the potent terror of anticipation, with enough nauseating viscera thrown in for even the most benumbed gorehound to roil at.  It’s not a perfect horror game but it’s damn close.  Although it only has a few real innovations, it plays the standard tropes of the genre better than almost any horror game I’ve played.

Like some other horror games of late, Outlast’s protagonist, Miles, contributes to the atmosphere of terror by wheezing, panting, and hyperventilating at appropriate times.  He’s also fully embodied: his hands, arms, and legs are all visible and interact fully with the world, so when you pick up a battery or open a door you watch him physically perform the actions.  I like this trend towards physicality; not only does it aid immersion, which is of vital importance in a horror game, it gives everything a particularly visceral edge that suits Outlast and games of its ilk very well.  In Outlast specifically, Miles’ embodiment is especially significant: the game is not only about the relationship between bodies and minds, it’s also about chases.  It’s probably impossible to make it through the game without being seen; the game seems to delight in springing enemies on you when you think you’re being clever and stealthy, so almost inevitably, you end up spending a lot of time running away.  Equal parts deranged parkour and murderous hide-and-seek, the chase gameplay is very well handled, with just enough clumsiness to ensure the occasional moment of frenzied fumbling with the controls as you try to dodge around the abominable inmate/thing bearing down on you with god-knows-what clutched in his twisted paw as a makeshift club.  Surprisingly to me the chases themselves aren’t so much terrifying as strangely exhilarating – after the initial spasm of raw panic a kind of primeval flight instinct takes over and you start mapping out routes, figuring out which obstacles to circumvent and which doors to dash through, eyes roving for a place to conceal yourself.


Speaking of Miles, our investigator-journalist protagonist, he’s brilliantly written.  He adds notes in his journal as the game progresses, and for once it actually makes sense for a character to be carrying a notepad and pen.  Most characters in horror games usually seem pretty determined about pressing onwards – Daniel is hell-bent on killing Alexander, Isaac is resolved to destroy the hive mind or purge the necromorph-infested colony or whatever you were supposed to be doing in Dead Space, James Sunderland is intent on finding his wife, Leon Kennedy is steadfastly committed to rescuing the president’s daughter (even if she is annoying as all get out), Oswald Mandus is obsessed with finding his children.  In contrast, Miles became my hero not when he enters the asylum in the name of journalism but when he scribbles in his notebook something along the lines of “Fuck this placeSeriously, fuck it.”  Again, this boosts immersion immensely – because now my desires really are aligned with the protagonist’s, and we identify with him in a way we might not with a more stoic protagonist.  In A Machine for Pigs I found Mandus fascinating in a creepy, grotesque kind of way, but as the game progressed I identified with him less and less, as it became clearer and clearer just how disturbed and deluded he was; by the end of the game I had sort of decided that I wouldn’t be that cut up if old Oswald bit the biscuit.  But Miles reacts essentially as a real person would if they were confronted with the horrors of Mount Massive.  He doesn’t grab a crowbar and an SMG and start gunning his through the place, he runs a lot, hides a lot, and tries to get the hell out as fast as he can.  As the story progresses and he gets drawn ever deeper into Mount Massive his motivations shift and become more complicated, but he is always intent on getting out as fast as possible.

While Outlast has a limited bag of tricks gameplay-wise, it uses them to full effect.  The parkour mechanics of the game are intuitive and easy to handle, and except for one jump that I think was slightly too extreme, the platforming element is never frustrating.  There’s a nice blend of stealth, exploration, item collection, and action (the chases).  What there really aren’t are puzzles: at no point was I stuck on what to do.  The only time I couldn’t figure out where to go, a rampaging enemy chasing me through an overgrown courtyard eventually forced me to stumble upon the way to the next area by making me run around like a chicken with its head cut off till I spotted the right path.  The trailer does a pretty good job of showing off the gameplay without spoiling anything.

 night vision

Outlast features some of the best use of darkness and light since Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  The central conceit of the game is the use of the camcorder Miles comes equipped with, which is used not only to provoke new “notes” by recording events in the game, it comes with a battery-draining night vision mode.  The garish, grainy, blue-lit night-vision makes me think of the climactic scene of The Silence of the Lambs, so strongly I wonder whether it’s a kind of extended allusion – not that other films haven’t used night vision (28 Weeks Later also comes to mind).  The night vision not only adds an anxiety-provoking element as your battery supply slowly dwindles, it allows the game to play a variety of tricks dependent entirely on whether or not you’ve got your light on, some of them quite subtle.  In one memorable and horripilating sequence, for example, a flash of lightning, combined with the night vision and zoom function, illumines an approaching, knife-wielding figure slowly slinking out of the gloom, giving you a simultaneous jolt of fear and a few extra, precious moments to escape – but then a glance behind you with the night vision on reveals a second figure approaching from behind.  The sheer panic this moment caused before I spotted the solution was pretty impressive.  This is a game that manipulates its players in very deliberate ways, and yet many of its best scenes aren’t scripted events but organically derived moments that emerge spontaneously through play.  Mount Massive is labyrinthine enough to allow for multiple routes and hiding spots.  In other games, the presence of a locker or wardrobe to hide in might tip the game’s hand that an encounter with something awful was imminent, but not in Outlast: while there are a few predictable moments, the structure of the environment, your character’s speed, and what seems like pretty decent AI on the inmates ensures that Outlast rarely gives the game away.  The game excels in making its environment varied and interesting, despite taking place entirely in and around single building.  I was reminded at points of the original Half-Life: the game manages to switch up the terrain enough to keep things from getting bland (as the endless corridors of Dead Space or the interminable offices of F.E.A.R. get stale), while still retaining a feeling of unity and coherence.  At different points you’ll find yourself in claustrophobic sewer tunnels, cavernous cisterns, gore-spattered infirmaries, tenebrous wards, terrifyingly open courtyards, and corridors so derelict the floorboards sometimes disintegrate beneath your feet.


While Outlast deals in jump-scares as much as slow-burning dread, it elevates them to a fine art by playing mental games with the player.  In one early sequence, for example, you pass an emaciated inmate in a wheelchair, sitting still and wheezing to himself beneath a flickering overhead light – he’s grotesque and unnerving but not especially frightening.  After working up the courage to approach this ghoulish but infirm figure you quickly realize he’s harmless: he doesn’t talk or try to attack you, he just sits in his chair and breathes hoarsely to himself, inspiring more pity than fear.  In an adjacent room you find an object you need to get to the next area and you’re forced to retrace your steps.  Knowing that horror games have a habit of throwing enemies at you after retrieving such items, I was moving very quickly through the areas I’d previously visited while keeping an eye out for trouble, expecting something to burst through a previously locked door.  As I ran down the reasonably well-lit corridor with the wheelchair-bound inmate I started to feel relieved – the hallway looked clear, and I’d written off the inmate as “safe,” really not much more than a bit of set-dressing, an atmospheric fixture.  When he lurched out of his wheelchair and attacked me, I was genuinely startled and horrified; moments later, as he picked himself up off the floor after Miles pushed him off, I was running at full-speed away from him, the nerve-fraying jolt of the jump-scare immediately giving way to fear of being caught.  This is nothing short of brilliant: the scare hides in plain sight, luring you into a false sense of security and then punishing you for letting your guard down.  After escaping, my heartbeat receding in sync with Miles’ panting, the full implications of the sequence hit me, as I realized that nothing in Mount Massive could be considered “safe.”  By introducing an expectation and then subverting it, Outlast had further undermined any sense of security I had deluded myself into feeling.  This was not an isolated incident, either: Outlast delights in these kind of head-games.  For instance, the game provides ample spaces to hide – lockers and beds being the most common.  Frequently, you’ll watch through a locker grill as an enemy searches the locker beside yours, while leaving your own locker unopened.  After a few repetitions of this routine, I thought I’d “figured out” the stealth aspect of the game – if you were in a locker, and the enemy didn’t see you enter it, you were safe.  How wrong I was: enemies can indeed guess which locker you’re in correctly.  Again, the game sets up assumptions only to undermine them.


As for the game’s “monsters” (the inmates, or Variants), they’re wonderfully designed: mangled, mutilated, surgically scarred, and riddled with carcinogenic growths, the sudden appearance of one, accompanied by a trill of music, is sublimely horrific.  You re-encounter a number of particular Variants over the course of the game and read about them in documents as well, and so Mount Massive accrues a kind of mythology as you move through it.  My personal favourite is the demented Doctor Trager, who runs the infirmary and is responsible for one of the most shocking and harrowing scenes in the game, although the calm, strangely soft-spoken Brothers are also wonderfully creepy.  Much of the game is spent evading the behemothic Chris Walker, a particularly menacing Variant, and while I enjoyed many of the sequences featuring Chris, I thought that by the end he’d been a bit overused: over the course of the game he becomes the designers’ “go-to” enemy, unless they opt for a generic, nameless inmate or three.  Even one or two more named, unique enemies would have made the game stronger overall.  Only one enemy’s design actually disappointed me significantly, though – that of the Walrider, an enigmatic, incorporeal spectre central to Outlast’s overarching plot.  The Variants are uniformly grotesque and unnerving: everything about them makes you want to get away.  They’re unclean, contaminated, diseased; the obscenities they shout, the way they goad you and tease you and lust for you, is really appalling in the best possible way.  In contrast the Walrider is mute, faceless, wispy, and not especially scary.  The only times it really threatens you take place in rather well-lit areas, and whenever I was running from the Walrider I didn’t feel the same frenzied sense of total panic I felt when fleeing from Doctor Trager with his rusty surgical instruments or the hulking, inexorable Chris.  There’s just no sense of revulsion with the Walrider, no feeling of disgust.  I think they were going for a kind of otherworldly Lovecraftian force with the Walrider, but it falls rather short of the mark; frankly it reminds me a bit of the black wraiths that feature towards the end of F.E.A.R., which were more annoying than terrifying.  Though the end of the game in general is a bit anticlimactic given what came before, the Walrider really exacerbates the problems with the final area.  Overall, I think the game’s biggest missed opportunity was the fact it doesn’t include any female characters: though you venture into the Female Ward at one point, there are no female characters in the entire game (at least none that I saw).  The designers can’t really have been worried about encouraging violence against women, because you’re unarmed throughout, and I think a properly designed female Variant could have been perfect.

poor exec

Some reviewers have criticized the game for being clichéd, or for offering a stereotypical and inaccurate depiction of mental illness (Adam Smith’s review on Rock Paper Shotgun is particularly scathing in this regard).  While the story of Outlast is nothing really out of the ordinary – it’s a barebones, boilerplate horror plot about Nazi science, corrupt corporations, dreams, hypnotherapy, spirits, some weird machines and some weirder mathematical formulae – it doesn’t really have to be, and I think the “clichéd” criticism is a bit hard to swallow.  Yes, abandoned and/or overrun mental institutions aren’t exactly original, but Outlast does the “evil asylum” thing about as well as possible (on the same level as Thief: Deadly Shadows’ Shalebridge Cradle).  Smith argues that:

The fact that the place purports to be some kind of madhouse probably won’t matter very much to what little narrative there might be. It’s wallpaper to act as a backdrop for bludgeoning and butchery. It could as easily be a carnival full of insane clowns or an abandoned hotel full of insane bellboys, or an insurance office full of insane filing clerks.

Ironically, this is exactly right, in a sense.  The game could have been set in an evil carnival or whatever – so long as it used the tropes at its disposal right, it would still have been an intense horror experience.  Outlast is not trying to make a coherent statement about the way we relate to the mentally ill or about real mental illness.  It’s not striving for profundity, it’s striving for affect.  In this sense Outlast is a perfect representation of Poe’s theory of “unity of effect.”  In “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), Poe claimed that when he sits down to write he first ponders “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?”  Then, “Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect,” he sets out to deduce the “combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid [him] in the construction of the effect.”  Elsewhere, especially in “The Poetic Principle” (1850), Poe denounces didacticism as a “heresy” – he’s not interested in art that tells a great truth or teaches something, he’s interested in “an elevating excitement of the Soul.”  Outlast isn’t interested in teaching us something about the nature of madness or the corruption of our mental institutions.  It’s interested in scaring the shit out of us, and it does so with gusto.  Smith’s review also charges the game with Othering the mentally ill in a damaging way, but again, I don’t think this is quite fair.  The game goes out of its way to stress that the inmates aren’t mundanely “mad,” they’ve been abused and tormented, exposed to eldritch forces and fantastic therapies.  Not all of the inmates in Mount Massive are violent either: many of them are inert, catatonic, passive, self-destructive, or simply benign.  A few are even mildly helpful.  Outlast may not challenge any stereotypes about mental illness, but it’s not trying to.  It’s not aiming for sophistication, it just wants to take a cheese grater to your nerves, and it does not hold back in that regard.


I heartily recommend Outlast to those who have a high tolerance for or enjoyment of properly scary horror games.  If you’re looking for a brilliant story that challenges your understanding of the world or society, or a shoot-em-up faux-horror game, you’ll probably be disappointed.  If, on the other hand, you’ve enjoyed games like Amnesia, Penumbra, Silent Hill, Thief, and Condemned, you’ll find Outlast horribly delightful.  I must be honest that between Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Outlast, the latter is my favourite by a fair margin (although The Dark Descent would probably still be ahead a bit in my personal ranking).  It’s a suspenseful splatterpunk masterpiece.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs – Review


Having finished A Machine for Pigs I can now give it a more thorough review.  It’s certainly a worthy successor to The Dark Descent in most respects, and surpasses it in some.  There will be a few mild spoilers below, so read at your own risk.


As with its predecessor, A Machine for Pigs is brilliantly atmospheric, using a combination of sounds, shadows, music, and text to great effect.  The prose in the game – of which there is a great deal – is magnificently written: gruesome, rambling, poetic, and thematically profound, replete with motifs of animality, excretion, mechanization, sacrifice, spoiled innocence, and contamination.  The levels are beautifully designed, a disturbing series of pens, abattoirs, seeping sewer tunnels, conveyer belts, generators, and churning gears.  The industrial bowels of the Factory juxtapose cramped, claustrophobic tunnels with spaces of cavernous enormity crossed by rusty, zigzagging catwalks, alternating between submarine-like closeness and dizzying vastness.  The dust and cobwebs of Brennenburg have been replaced with oil and excrement, the crumbling stone with hissing pipes and buzzing electric dynamos.  The gameplay in A Machine for Pigs is stripped down to the point of simplicity, but what it does give us is genius.  The electric lantern replacing the oil lamp of The Dark Descent has an interesting feature: it flickers rapidly whenever a monster is near (other electric lights behave the same way).  Once I realized why the lantern was periodically flickering, I became conditioned to react to it in a certain way: whenever I caught it flickering I’d immediately turn it off, crouch down, and seek a hiding spot.  The lantern not only creates a unique and original gameplay element, it has the added side-effect of reducing the player to the same level as an animal responding to a Pavlovian stimulus.  By the game’s end, every time I saw the lantern flicker I would experience a set of physical and mental reactions – the game had literally rewired my brain to its own ends, making me its experimental subject, its lab animal, setting up obvious resonances with the porcine monstrosities that haunt the Factory’s tenebrous corridors.


As a protagonist, Oswald Mandus is a disturbing and fairly original character.  Though I wish A Machine for Pigs had kept up the habit of reading journal entries in voiceover, which I liked in the first game, the phonographs scattered around the Factory along with the telephone conversations and flashbacks throughout the game give us enough of Oswald’ voice to get a proper feel for him.  His motivations are more complex and unsettling than Daniel’s, and while the protagonist of The Dark Descent always felt like an outsider, an intruder exploring an alien environment, Oswald’s Machine is an uncanny space, familiar and yet unfamiliar – both because Oswald built the Machine and because the environment is riddled with clues that he’s been through the labyrinth very recently and is now retracing his footsteps.  The character’s intense mysophobia makes me feel like there was a missed opportunity for some kind of “contamination mechanic” to complement the first game’s sanity mechanic.  Steam-shower decontamination rooms punctuate the fetid, mechanical entrails of the Factory, but without any reason to enter them beyond getting to the next area they’re just another set of switches to fiddle with, and by the third or fourth time we enter and exit one they’re rather old hat.  But if there’d been a real gameplay-based reason to use them – say, Oswald freaking out if he became too contaminated, maybe coughing and spluttering and so alerting potential enemies to his whereabouts, or even physically deteriorating after being exposed to Compound X, the quasi-alchemical serum crucial to Oswald’s creation – the anxiety around delving into canals awash with excrement or tunnels swirling with mephitic vapours would have been much enhanced, and the decontamination rooms would have provided a sense of relief.  Even without such a mechanic, however, we still get a strong sense of Oswald’s distaste for the unclean, his complicated loathing and pity for a world he considers utterly disgusting, a desacralized reality whose existential horror drives Oswald to build his abominable edifice.  At first I assumed the Machine must have been created as a means of extracting profit, the ultimate embodiment of Victorian capitalism and imperialism, but its purpose turns out to be far more deranged, and Oswald’s complex motivations, obsessions, and neuroses are tied into and physicalized by the Machine itself.


The monsters are very well-designed, and suitably grotesque.  Interestingly, by the end of the game they elicit as much pity as they do fear or hatred.  The “Manpigs” embody a whole host of contradictions: they are brutal and violent yet also strangely innocent, even child-like.  The game invites us to read the pigs as degraded proletarians but also identifies them with Mandus’ children, his creations; they are, ultimately, his victims.  They symbolically represent an array of human lusts and appetites, the animal within us – our tendencies to sloth and gluttony, our bestial urges.  At the same time the game encourages us to feel responsible for them: they horrify not only because they’re stitched up, misshapen beast-people but because Mandus made them that way.  In keeping with the transition from the sublime, quasi-religious terror of The Dark Descent to the revulsion and disgust common in the urban Gothic, the Manpigs are more scientific than mystical.  The true horror in A Machine for Pigs is derived not from the monsters but from their creator, and from the inexorable encroachment of modernity itself.  The reduction of humans to meat and of the world into a machine “fit only for the slaughtering of pigs” conjures images of Auschwitz and the trenches of the Somme, connections which the game eventually makes explicit.  The Manpigs are thus perfect examples of the urban Gothic’s strategy of monster-making, allegorizing a host of social ills while simultaneously problematizing categories (human/animal, innocent/evil, natural/artificial, organic/machine), disturbing our assumptions and holding up a fractured mirror for us to gaze upon.  Rather unusually for a game so interested in bodies and body-horror, the monsters here aren’t especially sexual in any way; perhaps the developers felt that Justine, with its monstrously sexualized Suitors (and the vaguely venereal wounds of the Gatherers in The Dark Descent) had covered that ground sufficiently.


The game is not without its blemishes.  While its atmosphere is superb, it pulls its punches a bit too often – the monsters aren’t common enough to be as oppressive as they could be, and sometimes their deployment is a bit sloppy.  The game could also show a bit more violence; at one point the Manpigs rampage through London’s streets, but we don’t see enough evidence of their bestial destruction to make it sting (in general, the London-streets levels are amongst the weakest in the game).  The lack of an inventory has its upsides, but it limits the creators’ ability to craft compelling puzzles, and they don’t manage to compensate: the “puzzles” are incredibly easy, easier even than most of the original Amnesia’s.  I feel this is a direct result of the Chinese Room’s design style; there’s just not much to do besides explore the game’s admittedly gorgeous spaces, occasionally dodging a monster, flicking a switch, or installing a new battery.  As much the tinderbox-collection and lamp-oil rationing in The Dark Descent was a mixed bag, it gave you something to look for as you explored Brennenburg.  A Machine for Pigs could have provided other reasons to explore every corner of every level, like difficult puzzles that require moving back and forth between areas (some timed puzzles would have been welcome).  In the same vein, the game is far too linear, which is disappointing considering how open and sprawling Dear Esther is.  In The Dark Descent the castle had hubs, central spaces from which other levels branched: the Entrance Hall, the Back Hall, the Cistern Entrance, and the Nave.  You made choices about which area to go through, and sometimes had to return to areas you’d previously explored, occasionally facing new threats along the way, like when the Shadow infests the Nave with its oozing horror, collapsing whole corridors and snuffing all the lights.  In contrast, A Machine for Pigs is fairly linear.  The Mansion at the beginning is nicely sprawling, and the Factory Tunnels have multiple choices, but for most of the game your movements are very limited.  Towards the end you are literally on a conveyer belt, which has nice thematic connotations but does bring home how straightforward the game ultimately is.


The two Amnesia games can teach us a great deal about game design, I think, particularly when it comes to horror.  First and foremost, they demonstrate the vital importance of atmosphere.  Monsters are scary in large part because of the contexts into which they are placed.  Unlike, say, Dead Space, where the necromorphs show up almost immediately and never go away, both Amnesia games know the importance of revealing things very gradually: horror in both games is a kind of strip-tease, and the agonizing build-up to the full reveal is absolutely central to the total effect.  Both games also illustrate the value of empty space.  Empty rooms, corridors, and other areas, when presented atmospherically, are more than padding: they pace an experience and make the player(s) wonder about whether something will be found behind the next door or round the next corner.  If a dungeon is stocked to the brim with monsters, there’s really not much opportunity for suspense.  A Machine for Pigs also demonstrates the utility of repetition to ingrain certain behavioural patterns into players: while care must be taken for encounters not to become stale, the repetition of certain signs and images, like the flickering of the electric lantern, can be used to evoke powerful reactions.  Such motifs not only provide a through-line to an adventure, they can be used to elicit dread and anticipation.  Say, for example, a particular monster exudes a signature stench, and great emphasis is placed on the particular quality of its odour; then, whenever that odour is present, the players will tense up in anticipation.  Finally, both games can be seen as templates for the deployment of Gothic tropes in a gaming context, a series of stock images and situations to be drawn on and borrowed from.


Up next on my list to play: Outlast.  Having just written a scenario set in an asylum I’m curious to see a different approach.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs – First Impressions


I recently bought Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, sequel to the brilliantly macabre survival horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  The first Amnesia remains one of the scariest games I’ve ever played, and the best adaptation into game form one could hope for of a classic Gothic novel of the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth centuries, with a generous bit of H.P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure.  I have replayed Amnesia several times now – the game is short in theory, but often takes a long time in practice, because of the paralysis of terror that fills you while you play it – and it has had a very strong influence on my tabletop games and other writing (even, possibly, on my scholarship).  It remains one of my favorite games of all time, up there with Thief: The Dark Project and Half-Life 2.  I’ll post a full review of A Machine for Pigs once I’ve completed it, but here a few of my first impressions.  Needless to say, there may be some gentle spoilers below.


Some background on the game may be useful: while the first game was developed entirely by the Swedish indie company Frictional Games (also responsible for the Penumbra series), the second was developed by The Chinese Room, a studio best known for their unconventional exploration game Dear Esther.  The game takes place about a hundred years after the original, in Victorian London rather than rural Germany.  Already with the choice of setting the game distinguishes itself from its predecessor.  The Dark Descent was a game centered round the idea of an ancient, terrible, and largely unknown force: “the Shadow,” a mysterious, Lovecraftian entity, summoned accidentally out of Egypt by the hapless protagonist, Daniel.  The game fixated on tropes taken from the original Gothic of the eighteenth-century (I may have to write a proper academic article about this…): the aristocratic secondary villain Alexander, the crumbling, black castle, the hidden tunnels, the remote location, the emphasis on the unseen and the unknown, on what Ann Radcliffe would call terror rather than horrorThe Dark Descent is a game of the “terrorist” school.  The game punished you for even looking at the monsters in The Dark Descent: when a monster appeared you caught a glimpse of it and then ran, because otherwise you were dead (you have no weapons, and two or three hits kill you), and looking at a monster drained your sanity.  You had to painstakingly scavenge and ration your tinderboxes and lamp oil: your most valuable resource was light, allowing you to navigate the tenebrous labyrinths the game delighted in (especially the Storage and Prison levels, which could be real mazes).  On the other hand, light was dangerous, because it could alert monsters to your presence.  There was certainly gore in The Dark Descent but it was used very sparingly, and often there was more a suggestion of violence than actual bloodshed – torture rooms where old implements slowly rusted, or half-remembered flash-backs of people screaming.  Sound was vital to the game’s strategy of fear, but The Dark Descent really didn’t go in for the jump-scare much: it was more interested in slow-burning paranoia.  Instead of being startled you’d end up crouched in a corner, your character’s sanity draining in the darkness, willing yourself to open the rotten old door from behind which you think you heard a bestial groan.  While in many ways A Machine for Pigs replicates aspects of this experience, it owes much more to the Gothic resurgence of the nineteenth-century fin de siècle – a predominantly urban Gothic more attuned to social disorders, science, and the boundaries of the human.


So, A Machine for Pigs.  Firstly, the gameplay remains largely the same as Amnesia: The Dark Descent – first person, you have no weapons, you wander around a sprawling environment trying to find your way down deeper into the complex.  There are some very key differences, however.  Most prominently, A Machine for Pigs does away with the inventory entirely.  You have no sanity score, and your health is invisible (in the previous game, these were displayed in your inventory, symbolically represented as a heart and brain); you can still pick up items, of course, but you can only move one at a time, you can’t stow them in pockets as capacious as a Bag of Holding.  On the one hand, losing the inventory annoyed me, because one of the thrills of The Dark Descent was the intense relief at having found an object you needed for one of the game’s puzzles, and the rationing of your tinderboxes, lamp oil, and laudanum added a resource-management element that contributed to the overall anxiety of exploring Brennenburg.  However, there is an upside.  Constantly in The Dark Descent I found myself looking for opportunities for respite from the harrowing experience of actually playing the game – not just lingering in areas that felt safe, but obsessively going through my inventory items, examining them, trying to combine them.  The inventory screen took me out of the world for a moment, relieving the tension.  Without the inventory screen in A Machine for Pigs there is less opportunity for such relief, forcing me to spend more time in the game-world itself.  The lack of sanity score is interesting: your sanity no longer drains in the darkness (a consequence of the original protagonist’s nyctophobia), so there’s less of a compulsion to use the lantern, which is now electric.  As a result, I use my lantern less, but when I do I find myself using it purely for light rather than to keep my sanity from draining.  While I miss the anxiety that dwindling resources provoked, in a sense I’m actually more immersed with the electric lantern, because there’s no dissociation: while in the past I was using light not only to see, or to combat my own fear of what lies in the darkness, I was using it to make sure a statistic didn’t drop.  Sure, that statistic had consequences in the game (woozy vision and minor hallucinations and all that), which also added a lot, but there was still a degree to which my immersion was slightly undermined.


In terms of its capacity for fright, the game has not disappointed so far.  Having played the first game, I fully expected the first segments of the game to be devoid of monsters and so felt relatively safe as I explored the first levels – a Victorian manor house, in significantly better repair than the mouldering fastness of Brennenburg – but as I got further and further into the game my anxiety started to ramp up, unsure of when the first real danger would appear.  Even despite my knowledge that I was unlikely to encounter anything in the first half hour or so of play, the game still managed to unnerve me significantly.  The Shadow periodically shook Brennenburg, dislodging stones and knocking over rotten beams; in A Machine for Pigs the same role is played by the eponymous machine (whatever it is), the “Factory” as the journals and phonographs describe it, a behemothic construct of gears and piping which I’ve only caught hints of so far, having just now descended into a series of tunnels below an old chapel or church attached to the manor.  This, in itself, is fascinating.  Numerous texts in the game indicate that Oswald Mandus, your protagonist this time around, has a deep disdain for God, referring to him as a hog, swine, etc – a position probably connected to the heavily implied death of Mandus’ wife.  At the same time, man and machines are complexly deified and degraded in the journal entries and recordings.  On the one hand humanity’s capacity for creation and vision is exalted, but on the other hand humans are consistently referred to in animalistic terms (most commonly, of course, as pigs); machines are likewise spoken of in rapturous terms, yet Oswald spits on Babbage’s vision of a thinking machine.  While in the first game much of the terror revolved around ancient, unknown, and alien powers, like the Shadow, in this game the evil is man-made, modern, and disturbingly human.  There are hints that Mandus brought something back from a fateful trip to Mexico – references to and models of ziggurats, ubiquitous Mesoamerican pig-masks, the suggestion that Mandus fell ill after returning from Central America – but the fiendish machine, and the Moreau-esque monsters which, at this, point, I have only caught the barest glimpses of, are (I think) Mandus’ creations, not some outside force’s (the Gatherers in The Dark Descent were created by Alexander, of course, but Alexander is almost certainly not human, but a supernatural being of some sort: he wishes to return to the world he came from).  The focus on humanity itself and our creations rather than on horrific outside forces is far more in accord with late nineteenth-century Gothic works like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Island of Dr Moreau, and The Great God Pan – even when supernatural forces are involved in such stories they are usually tied to or released by human science, or at least human willpower.

As for the monsters themselves, as I said, I’ve only caught the barest glimpses so far, but from what little I’ve seen they’re going to be very unique.  The monsters in The Dark Descent were mostly fairly slow: the Gatherers could get up to a decent clip when roused, but most of the time they were shambolic, lumbering zombie-like through the castle’s passages.  Justine, The Dark Descent’s semi-sequel, went the same route with its Suitors – speedy enough when riled up, but usually slow and ponderous.  The monsters in A Machine for Pigs, in contrast, seem much, much faster.  They flit, quadruped, across passageways and catwalks, charging on all fours from place to place.


The game so far is also much more concerned with the domestic, a pleasingly Victorian transition.  I liked Daniel in the first game but he was basically just an individual: there was no exploration of his family, and his back-story was explored only when directly relevant to the game’s plot.  In contrast, Oswald’s back-story is far more detailed.  We know the names of his wife and children, his social status, his profession (industrialist/philanthropist); we get a much better feel for Oswald’s personal obsessions and interests in this game.  The game seems to be setting him as a mysophobe, someone intensely disgusted by and paranoid about filth and animality – fitting, considering his adoration of the clean, cold sterility of machines.  His motivations are similarly more socialized and contextualized: while Daniel was basically on a quest for personal revenge (revenge for what Alexander had turned him into), Oswald is out to save his children, children I’m coming to think he may have badly abused in the past, given the unsettling cages (gilded, but still undeniably reminiscent of pig-pens) that he’s placed over their beds.

I’m looking forward to completing the game, though I’d estimate at this point I’m only about 10-20% through at most.  When I’ve finished I’ll post a more thorough review, and perhaps talk about some of the things Amnesia can teach us about game design.

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