Sunday, July 16, 2017

I Love Marvel and Star Wars. I Don't Want Them in Kingdom Hearts. Here's Why

Forewarning: this is essentially a bunch of opinions in an edited stream of consciousness; essentially my cleaned up thoughts about the subject discussed herein. Do with this rant what you will. Also, I know that it's been a long time since I've posted anything on this blog...but I guess I just found myself to be less of a blogger than I expected? Whatevs, on to opinions

There are a lot of people who play the “Kingdom Hearts” series of video games (in the millions, I believe), an awesomely weird mixture of Disney films and SquareSoft (now Square-Enix) characters and storytelling, and there’s a special feeling (at least to me) that comes from finishing one of the games and getting excited to play the next one. One of the reasons why? New Disney worlds (no, not the amusement park.)

No game has exactly the same Disney-themed worlds as another, though there are some games (mainly “Chain of Memories”/”Re:Chain of Memories”, “358/2 Days” and “Coded”/”Re:Coded”) that are mostly retreads of previous worlds. Thus, a player who isn’t already intimately knowledgeable about the series is probably really curious to see what worlds are in the next game, as well as how those worlds will be designed, mostly in terms of level structure and story.

And as of now, with the D23 2017 trailer for “Kingdom Hearts III” showing us the (much anticipated) reveal that “Toy Story” will be one of the featured Disney films given a playable world (I believe it’ll be named “Galaxy Toys”?), there is a resurgence of speculation of what other Disney films will find their way into the new game. And with speculation, come wishes.

For a lot of people, they wish for the “Kingdom Hearts” series to have characters from and worlds based on the “Star Wars” and “Marvel” franchises. So many people want to, for example, fight the Sith by using a Keyblade. They want Sora to team up with Iron Man, or Donald and Goofy to be accompanied by Luke Skywalker.

I am not amongst them. I never have been, and I feel that I never will be. This is not to say I would be angry or disgusted were either franchise represented in the “Kingdom Hearts” series, but I would definitely be disappointed.

Probably the first and foremost reason I disagree with the potential decision of including those two intellectual properties is that they universes that are far too large for “Kingdom Hearts”, in meta as well as narrative ways, and this would, in my opinion, heavily detriment the creativity as well as social reputation of the series (which is already questionable.) The moment you put either “Star Wars” or “Marvel” in the “Kingdom Hearts” series, that franchise is immediately going to overshadow the rest of the game it's in. As much as I love “Kingdom Hearts,” it’s absolutely dwarfed in its popularity by “Star Wars” and “Marvel,” and for good reason: both of those franchises have been around for...a long time: 40 years for “Star Wars” and almost 80 years for the multitude of “Marvel” comics and subsequently inspired creations, and over those many years, they both have kept their popularity. They also have both had exponentially more stories and characters than any individual Disney film. To include the worlds and characters and stories of either franchise would inevitably lead to many people seeing “Kingdom Hearts” as “another Marvel game” or “another Star Wars game” rather than as the Disney film & Square-Enix design crossover I feel it should stay as.

In terms of writing, including “Marvel” or “Star Wars” further confuses the (already extremely loose) mythos and internal consistency of “Kingdom Hearts” when you bring in things like genetic mutations and Force abilities, Infinity Stones/Gems and galactic civil wars. Why wouldn't Sora ask for his own suit from Tony Stark? Or try to learn how to use a Lightsaber? And where do you place the boundaries of the worlds for each of them? The “Marvel” universes, be they in film, comics, animated series, video games, etc. have multiple dimensions, alternate universes, stories that span from New York City to Wakanda to the far reaches of outer space, mutants and human mutates (there’s a difference), super soldiers, clones, various gods of various pantheons, demons, spirits of vengeance that ride on motorcycles, murderous vigilantes who wear shirts with skulls on them, genetically engineered talking mammals, living planets for Pete’s sake (heh, Disney joke.) “Star Wars” is a similar case, possessing dozens of vastly different planets, a ton of unique species of life forms be they civilized or animalistic, and stories that span thousands of years away from each other.

There’s also, at least in my opinion, far more (potential) depth and moral ambiguity in the writing of “Star Wars” and “Marvel” films (at least, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe) that would create a weird imbalance of focus as well as tone in a “Kingdom Hearts” game.

Say, for example, a “Marvel” inclusion in “Kingdom Hearts III” meant a world where Sora teams up with Tony Stark. This alone is going to pose a lot of weird moral issues: Sora, as a character, just doesn’t jive well with someone like Tony, a man who built his fortune off of capitalizing on his gift for technological innovation and, at least for some of his life, selling high-powered weaponry around the Earth. Tony also fights and kills many villains, notably the Chitauri aliens in the 2012 “Avengers” film. The guy also used to have a bad alcohol addiction, and slept around with women a lot before settling down with Pepper. Can people really see someone like that fitting in a game like “Kingdom Hearts” about such broad concepts as light and darkness and doing such lighthearted tasks as completing chores to make Munny to go on beach trips or stacking ice cream scoops? Of course we could just ignore those things that are parts of Tony Stark’s character, but then wouldn’t that be a disservice to him?

Now “Star Wars”? There already exist so many parallels in “Kingdom Hearts”: the Gummi Ship is basically an X-Wing (with the final story Gummi Mission in “Kingdom Hearts II” being an unsubtle homage to the assault on the Death Star), Xemnas basically uses Lightsabers, the Nobodies are kind of like Sith (they both even wear primarily dark cloaks), and the concepts of light and darkness are written very similarly. Having two stories crossover that are this similar is a creative sinkhole to me. Nomura’s already made the “Kingdom Hearts” story close enough to “Star Wars;” we don’t need the actual thing that heavily inspired the series (and, honestly, generally does many of these concepts far better.)

And at that; how do you decide who’s going to even show up from those franchises? Purely hypothetical situations here, but do you really want to deal with the tidal wave of rants from people asking why someone like Rocket Raccoon gets into a “Kingdom Hearts” game instead of Black Panther? Or, why do Anakin and Obi-Wan get the representation for “Star Wars” instead of Rey and Finn?

Another big issue I have with these potential inclusions is a very subjective discussion, but I feel that the popular films of “Star Wars” and “Marvel” aren't the Disney teams’ creations, creatively at least. Disney owns “Marvel” and “Star Wars,” yes, but those films don't come from Disney the same way something like “Beauty and The Beast” and “The Lion King” do; neither “Star Wars” nor “Marvel” owe the inceptions of their respective series to the House of Mouse, even if Disney’s the one footing the bill now. And before anyone uses the retort that “Disney films aren’t original either!” I’m not claiming that the Disney films are completely original. I am saying that it’s through the efforts of Disney’s various animation and live film studios that the world knows the story of “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” in their most popular incarnations, because most of them feel like Disney films in a way that “Star Wars” or “Marvel” films for the most part don’t.

A lot of people who disagree with the idea of keeping “Star Wars” and “Marvel” out of “Kingdom Hearts” often point to the inclusion of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” world in “Kingdom Hearts II” and say that it likewise stuck out and, thus, that there’s no reason to not have “Star Wars” or “Marvel,” but I find this point...silly, even if I do feel that “Port Royale” in “Kingdom Hearts II” does feel slightly mismatched with the tone of the “Kingdom Hearts” series. For me, however, it’s not because of how the characters look, but rather due to narrative things like Sora teaming up with someone as unscrupulous (though ultimately sometimes heroic) as Captain Jack Sparrow and dealing with curses from an Aztec culture. This was a bit exacerbated by the censorship of violence and blood in certain localizations (such as the one for the United States,) which made that “Pirates” world feel a bit less genuine to the film.

The universe of the “Pirates” films, even with five live-action releases as of earlier this year, is comparatively miniscule in comparison to either “Star Wars” or “Marvel.” At that, the “Port Royale” world in “Kingdom Hearts II” honestly felt inoffensive in terms of its story, mostly because it was a nutshell of the story of “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” ultimately a story about one Aztec curse, a bunch of medallions, and some pirates who are immortal due to said curse. No Davy Jones and his bizarre, surrealistic locker dimension...thing. No Kraken to make us question the existence of other such massive sea monsters. No weirdly realistic mermaids (which would make quite a weird situation with the inclusion of Disney’s version of “The Little Mermaid” in the “Kingdom Hearts” series.) “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl” was able to fit well enough because it was small enough. The same way that about every other Disney film’s world was about to fit in the “Kingdom Hearts” games.

Another retort I expect is “Well, ‘Big Hero 6’ is in ‘Kingdom Hearts III’ already, and that’s Marvel!” at which I want to ask them when’s the last time they’ve even seen what the “Big Hero 6” characters originally looked like, and what their story originally was. What Walt Disney Animation Studios did when they adapted “Big Hero 6” into the 2014 film was a very liberal adaptation that almost completely divorces itself from the source material. Go ahead and read synopses of the “Big Hero 6” comics. When do people expect the new film’s cast to ever crossover with the Marvel Cinematic Universe? For all intents and purposes, “Big Hero 6” is now far more recognizable for the Disney film than it has ever been or will ever be recognized for the original comics. And it just feels like a Disney film to me: it’s for the most part very light-hearted, more family-friendly, more optimistically written and directed, and it’s also animated similarly to “Tangled” and “Frozen.”

One last huge reason I don’t want “Marvel” or “Star Wars” represented in “Kingdom Hearts” is that both franchises already have so many of their own high-quality video game releases. This November alone, “Star Wars Battlefront II” (well, the DICE developed first-person shooter iteration) is coming out, with a character and planet roster spanning the franchise’s multiple generations, and good “Star Wars” games have been releasing since 1982, on basically every platform imaginable.

“Marvel” has the fourth iteration of its iconic crossover fighting game series “Marvel vs Capcom Infinite” coming out in September, the PlayStation 4 exclusive “Spider-Man” action-adventure game releasing sometime in 2018, constant content updates for “Marvel Heroes” (now donning an “Omega” subtitle) which already has over 30 playable “Marvel” characters, various mobile games, a new VR game just announced at this year’s D23, and an upcoming game developed by Crystal Dynamics (who created the well-received 2013 reboot of “Tomb Raider” and its sequel “Rise of the Tomb Raider.”) I’m not even going into the “X-Men Legacy” games, the “Marvel Ultimate Alliance” games, the various “Spider-Man” games, and dozens of other video games to scratch an itch for the many “Marvel” series.

There’s absolutely no scarcity for quality playable “Marvel” or “Star Wars” content. There is for Disney’s own animated and live-action films, especially with the cancellation of “Disney Infinity,” which allowed characters from all sorts of Disney films and television series to team up and play around. To me, Disney films such as “Moana” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and “The Incredibles” should be what “Kingdom Hearts” continues to capitalize on: high quality films that are, in the end, ultimately self-contained with characters that neither keep crossing over into each other’s stories nor have multiple films over years before their stories can find completion.

At the end of the day, I want to reiterate don’t think the inclusion of worlds themed after the “Star Wars” or “Marvel” franchises will “ruin” “Kingdom Hearts III,” but I do feel that such inclusions would severely sour the spirit of the “Kingdom Hearts” series, as well as create missed opportunities to represent films produced by Disney that I feel to be far more deserving. To me, that spirit is the truly odd yet definitely unique possibilities created by bringing worlds and characters created by the artists and directors of Disney’s films into an action-role playing game directed by the man who used to be best known as the character designer for “Final Fantasy VII.”

I’d maybe be ok with a singular minor cameo appearance from either “Star Wars” or “Marvel” though. Say, an optional boss fight with Darth Vader, or an attainable weapon used by one of those franchise’s characters (imagining Goofy’s secret best weapon is Captain America’s Shield.) But honestly I’d rather we stick to Disney’s non-Marvel and non-Star Wars franchises for Kingdom Hearts.

You aren’t right or wrong for wanting or not wanting “Star Wars” or “Marvel” represented in “Kingdom Hearts,” and I would like to feel that way as well, yet I’ve been chided and insulted for my opinion. People have legitimately tried to prove me wrong “objectively” for what I think. Instead of going for that route, I simply hope threads like mine can help move the discussion toward understanding other people’s opinions (and maybe our own; it helped me refine some of my own) rather than yelling at each other at being wrong or what have you.

Friday, February 6, 2015

I Try Explaining (Some of) Silent Hill's Lore

[This started as a response on Reddit. It is meant to be a very rough explanation of the events that build up the world of Silent Hill, at least for the Team Silent-developed games.]

While the first three "Silent Hill" games are fairly consistent, the fourth one changes things a bit due to the nature of portals to different parts of the game's worlds and the introduction of Walter Sullivan's Ritual story, and then the later western-developed games also add new things (and even retroactively alter story bits of previous games,) so I'll just try to cover the first three games.

Firstly, the BASIC LORE, since I'm not going to put everything (might as well play the games and read the official books for that.) I'll also try not to spoil the actual games' events beyond basics:
  • Pre-1600's: the land of Silent Hill before the town's founding is sacred ground for rituals performed by Native Americans
  • Late 1600's: European settlers arrive in Massachusetts; witch trials and shit
  • 1700's: mysterious epidemic breaks out, and the town is essentially now dead
  • 1810's: War of 1812 begins; Silent Hill becomes penal colony, prison and hospital are founded
  • 1830's: forced removal policy of Native Americans in North America starts
  • 1850's: coal mine found, town revitalized
  • 1860's: Toluca prison camp for Civil War POW's constructed
  • Later 1860's: prison camp converted into federal prison after Civil War
  • 1890's: Native Americans end organized resistance; people all over Silent Hill disappear
  • Early 1900's: Silent Hill becomes tourist town, Toluca Prison closes; the primary cult begins formation*
  • 1939: "strange events" at Toluca Lake
  • 1963: Silent Hill's mayor dies suddenly, followed by the rest of the town's staff
  • 1969: Alessa Gillespie is born
  • 1976: Dahlia Gillespie enacts her ritual to summon the town cult's god; Cheryl is born
  • 1983(?): "Silent Hill 1" occurs (monsters appearing, confirming magic now taking effect)
  • 1993(?): "Silent Hill 2" occurs
  • 2000(?): "Silent Hill 3" occurs (confirmed about 17-18 years after "Silent Hill 1")
*The cult of Silent Hill is mistakenly named "The Order" by a mistranslation in "Silent Hill 3." The cult has no true name, even if the films and later games have persisted in making this canon.
So from this rough timeline, we can see that, at least between the early 1900's to the late 1970's, Silent Hill was the "ordinary" town that most people knew and loved, but there had always been a weird history to it under covers. However, there isn't enough information to confirm if there were monsters before the first "Silent Hill" game (since I'm not discussing "Origins.")

We DO have enough information to know that the foggy and creepy version of Silent Hill with monsters began as early as sometime in the 1980's (the first game.) But the events of that game occur in what's called Old Silent Hill, which is apparently ignored by vacationers. Laura and Mary meet a year before "Silent Hill 2," so apparently the resort part of town was still normal for them in the early 1990's, and some people still lived there. The two parts are separated by Toluca Lake.

What one can infer from this info is that Old Silent Hill was abandoned as of the 1980's following Dahlia's ritual, while the vacation town was still relatively normal until the events of "Silent Hill 2." Whether people lived in those parts after is not really known, though I personally don't believe people did.

Basically, the town of Silent Hill holds some dark magic due to pissed off Native American rituals combining with the rituals performed by the cult trying to rebirth a god and create a paradise by destroying humanity and, in the cult's eyes, their pain and suffering as well. This is mostly explained in "Silent Hill 3."

The Otherworld is where the real world seems to intersect with "unreality" (magic and traumatic experiences and such, like what was undergone by the Native Americans who originally inhabited the area, Alessa, James, and Angela, to name a few.) There's not yet a specific confirmed way that the Otherworld manifests, though it usually becomes more and more prominent in a game as characters learn more and more about the reasons they've been brought there.

And contrary to how every game past "Silent Hill 4" has attempted to make the town into basically a demonic psychiatrist, "Silent Hill 2" is the ONLY game in the original four games that based its horror on what the main character (James Sunderland) had been experiencing. Harry Mason, Heather Mason, and Henry Townsend all are witnesses to the experiences of other people.

TL;DR: there is a lot of dark magic in Silent Hill created from rituals as early as the 17th century that draws people who are usually explicitly tied to Silent Hill in some way to the town (read: NOT JUST ANYONE WITH PSYCHOLOGICAL ISSUES.) However, not everyone who comes to the town has history with it. The magic of Silent Hill seems to feed off of traumatic events and gets stronger as the characters understand more about why they're in the town. There isn't enough information to confirm whether or not normal people still live in the town (either Old Silent Hill or the resort part) after the 1980's, but I make the assumption that they don't.

Let me know if any of you guys have questions. Most of my information is parsed from having played the "Silent Hill" games developed by members of Team Silent of Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo firsthand (1, 2, 3, and 4, to be specific,) reading up on the excellent fan site Translated Memories, which compiles translations of official Japanese documents detailing the first four games of the series, and a little bit of personal interpretation, as much of the lore has never been completely explained.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Feature: "Playing with the Dark: Horror Games and Why They’re Important"

This piece has been repurposed from my enterprise story assignment submitted in my JMC 201 News Writing and Reporting course at Arizona State University.

            Video games have been around for almost six decades, and as such as have evolved to cover multiple different genres, just as books, film, television, music, and other forms of media have.

Among the games that feature crime sprees or cooking or go-karts or martial arts, one genre that has captured the interest of a wide audience is “survival horror,” a term popularized by the game “Resident Evil” in 1996.
Though not the first horror game, "Resident Evil" brought the genre into mainstream interest.
This genre is defined by experiences that force the player to endure terrifying situations, which can vary widely: “Five Nights at Freddy’s” sees the player confined to a security room at night under the assault of animatronic characters, “Alien: Isolation“ pits the player in a decommissioned space station being stalked by an intelligent and deadly alien creature, and “Silent Hill 2” follows the journey of a widower entering a town haunted by disturbing monsters in search of his supposedly dead wife.
So why do so many players seek out frightening and upsetting situations? Shouldn’t the protective instincts in our brains tell us to quit playing these scary games and instead find something more comforting? Why do we seek to instill in ourselves fear and anxiety?
You wouldn't expect many people to continue playing "P.T." once this occurs...
As it does with horror films and books, fear plays a major part in these games’ appeal. Yet unlike any other medium, horror games involve the active participation of players. When you watch a horror movie, the most interaction you have with that movie is pressing Play or Pause (or maybe turning on subtitles.) You can hide under a blanket or close your eyes during the more intensely scary scenes, but the film will continue to play.

By contrast, a horror game will scare a player yet still require the player to respond according to that game’s rules and systems. If you close your eyes and just hope that the threat will go away, your character in the game will probably die, and the game will reset to a previous state.  

The "Fatal Frame" series distinctly forces players to take pictures of the apparitions that haunt the player.
Plenty of research has been conducted in attempts to explain why we do enjoy horror games. One such idea that’s been used is called excitation-transfer theory: basically, experiencing things that scare us will arouse us, usually in a negative way (due to our psychological wiring,) but this arousal becomes positive once we’ve escaped the causes of fear and anxiety (known as catharsis.) This is common in horror films, as it gives the audience breathing room between scares. Being bombarded with too much in too little time will overstimulate us, causing us to quit watching or playing these scary pieces of entertainment. This means that a balance must be struck, in order to maintain the effectiveness of scares as well as the enjoyment of an audience. You don’t want too little or too much.

The "Silent Hill" games developed by Team Silent show a perfect understanding of flow between horror and safety.
Jamie Madigan, writer for multiple video game websites and magazines (such as GamePro,) with a Ph.D in psychology, said in his article, "The Psychology of Horror" [link here]:

A second set of explanations for horror’s delight posits that we hate the horror, but like the proverbial man who bangs his head against the wall because it feels so good when he stops, we love the relief that comes at the end.”

Another reason that horror games have such a mass appeal is their tendency to cover subjects usually avoided by other genres of entertainment. As is also common with other medium in the horror genre, horror games will often contain stories and situations that illustrate taboo subjects, paranoia, societal anxieties, primal phobias, and personal trauma. Examples include themes of sexual assault (in “Silent Hill 2,”) distressing hallucinations (“Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem,”) serial killers (“Condemned: Criminal Origins,”) forbidden knowledge (“Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth,”) outbreaks of infectious lethal diseases (“Resident Evil,”) and violent extraterrestrial encounters (“Dead Space.”) 

"Condemned: Criminal Origins" has ritualistic murders, something you don't expect to see from, say, "Mario Kart"
Dr. Andrew Weaver is an Associate Professor at Indiana University who researches media psychology with a special emphasis on media violence, race and media, and moral choice in video games. In a Eurogamer article published in 2010 (link here,) he discusses why we find horror games scary; even though we know what we’re seeing isn’t real.

"The physiological reaction to frightening stimuli is pretty much the same whether it's real or [in the media.] As audience members we're pretty good at engaging in suspension of disbelief. At some level we can choose to essentially forget that what we're watching or playing isn't real so that we can become fully transported into the story. If we do become immersed in a story, then the empathetic bonds we create with the characters will cause us to feel the fear they experience - much the same way we would in real life.”

The biggest advantage horror games have pertaining to exploring these themes and making audiences empathize with characters excitement, however, is the fact that we actively interact with these situations. In all of the above mentioned games, you have to confront that which is meant to scare you, in order to continue experiencing the story. But unlike an action game where you’ll often be armed to the teeth with powerful weapons and tons of ammunition, well-made horror games aim to make violent confrontations difficult for the player through disempowerment. You’ll have weak weaponry, little ammo, sparse space to move around in, low visibility, and even unconventional goals in a fight: mutated corpses in Dead Space resist blows to the head, so the better approach is actively removing their deadly limbs with engineering tools to (literally) disarm them.

Have fun trying to figure out your first encounter with a Divider in "Dead Space"
“Horror games are able to delve into human fear in a way that books and movies cannot; they use the key element for games, interaction, to achieve the greatest effect amongst players,” says Lukas Verselis, 19, Foresight Research Assistant for the School of Strategic Human Communication at Arizona State University. “The scariest games to me involve human corruption, so ‘Silent Hill’ is a classic for me. Games that allow you to fight back can cheapen the effect as well.”

Also commonly shared between horror games and other media of horror is the elimination of gender stereotypes. In far too much conventional media, men are illustrated in a vast variety of roles as heroes and villains and anything in between, but women are generally weaker or needier when not posed as villains (which is in itself often an attempt to persuade women to embrace conventional roles.)

“In the case of gender roles, the societies have established the hegemony of males by institutionalizing of male dominance over women…men have been perceived as the head of the household and women were mainly housewives. Nowadays the differences between male and female roles are smaller; however mass media still perpetuates traditional gender stereotypes.” (Wolska 2011)

Many horror games do away with conventional gender roles by making men and women are just as powerful (or rather, powerless) as each. For example, “Silent Hill 3” features a female teenage protagonist, who deals with a disturbing journey involving rituals and terrifying monsters mostly on her own; her male ally never fights alongside her during gameplay. The story actually makes effective use of a female perspective, featuring themes of fertility, birth, and even abortion, while making developing the protagonist as a strong-willed and capable character based on her own words and actions rather than any reason tied to her gender or sex. It’s vastly important that representation in media expand to be more inclusive, and many horror games have helped in that way.

Heather from "Silent Hill 3" is still one of my favorite horror game characters.
Lastly, horror games have even been utilized in therapeutic ways, sometimes known as “virtual reality exposure therapy.” One game, “Nevermind,” actually utilizes a cardio chest strap, which will detect physiological signs of fear in the player (mainly, an increase in heart rate.) The game will then increase its difficulty as a response to the player being afraid, and inversely, become easier if the player manages to calm down.

Two more examples of virtual reality exposure therapy are “Bravemind” and “STRIDE,” which have been utilized by over 50 hospitals and university research centers to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in members of the armed forces who have experienced combat.

“More than just sights and sounds, “Bravemind” uses a virtual reality head-mounted display, directional 3D audio, vibrations, and smells to generate a truly immersive recreation of the event that can be regulated at a pace the patient can handle.”

Facing our fears is an important part of our development, and one of the best ways that we can do this is through horror games. We’re put face-to-face with nightmarish situations, but in reality, we’re perfectly safe. Our imaginations run wild, both as players and as the creators of these experiences, in ways that other games can’t emulate, potentially in ways that can benefit us in very effective psychological ways.

“When we block unpleasant emotions, we also block pleasant ones, since they are all intertwined,” said Kosjenka Muk, a Special Education teacher as well as a Soulwork Systemic Coaching trainer from Croatia. “To small, dependent children, immature behavior of people around them can be so frightening that they try to absorb the shock by creating limiting beliefs and suppressing their feelings. The reason it is so hard to resolve those feelings and become aware of them is that infantile parts of us, once dissociated and suppressed from consciousness, never had the chance to mature. They stay on a childish level of perception even when we grow up. Even now, they are still just as afraid of difficult emotions, as when they were originally created.”

Angela's tragic story in "Silent Hill 2" is a perfect example of the importance in confronting our fears.
Perhaps horror games can be more than simply entertainment; perhaps they can be the push we need to overcome our inhibitions.
Don't be afraid to enter the fog...

Monday, November 24, 2014

Game Review: Alien: Isolation

This review is based on the PC version of Alien: Isolation, available on Steam.

Can I just start this off by saying that I love that this game exists? (yes, I can, it's my review. I'll do whatever I please.)

I've been a fan of the Alien film series for years. I own all of the four Alien-titled movies on DVD, and I'm able to appreciate parts of Prometheus and the two Alien vs. Predator films, but my favorite will always be the first: Alien, from 1979. Perfect pacing, a really great plot of events, realistic characters with strong performances from everyone, fantastic visual style and sound design, and the amazing designs by the amazingly talented late H.R. Gigar for the Alien (among other things) make it one of my favorite films of all time. The fact that the first and the last few minutes of the film lack any dialogue really shows a great sense of direction. It's no wonder that so many films since its release have borrowed something from Alien.

To try being brief: Alien is a story set in the (ironically now very retro-looking) future about a commercial spaceship crew of the USCSS Nostromo being awoken from cryosleep and responding to a distress beacon on an alien planetoid, under orders from Weyland-Yutani. They find a derelict space ship, a giant corpse, and a field of odd looking eggs...Of course, a crew member gets attacked by a Facehugger, arguments to let him on the ship are had, he gets on anyway, and after a very memorable bursting through of that person's chest, the titular creature slowly decreases the crew's size, though it's not the only threat on board. Only Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley survives in a shuttle. The film does well in conveying themes including corporate corruption (The Company running the operation cares about preserving the creature, not about ensuring the crew's survival,) knowing to stick to safety precautions, and having determination even in the face of a big black alien creature that bleeds acid and wants to stick its second mouth through your squishy human body.

The badass who survived the Alien. Alongside a cat.
Plot Overview
Alien: Isolation follows Amanda Ripley, the now adult daughter of Ellen Ripley. The game's events take place 15 years after Alien, and Amanda has been living without knowledge of her mother's whereabouts since. A man from "The Company" named Samuels tells her that the flight recorder of the Nostromo's been found, driving Amanda to join Samuels and a nervous analyst named Taylor on a mission to retrieve said recorder. The recorder is located on a colony called Sevastopol Station, which is where you'll be exploring for the majority of the game.

Of course, the mission doesn't go as is a game set in space after all.

Overall, the story of the game is not really anything special, mostly retreading ground laid by Alien and Aliens. The writing is serviceable, I suppose would be the best word. A bit of a shame, but I'd never call the game's story bad; just not innovative.

From the first moments you're thrown into Sevastopol by an explosion somewhere on the station, the game's title really fits. Amanda is isolated from Taylor, Samuels, and the rest of her crew, forced to scrounge around the oddly rundown station. Her new environment is covered in graffiti, tossed around items, broken machinery, and lots of malfunctioning lights. The player can read various terminal logs that describe a wide felt outrage by Sevastopol's residents against the management, reminiscent of the original film's themes. Clearly Seegson ain't Weyland-Yutani in terms of funding.

But the station is not empty. Amanda has to deal with desperate passengers who would rather fight than work together, and Sevastapol's own androids called Working Joes, who wear jumpsuits and lifeless white vaguely-human looking faces, complete with dead white eyes. These eyes glow red when they find an intruder, and they'll do their damnedest to extinguish such intruders with their bare hands, all while spewing such cryptic and ironic messages as "Why not ask me about Sevastopol's safety protocols?" I recommend not trying to confront them unless necessary: they're very durable.

And sometimes they play dead...
The Alien (also known as the Xenomorph by many fans) is truly terrifying to encounter, so you'll be better off avoiding its attention. Your stalker possesses one of the most natural-feeling artificial intelligences I've seen in a game; there is no discernible pattern to its habits. You'll have to consider both how loud and how visible you are at all times, as the Alien has stronger senses than any other enemy in the game. Encounters will require strategy and patience if you plan to survive. The Alien can change its behavior at a moment's notice, alternating from running around the area, to creeping slowly and examining every inch of a room, to crawling through the maintenance vents, and waiting for an unwary Amanda to walk under certain vents that show its dripping saliva. Amanda can distract the Alien using such attention grabbing items as flares and noisemakers. In some parts of the game, I even used it to dispatch groups of enemies, diverting its attention to violent looters with well placed loud sounds...though that did end up with me having to still work my way around it alone.

One of my own encounters with the Alien. Thank YouTube for the butchered quality.

Alien: Isolation's story can be played in three difficulties: Easy, Normal, and Hard. I strongly recommend you play the game on the Hard difficulty, so that you get the best sense of having to scavenge for items and managing your resources (also, DO NOT MISS.) I've heard some reviewers call certain parts of the game unfair, which I mostly disagree with: the game does a great job of punishing you for not paying attention to your surroundings or responding in a less prepared manner. However, toward the end of the game, I did think it was getting a little too hard to tell what was going on, due to the level design blending in with the enemies. Even then, this was a learning experience: I had to slow down and really focus on what was happening around me instead of treating the game like I could just run past the obstacles (a big issue for me when it came to the game Outlast.)

Aside from the multiple encounters you have with less-than-friendly inhabitants of Sevastopol, you'll engage in hacking mini-games in order to brute force security, little interactive moments of using tools like a wrench or a torch, and rewiring power to different doors or systems. Since they take time, you'd best make sure you're not around any enemies when doing these tasks. The mini-games are simple and neat enough that I never got annoyed by them, though it can be frustrating how much time it takes Amanda to transition between interacting with things and being able to move.

One of the hacking mini-games involves matching shapes with the displayed Callback Code.
One thing some people dislike but I'm actually glad was implemented is the manual save system, another of my (many) complaints about changes brought on by Dead Space 3. You'll have to be careful whenever you want to save your progress, make sure the coast is clear, and then interact with specific save points marked by a big "EMERGENCY" sign and a distinct beeping that will become your best friend.

Tip: don't ignore any of these. Death will no doubt be a constant.
One more thing: the game's story is beefy, and will last around 18 to 20 hours, depending on your deaths, adaptability, and knack for exploration. I don't think the game is overly long as some other critics have said, but the ending is disappointing to me. Hope that doesn't spoil the experience though: it's well worth it.

Beside that, there's a Survivor Mode, where you try to complete a number of objectives in a specific area of Sevastopol while also dealing with the Alien while having a very limited amount of supplies. It's a test of against time to fulfill these objectives as soon as possible while staying alive, and it's recommended you don't play Survivor Mode until you finish the story. Interestingly, Survivor Mode has a characters select and area select, yet only one character and area are available if you haven't bought the game's DLC. This was disappointing, to be blunt.

Put simply, the game looks gorgeous...about 90% of the time. Immediately you get a sense of what the future must look like if it were made with 1980's aesthetics, with CRT displays, tons of cigarette trays, oddly antiquated furnishings, and other effects. A vastly impressive level of detail has been paid in making the game both look faithful to the original film, while also being innovative with the introduction of the uncanny valley-evoking Working Joe androids.

I love the black screens with green text.
The manipulation of lights and shadows and dust particles, and the effects created from weaponry and tools alike all really make the game's scenes pop out in engaging ways. Activating a flare will make the screen glow red and give a little lens flare, to the chagrin of many realists; I don't mind the cinematic effect personally. Some moments you'll be wearing a suit to traverse outer space, and vision in the helmet is accurately cut down a bit by the helmet itself and the scratches on the glass. There's even a toggle between focusing on your motion tracker and what's in front of you.

You don't want to see dots on that thing. Especially if they're close to you.
The Alien itself is incredibly detailed, even though you'll want to avoid having to see it up-close obviously. From the trailing tail to the elongated shape of its head to the creepy six fingered hands, the creature looks marvelous, a perfect mix of organic and mechanical. Again, props to H.R. Giger for the original design. In certain moments of lighting hitting the creature just right, it really felt like I was experiencing the films again.

Dat tail tho.
The game's third-person (and a select few first-person) cut scenes are pre-rendered at I believe 30 FPS, with very realistically animated human faces. However, in-game talking characters look like Muppets. These cut scenes also were a little choppy. Also, some textures are much lower resolution than I thought once I got close to them. I'm not that worried though, as this work around helps more systems run the game well. In fact, I'm very impressed how good the game looks on my Asus G550JK, and I even tweaked the graphics settings higher than the default settings with no noticeable drops in FPS. Seriously, you'll be surprised how good this game can look and run on a less-powerful setup.

Very impressive detail in the faces for the third-person cutscenes.
Also, I did experience multiple visual bugs in my playthrough, but usually they were very minor and didn't affect my gameplay. Most common was floating revolvers or wrenches. I also saw Amanda's fingers clip through a vent or two. The one gamebreaking glitch I experienced was what seemed like the darkness of space farting out crystals through a character's body, so I couldn't see where I was supposed to be going. Resetting to an earlier save fixed that issue though I believe. That or just resetting the game; luckily they were close to save points.

No horror game would be complete without competent sound design, which thankfully Alien: Isolation does very well. The moment that you're aware of the Alien's presence on the ship, every sound can set you on edge, making the gameplay rely partly on knowing what each sound means. This is especially true when you find yourself hiding in a locker from the Alien. Using your motion tracker emits sound that the Alien can hear, so I found myself keeping that instrument down and instead listening intently to the sounds of the Alien's footsteps and shrieks in order to estimate my distance.

Listen to the saliva dripping...

Music is not commonly in the forefront of the game, but when it is used, it fits the scene perfectly. Loud violins that reflect the tension of the scene often complement the stalking of the Alien. I'm pretty sure I heard some music from the original Alien film as well. Wouldn't doubt it at least.

The voice acting in the game feels pretty natural too, with no performances I'd call weak. Amanda displays a range of emotions in her voice, like fear, annoyance, anger, sarcasm, and concern. The Working Joes all emit a lack of emotion that really helps make them all the more creepy. Whomever does the Alien's shrieks deserve kudos and probably a lozenge or something.

Alien: Isolation is easily one of the best games I've played in 2014. It combines a universe that I love with truly immersive gameplay, and features one of the best antagonists (who doesn't even have dialogue) in recent gaming history. If you're a sci-fi fan and/or a horror fan who enjoys games that focus more on exploration, patience, thinking through situations, and SPACE, I can't recommend this game enough.

Personal score: 9/10 

Extra Bits
I know a few certain advocates for positively portrayed female protagonist in games are gonna like this part: (COUGH HALEY AND CASS COUGH)

Amanda Ripley is a great example of a female protagonist done respectfully, just as her mother Ellen is in the film universe. Her sex is never addressed in a dismissive way by other characters (or really at all,) she doesn't seem in any way weaker than the male human characters (in fact, she's more of a badass than any of them,) and her behavior and attire aren't tied to her sex (when too many cases see this happen in submissive ways,) but rather her own personal motivations. While I don't think she's exactly memorable like Heather Mason from Silent Hill 3, she's at least another forward-thought example in terms of having female protagonists that are treated like humans.

David Cage, take some damn notes.