Star Trek: Voyager

Voyager is not many people’s favorite Star Trek, and after having watched all seven seasons, I can understand why. It’s not the outlandish premise. It’s not the acting. It’s the writing. Nearly every story is the result of the failings of the Voyager crew. The crew routinely makes colossal errors in judgement which often leads to putting Voyager or key personnel on a path to destruction. Then some ridiculous chain of events causes the obstacle in their path to be destroyed and Voyager strolls right on by, unharmed and unchanged.

This happens over and over again. No threat to Voyager is not fully neutralized within 42 minutes, or 84 minutes if the episode is a two-parter. The first appearance of the Borg, a species that routinely annihilates Federation ships within the alpha quadrant, is their corpses floating in space because they’ve been defeated by Species 8472, who are crushed by Voyager within a two part episode. Every single race that threatens Voyager is neutered by the end of every episode.

The events that often lead to this are also beyond ridiculous. A two part episode involving the Year of Hell held enormous promise for changing Voyager permanently. They were passing through the territory of a race that clearly overpowered them. For a year they endured attacks, deaths, and a failing ship. Voyager was limping away, defeated, when they surmised the cause of that races’ power; a time traveling ship that was altering the past to give them more power. Once that ship was destroyed, everything popped back into it’s past condition and everyone’s lives continued as if nothing at all happened!

It comes down to this: for seven years, nothing changes. In every episode, Voyager gets a little closer to home, but nothing else changes. It makes watching the show pointless and uninteresting.

DLC

I am, for the most part, okay with downloadable content (DLC). They usually expand the game, and are typically cheap enough to more than warrant a purchase for their content. However, I do not like reminders that some DLC exists because it was carved out of the game so that it could be sold later.

Case in point: Dragon Age: Origins. I know DA:O is an enormous game. I know it. I know it is chock full of content. So I find it odd that when the game opens up (as in, once you’re past the tutorial stuff), a conversation with a random person in your camp ends in a dialog option for “download new content to begin this quest”.

At first I thought that maybe it was one of those pieces of DLC that is offered as an incentive to people who buy the game new (which I did), and thus free. But when I opted to download it, the game pulled up the DLC menu, attempted to purchase the addon, and found I had insufficient Bioware points. So it wasn’t free, and this guy is hanging out in my camp as some sort of living advertisement for this non-free content and probably won’t go away until I buy it.

(Entirely-too-long-sidenote: why does every company need their own form of moon money to sell their DLC? Seriously, why can I not exchange American dollars or Euros or Zimbabwe dollars, or some other real currency for it? I don’t understand why they insist that I convert my cash into their limited-purpose currency, except to coerce me into buying more of it than I can spend. If my American dollar converts to 80 moon dollars, I can guarantee that those moon dollars will only come in $12 blocks, and that the content will sell in nice, clean $5 increments, thus leaving me with 160 spare moon dollars that are completely fucking worthless. It is irritating.)

Is this necessary? When the game starts, there’s a Downloadable Content menu option right there next to Load Game and Options. If you read any video game news site regularly, you will be beaten over the head repeatedly every single time a piece of DLC comes out. And if you don’t have regular internet access, and you’re playing DA:O offline, you can’t download any DLC anyway!

What I’m getting at is that for an immersive, and well thought out game such as Dragon Age: Origins, being given a dialog option that says “Download New Content” is entirely unnecessary and detracts from game’s experience. It’s a reminder that I’m not playing the whole game, because this piece is missing; a piece so vital that I’ve being given an opportunity to fill it in at first stop, in exchange for more money than that I’ve already spent.

Horror in video games

I just finished Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and jumped back into Penumbra: Black Plague. Late in the Summer, I finished Penumbra: Overture. These are all first person, horror themed games made by a small team of developers called Frictional Games. Frictional clearly knows horror in games very well, because I just played Black Plague for no more than 10 minutes and not only am I still thinking about it, I had to quit because I was getting fucking terrified and I’m not sure I’ll pick it back up.

Frictional made the first Penumbra game as a tech demo for it’s impressive game engine. It’s good looking graphically, and really nails weight and physics of objects in the game. Overture was the first actual game to come out of it. It had lots of creepy atmosphere and a good sanity-ish mechanic in which if you stared at a monster while in hiding, the character would scream or make a noise and attract its attention, which was usually the opposite of what you wanted in the first place.

Where this mechanic faltered is that they gave you small melee weapons, like a hammer and a pick axe, and the only real monsters in the game were small spiders and dogs. Both of these were easily dispatched with the weapons they gave you and, once gone, never returned. The fear of detection, and the hiding from monsters, and luring them into traps was totally negated when you could just stand on a crate and beat them to death with a hammer.

I played just a little bit of Black Plague before my vacation and then Amnesia came out. Amnesia is Frictional’s fourth game, and unrelated to the Penumbra series. It’s a lot like Eternal Darkness on Gamecube, except Amnesia is completely devoid of weapons. If you encounter an enemy (and they are rare), you can either hide or run. This leads to a lot of cat and mouse type of gameplay, but definitely more effective at scares than beating them to death with small objects. Amnesia also featured a more unsettling atmosphere, with tension building throughout the whole game.

After I finished Amnesia, I decided to get back into Black Plague. I had barely started it, so there wasn’t much to catch up on. Black Plague is Frictional’s second full game, but to me it is by far their most effective at delivering scares.

Like the other two games, you hear your enemy before you see them. In Overture and Amnesia, the enemies make unnatural,¬†guttural¬†sounds, or breathe wetly, or just have loud footsteps. The enemies I’ve encountered in Black Plague speak to you. They’re former humans. They’ve been infected with something.

The first encounter in Black Plague is after you pillage a storage room. Before you can set foot out of it, you can hear a door open. The monster said something that I can’t recall and I could see the beam of a flashlight coming towards my door. I shut it, stacked a couple boxes in front of it, and hid in a corner. The monster, the thing, however, either through script or AI, decided to investigate anyway. It bashed down the door. When I could see that the flashlight was not pointed in my direction, I peered around the corner of my hiding spot amongst some boxes. This thing was human shaped with the proportions just slightly off, with gray-white skin, and black eyes.

Crouched in the dark, with the creatures back to me, I decided to make a break for it. I ran out the door. The monster had heard me running, and was chasing me down the hall. I could hear it behind me but didn’t dare look back. I made it to a door that transitioned to another area. After the loading screen, I took a breather because I thought I was safe. Then came the sound of the door being bashed against. I hurried through some item combinations to get through the next, more secure door. I was finally safe.

Later, I was exploring a different section of the game and it went straight to Silent Hill, rust and blood world. More weird noises and whispered sounds. The game pulled one of those sudden shock kind of scares and it worked because I damn near jumped out of my seat.

Later still I had been cut loose to try to get into another locked room. I hadn’t encountered anymore monsters like the first one, so I knew I was in for another run-in sooner or later. Sure enough, right after cleaning out the armory only to find a rusty saw, I heard the sound of footsteps and muttered words. The door was already shut, so I just slid into a hiding spot and waited. No bashing on the door, and soon the sounds stopped.

All three of these games have the same controls and give you the ability to peer around corners. Presumably, this lets you see your pursuer without being spotted. Also, most doors in these games are not open/shut, but physics driven, which give you control over how wide you open it and how fast.

I crept up to the door of the armory and cracked the door open but a couple of inches. The monster heard me. “Something’s not right” it said, as I quickly ran back to my hiding spot. I crouch down and wait, and then I hear the door bashed open. I peer out to see the monster standing there, some weapon in its hand. I tuck back into my corner and wait a little longer. I peer out and see that the coast is clear.

At this point I have decided that it’s time to face my fears and walk straight into death. Get a good look at the monster so I can quit trying to make out its features from my hiding spots and maybe I’ll feel a little bit more adventurous. I run out of the armory and look left.

It’s standing right there under fluorescent lights. White gray skin. Bulbous head, with two black eyes that are too big. Red, wet mouth. Totally naked.

I panic and run in the other direction. I can hear it chasing me. I’m running in circles, and I turn around. It’s right on top of me and smacks me with what looked like a crowbar. I run some more and turn around again. Again, it’s right there. I give in. It beats me to death with a crowbar as I struggle not to look away from its hideous form. After I die, I immediately quit the game.

That was almost forty minutes ago, and I’m still feeling anxious about it. I thought writing it out would help, but I think it’s just kind of made things worse.