Alan Wake: Review

You know… “horror” is a very hard thing to produce. Sure, you can give people tension. You can give frustration without even half trying. Humor’s well studied, if a bit hit-or-miss. But horror has one major problem when you try to put it in a videogame… specifically, you can’t die.  The absolute worst thing that will happen to your character if you badly err is that you will have to make another attempt at the section. No amount of ambiance, nor shock, nor exposition shall ever change this aspect of gaming.

Now, for a more complete review, I did play, not just the basic game, but the “Nightmare” difficulty level. This is coloring my perspective, as I wasn’t going to sit through every cutscene, read through every bit of exposition… I just bulled through in the version where the monsters had about twice the health.

Now, when I first played this game through, I enjoyed the hell out of it. Okay, it’s ripping off the primary gameplay mechanic of “Obscure” with monsters that have shadow-based armor and light strips it. And even the insane “boosting” of flashlight beams. As combat mechanics go, it’s not exactly overused. Although there is certainly some room for refinement. In this case, the enemies do not lose health from being shot until light strips off their smoky armor. To remove it, shine a light. Make it bright. When it’s on target, a bit of faux lens flare shrinks until the armor goes out with a bright flash. Also, there’s a high-pitched hiss as it’s burned off. Bit like nails on chalkboard. This rather replaces any ambient music you would normally have to indicate combat.

Adorably, the enemies do not like having light shone upon them, and will back away, strafe… and eventually put an arm up to shield their eyes and advance on you anyway. This is actually a fairly useful way to stun them briefly without wasting precious ammo. Just remember to turn down the high beams when they put their arm up so they’ll drop it and you can blind ’em again. đŸ˜€

There’s a nice, brief variety of tools. Flares for extra light that forces foes back as it dents their armor. Revolver, shotgun, pump shotgun, hunting rifle… because making the horror vulnerable still means you have to kill it! And then we get the useful weapons. Flashbangs that you throw badly that are like IFF-capable grenades. And a flare gun that works a lot like a missile launcher, and leaves a flare effect at the point of impact. And the odd explodable tank that can be shot for a nice firework effect… a few searchlights that are a bit like machine gun emplacements… and tons of generators that turn on one light to save your ass.

The most fascinating aspect of the game’s limited weapon system is that they take it all away from you frequently. Since you can’t be sure (on the first playthrough) how long you get to hold those nice weapons… use ’em or lose ’em. This forced me to play a lot less conservatively than my usual. And made the game a lot easier. I usually try to get by as much as I can with pistols, melee… whatever won’t run out of ammo soon. This is, of course, stupid, and gets you killed when you’re facing more than one foe.

The plot rather rips off In the Mouth of Madness. Fun little flick… about a writing project gone inadvertently eldritch, surreal, and omnipotent. You find pages of the manuscript that controls and foretells the game events as you play, and so do other characters. This is at least a new form of the old audio log exposition method. It rewards the observant player with information on scenes not visited, or yet to occur.

The bit that truly surprised me about this game; was its writing. The characters get good lines, the voice actors deliver well, and the overall intent is for you to enjoy meeting these folks. Your colorful sidekick isn’t a worthless idiot, though he is used to comedic effect. He’s not a bumbling fool, but a good-hearted friend to your character. The brief stretches of the game where you have companions, they’re armed, carry flashlights, and kick ass.

Although, the game premise of having the plot written by a sleep-deprived, madness-touched author in one week does excuse some of the comically lampshaded bits, like the sheriff brushing off your inquiry as to why she has a key to the bookstore (you have to go through, the roads are blocked!). Though it does suffer from a few instances where the characters absolutely must go the long way around because there’s a 3′ fence in the way.

There are a couple bits that disappoint. First, after beating the game in either normal or hard mode, you unlock Nightmare. Which gives the wee perk of letting you collect the rest of the manuscript. A few pages in each level just aren’t there in the lesser difficulties. After collecting them… I can’t see why they bothered. Half were song lyrics and poems already in the game… only a couple really added anything. It was a bit like deleted scenes on a DVD. Some of them, you can see exactly why the darned things were deleted.

Next disappointment, is in the DLC. One’s out. Another’s due. And the thing that’s going to be put in the one that’s not out yet? The ending.

No, seriously. An ending. The game we have so far is, like a lot out of hollywood, cut off at the climax. No “happily ever after”. Well, it’s actually horror genre. Make that no “Oh no. Please for the love of God no!” ever after.

The first DLC adds a chapter. Couple cute gameplay elements with shining a light on floating words to create things… like a minefield of “bad words”. The problem is that the plot never really goes anywhere or resolves anything. It’s a fantastic production of… filler.

Curiously, we have a story about a horror story with the ending not yet written… and the ending to it hasn’t yet been written. : So… incomplete review, for now. I’ll just have to leave you hanging in-

Dear Parking Garage, I Hate You. You Win Again.

As I drove my sweet silver baby down to the hospital (UNMC) this afternoon to bring my friend a few comfort items, I began to worry about the parking situation, as this is apparently one of THE places to be in Omaha on any given day. I quickly gave a thought to valet parking, but decided against it since you were right on my first left turn. Yes you, mister large concrete structure.

You seemed so friendly, open, and easy to use. There were signs hung all over you that said things like, “Green Parking”, “Do Not Enter”, and I’m pretty sure there were even a few that told me my right from my left. My car was pulled into your direction completely attracted to you because of this ‘easy to use’ face you pulled off. You also attracted me because you seemed to promise that I would not lose my way while driving in you, or lose my car when trying to leave the hospital.

Lies, they were all lies. I should’ve known better. You’re just a big concrete object full of lies and confusing directions after you’ve sucked numerous helpless cars in. I made my way in slowly, I looked for the closest spot, and I knew it would turn out to be a failure, but I figure it’s always worth a try. After realizing this was my first defeat, I continued on only to realize that I about turned the wrong way on your nice little “one way” track. Thankfully I went to this thing called school, and thankfully my family believed in literacy, so I quickly avoided making my mistake. I drove up one more track and found a comfy little spot not too far off from the entrance doors on that floor. I thought to myself that this would be easy, because nestled in your little large self were quite a few things I used as markers to remember where I parked. Things like the set of brown chairs sitting outside the glass doors, and the sight of this ugly shade of green chipped paint on your elevator doors and trim. The only thing that was going to be hard from here was finding my friend’s hospital room and the University Tower right?

Oh no, that stuff was simple. The signs and arrows were simple, and I made it about two doors away from her room before I double checked with a nurse on where my friend was at. I spent a few hours there, and didn’t leave until I knew she wouldn’t be alone. I even found my way back out of the unfamiliar side of the hospital easily, but then came the hallway where I had to pick a door to go through to get back to you. It was like I was on some sort of game show, and if I didn’t pick the right door, I wasn’t going to be rewarded with my car. I was tricked and I went straight out door one which was completely wrong, and I could tell the second I stepped outside because even though I didn’t see your brown chairs, the scenery also didn’t seem right. I tried a whole three times more in each floor on the elevator trying to figure out why the hell I wasn’t coming across the right floors again.

I finally got a little frustrated with you, so I decided I would just walk to where I felt my car was. This actually caused  me to walk in a full circle around your dark unfamiliar land. Suddenly you didn’t seem so friendly anymore. You just seemed creepy, and really really confusing. I began wondering if I maybe trusted you too much with my baby, because I just wasn’t finding her anywhere. I even thought for a bit that you had let her get towed away for whatever dumb reason, even though I knew I wasn’t doing anything illegal by where I parked. I finally got REALLY frustrated with you , and aftering landing on the same (wrong) floor yet again, I just exited your entire intimidating structure. I completely walked around your outsides, back to where my poor hatchback was sucked into you originally, and walked myself into your now poorly lit entrances. I walked up the way I remembered driving my car (without the one way near mistake) , and finally I was reunited with her. I love that car, and I’m not sure I’ll ever trust you or one of your kind again with it.

So I guess what I just wanted to get at is, I hate you. I really do. You are not the first parking garage I have lost my car, or a friends car in, and you probably won’t be my last. I think you’ll take great pleasure in the fact that you won again. You caused me to have a near freak out, because I had no other way of getting myself back home. You caused me to freak out because there is no way in the world I can afford to lose my car right now. You also caused me to feel like a complete and total idiot due to the whole walking around in circles thing, which is really what you wanted to do isn’t it? Well, congratulations. I hope you’re happy, and now I’ll have to make sure to be extra careful with you lying piles of confusing ramps and signs. That’s all for now, bye.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent review

Yes, this is another of those cliched tropes where the main character starts out with a bad case of “WTF just happened to me?” At least this time around it’s not the product of a blow to the head. It’s self-inflicted, via… well, magic potion, basically.

But for a good reason.

No, seriously. There was a good reason for your character to drink a vial of “fuggedabowdit” and leave a note saying “If I can still read English after that, I need me to kill the guy that owns this creepy-ass castle. He’s in the Inner Sanctum. Best of luck. Trust me, I’m you.”

Now, being the clever fellow that I am, I stared at that for a while and realized my character’s prior self was a bit of an idiot. No map whatsoever to navigate through this crumbling castle. No confidence on his part that there’d even be much of a mind left to follow instructions…

And it hit me. Whether or not my mission is a success or not is immaterial to my past self. He wasn’t trying to win. He was trying to commit suicide by killing who he had become!

And on that, you embark on a horror game, a quest of discovery and redemption… taunted by semi-hallucinatory revelations and memories… and an encroaching unreality as the world itself grows grotesque crimson tumors that hurt to touch.

This isn’t your typical survival horror game as brought to you by… Capcom. How Resident Evil ever became the brand name for the genre escapes me. This game has atmosphere. It has style. The voice acting is good. The writing is good. (Not great, but good.) RE games give you “horror” by giving you barely enough ammo for an action game. I call BS. This game gives you NO ammo. No weapons. You aren’t a fighter. You aren’t capable of going up against even one shambling horror from beyond. You are just barely up to hiding in a dark closet and praying the bad thing leaves on its own.

The key question to me, with this type of story, is whether or not the payoff lives up to the buildup. And it has actually a very good buildup. Unfortunately, what’s difficult to detect is that the actual payoff/climax is in the final scrap of diary that explains why you took the amnesia tonic. The three endings available to you in the final confrontation are simply a choice and three sets of consequences… and this being a horror game, it’s fair that even the best ending is not necessarily good.

Unfortunately, this sort of game is not for everyone. The… I hesitate to say “combat” with reference to the frantic scramble that follows an encounter with a monster; from the perspective of the monster, it is combat, so we’ll go with that. When you see a monster, your vision blurs due to insanity effects (the mind does not wish to see!) and your only hope is to shut a door between yourself and it, then hide for a bit.

So the most action the game has to offer, really, is you staring at the wall of your hiding space, hoping you don’t give your position away, and hoping the foe leaves before you go insane or it kills you.

Needless to say, while this is quite effective at producing tension, after you figure out good hiding spaces in the level, it’s boring as fuck.

Of course, when you find out your hiding space is inadequate… then you get shaken out of your boredom quite effectively. The atmosphere, noncombat mechanics, and sheer deadliness of everything that isn’t you combine well to induce adrenaline in those moments. And since this trick only works when you’re not used to it, the paucity of foes keeps it pretty fresh.

The puzzles are generally along the lines of finding things in one area and using them to reassemble something in another area so that you can reach the next area. With a few twists here and there. The game has a physics engine, but seems to leave it for immersion instead of puzzles. It was refreshing to see a barrier in the form of a raised bridge… and to simply throw a rock at the chain holding it to release it.

Those puzzles that are tricky to solve typically have nice “hints” in the various papers lying about. Either they refer to the plot or puzzle solutions. So if it’s not disturbing, it must be useful!

That covers the important bits. The game’s big “I’m different!” draw is the use of the mouse as a sort of physics gesture tool. You want to open a drawer? Click on it and drag it out. Same for doors, levers… everything, really. Need to break loose a pipe? Bend it back and forth a bit. Need to crowbar open a stiff door? Set the crowbar and PULL.

The not-so different, your character is afraid of the dark. Understandable for a number of reasons. You have 4 options. Stay in well-lit areas. Pull out your lamp with limited oil. Use a tinderbox (a WHOLE tinderbox) to light one unlit item in the area. Or run through and accept the “temporary” loss of sanity. Insanity mostly just makes the screen shift a bit, and late in the game, you get effects like bugs crawling in the monitor.

Is it worth getting? Well… that depends on your character. If you need violence in your videogames, avoid. If you like horror and being made uncomfortable through good storytelling, come on down!

Messes & Things

I know we all get lazy, and in our adult lives we tend to be “too busy” for most things that we want to or need to do. Especially in these days with this so called “fast paced” lifestyle where we hardly find time to read the directions posted on a sign anymore, but when it gets to the point where we aren’t keeping our homes or our belongings clean is that just laziness or are we really THAT busy?

I became inspired to write this short story all thanks to the most likely week old McDonald’s biscuit that I just realized was sitting on the couch next to me. It’s not mine, I don’t really ever eat breakfast from fast food places, but it’s sitting right here on the couch cushion next to me all nestled up next to a screwdriver (okay so the screwdriver is my fault) and a knife. It’s as if they’re all snuggled up, and the two other objects are protecting the biscuit from the evil human being who is about to throw it away after she’s finished writing. There;s even a can of peanuts sitting behind it, acting like a bodyguard to this poor stale, lifeless, and probably tasteless, biscuit. I understand that my brother works long hours in a night, and I definitely could be of more help in keeping the apartment kept up, but I know for a fact energy is a problem for me, and it’s also hard to touch old food that I haven’t brought into the house. I’m also getting pretty terrified of that can of peanuts now that I look at them more, they are pretty mean looking. What if it’s a trap and there’s really a snake that pops out of the can the second I go to grab that disgusting pastry and bring it to it’s final resting place?

I’m starting to think I need to invest in a trash can in every room in the house or every other corner. I’m not going to sit here and say that I am the cleanest person you’ll ever meet, but I am scanning my living room and noticing that my big problem is the many pairs of shoes I own that are kind of scattered about in the pathway from where we enter our apartment. I rarely drink Dr. Pepper if ever, and there are cans of it scattered about as if they had been in some sort of war against each other.  None of them were left standing and…oh wait, there’s one survivor! Maybe it’s because he has a few body guards too, a soda cup from Runza (again not mine), an orange juice cup from McDonald’s (again not mine), a coke zero can (oops) , an open bottle of rubbing alcohol (mine, but the last place I left it was in my bathroom), a fry box from Runza(not mine) with a couple of surviving fries, and a bowl with some sort of green substance in it (not mine, and most likely molded milk).

Now I’m beginning to wonder what the exact distance the kitchen is from my couch…all I really know is it’s not that far. Maybe I should build some sort of belt like for a cash register to set all this stuff on so it makes it into the kitchen, instead of on our floor or furniture. No, on second thought maybe I shouldn’t because that would just promote even more laziness in a country that already has a severe problem with it. Oh, and just so we’re clear this isn’t a story intended to attack my brother, the poor guy overworks himself from 6pm to 6am almost every night, it’s just a realization on my part that one or the other needs to get into gear. Actually, people in general really need to. Yeah, I’m talking to you mister “I’ll just leave my soda cup on this clothing table even though the trash can is 5 steps away from me in plain sight” and you miss “I’ll just leave this paper sample cup on this end cap because even though there is a designated trash can next to each sampling station it’s just too much effort for me to use my brain or eyes to find the thing, or even extend my arm to throw it in there. I mean who does that anymore? Using your arms or any part of your body to do things yourself is so 1999! So is using your brain, my phone and computer just do that for me now!”

I’ll just leave it at that. It’s not really a matter of “I don’t have the time” as it’s more of a, “this doesn’t interest me because it’s a mundane necessary task in life, and quite frankly it bores the living shit out of me so I won’t do it. Besides , someone else will even if I don’t.”

And with that all said, I am now off to attack this biscuit, pick up these fallen soda cans, these bowls that look like they’re about to be sick, and the debris this little trash war has left on our living room carpet. If I return alive, you’ll see me back on Facebook yet again, and the carpet will be thanking me because it will be able to breathe again as well as show it’s pretty self off. Just keep this simple fact in mind, you’re all adults now. Pick up after yourselves! Hell, most of you (I would hope) learned how to pick up after yourselves since you were knee high. Why quit now that you’re adults? The only excuse you have now is any possible disabilities, or just being so old you don’t function anymore, and I mean that in the literal sense. Not just saying you’re old because you feel old, I mean like old as in you share a birthday with dirt. The end.

— I would also like to add as a side note the biggest apology on earth to my mother for being a messy teenager/young adult during the time I lived under her roof. I now completely understand the irritation!