The Weekly(??) Fourdown – Knockoffs

Also known as “reinventions” if you’re feeling generous. These are games that take a successful game’s formula and work with it in their own way. Despite feeling a little snarky about them, sometimes they can work out quite well if they bring their own ideas to enhance what they’re building on. And other times, not so much.

YY: Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide

(aka Left 4 Rats)

Other games have drawn from Left 4 Dead’s wildly successful formula but few are as blatant as Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide: Why Not a Fourth Title While You’re At It?

The hordes, the special rats that mimic L4d’s specials, the obstacles and general flow of combat. It’s all here. Yet it makes itself stand out with its melee combat focus and characters that actually differ from each other. Each one feels unique to play, and swapping between them will keep things interesting for a while. Plus, the melee combat itself is chunky, gruesome, and requires precision and timing at high levels.

Like L4D, its longevity is based on how many times you want to play the same maps over and over. A frustratingly random loot system is supposed to help with this, but it just means the community is much more hostile than it ought to be.

Still, for its great combat and multiplayer fun, this is as good as ripoffs get.

Y: Full Mojo Rampage

(aka The Binding of Voodoo)

Calling this an Isaac ripoff might not even be fair. While the twin-stick roguelike gameplay is similar, it has a lot of different ideas on how to play and also features online coop.

It feels a little loose at times, needing a bit of polish, but if you’re an Isaac fan then this is worth checking out to play with a friend. Expect frustration with the unclear mechanics and permadeath at first. Just like you had with Isaac when you first started it!

N: 12 is Better Than 6

(aka Hotline Mexico)

A western shoot ’em up in that spastic high-stakes style of Hotline Miami,  this one let me down by just being messily pasted together. It has the pieces of a good knockoff game, but its many flaws keep them from staying together. Plus, I can’t stress enough how embarrassing the “edgy” writing is.

NN: The Dolls: Reborn

(aka: Five Nights at Dolly’s)

A game so similar to Five Nights at Freddy’s it got sued. If you’re not interested in that series, then you’re not interested in this. And if you’re a FNaF fan, then you probably won’t care about this either.

Buggy, ugly, and terribly unoriginal. Not worth a penny.

-OV

The Weekly FourDown – Elder Scrolls

Bethesda’s main franchise will always have a special place in my heart for all it buggy, awkward brokenness. But going back through them, age is starting to show. Here’s a little breakdown of which ones deserve your attention.

Double Yes: Skyrim

There’s a lot you can say to decry this choice. It’s simpler, dumbed down, more repetitive, and less feature-packed than its predecessors. But it’s Skyrim.

It’s still the breath of (freezing) fresh air it was when it came out, and still enthralls me with the many adventures I can go on to this day. I’m still finding little touches hidden away in the dungeons, little set pieces put there specifically for me to notice. While greatly less complicated than the next choice in the list, its strength is just how playable it is. More adventures, less fiddling around.

Yes: Morrowind

I’m going to be perfectly honest here. For all I admire the unique and interesting setting of this one, I’ve never gone so far as to actually finish it. Maybe its my spoiled, modern gaming instincts that leave me fumbling blindly when I’m not given a quest marker. Or maybe it’s that sense of constantly screwing everything up forever. But for all it does well with its setting and open-endedness, it stands above its sequel for being an alternative to Skyrim’s design, rather than just an inferior version of it.

No:  Oblivion 

Though at the time of course I was quite impressed by this one, looking back on it I can’t help but find my memories turn increasingly hostile. At an awkward midpoint between Morrowind’s openness and Skyrim’s cohesiveness, it sets itself in the most generic of fantasy settings with its green fields, wolves, and skeletons. It’s more dumbed down than Morrowind but less accessible than Skyrim. But I think what really does it are those truly awful character models, coupled with the cringey acting and writing. It’ll alienate those who prefer the old formula, and with Skyrim out there’s no reason to go back to it again.

Double No: The Elder Scrolls Online

I’ve always liked the idea of MMOs, but I’ve yet to find out I can truly enjoy on all levels. And Bethesda’s shot at that doesn’t even come close. While it has at least a sense of exploration that can earn some fun, it feels like a budget ripoff of its own franchise. Plus, that MMO carrot-on-a-stick design means none of the brokenness that makes the real series so much dumb fun is present. Everything is tightly controlled and regulated like some sort of Thalmor prison, with only a small maximum allotment of fun per day. Other players are a nuisance and nothing it does is particularly interesting. The series would have been much better served by coop functionality rather than the full MMO treatment.

Not Included: Arena, Daggerfall, Redguard, Battlespire, etc. 

I’m not going to bother grouping these into a category. Either you’ve played them before, and will enjoy them for their nostalgia factor, or you haven’t. Incredibly dated, they’re likely not worth the hurdles it will take to get them working on a modern system. With the possible exception of Daggerfall – old-school types might find something to enjoy in its sheer scale, but take away the nostalgia filter and these just aren’t good games anymore.

-OV

The Weekly FourDown – Diablo Clones

Let’s face it. No imitator will ever capture the magic of playing Diablo 2 for the first time. That old loot machine feels a bit antique today, but the first time with your first character was pure heaven.

It’s no surprise so many games basically try to do just that, even coming up with UI’s and control schemes that are so similar as to practically skirt copyright laws. Here are some of them.

Double Yes: Grim Dawn

Probably the best example of the Diablo-likes I’ve played so far. Like Titan Quest before it, there’s a repetition of levels and enemies that dulls things down a little. Skills can be a little difficult to figure out at first glance. Your build won’t really come together until much later.

But it has style, ideas, and feels good. Probably not going to stand the test of time, but the best bet for your fix if you need the sweet, sweet sound of epic loot dropping right goddamn now.

Yes: Torchlight 2

A lot more refined and varied than the first one, but still fails to grab me in a lot of ways. Maybe I’m being an edgelord, but the art style might be part of it. Everything is colourful, sure, but every enemy looks and feels the same. My memory of playing through the game is like a hazy fever dream at this point, with every level and encounter basically feeling the same.

Still, it’s good stuff and worth going through once at least. Workshop support is a big plus for extra content and mods.

No: Path of Exile

I know this has a big fanbase, and for good reason. It’s free, for one. Like, really truly free. It really nails the grim, unforgiving atmosphere. And it has a lot of new ideas to build on the D2 formula. There’s a certain kind of gamer that this is perfect for.

But wow is it not for me. This is a game clearly targeted to people who thought Diablo 2 would be perfect if it wasn’t so accessible. The obsessive, speed-running, loot-trading, build-perfecting types. It’s incredibly easy to build yourself into a corner, and has no tolerance for newcomers whatsoever. One of those games it’s entirely possible to screw up your character for good by level 2.

I also despise the living hell out of the bartering system.

Double No: That One New MMO That Your Friend Says Isn’t Like Other MMOs

They’re lying.

-OV

 

 

The Weekly FourDown – Nov 22nd

This is a blog! People write on blogs. But I don’t write on blogs because I’m bad at things.

So, to get a little activity going, here’s my new thing.

Remember when I said I was right about four-star rating systems? I’m still right. Mine’s better than yours. Sorry.

If you don’t remember, here’s a reminder.

So many rating systems are incredibly inflated, and gamers look at scores to tell them, flat-out, whether they’re worth playing or not.

Oh, a 79 average on metacritic? Not worth my time. 80? Let’s check it out.

Worse, anything less than an exceptional score is indication that the game is bad. Go on, be honest. Are you still interested in a game if it averages a 7/10 in reviews?

You should be. That’s damn good. That’s way above average. If the concept of the subject material interest you, you’ll probably like it and get over its issues. Because all games have issues. Even the heavyweights sitting at mid-90 averages have glaring problems.

It’s stupid to assume a great review means everything works well, that there are never bad moments. And it’s just as stupid to assume a mediocre review means the game doesn’t do anything right. That’s what a 0/10 is for.

And it’s even worse to assume that a “good” score actually means bad. If I rate something 3/4 stars, that’s technically 75/100 according to Metacritic. It puts it right smack in “not worth your time” territory for many. And that’s not right. 3 stars is me saying yes, I recommend this. Just not ravenously.

The alternative is a binary yes/no system. I like the decisiveness this forces, but sometimes, two games are worth a recommendation, but one stands out just so much more. And sometimes, a game deserves a hard NO, rather than just nah.

So anyway. New feature. Every week, I’ll be dredging my Steam backlog and putting together four short reviews as follows:

-One “highly recommended” (4/4) game.

-One “recommended” (3/4) game.

-One “not recommended” (2/4) game.

-One terrible awful 1/4 game.

They could be new, they could be old. They could be AAA, they could be tiny indie stuff. All that’s required is I played them, and a general theme to tie them together.

And I have a clever new way of titling my reviews too. I call them Double Yes, Yes, No, and Double No. Trending! Hashtags! Memes! #####!

So yeah. This week: horror. Little late. But I’m still all up in the creepy Fall-weather headspace.

Double Yes: Among The Sleep

Though short at 3-4 hours, it takes a good concept and uses it well instead of it just being a gimmick. Looks nice, basically plays like Amnesia, and has that effective use of symbolism that I so treasure in horror games.

http://store.steampowered.com/app/250620

Yes: The Last Door: Collector’s Edition

Enjoyably creepy point-and-click. Has jumpscares and general spooky atmosphere all around. Puzzles generally aren’t *too* adventure-gamey. Points off for not fully concluding by the end of the last episode.

http://steamcommunity.com/app/284390/

No: Home

I’m all for minimalist horror, but it’s one thing to get more from less and another to just have less going on in general. Home feels empty and dull, failing to create any decent tension.

Double No: State of Decay

Another zombie survival sandbox thing. Has a few cool ideas, but it all feels awkward and has trouble actually being fun. Has a stupid gimmick in that in-game time still passes even when you’re not playing. It’s also full of unfixed bugs. Oh, but you can buy the updated, bugfixed version for full price if you like! Haha no.

-OV

 

 

 

 

Microtransactions and Internet Hate Mobs: Life Lessons from Payday 2

I think I learned a valuable lesson about human psychology today. And it all began with writing a negative review for a game that happened to be in the process of being bombarded with negative reviews at the time. Let me explain.

Payday 2 is a dumb game where you shoot a lot, dressed up to pretend it’s something a little more elaborate and intelligent than a horde shooter. In between other scholarly gaming pursuits it’s often been my go-to game for when I don’t want to think, blowing off steam immediately after work or other such times. Flawed and rough as a beta, since the beta, it’s a game I’ve always recommended with several caveats, having to pre-warn people about its many flaws and poor design choices that somehow didn’t turn me away preemptively. In short, it’s a guilty pleasure.

Overkill, the development team behind Payday 2 has never struck me as particularly professional. With a great many PR failures over the past few years, and a general theme of apparent dishonesty, deserved or not, it’s failed to drum up a lot of company loyalty from me despite my enjoyment of their game. Prior to release, the store page of Payday 2 advertised several features that have either failed to manifest two years later (safehouse customization), or have proven to be a stretch of the truth (the number of unique heists available). The game has always had an unfinished feel to it, and the situation hasn’t been helped by frequent, dubiously valuable DLC releases, many of which are just a few new guns that may or may not be useful. By this point, the game’s DLC content adds up to more than triple the actual game’s original $30 price tag.

But this isn’t a post about Overkill’s poor DLC policy, nor its awkward communication with its consumer base and controversial promotional methods, or so on. Up until just yesterday, my interest had mostly faded from playing the game again and it was hardly on my mind. It was a mindless time-killer and it wasn’t worth analyzing the bad choices the developers made when I didn’t care about the game anymore. Then I happened upon a new feature announcement, one that can be summed up in a single word that strikes revulsion into the stomachs of gamers everywhere: microtransactions.

Microtransactions have arguably replaced DLC and pre-order bonuses as the new deadliest sin of game design. Many games treat it as a sign of corruption spreading from the mobile game sector, a manifestation of the crawling shadow overtaking the industry as a whole. I’m of the personal opinion that they are at no point ever a positive addition to any game. Trying to justify them as “unnecessary for the full experience” or just for gamers who don’t have as much time on their hands is nonsense, and even if they are not at all needed to experience the best a game has to offer, their mere presence taints my impression as a whole.

That said, some implementations of microtransactions are better than others. As far as I can tell, there are three levels of microtransaction hell. The least offensive are the cosmetic purchases added to games that allow a level of player customization beyond the usual options. I’m not a fan of this as I’m a nut for character customization, but if the game is free to play, I can forgive this, as it’s not breaking the actual game balance. No one gets ahead by paying, and everything you need to play the game effectively is at your fingertips without your wallet getting involved. Path of Exile is one of the best implementations of a player-friendly free-to-play model I’ve ever seen, offering the entirety of the game for free without any available options to make yourself more powerful by shelling out.

The second stage is paying for convenience, whether it’s paying for extra resources that you would have to grind for otherwise, or paying to bypass certain inconveniences the game puts in front of you, such as a limited inventory size. For some people this is acceptable, but in my books this prevents a game from being considered a “real” game. Whether or not these purchases are considered necessary to play the game comfortably, they corrupt every moment spent with it as the player wonders if, perhaps, they might be having more fun, more quickly should they spend a few dollars. While these kinds of purchases might be acceptable for some players, and in some cases are implemented harmlessly so as to be easily ignored, they will always be a black spot on an experience I might otherwise enjoy. See Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer or Dead Space 3 for the easily-ignored variety that nonetheless reduce the warmth of my recommendation, and Warframe for a game designed to be intentionally tedious so as to encourage spending.

The third, darkest level of micro-hell is paying directly for upgrades. When your in-game power is directly dependant on your spending on extra content, and when powerful weapons/upgrades/vehicles/units/whatever can only be acquired through real money, the line has officially been crossed. Frequently derided as “pay to win”, this is enough for me to ignore a game completely despite its appeal and should never be something that’s encouraged. It’s not acceptable, not even in a free-to-play game, and any game which implements a straight money equals power system of payment is trash, no matter how good it is. That’s how strongly I feel about this.

So, that brings me back to Payday 2. This is a game with all the feeling of a stage-two microtransaction game, given it’s extremely slow and tedious unlock rate and huge emphasis on repetitive grinding, but until yesterday they never actually went so far as to include in-game purchases beyond the aforementioned mediocre weapon dlc. These alternate weapon choices, for the most part, were never necessary to play the game at a high level and were mostly considered optional even by the best players, with a few exceptions. Then along came weapon skins. Weapon skins which can only be acquired through purchasing an expendable item with real money to open the safe containing them. Weapon skins which offer stat boosts to the weapons they are applied to. Stat boosts to weapons which, conveniently, have all been “rebalanced” (nerfed) on the same day as this new feature’s introduction. Well then.

Ignoring first the embarrassingly juvenile gunwank that is dressing up guns with tiger stripes or flames or whatever, this is pretty much the lowest of the low. It might even be the fourth circle of microtransaction hell. Paid skins are dumb, but acceptable, and for a different kind of gamer than me. That they were implemented into a game whose developers have previously promised they will not introduce microtransactions into the game is a pretty major slight, but the game’s getting old. So far, still forgivable, if stupid. Paid skins in a game that’s already bloated with overpriced DLC? Pretty shitty, but okay, I can just ignore them. Except that I can’t, because giving these skins stat bonuses, no matter how minor, means that I will always be using an inferior version of a weapon until I submit to spending real cash on stupid fucking gun paint.

So, naturally, like any mature gamer totally in control of his emotional impulses I wrote a long-winded negative review for the game that pointed out its other negative traits in addition to the new system. I had been honestly meaning to write a review for the game for a long time, but had been stuck considering whether I could still mark it positive with all the bad things it had going for it. This new update made my decision much easier, so it was time. As I said earlier, I didn’t even really care about the game anymore, and just wrote a review so that I could wash my hands of it, so to speak. As someone who writes a lot of reviews, it isn’t unusual for me to make another one.

But then something magical happened. I’m an obsessive post-checker to see if anything I publish has been given likes, votes, or comments, and feel validated when people click thumbs up on anything I write. So when I saw all those upvotes, all those glorious numbers increasing, all those people agreeing with my reactionary opinion, it really did something for me. As of right now, that negative review is my highest-rated review on Steam out of the dozens I’ve written, and I even received a handful of new friend requests shortly after posting it. Just by openly hating on something that a lot of people were presently also hating on, I was rewarded with a sense of support, community, and consensus. It felt good.

I think I understand internet hate mobs now.

Negativity is a powerful force in the human brain, one that easily overpowers positivity unless we really try. It’s much easier to dismiss something as absolute garbage rather than analyze its strengths and flaws. Simply put, black and white is easier than gray. So it’s easy to see how hatedoms form, how negative feedback grows into a solid and sustaining movement that people gain a sense of identity for belonging to. Think of popular-but-crappy things of recent years, like say 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight, and you’ve probably met someone who’s actually gone out of their way to let you know they don’t like them and hate that they even exist with any degree of success, as if their opinion makes any difference. It helps them define who they are, even though it’s a pretty weak way of defining someone.

Remember, I didn’t even care about this game anymore. It was out of my mind. I used to enjoy it, but had grown bored of it and uninstalled it months ago. So why even bother caring about it again? I wanted to make a comment on its flaws and warn off new players from getting sucked in and squeezed for money, but in the process, I unintentionally invited some attention on myself. Positive attention. For a brief moment, just by bashing a game that had done something really stupid, I was part of a community. I was powerful. And though I still didn’t care about the game, I liked the feeling hating on it gave me. It’s an easy temptation to keep kicking something when it’s down if other people keep patting you on the back for it, even when you’re not sure why you’re kicking anymore.

But I won’t be saying anything more about Payday 2. It’s a dumb, shameless game that just got much worse, and you shouldn’t buy it. That’s that. But posting a bad review for it did provide me a valuable bit of insight into the mind of people who seem to hate things for a living, so for that I guess I have to be grateful.

-OV

Hurt Me Plenty: Horror Games and Why They Should Make You Miserable

“Planted the fingernails in flowerpots all along the river when it’s dark, so the sun could hatch them. All the world is an egg, he reasoned. We will grow hands now.”
-Loading screen, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs

When I was reaching double digits of age and owned an original Playstation, God’s gift to my gaming experience was the majesty of monthly magazines which came packed with a disc of game demos. It meant new games to try out every month and introduced me to a wide range of genres and franchises which defined my gaming tastes to this day. Lurking deep within one of these innocent-looking silver discs like a hungry spider, fangs ready to suck the innocent juices from my ten-year-old mind, was a demo for the very first Silent Hill. Before that, the scariest gaming experience I’d had was the drowning music from Sonic the Hedgehog, which while legitimately terrifying, certainly didn’t prepare me for the kind of horror that ambushed my poor little self.

Everyone who’s played Silent Hill remembers the alley scene. The demo’s first part picked up directly after the game’s intro, where laughably-voiced protagonist Harry has crashed his car and is chasing after his inexplicably fleeing daughter down the foggy streets of an abandoned town. The player could only see a few feet ahead, the fog masking the fact that nobody had any idea how to efficiently create big, 3d environments yet but also becoming a trademark of the series. The chase leads into a long alleyway, and then through a creaky gate. It suddenly turns to night, forcing Harry to navigate via lighter, there are creepy wheelchairs and weird industrial noise and air raid sirens in place of a soundtrack, and basically shit’s really just fucked.

Playing that, as my little self, I felt genuine terror like I’d never felt before. I was really there, in the game, walking forward into that nightmare despite my better judgement, and I could have stopped at any time. But I just had to keep going, keep pushing on and experiencing that fear unlike any other. The segment ends with a horrifying part where you’re cornered and unarmed, leaving you no choice but to just get stabbed to death by monstrosities, only to wake up in a nearby diner. It was all a dream – or WAS it? The feeling of dread and helplessness couldn’t have been greater even if I was actually being stabbed by faceless demon children at the time.

The first Silent Hill looks like crap today, with ugly textures and really silly animations, but its use of darkness and sound to create fear rather than just monsters and gore really popularized the idea of a genuinely frightening game. The enemies in Silent Hill aren’t even very scary. Sure, they can damage you, but you shoot them, they go down, and you move on. The real terror is in navigating those creepy, twisted environments barely able to see, surrounded by strange, noisy ambience like a malfunctioning machine. As a kid, the game felt “alive”. It knew I was playing it. It was watching. And at any moment, it would do something terrible and horrifying beyond what the fairly simple technology at the time could manage.

The medium of video games holds the potential to be the most frightening form of entertainment possible for this very reason. In a book or a movie, the story has already been created, and either the protagonists make it or they don’t. While there are plenty of wonderful horror movies or books, the experience of them will always be the same each time through. In a game, the protagonist won’t make it to the end without your help. Whatever he or she has to go through, so do you. If something jumps out, you’re the one who has to run away. If something sounds like it’s following you, you’re the one who has to keep looking behind you. The best horror games becomes a living experience, and for those with the right amount of suspension of disbelief, can invoke feelings of danger and dread that you just won’t get anywhere else.

The mainstream horror game has had bursts of popularity but for the most part remains a rare breed, and probably for good reason. The more a horror game starts to resemble a “real” game, the less frightening they tend to be. Naturally, they can seem like a risky investment for major publishers, which results more often in action games with horror elements rather than more subtle experiences. Resident Evil 4 might be partly to blame for such a trend, moving away from the slow plod of previous games and turning it into more of a shooter. While it was excellent, since then we’ve seen far fewer major horror releases that don’t feature lots of monsters and lots of shooting.

In fact, the best horror games probably aren’t even really very good games, from a purist’s stance. If you’re enjoying a horror game because it’s fun, something’s wrong. Looking forward to the next encounter so you can shoot more things and indulge in more action might be good from a game design point of view, but it’s not scary. If we’re really going to be scared, we have to dread even starting up the game, we have to genuinely not want to play, and the temptation to just quit out needs to be a constant one. We’re supposed to be miserable, and a particularly diehard horror fan is willing to overlook a great deal of design flaws in order to focus on the “experience”.

Not that a good horror game should be a bad game. And here’s where it gets pretty confusing. Everything should flow smoothly and organically, everything should feel like a threat, and a sense of dread and misery should be ever present, yet we should never be thinking of the game as a game. We shouldn’t be frustrated, and while we should be challenged, a horror game that’s oppressively difficult is going to lose its effectiveness once repetition sets in. If the creaking gears beneath the elaborate set start to show, if we get hung up on “game stuff” rather than constantly pushing forward, then the experience is broken and we’re no longer scared, just playing a game with horror elements.

A major player in the developing indie horror scene was Amnesia: The Dark Descent. With a limited light source, no defensive capabilities beyond hiding and cowering, and a sanity meter that diminishes for even looking at the lurking horrors within the castle, it made a major impact in the horror scene and is frequently mentioned as one of the scariest games ever. This all despite how very simple the game actually is. Exploration, puzzle-solving, and evasion are the name of the game, with no combat to speak of. Monster encounters consist of running and finding a good closet to hide in or table to crawl under and cower. It used what simple means it had to convey a sense of helplessness and vulnerability that was terrifying and had never before quite been captured so well.

Nowadays, it’s practically the norm to give the player no means of fighting back against whatever horrors are after them. While effectively frightening, this is particularly limiting in terms of game design. There is only so much a developer can do with such a limited variety of encounters, and helplessness strikes a precarious balance between terrifying and just annoying. Vulnerability is a great, and the more empowered and confident the main character is, the less horror is being presented, but to totally give up on combat and complicated systems in favour of simple evasion is very hard to keep fresh over a longer period. There’s only so much time I can spent whimpering in a locker.

Everyone’s probably tired of talking about Dark Souls at this point, but I’ll bring it up one more time just as an antithesis to the above. While you’re never helpless in the game, always armed and more than capable of taking down the monsters that shamble around the levels, the series has always excelled in creating a sense of hostility and dread in the world. Every corner you explore can mean death, every encounter, even the easy ones, can mean major consequences if you screw up. While not exactly scary, this sense of misery, a sense of actively hating the player, makes for such a strong sense of tension that many actual horror games are missing.

The problem with games is that they are mostly played by gamers. Sure, they might be achieving some crossover appeal and drawing in a broader and broader market, for better or worse, but in almost every case, people come into a game having played other games before. Just as a veteran of horror movies will see cliches coming a mile away, once the player has experienced a few horror games then they start to get hardened to the usual tricks and traps that developers use. And as scary as the game may be, if the seams are visible, if the game plays like a game, we’re all going to notice.

That’s why it’s less important to focus on the physical aspects of the horror experience, less on the ahhh monsters are gonna kill me, and more on the mental. The best horror feels like it’s truly inside your head, that it shifts and adapts to the player as they move through its world, and the connection between player and developer gets blurred. Things get surreal, you start to wonder if this really is the game anymore, if you were even -meant- to see this. Horror classics like Amnesia and Silent Hill have scary monsters, sure. But it’s not like they were scary because there were monsters in them. Rather, the sense of unpredictable darkness, of not knowing just what might be waiting for you should you press any further, of wondering if anyone else playing this game is experiencing the same thing.

Which is probably why so many people, myself included, hold up Silent Hill 2 as one of the greatest horror games of all time. In terms of game, it’s not fantastic. Combat is awkward and overly easy, with most monsters providing minimal threat and easily evaded. Controls are notably slow and unresponsive. Voice-acting is pretty meh for the most part, though it has its good moments. All in all, it’s not a game that’s played for the sheer fun of it.

Yet I consider it a classic. Not for being fun, not for having scary monsters, but because it is such a layered and mysterious experience. There are so many things that make no sense, yet seem so important. So much of the game is confusing, subtle, and yet speak of very deliberate placement. Why is that dead guy dressed like me? What is that invisible thing in the prison cell? What are those little whispers saying when I stand in this one empty room for a few seconds? It’s a horror game with something to hide, with hidden secrets that speak of something deeper, something darker going on beneath the surface of “oh no monsters I gotta find my wife”. It feels living and organic, easy to forget that everything’s there because a designer put it there. No, the strange, unexplained scenery and happenings are there because of course they are.

This kind of living, organic horror experience is what I so greatly love about horror games. With mysteries and secrets lurking in the dark corners, every player’s experience is going to be a little different, going to be uniquely their own, and it’s all the more frightening for it. The best horror isn’t about adrenaline, it’s about worry, it’s about doubt. Was that really supposed to happen? Should I be going this way? What happens if it finds me? It’s the kind of experience which erodes with the usual piece-by-piece deconstruction that many gamers tend to give games, but with the right mind, and the right willingness to be scared, horror games can become so much more than the sum of their sometimes-awkward parts.

With the genuinely scary mainstream horror game just a dream for the most part these days (Alien: Isolation notwithstanding), the spotlight is on the indie scene. Limitations on technology and budget are what gave us some of the greatest horror movies of all time, and embracing those limits has given has some great indie horror as well. Whereas big-budget development is all about wearing money on its sleeve, showing off its fancy monster design and next-gen gore effects, a small developer needs to work around its own limits in new and creative ways. That forced subtlety, if nothing else, is bound to eventually birth a new monstrosity, maybe even not entirely on purpose. I look forward to feeling like my ten-year-old self walking down that alley again.

-OV

Quicksaves Will Ruin You as a Person: A Cautionary Tale

Imagine for a moment that you have mystically acquired the ability to mark a spot in time and jump back to it at any moment when you feel like the current situation isn’t to your liking. Now go ahead and blatantly lie by saying you wouldn’t go completely mad with power. At first, you might rewind a little whenever you say something stupid, or spill your drink, or so on, using it as a convenient undo button. Give it a day tops though, and we would all be exercising our most devious and borderline sociopathic whims until all the world bows to their new all-knowing god-king.

While the consequences aren’t quite so severe as turning you into a cackling villain, games that are too generous about when you can save are similarly problematic. Being able to permanently keep even the slightest amount of positive progress, or to repeat the same sequences over and over until they are absolutely perfect can potentially suck the fun and immersion completely out of a game. No longer are their risks, no longer do you fear that nasty enemy, no longer are you nervous while navigating a dangerous area. If something goes wrong, you can just shrug your shoulders, tap a button, and channel your inner five-year-old. Nu-uh! Missed me!

Whatever a game is trying to accomplish, it can only be hurt by a player who saves too much. Going for a hardcore dungeon-crawl sort of feel? Good luck making the player afraid of your traps when they can just quicksave every five steps and load when they get impaled. Trying to create a high-stakes strategy game? Don’t expect the player to just roll with it when a bad move causes their most important unit to die for good. Aiming to tell a story where the players decisions have consequences? You just know those noncommittal assholes are going to roll back to a previous save when their choice doesn’t turn out how they like.

An unlimited instant save system undermines almost every aspect of a game’s design, from difficulty to player involvement to experimentation and discovery, and yet the alternative is often worse. Those games which arbitrarily limit when and how often the player can save usually just lead to frustration. Some games, like all the Resident Evils before 4 had the atrocious requirement of a one-use item to save at any of the designated save points scattered around. In theory, it meant the player had to find a way to get through tough situations when they were injured or low on supplies and live with their mistakes, making them genuinely fear the next enemy encounter. That works, assuming the player never dies, but only frequently comes close. As soon as the player is kicked back to their last save and realizes they have to run through that nasty part they just barely survived all over again, all sense of dread and stakes melts away in favour of controller-tossing rage. The monsters are no longer a threat, they’re just an obstacle between you and where you were, and you get sick of killing those same damn three zombies every time you want to try and fail to take down the hulking doom-beast.

Some games revel in this masochism, usually those labelled as roguelikes and marketed towards a more hardcore, self-flagellating audience. Some modern successes include The Binding of Isaac or FTL: Faster Than Light, two games in which victory is not even remotely expected on your first try, loading a previous save is never possible, and death is permanent and requires you to start again from nothing. These games work because while harsh and unforgiving, they only last an hour at most per life, so dying just means you make another attempt rather than you redo hours of tedious progress. Other games, like Diablo and its relentless parade of imitators, include the option for a ‘hardcore’ mode which deletes your save if you die. In theory it sounds like an awesome, tense way of playing the game, but is absolutely going to mean you’ll get instantly killed by some stupid, poorly designed enemy you could never have defended against after dozens of hours of careful play.

There are those games which are simply so loosely designed that they require constant saving to make sure you don’t mess anything up. Hugely open-world games need to let you save whenever, because stumbling into a nest of overpowered baddies and getting knocked back to a save point is just going to discourage the player from exploring. Games that really sell themselves on their open-ended world usually aren’t really about challenge in truth, they’re about making your own adventures, so in this case quicksaving is necessary. A sense of danger and consequence evaporates along with it, but it ensures the player actually wants to wander instead of zipping straight towards the objective as fast as possible. Having a challenging, dangerous open world where death comes suddenly, such as in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, can make for a harrowing experience but also becomes almost unbearably frustrating without frequent saving.

Abandoning quicksaves for autosaves can be a valid strategy, but only if it’s well-implemented. At its best, it means that the player can keep their mind in the moment and not worry about saving, trying not to die but not worrying too much if they do. It can be treated as a checkpoint system, which is both frustrating when not frequent enough and runs the risk of saving the player in an impossible situation as they barely scrape by with no health left from the last section. Or it can just keep track of your character file and most recent checkpoint, as is the case in the Borderlands and Dark Souls series. Death shoots you back to the most recent checkpoint with your health refilled but your inventory not restocked, as does quitting the game. An effective method for forcing the player to tackle chunks of the game all in one go, but it can easily be mishandled if it’s not directly incorporated into the level design.

One of the most clever ways around all this, at least in a storytelling aspect, is the way The Witcher series refuses to reveal the consequences of your choices until somewhere down the road, often hours later. Players can’t simply reload to see how things could have gone differently, unless they’re willing to replay hours of game. It also refuses to let you save during combat, which is a valid restriction in any game but sometimes pretty annoying, especially when you’re not even looking to get into combat. It prevents tapping the quicksave button every time you land a good hit, but also forces repetition of harder battles from the very start.

In rare cases, games actually design difficulty levels around the ability to save. The only games that do this off the top of my head are the first two Max Payne games as well as the earlier Hitman titles. While this does make the game more difficult, and really makes the player think about whether it’s a good time to save or not, more than likely they’ll just end too afraid to save and end up dying and replaying huge chunks they shouldn’t have to. Good in theory, but it creates a weird difficulty curve and overall paranoia that maybe you’ll need those saves later, similar to how so many players refuse to use their best items just in case they need them.

Really, all of this comes from the fact that, given the ability to infinitely save and load at any moment, players will abuse the shit out of that ability no matter how it ruins their experience. Any sort of system imposed to limit saves is simply born from that irresponsibility. Sure, you can try to avoid saving all the time. You can tell yourself you’ll only do it when you really need it. You can control this habit, man. But ugh, that snake-spider thing hits so hard, you just need one quicksave in the middle of the fight. Oh, nice, you manage to hit it three times and dodge away. You’re never going to do that well against it ever again. Just one more quicksave. Only God can judge, the great final boss in the sky that he is.

Soon, before we know it, we ponder uppercutting our bosses just to see what happens, or mentally grope for the quickload button every time our suave flirting comes out as a whimpering sputter. We spiral towards a disturbing, dark world in which all sense of consequence is eradicated. Violent crime runs rampant, committed at random by those merely curious to see it. Wars break out as militaries go rogue, testing their weapons on whoever’s nearby, just to see. The bombs fall, dropped at the whims of bored leaders. Among the ashes, the survivors cry to their gods. “Save us!” they say. But there’s only one save file for humanity. And it has been overwritten.

Or maybe this is just something to keep in mind more closely, in a gaming era of weird, erratic difficulty curves and artificial challenges. My money’s still on the nuclear holocaust.