Framing Lone Survivor

I always thought of Silent Hill 2 as a game that was choking me, rather than scaring me. Whether I was being strangled by fog or smothered by a sheet of darkness my perception was constantly being obfuscated in some sadistic ploy by the designers. The spouts of violence I engaged in were always overshadowed by this battle I waged with the designers — how they didn’t want to see me survive their labyrinth. But framing the gameplay in order to pressure the player isn’t always done by maiming the their vision. Lone Survivor proves that gaining sight of your endeavour can prove to be just as a arduous.

Scrolling from side to side I could simultaneously see everything that I’ve encountered and everything I will encounter. If anything was offscreen I could hear its growls in the distance. Knowing, or being aware, has its own consequences on your mind. I my trust body’s reflexes and I trust my implicit judgement to make proper decisions in the heat of the moment. But here I stand, contemplating, ruminating, rotting, thinking of how I’ll escape this predicament. I can see the door on the other side, but I see two monsters patrolling the route. I know I can plant this slab of decaying flesh and squeeze my way past this one monster — becoming as 2D and as the second dimension allows — but then I’m sandwiched between both of them; as dead as the meat I used as bait.

Hiding in Lone Survivor.

“I can’t dodge, evade, or run without burning a resource.”

So I hide, and I walk, and I hide again. Sometimes I get caught. The monsters claw, spit, and bite, and I’m reminded how compressed my perspective is. I can’t run past these guys without paying a bullet to their legs. I can’t dodge, evade, or run without burning a resource. There is no left, no right, no up, no down — only forward and back. What you don’t realize when you play most sidescrolling games, is the power you command. Say I’m hopping about the Mushroom Kingdom and I run into a Goomba. I can jump over it, or I can jump on it. In Silent Hill you can fight, or run. But in Lone Survivor (the combination of both realms) you don’t have the wiggle room Silent Hill‘s 3D perspective permitted and you don’t have the tools to conquer the unexpected like a Super Mario title allots. You’re at the mercy of designer Jasper Byrne through the resources he’s allocated to this point.

I see my own death in every game, but a fraction of a second before it takes place. Lone Survivor pins me against my sanity in a 16:9 ring. Sure, I can plan accordingly, however, should my plan fall apart, I’m stuck. And I know I’m stuck before it happens. This isn’t a particularly fast paced adventure. It’s viscous. You wallow in your own filth with each mistake, and you see your death coming long before it happens.

Byrne hands you the game’s syntax, but laughs at you while he holds back the semantics. The foresight you hold when playing the game permeates the psyches of the game’s characters, although what they know doesn’t necessarily equate to what the player knows. There’s a man you meet in fever dreams, an hoary man in blue who you’re supposed to find familiar, but can’t place. You ask him who he is, and he mocks you. The protagonist recognizes him, but can’t remember who he is. It’s Jasper Byrne, amusing guffawing at your stipulated outlook. You play the game with clear eyes, seeing every obstacle in path, while the game plays you, suffocating any lucid grasp you think you have on both the gameplay and narrative.

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Log: Year Walk

I’ve been watching a lot True Detective lately and I gotta say that show is outstanding. Not for its premise; it’s just a simple cop show with all the typical tropes sewn in for instant appeal and recognition. But what separates True Detective from the run of the mill police drama is the uncanny conflicts neatly layered into the plot. I’m cutting the show’s merits short, but there’re layers to its universe which are grounded in absolute nonsense, from pagan rituals to cosmic fears. It’s realistic in every facet, but the investigations the characters conduct always leave them with cryptic and clandestine results. How this show straddles the line between fact and fiction, realism and surrealism, and television diegesis and audience is what keeps this show grounded, while still managing to get under your skin.

Simogo’s Year Walk does what other spooky adventure games do. It has puzzles, monster closets, and an eerie setting that stays one step ahead of you. Like True Detective, what separates this game from the rest of its ilk is its tenuous grasp on reality, and its ability to transcend the realms around it. The Year Walk Companion is intrinsic to the game’s foundation and acts as a portal through which we, the players, can crawl through the worm holes linking the game’s fiction, the folklore that inspired it, and our own reality.

Like any adventure game, Year Walk entails a lot of wandering around to search for items or a plot point. Rather than any kind of hint system, the game offers the aforementioned companion app; a kind of travel guide for the player to navigate 19th century yuletide Sweden. It’s a short encyclopedia detailing some of the traditions and folkloric creatures involved in a divinatory Scandinavian ritual called Year Walk, or Årsgång. Reading these entries gives you shallow hints as to how to progress in the game –though it does so passively, informing you of the premodern mythos of Scandinavia first and foremost. The game is based on these ancient fears and customs, building an adventure out of an established lore. In doing so we not only experience the game’s story but learn about the culture that gave birth to it. I’d go as far as to call this approach educational.

Using real-world folklore or mythology to tell a story in a game isn’t uncommon, but it’s often done as a means to ground the story in an intuitive setting, like the sequels to God of War. Year Walk shows us the fears and practices of old Sweden, traditions that (I imagine) aren’t known to most people. Walking away from this game I learned about of the commonality of infanticide centuries ago, or how Scandinavian legend holds a monster called the Brook Horse, a creature serving a purpose not unlike the Ogopogo does in Canada.

Year Walk's church gate.

“…we, the players, can crawl through the worm holes linking the game’s fiction, the folklore that inspired it, and our own reality.”

Spoilers Follow.

The game’s ending is pretty bewildering and bleak. You don’t get much of a sense of what’s going on, just of what happened. Then, by some deus ex machina, the game flickers a message claiming that the story’s not over, and that what you saw doesn’t have to happen. You’re granted the passcode for a locked section of the Year Walk Companion. It opens the diary of Theodor Almsten, who was responsible for writing the entries in the encyclopedia. This is where the game reached its most chilling point, opening a tunnel between our world, old Sweden’s, and the game’s.

The journal chronicles Almsten months of researching the forgotten custom of the Year Walk, and while doing so experiencing some strange phenomena. Almsten was investigating a particular individual who may have been the last to perform the ritual, and ventured to his place of residence. Every event he learnt of is connected to a supernatural occurrence in the game, and every photograph he took during his exploration pertains to a setting in the game. As the journal goes on the folklore he studies bleeds into his dreams, and eventually begins to manifest in various aspects of his life.

Within the diary lies symbols, hints — a path carved out for the player if they just pay attention. Using these suggestions to perform certain actions in the actual game unlocks a less nebulous ending and a proper conclusion. Turning the game into a short investigation for the player is Year Walk‘s most enthralling aspect, melding fact and fiction into the real world, and forcing the player to endure Sweden’s most unearthly folklore and the game’s story in their own subjective reality.

There was the game, Scandinavian legend, and a brief mystery novel buried in a single cohesive experience. Reminds me of games I used to play as a kid, namely the Carmen Sandiego series. The structure of these overtly educational games wrote a story using real world devices, and then a solution that demanded your exploration of the given topic. In Year Walk, Simogo blends this overlooked adventure formula to create a verisimilar horror novella, straddling the line between our world and the realm of the paranormal.

Log: Hotline Miami

We, as a species, have an appetite for violence, evident from the popularity of action films or the mere existence of the Colosseum in Italy. This fact in itself, contradicts with our so-called “civilized” state today. But for the most part arts feeds violence through a passive consumption, the audience simply watching and unengaged in terms of instrumentality. However, in video games the consumer is granted a degree of agency, a role Hotline Miami surfaces in the ebb and flow of its uncanny narrative.

Ostensibly the game is dual-stick brawler, leading the player from locale to locale clearing rooms to some unknown end. Beneath the bloodsport that the vibrant art style depicts, the game depends more on puzzle/strategy elements with an emphasis on reflexes. Charging head-on to defeat enemies is one way to go about it, but watching their patrol patterns, organization, and arsenal, paves the way for mastery of the game’s mechanics. It encourages you to accept death and experiment with different tactics, ushering entirely different strategies depending on the layout of each chapter. There were times when I had to calculate which enemy I had to defeat last, which resulted in the most exhilarating scenarios; having a plan that was conjured a split second ago plume with the blood of some gaudy gangster is an experience that gives off a cold sweat.

The brutality of Hotline Miami.

“Hotline Miami teeters on this surrealism, cutting abruptly to focus on the absurdity and ubiquity of violence in its diegesis.”

Spoilers follow.

The very violence that composes the game’s attraction is also subject to debate and censure within the game’s diegesis. Grotesque characters will comment on your actions with puzzling interrogations, condemning the player at every turn. “Do you like hurting other people?” asked someone in a Rooster mask, sitting comfortably in a dimly lit apartment. Hotline Miami teeters on this surrealism, cutting abruptly to focus on the absurdity and ubiquity of violence in its diegesis, leaving the player confused and disoriented. You never get full details on what the story involves, but the confusion that revolves around the violent acts of the game is part of its savage appeal.

There’s a dichotomy that they set in place between Jacket and Biker (the game’s protagonists) forcing you to think about the nature of violent video games and the agency inherent to the medium. As Jacket, you go about unquestionably murdering whoever you’re instructed to kill. Even people who beg mercy must be dealt with in order for the chapter to end. But after his story is complete, you play as the Biker, and gain a lot more agency when it comes to your decision making. For instance, there’s a building filled with friendly people who distance themselves from the Biker because he’s holding a cleaver — yet you can still kill them, if you choose. After berating you for senseless mass murder, the masterminds behind the game’s plot finish the script with “you’re move,” to let the player call the shots and decide their outcome. Do you kill the two organizers, or do you just walk out? It’s your call. But the point is, mercy wasn’t an option before, surfacing the cognitive dissonance between the role of the player and their previous, functionally-limited avatar, Jacket. Why do we commit murder in video games? Because the game told us to, just like Jacket, who got phone calls to take out thugs — requests which he never disobeyed. Though as the Biker, as a player with knowledge of the developer’s plot to lure and perpetuate video game tropes, you have the conceit to make your own decision.

This binary between who you play as (Jacket with no agency) and who you are (Biker with considerable agency) permeates the entire game, most overtly demonstrated by the masks Jacket wears to adopt his various abilities. The masks represent us, the players, all unique in capacity and ability yet conforming to the standards and stipulations of what games make us partake in, and still, we manage to go about playing the game in entirely different ways. And it’s with this analogue for player uniqueness that Hotline Miami couples personalization with absolute empowerment. The way you play dictates how quickly and how efficiently you progress, keeping the game’s difficulty while demanding precision from the player. Once you understand the internal logic of the game, you realize that each and every failure is entirely dependent on your actions, and thus, each success leads to a satisfying and idiosyncratic end, just as they do with Jacket and Biker.

Thomas Was Alone Review

More often than not, videogames use violence as a justified substitute for problem solving. It’s a trope sewn into the fabric of the medium, securing the label of tradition as it becomes the norm for gameplay in contemporary titles. Because of this, the term ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’ is a hot topic these days; defining a thematic disconnect between the story told and the interaction the player assumes. Mike Bithell created Thomas Was Alone as a comparable puzzle-platformer, but the distinguishing feature of the geometric caper is how the gameplay serves a significant purpose beyond the enjoyment of the player: it exists as metaphor.

Thomas, an orange rectangle, awakens one day to find himself well, alive really. He’s just been conjured into existence by means of a computer error and immediately finds himself at odds with solitude and suffering from an existential crisis. The thought of dying unaccompanied sends a shiver down the AI’s (metaphorical) spine, so he decides to carry forward through life’s obstacles in search of camaraderie and purpose.

He comes across other AIs, each with their own personality and physical traits. Some friends can crawl through small apertures, some can jump to great heights and some just carry a buoyant sense of goodwill and vigilantism. Throughout the game Thomas learns the ins and outs of every cliché on the topic of friendship and life, but it’s presented in such a manner you can’t help but be enamoured by.

Thomas was alone.

Simple puzzles compose the majority of the game’s stages, requiring skillful collaboration between the given characters to progress, but how this works as an allegory for friendship and teamwork allows the simplicity of the endeavours to be overlooked, as there’s a sense of accomplishment and absolute delight with each step of the way. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself in a stage where your only objective is a simple romp from point A to point B, though there’s a feeling of frigid isolation when a level is completed without the help of friends. These solitary courses present an opportunity for silent reflection; a character contemplating their loneliness while falling down endlessly, speaks as a surprising analogue for someone being at their wit’s ends. The characters all radiate emotion, their own quirks and ineptitudes coming to light with each passing trifle — you begin to feel like you know these people.

Though to merely look at these “people” would undercut the infusion of charm that concocts the narrative. Various quadrangles shape the visual design of every character, but their nuances in animation inject plenty of vigour into their polygonal visages. Their stature, height of jumps and speed of movement mirror their personalities, from a short square striving to prove himself, to a pretentious rectangle with a prodigious double-jump. Even their jump animations add to their composure; each character contorting during leaps in their own unique way.

At crux of this polygonal coming of age story lies the trenchant narration by Danny Wallace. The coterie of misfit shapes that spearhead the game speak volumes with their body language, though they depend on Wallace to vocalize their sentiments through the comedian’s cheerful and sarcastic demeanour. His tone couples harmoniously with the reflexive script to remind you how absurd the game’s premise is, and how lonely it can be to experience an adventure in recluse — much like this single player game.

Teamwork comes naturally; the only way to succeed.

Minimalism is at the heart of the game’s art direction, creating a beautiful array of menu and level design that blooms in absenteeism. The lack of substance on-screen in confluence with the monochromatic palette, contributes to the crushing sense of isolation — and where there is substance a shadow is cast, jerking solidarity to the forefront of every asset and painting an inescapable dissonance. David Housdens’s ambient soundtrack flows throughout the arteries of the game, streaming the cold pings of chiptunes and the subdued chords of a violin to complement this yarn of the little rectangle that could.

Each level holds variances from the last that never make you feel like you’re hopping about the same abyss of cyberspace. However the story does dither towards the end, taking a step back from the developed characters’ journey of self discovery, to deliver a more conventional plot. Suffices to say, the game does end with a poignant conclusion that coalesces with Thomas’s plight, blending together an adhesively indelible game. As you become more acquainted with the characters in Thomas Was Alone, you’ll begin to catch similarities to people you know — your friends, family, and maybe even yourself. You’ll notice that after the time you spend with these colourful shapes, it’ll be difficult to see them as mere quadrangles ever again.

Kentucky Route Zero – Act II Review

There’s a spadeful of damp vulnerability sown in the first act of Kentucky Route Zero. Our delivery man protagonist, Conrad, doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. You and I, don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into — and that’s really the beauty of this game: we don’t belong in it. There’s a certain vampirism that feeds off the player’s role as a voyeur, a consumption of trust and perception. We know what’s real, what’s not, what physics and logic permits in reality, and which intangible arrangements can only manifest themselves in dreams.

The first act, for the most part, used dialogue to disorient you. You drive up to an old farm-house and ask a strange woman about a broken TV, only to have her respond with a non-sequitur, oblivious to your tone or that something was even asked. While this Lynchian dialogue is still present in the second act, what rises to prominence are the contrastive visuals composed by glacial vector graphics. Once again, a heavy sediment challenges your perception of the natural and unnatural, but in this visit to the eponymous highway you’re stifled by the uncanny settings and their interactable objects.

An office, in a cave.

Hermit crabs are walking around in caves, carrying about their business. But to interact with them would reveal an unsettling comment on how our inorganic consumption in everyday life, affects the way nature intended things to be. The cave is the initial scene of Act 2, and in it you’ll find an office building. Yes, you read that correctly, but while you’re running hoops through bureaucratic paperwork, you can take a break from white-collar life and head to the third floor, where you’ll find some burly employees simply watching you. The inorganic setting of an office is out-of-place for them, but you don’t belong around them either, or whatever sphere of existence Kentucky Route Zero adorns. You can only walk across the eerie, antiseptic office, and they’ll watch your every movement, like the ugly duckling you are.

The perverse espionage that comes with every art is heightened and brought to the forefront of this demented escapade. Film, television, literature — you’re always peeking through a keyhole, getting a narrow cross-section of the events in someone’s life. Though with the participatory narrative of this second act, these roles seem to be reversed. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, the first act handed you the power of judgement. You could reflect on your opinion of the town by speaking to your dog and choosing how to respond to the patrons of the haunted highway. It always felt like you were the kid watching ants endlessly toil about a farm. But being the ant in the farm feels disturbing — all the attention’s on you, as naturally, you’re the stranger in these parts.

Any semblance of solitude and privacy that existed in the first act has been robbed of its vitality. Not only do characters watch your movement, they inspect your every action with detached judgement, enforcing a further state of dissonance between your visiting of the Zero, and the people who call it home. An entire section of this episode dictates this dissonance, and efficaciously writes history as it’s being made. Rather than following the structure of the first act and scribbling a tableau of what used to be, this second act forces you to experience history in the making and through another being’s perspective. The aforementioned section has you pointing and clicking as you would, but interacting with objects summons a conversation between citizens of the town that describe the events as if they’ve already happened, but with their own unique and vindictive judgement. Your participation is still part of their commentary, but it’s something etheric and supernatural; the act of taking possession of new character with each engagement.

Relaxing in a forest.

Characters change in this new episode, and express their personality with more credence in their utterances. Most responses hold a dichotomy that subtly allocates a gentle and tapered tone with Conrad, and abrasive demands by Shannon. It’s a kind of contrastive dyad that let’s the player decide how to deal with a situation while also adding strata to the composure of the protagonists. We’re introduced to new characters as well, their own histories and quirks adding more questions to this tumble in the rabbit hole. Though my only gripe arises with a certain character who is a little too farfetched for the uncanny valley the game presents. This game thrives on taking the realistic, and twisting and construing it to a point that makes you feel like something’s crawling beneath your skin. But when you’re acquainted with a character that seems larger than life, in a game that’s just weird enough to make things creepy, you feel like you’re waking up from the hallucination that Cardboard Computer designed.

There’s ample choice in this game but it’s all intrinsic to who’s playing it. The choices you get to make aren’t the moral decisions you typically see shoehorned into games but instead reflect the characters you create. You participate in the creation of Conrad, Shannon, and how they navigate this chasm between our world and that of the Zero. There’s no gravity to your decisions, only character development and the feeling of co-writing a book. I can’t say what this game is pointing to; it’s a hodgepodge of bizarre events and behaviour. But the most conspicuous facet of the game is how unsettling it is, because of how personal it becomes. Not in the way you make decisions in Mass Effect. Kentucky Route Zero proffers no question of whom to bring along, or which choice will benefit gameplay or story — just how you wish to perceive the narrative. You start to see yourself in these characters, your memories bleeding into theirs, and you’ll get a chill down your spine when you realize how idiosyncratic this game gets, and yet remain at sea with how this feeling came to surface.