Make Games Scare Again: zigging instead of zagging

What number are we on for Resident Evil games? How many Friday the Thirteenths are there? The thrill of a good scare is something we intellectually know can’t be repeated, even though we never stop going back to the well. But the scares we know too well aren’t scares anymore. They’re horror comfort food. We can almost guess which crew member is the first to be Xenomorph meal. We know which couple gets the chainsaw first. We know the monster is going to be some CG boondoggle. We know when the refrigerator or medicine cabinet closes, something will be there. Ah, yes, it played out exactly like it was supposed to. Next!

After the jump, what if someone adjusts the formula?

Tom Chick: Duskers
Alien and Aliens have been ruining sci-fi horror for literally decades. And by ruining, I mean “influencing to the detriment of original ideas”. If the idea of a spaceship as a haunted house predates Alien, I’d love to know. I suppose space marines have been fighting alien bugs since Heinlein’s 1959 Starship Troopers, but you’d never know by how often Aliens has been directly aped. Even the movie adaptation of Starship Troopers is more James Cameron than Robert Heinlein.

In fact, did you know Space Hulk, the boardgame in which space marines work their way through infested/haunted spaceships, wasn’t invented until a few years after Aliens? Warhammer 40,000 didn’t even exist until after Aliens. Not that I mind too much. Alien and Aliens are common ideas because they work so well. System Shock and horde mode in Gears are still great. But there are only so many ways you can iterate on these formulas. Have we seen all of them?

According to Duskers, no. Because Duskers does the spaceship as haunted house in a way most videogames wouldn’t dare attempt: without graphics or audio. It is played entirely from the safe confines of a separate spaceship. All you see is a top-down map of robots exploring a diagram. The visuals might as well be drawn on graph paper, Space Hulk-style (although the zoomed-in view is an eerie 3D scan effect). You’re experiencing this haunted house remotely, through a screen, seated comfortably. Sound familiar? You’re in front of a computer playing a game about someone in front of a computer. You’re using text commands to drive your robots.

Duskers has a crunchy survival gameplay shell to get you invested and keep you there. One of its strengths is how it plays it close to the vest early on. The alien is just a blip in a room that you can flush into space or kill with a remote sentry gun. But Duskers has more in store for you. Just as Aliens raised the stakes from Alien, Duskers raises the stakes as you progress through its survival game. Although I should say “if you progress through its survival game”. Horror is at its best when there’s permadeath.

Chris Hornbostel: Until Dawn
The first hours of Until Dawn are as seductive a game experience as I’ve had in recent memory. Everything from the gorgeous, photorealistic graphics to what appears to be an almost Sims-like relationship system makes promises that this will truly be a next generation envelope-pusher. Add in a familiar horror setting (literally a cabin in the woods) and the presence of actors like Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek and horror icon Larry Fessenden, and I was buying everything Until Dawn was selling.

That early impression eventually wears off a bit, but I’ll circle back around to that. If you just take Until Dawn as a fun and interesting piece of entertainment that knowingly plays with teenage slasher movie tropes, it can work. Play this the way you’d read a choose-your-own-adventure book, only here your choices can help frame up more of a choose-your-own-dead-teenager experience. Some of your actions are going to save these characters while other choices result in horrific and gruesome deaths. It ends up being your call for how that plays out, but often it’s typical adventure game choices and quick time events that determine these outcomes more than any relationship factors. In the end, Until Dawn is a mostly linear adventure game with elements that call back to a classic adventure-on-a-timetable game like The Last Express.

The gamer in me ended up a bit frustrated by Until Dawn because of that seductive, sexy first impression. The character stats and interactions end up being utilized inconsistently and infrequently. The deeper gameplay it teases early on never really emerges. If I was reviewing the game, I’d struggle with giving it more than two or three stars.

Knowing all this, though, my second playthrough was revelatory. I started off determined to get some collectibles and clues I’d missed the first time I played, while also looking for ways to save a few more of the teenage partiers at the cabin. Expecting much less from the gameplay this time around, I found myself enjoying and appreciating the story for offering some unique twists and interesting uses of character. That’s why I’m recommending Until Dawn. Warts and all, anyone who’s ever yelled at the screen when a character in a horror movie says “Maybe we should split up to cover more ground” should at least experience the way this game spins those conventions around.

Tomorrow: our current favorites
What’s the deal with these weird recommendations?