Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Monday, 21 February 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Inside A Star-Filled Sky

Inside A Star-Filled Sky is a game about nanotechnology. Or Buddhist reincarnation. Or string theory. Or computer programming.

Or something.

You never know what you’re going to get with a new Jason Rohrer game. The man’s known for being something of an enigma - part beach-bum, part hippy, he seems to find most modern games dull to the point of disgust. There are YouTube videos of him at demonstrations for the latest and brightest titles, and as he watches the demonstrator saunter through lush 3D environments to show off the game’s physics and shooting mechanics, he nods, smiles politely and walks away, genial, yet seemingly frustrated. He wants games to be something more than mere shooting ranges. He wants games to be something more than they are.

Inside A Star-Filled Sky is a top-down shooter in the Gauntlet mould. You run through a maze shooting monsters, collecting power-ups, and trying to find the exit. The exit leads you to the next maze, where you do the exact same thing fighting slightly tougher monsters. It stretches almost into infinity in this way. All you old school gamers out there will be delighted to find that the game doesn’t end with a lavish cinematic outtro, but with a kill screen. You play either until you die, or until the game itself runs out of room for its calculations, and combusts. To get to this point will only take you a few decades of continuous gameplay. I’ll come back to that.

The game’s gimmick is that when you pick up any one of the game’s many collectibles you won’t be able to use them until you reach the exit and ascend to the next level. You don’t get to pick up extra health or a new weapon and use it straight away. In order to get anywhere in the game, you have to plan for the future,

You can also go back into the past and alter that future. This happens automatically when you’re killed - you’re thrown back to the previous level and into your previous incarnation. From here you can pick up a different set of power-ups and return to the next level to try again. In other words, you get another chance to make things right.

But what if none of the power-ups available are to your taste? This is where the game gets tricky. You see, you can ‘enter’ any of the power-ups (by pointing the mouse at them and tapping the ‘shift’ key) in the game to find a new level that’s also full of monsters and power-ups. Only this time when you collect power-ups, you alter the nature of the power-up you’re inside.

Okay, say you reach a point in the game where you feel you need more health. You enter a power-up worth one health point, collect all three health power-ups you find inside it, leave via the exit and the power-up you entered is now worth three health points instead of one.

Still with me?


The thing is, once you’re inside that power-up, you can then enter any of the other power-ups there, and then reprogram each of them. So if you reprogrammed each of those one-point health power-ups by entering them in turn and collecting another three health points in each, you could potentially make the original health power-up worth a whopping nine health points.

And health isn’t the only thing you can do this with. Your speed and the weapons you wield are reliant upon the power-ups you find. In theory you can amass a deadly arsenal by dropping down a couple levels into each power-up you find, reprogramming them, and picking up the vastly improved end product.

Similarly you can enter any of the monsters you run into to reprogram them. Run into a monster that’s too tough? Enter it and reprogram it to be slower, have less health, or a cruddier arsenal.

There is, of course, a catch to all of this reprogramming. The deeper you go into an item or an enemy’s infrastructure, the harder the game becomes. If you’re a whiz at 2D shooters you should be in your element dodging enemy fire and reprogramming everything you find to your tactical advantage. If not, things can get very difficult very quickly.

And that’s all there is to it.

Isn’t it?

Perhaps more than anyone else in the industry, Rohrer’s the poster boy for the ‘games as art’ movement. But art is open to interpretation. Where I might see Inside A Star-Filled Sky as a meditation on karma, you might see it as something different. Where I might see it as a game about the futility of trying to live the perfect life, you might see it as a sermon on the betterment and ascendancy of mankind.

For all the seeming complexities of the game mechanics, Inside A Star-Filled Sky is a very simple game to play. Like some of the best classic arcade games it feels almost like a koan. Even without Rohrer tipping its hat with the title, there’s a certain order to the back-and-forth nature of the game the feels oddly familiar. Trial-and-error games have been around forever, but none have been quite as explicit in their portrayal as Inside A Star-Filled Sky, or as generous in allowing the player to right what once went wrong. Every decision you make in the game carries a greater meaning further down the line. When you fail, you have to choose how far back to go in order to right that failure, and the further you go back, the more difficult things become. As much as the game encourages you to go back and change things, it encourages you to think ahead.

In fact my main complaint with this game is, as much as it encourages forward thinking, there’s nothing to look forward to at the game’s end bar the kill screen. The game’s procedurally generated, meaning there aren’t ever more exciting enemies, weapons and scenery to look forward to; once you’ve seen the first few levels you’ve seen it all. There’s no high score to rack up, and the infinite nesting levels render the level counter worthless as a measure of your achievement. You play for playing’s sake. You play to pass time, or to fall into a zen-like state, and once you’re done you have nothing to show for it - not even a high score.

That Rohrer lists the kill screen as a feature on the game’s site adds a depressing air to the game. Even if you play it for the rest of your life, all you’ll get out of it is the experience of playing until it crashes and fails.

Maybe that’s the point.

Or maybe, as with any facet of Rohrer’s games, that’s simply me etching my own state of mind onto the game’s innermost workings. Maybe you’ll interpret things differently. Maybe you’ll have a different viewpoint.

I mean, isn’t that what good art’s all about?

Sunday, 6 February 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Sanitarium

Sanitarium is part of a literary sub-genre of point and click adventures that aspires to be something a little more than slapstick with puzzles. Don’t get me wrong - I like Monkey Island as much as the next guy, and I’m sure Sanitarium’s developers did, too. There’s nothing wrong with comedy adventures, but with such a narrow route through this kind of game and so little room for improvisation, why not tell a story with grander designs?

Sanitarium follows in the footsteps of Roger Zelazny’s Chronomaster and Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. While it doesn’t have a specific author’s name above its title it wears its influences on its sleeve. This is a world of twisted pustulant horror, of Lovecraft, King, Matheson and Bradbury. There might as well be a sign on the box before you: You are now entering the Twilight Zone.

One hundred minutes is enough time to take in one of Sanitarium’s tales of dread, for this is an anthology game that serves up vignettes of terror to flesh out the over-arcing backbone of its main plot. You play Max, a man who’s uncovered a terrible secret but who might also be losing his mind. After skidding off the edge of a cliff in the opening cut scene you wake wreathed in bandages, imprisoned in a burning asylum. It’s possible you’re an inmate here, and it’s possible you tried to escape, but in Sanitarium the truth is never that simple, and you’ll soon find yourself wondering if anything you encounter is real - including yourself.

Rarely has a game tackled such themes so successfully. Amnesia and the nature of reality are hoary clichés in video games, but Sanitarium blends them deftly into a cocktail of horror and intrigue. The asylum interior you wake up in is a gothic torture chamber full of stained glass, smoke and gibbering patients. The power generator’s on fire and a klaxon sounds, riling the inmates into further paroxysms of madness. It might look familiar - atmospherically it shares a lot with Batman’s Arkham Asylum - and it is place both outlandish and intimidating. Yet presiding over the whole affair is a stone effigy of an angel, out of place and bathed in an eery tranquility. It’s mere presence is enough to make you question the nature of this place, and make you want to find out more about it. As much as it chills the very marrow in your bones - and it does - Sanitarium also brings out the private detective in you. You’ll dig through files and pore over newspaper clippings, attempting to make sense of the world around you and your place within it.

As you approach the statue candles at it’s base flare to life. There are file hidden inside the guard station that refers to an ancient Incan key found on the hospital’s construction site. There’s clearly more at work here.

You might think you’d be prepared for whatever comes next. You’d be wrong.

The angel comes to life, envelopes you in her wings, and transports you into the gibberings of a mental patient. You found one of your fellow inmates rocking in his cell, muttering about his mother and how she punished him for stealing a piece of pumpkin pie. Now you wake inside his twisted delusion.

And I want to make this absolutely clear: this is no Psychonauts revery. I loved Psychonauts. I loved its imagination, and how the occasional dark wave lapped at its day-glow cheeriness. But if Sanitarium has such an ocean then the town the angel takes you to is drowned beneath it. Oh, it looks idyllic, and there are children playing on the swings, and skipping and drawing on the pavement in chalk. But the skipping girl has two wooden legs, the girl with the chalk has half a face, and there are roots and branches protruding from every crack in every building, snapping slats and window glass and floorboards and dragging the entire town down into the soil.

I wasn’t expecting this from a game. Video games tend to feature a standard brand of Hollywood horror. They borrow a little from the Alien movies, a little from Romero’s Living Dead films, and a little more from Japanese imports like The Ring and The Eye. They tend not to stray outside their comfort zone, and so their horror is built upon gore and shocks.

Sanitarium is a game built upon dread, not cheap spook-house frights. The asylum angel takes you to a town filled with mutated children, and it resonates in the most unpleasant of ways. You feel bad for the children, and yet you’re afraid of them. When you ask what happened to their parents they giggle and tell you Mother took them away. When you press them further they turn away, voices trembling, and tell you they can’t tell you - that they mustn’t, or else Mother will put them in the pumpkin patch.

The pumpkin patch becomes a place of mythic dread. You have to solve puzzles before you can reach it and when you do you find a little girl guarding the gates. Her eyes have been torn out and she has the body of a worm; she’s scared of Mother because Mother did this to her; more than that, she’s scared for you.

At the bottom of the village there’s a ring of children dancing around a large pumpkin, and as they dance they sing a song that drives you from them screaming, your hands covering your ears.

But the graveyard’s the worst place. The graveyard, where children shouldn’t be, where children shouldn’t play. Where you find Lumpy, a human wedge whose voice is garbled, whose head and face are sunk into his shoulders. He waddles about and is curiously upbeat, but his cheeriness adds to the revulsion. He’s less like a character designed for a video game and more like something ripped from Tod Browning’s Freaks. I expected him to point and chant “One of us!” at me, but what happened next was much worse.

You see, the children challenged me to a game of hide and seek. I accepted, and they split up and ran across the map in search of hiding places. One by one I tracked them down, but once I’d found them all and claimed my prize they told me I hadn’t found all of them, because I hadn’t found their ‘secret weapon’.

I talked to the other children in town about this ‘weapon’ and what it might be, and with mounting horror I realised the only child I hadn’t found and tagged was a little girl called Carol. I hadn’t found her because her father had beaten her to death a year previously, and because now she resided in the cemetery, beneath the hallowed dirt. In order to win this game of hide and seek I’d have to dig her up.

This isn’t a cartoony game. It isn’t caricatured. It’s grimy and it’s nasty, and by God, I didn’t want to excavate a little girl’s corpse. But that’s Sanitarium for you. Every step of the way you’ll question your sanity, not because you’re combining rubber chickens with pulleys, or trying to burst an inflatable rubber duck in some obtuse puzzle, but because it makes you do things like this. It makes you dig up dead children.

I did it, of course. And once I’d done so Lumpy, that little human nightmare, propped her up in the back of his Radio Flyer cart and wheeled her around town. She might have been dead, but she was still his friend. He still wanted to play with her.

Over the course of that first story I found Carol’s diary charting her father’s abuse, and uncovered what happened to all the adults, and why the children were all deformed. I also solved a clutch of traditional adventure game puzzles, and while most of them were fairly straightforward I did on occasion have to go pixel-hunting. There was also an ill-advised action sequence when I finally braved the pumpkin patch - but none of this subtracted from the game’s atmosphere.

The truth is, I haven’t seen anything so inherently creepy in a game in years. Sanitarium comes from a bye-gone age of experimentation, where the rules as to what you could and could not include in a horror game were not yet set - but it might as well come from another dimension. The stories that influenced Sanitarium weren’t created to jolt popcorn from teenagers’ hands, but to give people of all ages sleepless nights. The artwork, voice acting and animation might be crude compared to modern games like Dead Space, but Lumpy’s sunken head and rambling gait as he stumbled around, dragging the foetid corpse of his friend behind him will remain with me longer than any of those identikit monster-closet scares. This is Shadows over Innesmouth. This is In the Mouth of Madness. This is The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verril and The Homecoming, and a thousand other stories of true horror that have been passed over in favour of phallic monsters and cheap scares.

And this is only the first story in Sanitarium’s macabre anthology. As the chapter ended I found myself back in the asylum courtyard, standing beside a patient wearing furry bear slippers, wondering if what I’d seen was only a delusion and if I was truly going mad.

One hundred minutes down and I’m certain Sanitarium will throw up further nightmares to unsettle my sleep. Frankly, I can’t wait.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

100 Minutes With . . . Arx Fatalis

Deus Ex. System Shock 2. Arx Fatalis. Wait, what?

Within seconds of hearing that Arx Fatalis existed I’d read a review, noted the score, bought the game and downloaded it to my hard drive. Some superstitious part of me screams that this is witchcraft. Once upon a time there would have been no way to find out if a particular game was any good outside of magazine reviews and word of mouth - and even then, if I wanted to buy it and my local W.H. Smith didn’t have a copy, I’d have been shit out of luck.

And let’s face it, they wouldn’t have had a copy of Arx Fatalis. This is an old game that had a niche audience at best back at release, let alone today. Once upon a time there would have been no way for me to get hold of Arx Fatalis.

But this is 2011 and the Internet has changed everything.

Arx Fatalis is not a wonderful game. In no way does it hold up to its illustrious peers, which is a shame because next to the immersive cyberpunk sim and the immersive space horror sim there should be plenty of space for an immersive fantasy sim. There should be a game that fills the missing link between Thief: The Dark Project and Deus Ex, and Arx Fatalis should be it.

Unfortunately for developers Arkane Software their game went up against The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind at release. Morrowind sneered at anything as conventional as a first person immersive fantasy sim, and turned the world of computer RPGs on its head. It perfectly captured that feeling of freedom and fantasy adventure; its open-ended nature allowed the player to go anywhere, to do anything, to be anything. And Arx Fatalis, which revels in its own claustrophobia and awkwardness, can’t hope to compete.

The world is changing, or so AF’s story goes. The years pass slowly, and as they do the sun disappears over the horizon, never to rise again. Under threat of extinction the human race departs the planet’s surface and burrows deep into the underworld, to build cities and forge fragile bonds with the goblins and orcs who live there. It’s a wonderful story, beautifully told, of a medieval society cowering in the twilight of their world, and it’s a disappointment when the in-engine introduction that follows it adds ridiculous Matrix-style action sequences and an amnesiac lead character into the mix. With all the avenues of fantasy storytelling open it’s a shame the game leads down a path so clichéd and derivative.

I awoke in a prison from which I had to escape. The prisoner in the next cell whispered instructions to me, and I felt like I’d been here before, doing the exact same thing. The feeling persisted throughout the jailbreak, into the goblin fortress, and out into the game world itself. That evocative opening was squandered on generic fantasy.

And, like so much generic fantasy, the game’s incredibly racist. Oh, there aren’t any heroic Klansman or jive-talking black folk with chocobos living in their afros, but any character who isn’t a human in this game is moronically stupid. If it wasn’t for their different 3D models the trolls and the goblins might as well be one amorphous, mentally retarded race. “Me hate you stinky human!” one goblin says as I pass him by, but it could have been any goblin, any troll, anyone character wasn’t a human. It’s horrible.

The game is unwieldy. It features the same sort of world interaction as Thief and System Shock 2 - you pick objects up, drag them about, and make them throw little fits when you try to push them through nearby walls or tables. You to hold down the shift key to pick them up, the ‘F’ key to equip weapons or eat food, and double-click to use items inside your inventory or in the world itself. There are no contextual menus, just a series of clumsy button presses, and the inventory doesn’t sort itself meaning that when grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle little heaps of medicinal powder are distributed randomly throughout it. Constantly tidying stack-able items into piles is practically a mini-game unto itself.

Having the map, spell book and character sheet accessible through the same tab at the side of the screen is just as unwieldy, but the game’s biggest UI crime by far is its magic system. It makes me feel bad to give Arx Fatalis’s magic a kicking because I can imagine what the producers were thinking and how they wanted to revolutionise spell-casting in RPGs.

But it’s based upon gesture recognition, and it’s a failure. So many years later and gamers still groan whenever gesture recognition crops up in Wii or Kinect games: It just doesn’t work. Games never recognise our sloppy loops as circles. They might as well yell “That’s never a 90 degree angle!” when we’re trying to construct squares.

And most of the time, when you’re mouse-drawing spell runes in Arx Fatalis, the game simply won’t know what you’re doing. This is illustrated perfectly in the game’s first spell, where it has no problem recognising a straight line as the first part of it but the second, a rune in the shape of a square wave, is rarely if ever recognised. It’s hair-tearingly frustrating to be bested by the first spell in the entire game - a spell that lights torches and sets fire to fireplaces and is, for all intents and purposes, the game’s equivalent of a light-switch.

The developers must have realised how poorly implemented the magic is, as they’ve included a system to pre-cast up to three spells at a time, for later use in tricky situations. It would have been much better if they’d simply assigned numeric keys to each of the spells. It would certainly have made the magic less frustrating.

So why didn’t they? I’m not entirely sure, but I have an idea. This is where the game’s saving grace - its atmosphere - comes in, because there are few games as atmospheric and immersive as Arx Fatalis.

I love the back story. You already know that. But living inside that world that story speaks of is another thing entirely. Looking up and knowing you’ll never see stars up there, nor sun, nor sky. Discovering squalid tunnels where nothing sentient dares to tread for fear of rats, spiders and demons. Finding a luminescent crystal pool glittering in the gloom, and setting up camp next to it. Lighting campfires and cooking racks of rat-ribs on them. Travelling so deep into troll cities you find labyrinths overrun with monsters and tip-toe through them, fearful of what will happen if they hear your footsteps or catch your scent.

The useless magic system plays a part in this. Magic spells aren’t weapons - they aren’t tools to be picked up and played with on a whim. You have to plan the spells you’ll need and it’s only in your direst of moments that you’ll risk waving hands and chanting runes in the hope that you might escape this battle with your life intact. As frustrating as it is when your gestures aren’t recognised, when they are you feel an immense sense of achievement. You’ve drawn the perfect circle or ninety degree angle and your hard work pays off with flaring torches and magic missiles. Getting spells right in Arx Fatalis makes you feel like a wizard.

I finished my first one hundred minutes facing the first true puzzle of the game. I have to meet with the goblin king, but he’s barricaded himself into his throne room and refuses to talk to anyone except the chef who cooks him cakes and slides them under his door. Meanwhile, I have access to the royal kitchen, and have met another goblin who claims the king stuffed the ballot box, and demands he be overthrown. I don’t have the first idea how I’m going to solve this puzzle, but isn’t that the point of immersive sims? Unlike all those first person games with red key/red door puzzles I have to rely on my own ingenuity to work out what to do next. Can I poison the king’s cakes? Can I kill the chef and take his position? Is there some hidden entrance to the throne room?

I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s refreshing just to have that wealth of options available to me. And to make this choice deep inside a fantasy world where the sun will never shine, well, that’s why no amount of creative theft or poorly constructed interfaces can make me hate this game. Arx Fatalis might be a mess, but it’s a hauntingly evocative one, and I have to love it for that if for nothing else.