Visage - title

It's virtually impossible to talk about Visage without first referring back to Hideo Kojima's infamous P.T. demo for the canceled Silent Hills project. P.T. has certainly left an almost Amnesia-sized footprint on the horror video gaming landscape, and it's hard not to refer back to Amnesia when talking about any horror game in the past 10 years either. It's hard to believe that P.T. was released six years ago, and the wanna-bes, copy-cats, and attempts at a spiritual successor have been rolling in ever since. The latest indie project to try to replicate P.T.'s success is SadSquare's Visage, a first-person horror game set entirely within a single suburban house in the 1980's. With Allison Road canceled, and Konami giving us no evidence that rumors of a new Silent Hill game (or a revival of Silent Hills itself) is true, Visage is probably the closest yet to a full-fledged realization of the concepts and novelty of P.T..

P.T. has influenced an entire generation of horror games.

P.T. mixed with a little Amnesia and Resident Evil

I think that part of the appeal of P.T. was its simplicity. With that simplicity came elegance. After all, it only had like 2 buttons that actually did anything, and the whole game consisted of walking around the hallway and zooming in to look at things. That's fine for what is essentially a tech demo that only takes an hour or two to beat, but for a fully-realized, full-length game like Visage, you need a bit more substance. Visage does deliver in that regard. While the entire game could be boiled down to just wandering around a house looking at spooky things, it also has several more traditional survival horror systems, which are used in new and sometimes creative ways.

The most substantive of these mechanics is a "sanity" mechanic pulled straight from something like Amnesia or Eternal Darkness, and which replaces a more traditional health system. The ghosts haunting the house will kill you and force a Game Over if they catch you, so your only defense is to run away. But when you run away, you need to try to run into a part of the house that is well lit, as the player character seems to be very afraid of the dark, and his sanity rapidly depletes if you're standing or wandering around in the dark.

The little red brain in the corner indicates you're in
danger of succumbing to a potentially-lethal haunting.

I wish the little sanity indicator had been moved to one of the top corners of the screen. Holding certain items in your left hand (particularly the lit lighter) often covers up or obscures the icon, making it hard to read. Other U.I. elements, such as some button prompts, will also draw a black bar across the bottom of the screen, which also covers up the sanity indicator.

Visage has some pretty good lighting effects, with realistic, dynamic shadows and darkness that is actually pitch black. It's not uncommon to catch a glimpse of a shadow from a flickering or swaying light in the corner of the screen and think that it's an apparition. Unfortunately, there's also some texture pop-in when playing on my PS4 Pro that happens when making sudden turns or when moving between rooms. This also looks like an apparition, and acted to quickly desensitize me to the deliberate peripheral visual trickery that the game tried to employ later.

The ambient sound design is also quite good. There's the cliche background ambiance of a rainstorm and thunder, but it's accompanied by numerous creaks and groans within the house itself. These creaks and groans, combined with the narrow corridors, blind corners, and ubiquitous darkness help to keep the horror atmosphere tense, especially in the early hours. Are those footsteps in the attic above me? Did I just hear something behind me? Is there an apparition waiting around the corner? The groaning and creaking reminded me of the novel House of Leaves, which I read over the summer, and which describes its house as "growling" whenever it reshapes its impossible geometry.

The house of Visage is also claustrophobic enough, cluttered enough, and confusingly laid-out, such that navigating in the dark is genuinely difficult. I had to play for hours (and finish more than a whole chapter) before I really started to get a feel for the layout of the house. Remembering which rooms and objects are where is hard enough in the early hours with the lights on. Not being able to see where I'm going only made early-game exploration feel hopelessly futile -- but in the good horror game way of making me feel unsure of my surroundings and vulnerable.

The house has a surprisingly large and complicated floorplan.
Keeping it well lit will both keep you sane, and also help navigate.
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Could there be good news on the horizon for Konami's flagship franchises?

Last week, I started seeing an increasing number of websites, videos, and social media posts reporting on several new rumors regarding the Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, and Castlevania franchises, which currently are owned by Konami. Konami famously destroyed its credibility as a video game publisher a few years ago when its management had a public feud with Hideo Kojima that resulted in Kojima leaving the company, and the cancellation of the much-hyped Silent Hills game that was teased by the viral P.T. demo exclusive to PS4. Konami then went on to release critical and financial duds in Metal Gear: Survive and Contra: Rogue Corps, and further hindered its public perception among fans of its prestigious video game franchises by releasing a glut of slot and pachinko machines based on the IPs.

It seemed that beloved franchises like Metal Gear, Silent Hill, Castlevania, and Contra were doomed to a slow and painful death at the hands of Konami's ineptitude.

Team Silent back for a reboot?

Rumors started surfacing earlier this year that Konami is working on one or two new entries in the Silent Hill franchise. My initial reaction was that Konami had butchered Metal Gear and Contra with shit games over the last two years, so it was Silent Hill's turn to be dragged through the mud. Castlevania would probably be on deck for the next trainwreck. I took the rumors of new Silent Hill games as unmitigated bad news, expecting to see something along the lines of Silent Hill: Book of Memories and Metal Gear: Survive. However, over the past couple weeks, new rumors have been spreading that have opened up the far-fetched possibility that a new Silent Hill game might not be disastrous after all.

First up was the rumor that Konami might be inviting some of the creative leads from the original Silent Hill game to design and develop a reboot of the original, or a soft reboot of the series as a whole. It started out with rumors that original creature designer Masahiro Ito would be working on a new Silent Hill game, and has since extended to the inclusion of Keiichiro Toyama and Akira Yamaoka (the original director of Silent Hill, and the series long-time music composer and sound director, respectively). The latest rumors suggest that this trio (and possibly more original Team Silent members) are working on a next-gen reboot of the series.

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Silent Hill 3

Last year, YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf posted a video titled "The Problem with Silent Hill 3: the Downfall of Team Silent". In that video, Super Eyepatch Wolf asserts that the design of Silent Hill 3 changed early in development, as a result of pressure from Konami. He claims that early designs for the game were going to be a more personal, introspective tale, in the vein of Silent Hill 2.

YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf posted a video last year asserting that Silent Hill 3
was originally going to be more similar to Silent Hill 2's personal and introspective story and style.

Konami may not have been happy with this early design because -- believe it or not -- there were apparently many vocal fans of the first Silent Hill game who were upset that Silent Hill 2 had not continued the story set forth by the first game. So Konami mandated that Team Silent make Silent Hill 3 be more of a continuation of the first Silent Hill, and so SH3 was re-written as a direct sequel to the first game, and returned to the narrative of a cult trying to birth a demon god.

I've adapted this blog post into a YouTube video response to Super Eyepatch Wolf.

It's hard to believe, but when it was first released, Silent Hill 2 was not universally regarded as the "gold standard" of video game horror. You can look at middling contemporary reviews from publications like Gamespot and GameInformer. In those days, the series was perceived as being "about occultism", and Silent Hill 2 was a stark deviation. Now, with a generation of gamers having grown up playing and loving Silent Hill 2, there's an effort now to re-frame the entire series as having always been about a haunted town torturing the guilty, even though three out of four of the original games are explicitly about a cult trying to re-birth its demon god, and repressed personal guilt is only featured in one of those four games.

Silent Hill 2 was the only of the original 4 games to be about the protagonist being punished for repressed guilt.

But that may not have always been the plan...

If Super Eyepatch Wolf is correct, then Team Silent may have wanted to pivot the narrative focus of the series away from occultism and towards more personal stories like SH2 -- though, importantly, not necessarily about repressed guilt or amnesia!

I have a complicated relationship with the question of "what is Silent Hill about?" Readers of my personal blog will know that I've rigorously defended the idea of Silent Hill (as a series) being about occultism, and that new entries in the series should respect that history, rather than trying to re-frame the entire series (and the nature of the town itself) to be about a haunted town that summons people to face their hidden guilt.

That being said, it isn't that I have a particular attachment to occult stories, even though a lot of the games that I like (such as Demon's Souls and Blooborne) also have strong occult threads. I also am definitely not opposed to more thoughtful, introspective stories. Silent Hill 2 is my favorite game in the series because of that thoughtful, introspective story! Rather, I've found all the third-party-developed games after Silent Hill 4 to be highly derivative of Silent Hill 2 and not particularly good.

Silent Hill 3 pivoted hard back towards the occult inspirations of the first game.
But is that really what Team Silent wanted?

Super Eyepatch Wolf does have some quotes and evidence to support the idea that Silent Hill 3 was originally intended to be a very different game -- all of which was taken from a single interview. But there's not much (if any) information about what the actual story of that game may have been. Nobody on Team Silent has (as far as I know) talked about it, nor do we have a leaked design document like what we have for Silent Hill: Cold Heart (the Wii-exclusive that eventually transformed into Shattered Memories).

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Silent Hill 2

Video games are unique as an artistic medium. Not only do they allow the consumer to interact with a much wider possibility space than other mediums, but they also allow the consumer to directly influence the art itself. The stories, experiences, messages, and meaning that are conveyed are not only subject to the interpretation of the consumer, but they can be directly influenced or changed by the consumer. In some cases, a game can even prey upon the expectations of the player, or the player's desire to complete the game, in order to convey a particular message, or to make a statement about the player's actions.

One classic example of a game that plays the player as much as the player plays it is Silent Hill 2. That game's endings, and the triggers for each ending, have always been one of my favorite design aspects of that game. Silent Hill 2 takes advantage of the player's preconceived notions about how a horror game should be played, and it uses your play to pivot James' resolution (and his very character) in one of several directions.

Watch a video version of this blog post on YouTube!

I'm going to be talking about Silent Hill 2's endings. It should go without saying that this post will include major spoilers for Silent Hill 2. I'll also be comparing Silent Hill 2 to other games such as Mass Effect, Fallout, The Witcher III, The Last of Us, and What Remains of Edith Finch. As well as the post-Team Silent games: Silent Hill: Homecoming, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and Silent Hill: Downpour. So there will also be varying degrees of spoilers for those other games as well.


Spoilers incoming for the above games. Consider yourself warned!
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Her Story - title

Having a little bit of free time between playing Madden 20 and starting out this year's indie football games, I checked out a couple indie games that I've had sitting around in my Steam library for months. Both are player-driven mystery games about trying to deduce the events of the past. The simpler of the two is called Her Story, which is a game that released all the way back in 2015. So I'm quite a few years late to this party.

Her Story attracted my attention because it was developed by Sam Barlow. Barlow had previously worked as a writer for Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Personally, I felt he and the other writers at Climax had butchered Origins. His work on Shattered Memories, however, which was not bound by the constraints of established Silent Hill canon, went in a more interesting direction. Maybe not as interesting as if they had gone with the initial Cold Heart pitch, but whatever. I was curious to see what Barlow would do when completely free of the Silent Hill namesake.

I was curious how Sam Barlow would handle himself when free of the Silent Hill namesake.

Down the deductive rabbit hole

Her Story stands out because it is a completely player-driven experience. You have almost free access to a database of interview answers from a woman who is a suspect in the disappearance (and murder) of her husband. The game consists of searching through a series of live-action videos of interview questions, in which every word of her answers have been indexed for search. The catch is that you can't simply watch all the clips in order, and the game will only give you (at most) the first five clips at a time (in chronological order). You also don't know what questions are being asked, so you don't necessarily have the context for her responses.

Each response is laden with bread crumbs of keywords that you can pick out and search in subsequent queries in order to find related videos and discover additional details about the suspect's life, the victim's life, and the events leading up to the disappearance of her husband. This is where Her Story really shines. The game starts with the word "murder" in the search bar, and each clip that you watch will reveal new names and places. This should lead you towards going down the rabbit hole of searching for each new name or place until you eventually come to the weirder and more interesting testimony.The scripts is expertly designed to distribute bread crumbs in such a way to dole out the story over the first hour or two in order to build up the mystery.

Pick out key words from her testimony to find related statements.

There's also no hand-holding or guidance of any kind. It's just you and the search engine. It's entirely up to the player to input the words you want to search for. You can follow-up on a particular clip by searching for a keyword in her response, or you can search for some completely different, random word(s) instead. The game doesn't highlight the next words for you to search. It doesn't stop to tell you that you've "solved" some mystery or completed some objective. There's a widget that shows you how much of the database you've viewed, but other than that, there is no in-game progress-tracker. In fact, there's not even a real end goal.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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