Pulling off good horror with pixel art is difficult. Titles like Lone Survivor come to mind as somewhat recent examples of pixelated horror done right, but such games are far from the household names that Outlast, Amnesia, and even Slender have become. Part of the reason for that may be that it’s difficult to properly set up jump scares when playing from what is generally a pulled-out, third-person view; giving the player so much vision can undercut the effectiveness of such surprises. To combat this, many “bit horror” games choose the same tactic chosen by The Count Lucanor: the horror comes from the imagery and circumstances rather than their sudden presentation.
Five years is a long time in the world of gaming.
Five years ago, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 only existed as prototypes. Games like Dishonored, The Walking Dead, and Hotline Miami were considered new IPs. Half Life 3… well, people were a bit more optimistic about its existence.
Amidst all of this, the first two episodes of The Dream Machine slipped onto PC. At the time, it probably seemed impossible that it would take until 2017 for the story to reach its conclusion, yet here we are. Somehow, it managed to avoid the encroaching grasp of development hell and emerged as a beautiful head-trip of a game.
As a storytelling medium, video games are something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, their interactive nature has the ability to create far more visceral and engaging experiences for players. However, this also brings with it some inherent drawbacks. Budgets need to be allocated not just to production design, but also to programming, QA, and more. Bugs and glitches may spontaneously occur, sucking up massive amounts of time and energy. I bring up this comparison, because Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons stands as a prime example of both. It is hampered in many areas by the restrictions of the medium, with bugs, technical problems, and gameplay issues taking me out of the experience on a number of occasions. Despite this, it manages to feel like a near-perfect pairing of story and gameplay, where each is able to complement and enhance the other.
Those of you who follow my work somewhat regularly know that life hasn’t really been the greatest as of late. Without going into the unpleasant details, let’s just say that there have been many days where getting home from class has involved a dramatic flop onto my bed, an arm draped over my forehead, and a long, heavy sigh. Surprisingly, though, I found something of a cure to this funk: horrifically graphic killing sprees. Thankfully, not in real life (I’m writing this in a Starbucks, not a prison cell or a safe-house), but in the neon-soaked world of Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. Despite the fact that it’s been awhile since I played the first Hotline Miami, diving back into its world of blood and carnage seemed to be second nature. Unfortunately, part of the reason for this is that Wrong Number is just a little bit too familiar.
Alice: Madness Returns is a game that attempts to convey the realities of a descent into madness to the player, and in that regard, it is an unequivocal success. Unfortunately, that’s because it is one of the most maddening games that I’ve played recently. It’s a game that feels like it had so much effort poured into certain aspects, while others were left to waste away in irrelevance. And unfortunately, most of the latter were the elements that would make it a compelling and enjoyable game.
That was all I could really say upon “beating” The Static Speaks My Name. I have “beating” in quotes, as this was a case where it didn’t so much feel like I had beaten the game as I felt that it had beaten me. I felt uncomfortable. Disturbed. Anxious. I honestly considered not even writing this review, because I didn’t know if I could properly put into words how the game made me feel. Plus, I wasn’t sure I wanted to dwell on it any longer than I had to. But here I am, doing just that, so hopefully I can get some coherent thoughts out and not come across as much more pretentious than I usually do.
War is hell.
Now, certainly this shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone. As history continues to repeat itself over and over again, people continue to fight and kill one another, and the harsh, horrific realities of war are brought to the forefront of the public consciousness. Every person that dies may have had children. A spouse. Friends. At the very least, they had parents, whether they knew them or not. They weren’t just some faceless drone, waiting to be gunned down in the name of their country.
In video games, though, things are different. Every character is simply programmed to be there. Enemies have no real thoughts, hopes, or dreams. They will ruthlessly pursue you to the ends of the Earth, killing you over and over as you endlessly respawn, until you finally put a bullet between their eyes and end it.
This has raised an interesting question over the years: what are the ramifications of this interactive violence? So many games on the market expect us to mindlessly butcher hundreds, if not thousands of enemies, all in the name of the “greater good”, whether that’s saving our boyfriend/girlfriend or saving the world. It’s easy to justify going on a virtual murderous killing spree for hours on end so that we can save a fictional land, but what if it was all real? Would we still be seen as the hero at the end of the day? Or does there come a point where a line has been crossed, and redemption is rendered impossible?
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
-Philip K. Dick
It is with this quote that SOMA begins its interesting, insightful, and terrifying descent, both metaphorical and literal. In its opening moments, the game establishes you as Simon Jarrett, a seemingly ordinary young man who is suffering from a severe head injury following a tragic car crash. Given months to live, Simon decides to undergo an experimental procedure under the observation of Dr. David Munshi. However, as the first stage of the procedure (a brain scan) begins, Simon is knocked out, and wakes up somewhere…else. He eventually determines that he is onboard a largely abandoned facility known as PATHOS-II, and it’s some 100 years in the future. After some exploring, Simon is able to contact one of the other sites on PATHOS-II, and reaches a woman named Catherine Chun. She informs him of the purpose of the facility, and the two set out to complete the mission Catherine began before everything went to hell.