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.

Two Worlds: What is up with this game?

This game is kind of blowing my mind.

+ Every line is voiced. All of them.

– The voice acting is god awful.

– The dialog is plagued with “medieval” words like “forsooth” and “verily”.

+ Huge open world, no load screens unless you teleport or enter a dungeon.

– Everything is kind of glued to the roads so there’s not much point in wandering around.

+ Tons of quests

– Quests come in three varieties; collect things, kill someone, item delivery

+ Some really neat effects such as light coming through tree tops and fog.

– Monster animation is super awkward.

I’ve put 4 hours into it. It’s still boggling me.

Gunplay in Metro 2033

I recently reinstalled Metro 2033 in preparation for the upcoming release of new content. I fired it up to futz around a little, and decided to start cleaning up some achievements.

I loaded up the level “Outpost”. It’s an outdoor level, and it’s crawling with Nazis. Nazis everywhere. I check out my inventory and I’ve got a silenced, scoped revolver, a scoped AK-47, and a double-barrel shotgun. I know the shotgun isn’t going to be very effective, so I opt for the revolver while the Nazis don’t know I’m about.

I poorly line up a shot and hit one in the chest. It doesn’t kill him, and it attracts the attention of his buddies. They’re shooting at me from three different directions, so I quickly swap the revolver for the AK, and blast the closest ones. They drop with a couple quick bursts. After I’ve cleared the floor of the decrepit building I was in, I check my ammo.

Metro 2033 has two kinds of ammo: military grade, and low quality. Military grade is accurate, and does a lot of damage. Low quality is less accurate, and does less damage. There is a noticeable difference between the two and there is a reason why military grade ammo can be used as currency in the game. With how quickly I dispatched the Nazis in what was basically a botched encounter, I was convinced I was shooting my money away.

But I wasn’t. It was cheap ammo the whole time. The rest of that level consisted of some small scale encounters, primarily two or three Nazis at a time. This really gave me an opportunity to examine the gunplay that nearly every single review for Metro 2033 complained about.

It is entirely false that weapons in the game are wholly inaccurate. Each weapon has varying degrees of accuracy, and the ammo you use has an effect on accuracy, but if you’re using an accurate weapon (like a scoped, silenced revolver), and you aim down the sights, and you pull the trigger when it is pointed at the Bad Guy’s face, they die with one shot. This works with the revolver, with the AK, and pretty much every weapon in the game.

I am no sniper. I’m awful at it. Sometimes I get lucky, and catch some Bad Guy’s off-guard, and I get the time I need to line up those headshots that make life so much easier. Usually, however, I’m relying on putting enough bullets in things to kill them.

Enemies in Metro 2033 react to being shot in a manner in which you would expect them to. When you shoot human enemies without killing them, they go through a pain animation. Obviously, when they’re writhing in pain for one or two seconds, you have the advantage of being able to dump more bullets into them without them shooting back. You can’t really use this to “juggle” multiple enemies because the pain animation simply isn’t that long, but it is a significant advantage and rewards you for focusing on killing one enemy at a time.

Most of the monsters in this game, more animal than man, react how you would expect an angry animal to react if shot; they charge at you as if they don’t feel pain! Yep, it’s going to take a few more bullets to kill a charging beast, and you’re going to have to do it a little more recklessly than if it were a man, but just because most monsters don’t react to being shot doesn’t mean your weapons are ineffective against them.

There is really no point for me to write all of this, except that it is my hope that it convinces one person that Metro 2033 is worth playing. I got a bad vibe from most of the reviews I read that kept me away from it for several months, but I absolutely must say that the reviews are wrong. 4A made a fantastic FPS that will probably not get the attention it deserves. And that’s a damned shame.

Solo XC: KMDH – KSIK – KMDH

This one was familiar! Sikeston, MO was where I went on my first cross-country. And this time I got actual pictures! So I’ll let them do the talking.

The mighty Mississippi.

This one was taken on the trip there, somewhere past Reynoldsville.

This is me flying an airplane!

Even when I’m flying an airplane, I’m still vain enough to take a self-portrait.

Sikeston runway

Okay, this one didn’t turn out awesome, but it’s the runway at Sikeston, MO.

My aircraft, post-refueling

Here’s my little airplane right after re-fueling. When I got to Sikeston, a kid (okay, probably 16 – 17 year old) came out to help me park it. When I told him I was just here to re-fuel it, he helped me find and operate the the pump, too. There was a Beechcraft jet also parked there, and he said it’d been a busy day.

Scotty City bridge

This bridge is an easy to spot checkpoint, but this picture is less about the scenery than it is about the conditions. Moderate visibility but the clouds were rather low, way lower than forecast.

When I got back to Carbondale, I made a pretty drawn out landing and that was that!

15JUL10 / C152 / N95374 / KMDH-KSIK-KMDH /Landings: 2 / SEL: 1.9 / XC: 1.9 / Day: 1.9 / PIC: 1.9 / Total: 1.9

Dual XC: KMDH – KFWC – KMDH

This was a big one! It was my NAV ride, which is the second road block on my way to being a private pilot!

So I went up with someone who wasn’t my instructor. The first leg was easy, just getting into the air and getting to Fairfield. Once we got there, and we got off the ground again, the instructor had me put on the goggles that simulate flying into a cloud. Then he had me close my eyes and he’d do a few maneuvers and then tell me to open my eyes and I’d have to put it back to straight and level.

After doing that a couple times, he told me to figure out where I am and get us home. I used the navigation radio, found a point on the map where it told me I was, and looked outside. None of it lined up with my map. So I did that two or three more times. Still nothing. Then I started to think about the instruments.

There’s a directional gyro and a magnetic compass. The directional gyro is made to be set by hand because it can get off direction sometimes, so you look at the mag compass, and set the DG to what it says. While I had my eyes closed, the instructor had twisted my DG around, which is why the road that was supposed to be East-West was running North-South. Once I’d set the DG straight, I pointed us in the correct direction and got us back to Carbondale.

14JUL10 / C152 / N95843 / KMDH-KFWC-KMDH /Landings: 2 / SEL: 1.9 / XC: 1.9 / Day: 1.9 / Sim Instr: 0.3 / Dual: 1.9 / Total: 1.9

How good is Borderlands?

I beat it on Xbox 360, getting nearly all of the achievements. I beat the Zombie Island of Dr. Ned DLC. I quit on Mad Moxxi because that DLC suuuucked. But between the main campaign and Dr. Ned, I put a load of time into it.

I just beat it again on PC. 14 hours, 30 minutes. I just started Dr. Ned. Then I’ll do the Secret Armory of General Knoxx.

I’m still amazed by some of the weapons this game throws at me. A lot of them are garbage. Then you get something absolutely fucking magical. Like an accurate shotgun with high damage, fast reload, large magazine, and ammo regeneration. This is the gun that Zombie Island was made for. I can’t lose with this thing.

Brutal Legend

Oh boy, I sank some time into this one this weekend. Brutal Legend is the definition of a mixed bag. When it starts out, you’re hacking things to death with an axe and blasting them lightning bolts out of your guitar. Soon after, you’ve got a car and it’s an open world game where you’re driving around and doing side missions and collecting stuff. Then you start collecting followers and guiding them into battle. About halfway through, you’ve got a handful of units, you can fly, give orders, build stuff, and it’s a full blown console RTS.

The transition from simple action to RTS is very smooth, and you never lose the open world aspect when you’re not in the middle of a story mission. What is kind of a jarring is that the whole first half of the game is the tutorial into the RTS side. The game has three continents and that whole first half of the game takes places on the first one alone. On top of that, there are two other factions in the game, but you spend that first half fighting against the same units you’re using. You then spend almost the rest of the game fighting the second faction, and you only really fight the third faction in the absolute final mission.

It’s pretty obvious to me that a lot of time and effort went into the first continent and first half of the game, then the rest was cleaned up and rushed through. Everything about the pacing in the second half of the game is off and rushed, and the end drops like a hammer. There’s that final RTS mission and one final action sequence and then you’re done.

Despite this, Brutal Legend is a ton of fun. It’s fun to drive around in. It takes place during the Age of Metal and the backstory and environments and soundtrack are all fantastic. It’s simply a fun world to exist in if you’re into metal. I’m pretty horrible at RTS games, and I still enjoyed the RTS battles. The controls kind of take some getting used to because they focus on your character as a leader, and so you can only issue orders to your units if you’re near them. This is probably why the first half of the game feels like a tutorial, but by time you get off the first continent, you’re definitely proficient at commanding your units.

I don’t know how to recommend this. I was turned off of it when it was released by reviews saying it was half-baked, and not that fun. It is true that it was definitely a rushed release, but it never feels incomplete. Everything is there, it’s just paced poorly. And I definitely had a lot of fun with it. I guess it boils down to whether or not you like metal. If I didn’t enjoy the setting so much, I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time playing it.

Solo XC: KMDH – KSLO – KMDH

My first solo cross-country! I had a choice between flying to Salem-Leckrone, Sikeston, or Fairfield. I picked Salem because I’ve been to Sikeston before, and Salem was a little further away than Fairfield.

This was pretty much an ideal day to fly; clear skies, decent visibility, only a slight wind. I got to Salem without any problems, saw the Mt. Vernon and Centralia airfields, and put it down at Salem. There was a cropduster there, but he was on the ground almost the whole time I was there and he had a radio.

Proof I was there.

Apparently solo cross-countries require students to re-fuel at each stop. I’ve only had to re-fuel once and that was at Evansville, where the FBO took care of everything. I stopped my plane on the wrong side of the gas pump, so I had to get back in, fire it up, and putter around to the other side. From there, it was almost as easy as re-fueling a car.

Cellphone picture of me and my aircraft

As I was taxiing to the runway, I noticed a couple walking their dog… on the runway. Thankfully, they got off of it once they saw me pull on to it.

The flight back to Carbondale was even less eventful than the flight to Salem. When I got off the runway, the controller cleared me to taxi to park. Once I got on a main taxiway though, someone else tried to get on it. The controller cleared me, and I didn’t hear him clear the other guy, so he yielded.

Overall, I probably couldn’t ask for an easier flight.

1JUL10 / C152 / N5198L / KMDH-KSLO-KMDH /Landings: 2 / SEL: 1.7 / XC: 1.7 / Day: 1.7 / PIC: 1.7 / Total: 1.7

Dual XC: KMDH – KPAH – KM25 – KMDH

This was a relatively interesting flight. The first leg was rather straightforward, except that clouds were way lower than reported and I had to fly it 1000 feet under what I planned. We get to Paducah, and set up to take off again when my instructor tells me we’re going to fly the Cunningham VOR to Mayfield. So I tune the VOR, intercept the radial, and fly it straight in.

Mayfield is uncontrolled. I put it down and we’re getting set up at the hold short when a Bonanza comes in for a landing. It’s way too high, keeps gliding past the midway point, and for whatever reason the pilot still tries to put it down. From my angle, there was no way in hell he was going to make it, and he realized it just before touching the ground. He goes around, then I get to take off.

On our way back to Carbondale, my instructor tells me to put the simulated instrument goggles on. Again, we fly the VOR to Cunningham, then to Carbondale. It’s really nice flying without exactly knowing where I am because my instructor can’t ask me how fast we’re going or when we’re going to get there. About halfway through he tells me to take the goggles off, then he pulls my power for a simulated engine out. I do the routine, recover from it, then he tells me I can’t go higher than 1,700 ft, my VOR is busted, and I can’t put it down on any nearby airfields.

Now, when he pulled my engine, I was pretty much on course for Carbondale to begin with. I picked a field directly below me, so I didn’t deviate far from my course. I still had my flight plan, so I point the plane towards Carbondale, and climb to 1,700. From that low to the ground, you can’t see that much to reference, but whatever. I find one of the towns on my flight path and trust my instincts, and voila, I’m in Carbondale. So close to the ground, I got a really good view of the new stadium.

Next time, I fly solo to some uncontrolled airfield near Carbondale!

29JUN10 / C152 / N5198L / KMDH-KPAH-KM25-KMDH /Landings: 3 / SEL: 2.4 / XC: 2.4 / Day: 2.4 / Sim Instr: 0.5 / Dual: 2.4 / Total: 2.4

Metro 2033

This game caught me by surprise. It didn’t get much hype and what it did get didn’t excite me. Crawling around in tunnels in the dark, who cares? Then I found out that the developers are the engineers who made S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which I loved. It got pretty positive reviews, with some complaints being about the difficulty and poor gunplay and dumb AI.

I’m pleased to report these complaints are mostly unfounded. Metro 2033 is a beautiful game with a strong narrative, even if Artyom’s motivations are somewhat unclear. I beat the game on normal difficulty without much trouble. The weapons in the game are no less responsive than those in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I knew from the start that bullets were currency in the game, and that crappy bullets existed, but I didn’t figure out how to use those crappy bullets until halfway through the game. The crappy bullets really are crappy, being much louder, less powerful, and more inaccurate. It really makes you value those money bullets and forced me to decide when it was worth shooting my money away.

Around the halfway mark, there’s a vendor who will sell you either heavier armor or stealthier clothing. I had spent nearly all of my good bullets on a better gun, which was poor foresight on my behalf because guns are everywhere. I was duly punished for it though, as I was never offered the opportunity to buy a different armor again.

I got Metro 2033 on sale, and it’s one of those games in which I wish I had bought it on release. The game is short, but it’s really immersive. I hope 4A made enough to keep developing, because I’ll definitely get their next title the minute it comes out.