Hinterland – Now Available for Download

I’ve posted about my RPG Maker game Hinterland before, but today I’m excited to announce it’s now available as a free download here: http://gamejolt.com/games/hinterland/94720

Special thanks to everyone in the RPG Maker community and at rpgmaker.net, rpgmakerweb, guelstie, freesound, pixabay, /r/rpgmaker, and wikimedia commons.

And, of course, anyone who plays it.

Find any glitches? Report them in the comments here or on the game’s Gamejolt page, and I’ll be sure to fix them as soon as I can.

Free resource pack coming soon. Thanks again, and have a happy October!

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Split Infinitive Games

I think it’s safe to say I’m in the final stretch of work on my RPG Maker horror game, Hinterland. After that I’ll probably switch gears back to Let the Moonlight Give You Wings, as far as games are concerned. And I’m always working on other things behind the scenes, with ideas for one or two smaller RPG games already brewing. I’m also super excited about the recently announced RPG Maker MV.

That said, I decided to put a studio name behind my games. Here’s what I came up with:

Split Infinitive Games

Call it Split Infinitive Games, Split Infinitive, Split Infin8tive, it’s what I settled on. I thought for a long time about a “studio” name, and nothing stuck like Split Infinitive. It gives a subtle nod to my writing career, but I also like the imagery it invokes: splitting infinity.

On that note, the awesome team at Guelstie.com interviewed me regarding Hinterland, and you can read that here: http://www.guelstie.com/Guelstie_Projects/rpg-maker-interview-david-j-lovato/

I’d also like to give credit to one Klein Smith for the font used in the logo I made. The font is morbidly titled Child Serial Killer, and while I can’t find anything on its creator, I appreciate the fun, imaginative font.

Hinterland

I’ve spoken a lot about my RPG Maker project Let the Moonlight Give You Wings. It’s a big project and it’s going to take a while to finish, so I’ve also been working on other projects on the side. Some of these exist only to learn new things about the program, others exist to be their own games.

Hinterland is one of these.

Last October I set out to make a creepy exploration game, in the same vein as games like P.T., Dear Esther, and Amnesia. I was having a lot of fun seeing what tricks I could pull with RPG Maker, but it was pretty obvious the game wasn’t going to be done before Halloween, so I set it aside for a few months.

Now, Hinterland is almost finished. I’m hoping to release it sometime in September or October, before Halloween, just so people have another unsettling little adventure to go through to get them in the mood for the month of horror. The build-up to Halloween is one of my favorite times of year, and I’m glad to be contributing, for once.

The plan right now is that the game will be free. It’s not going to be a long or complicated project, and so far there hasn’t been anything in it to warrant a price tag.

Without further babbling, here’s the gameplay teaser for Hinterland:

So there’s a little teaser of it. Hinterland puts you in a mysterious castle full of architecture that makes no sense, scarecrows that can talk, and a whole lot of darkness. There are things coming to get you, but there’s no dying here; if you get caught, you appear where you started, and the world around you will subtly change depending on how well you’re doing. Your job is to solve the mystery of this place and escape it.

The video mentions a demo, which is available now. You can find the download folder, complete with ReadMe and walkthrough, here:

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0BzO8YJWnSng8fktzMjIzOEl4N0c5WjVLdW5KV3Nyejh4ajdhcWtKYVlCNTRyQmJTVDhKdkU&usp=sharing

Or simply click this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzO8YJWnSng8Zi1pckx1MDBaQlE/view?usp=sharing

There are a few lighting and sound systems in place that might cause lag on older hardware. If you’re experiencing any lag, try this version, which has the footstep sounds removed: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzO8YJWnSng8M2Mzd0Y1UzdZN28/view?usp=sharing

And keep in mind that this is a work-in-progress. Some of the graphics and sounds aren’t final; I’d like to make everything custom, either DLC or created from scratch or tweaked from the RTP (I think only the snow itself, some clutter, the outside graphics, and some of the sound effects are untouched in that regard). That said, if you find any bugs or have any general feedback, I’d love to hear it! You can drop me a comment on this post, or on the trailer’s YouTube page, or shoot me an email at justonesp00lturn (at) hotmail (dot) com. Any help is greatly appreciated, and if you find a bug or even just play the demo for fun and let me know, I’ll put whatever name you choose to go by in the credits as thanks.

Hinterland has a story to it. It’s one I could only tell through interactive experience, or else I probably wouldn’t make the game at all. But I like it, and I can’t wait to share it, and I hope you like it too.

WIBUT 6/8/2015

It’s been a while since I last posted, but I haven’t been twiddling my thumbs. I recently gave this site and all of my books a makeover, and now that things are getting settled in, I figure it’s time for a general status update.

Writing

I definitely didn’t meet my Camp NaNoWriMo goal. That’s okay. I’m still working on the novel version of Let the Moonlight Give You Wings, my RPG and novel tie-in project. I have most of the plot hammered out, and writing it as a novel is presenting scenarios not possible in the game (and vice-versa). No idea when it’ll be finished, but it’s coming along smoothly.

I set that down to work on another project the past few weeks. I finished the first draft of it, but I can’t say anything else about it yet. Soon, though, I’ll be ready to talk about it.

The next session of Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up. I’ll probably focus on finishing some older projects, specifically a novella or two.

Playing

Aside from writing news and reviews and features for Cubed3, I’ve been playing a lot of Destiny, Splatoon, and finally getting around to the Fallout: New Vegas DLCs. I’m pretty upset about the whole Silent Hills cancellation fiasco, but I’m super excited for Fallout 4.

I’m also working on my own games. Lately I’ve been putting together some music and sound effects for Let the Moonlight Give You Wings, and I’m working on a much smaller game that will probably be finished and released first, but more on that later.

Reading

I’m working my way through The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin. So far it’s very different from the rest of her Ekumen books (which makes sense, being written over 20 years after the previous one) but I like it so far. I’m actually a little sad that I’m almost finished with her novel series, but the books aren’t going anywhere, they can always be re-read.

 Watching

Game of Thrones, mostly. Exciting things happening on that show. I’ve also gotten into House of Cards, which is a lot of fun. I’ve been watching Wayward Pines with my mom; it’s interesting, and I like that what some shows would’ve left as the bigger, dragged-out mysteries get figured out as early as the first episode. I’m cautiously optimistic about True Detective; word is it’ll be a lot less weird this time around, which is one of the things I loved most about season 1.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. I’m still hoping I can share some pretty big news on a few of my projects pretty soon here. I’m always at work behind the scenes.

Until next time.

What’s in a Name?

Big changes incoming!

Perhaps you’ve noticed this very site (as well as Twitter) list me as “David J. Lovato” while the name on all my covers and storefronts simply reads “David Lovato”. That’s going to change.

Big changes this far along can get messy, and I spent the better part of two days updating all of my book covers and websites to add one little “J”, but the end result will be worth it. Why the change? Well, “davidlovato” wasn’t available for use as a WordPress site, so I added the J way back when, and it’s always good to keep things streamlined. Another reason is that I’m not the only David Lovato in town, and I think it’s best to keep any potential confusion to a minimum. So, starting in the coming weeks, you should see “David J. Lovato” on all of my books and store fronts. Also, it turns out I really like the way it looks. It’s like a little hook cementing my name in place. At the risk of sounding full of myself, I think I’ve realized you can tell a great font by its J.

Anyway, It’s a lengthy process to change all of my links and descriptions and profiles, but I’m almost done, and hopefully I did it without breaking anything too badly.

So, while I’m busy writing a post about my writing, I guess I should give a general update.

I’m way behind on Camp NaNoWriMo, thanks in part to burnout and in part to a household emergency. I may or may not get caught up, but I do plan to finish this project someday, and hopefully not too far away.

I have another project, a big one, that I’m hoping to release by Halloween. More details on that when it’s a little more ready for the spotlight.

I’m kicking around ideas for another poetry book. Possibly two of them. I enjoyed writing and publishing Permanent Ink on Temporary Pages, but for these two, I’m thinking bigger. Maybe louder.

I’m sitting on some novellas! One is finished and polished and I’m working to get it published traditionally. Another one is finished but not edited, and the last is unfinished, but I hope to put the final touches on those two this summer. Not sure whether I’ll self-publish or try the traditional route with them; that will depend on how I feel about the finished products. I also have an almost-finished short story collection that will most likely be self-published; the stories are all set in the same world and follow a specific theme.

And, as always, I have plenty of projects always moving, some slower than others, but they’ll be revealed when the time is right.

In short, I promise I’m working on things, and I’m pretty sure at least one of them will see a release this year.

Speaking of Halloween (I know that was a few paragraphs ago but it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want), last year I started a second RPG Maker project in the spirit of Halloween. With any luck I’ll finish it and release it before Halloween this year. It’s just a short little adventure where I challenged myself to see how odd I could make things go in that game engine, but I don’t see the harm in getting it out there, supposing I finish it. My main project is still Let the Moonlight Give You Wings, but that one is a lot larger and less predictable, so I can’t give an ETA on it. If I do pick up my Halloween-ish game again, expect to see some previews around these parts.

That about does it as far as talking about what I’m working on. One last thing though:

My favorite band is back! I can hardly express how excited I am to see Brand New recording and putting out new material. My history with this band is a long one. I’ll probably write a whole post on it pretty soon. But for now let’s just say they have a new song called “Mene” and you should buy it because it’s awesome.

And that’s it for now. Until next time!

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings Progress Report #2

The following information and screenshots come from a work in progress. Anything in them is subject to change.

Some of the assets used were created by others. While they may not appear in the final game, said assets will be listed with their creators at the bottom of this post.

Quick recap: Let the Moonlight Give You Wings is an RPG Maker game and accompanying novel I’ve been working on. The initial announcement can be found here, and the first progress report can be found here. Progress can be viewed and followed here on my blog from now on, under the “Works in Progress” section in the header bar.

It’s been a few months since I touched on this progress, so I have a more substantial post than last time.

The Game

I’ve been putting together maps and characters while still trying to hammer out the overall style. I’m using a few non-default tilesets, and making changes to the default ones I’ll be using. I’m still not sure what all I’ll settle on, but at the moment I’m customizing the graphics to make the game look less and less vanilla.

The main quest line is almost complete. I have a handful of cinemas left and a smaller handful of locations in which they take place, and once those are finished, I can set to work packing in side quests and tweaking existing places to make the world come to life. The main cast is pretty much finished; I had to completely re-design one of the major characters because she looked too much like another character I saw elsewhere, but I’m super happy with the result. It ended up yielding an entire plot line, side quest, and history for this fictional world. I’m also making more faces for each character; I’ll be using the default face creator, but tweaking it to include facial expressions not possible in the RPG Maker face creator.

All in all, everything is going smoothly. My last major hurdle game-wise is that I haven’t figured out one of the later dungeons; I want to do something special with it, but I haven’t decided what.

Another big thing I’ve been working on are the game’s music and sound effects. I have a few cool things in place and a lot of rough sketches, but it’s coming together. I’m thinking about making the game’s soundtrack available for download, depending on how complex it gets, and as time goes on I’ll probably share a track or two here on my blog.

The Book

This brings me to the main point of a second progress report: Wednesday, April 1st, is the first day of Camp NaNoWriMo 2015, and I’ll be using this session to get started on the novel. I’m stoked to get to work on it, and I think writing the book and making the game concurrently will help me write both of them better, maybe help me work out some of the finer details of the story and world involved. You can follow my progress on the book here: http://campnanowrimo.org/campers/crackedthesky

Timeframe

It’s still not possible for me to even guess when this will be finished, but I’d like to think the game and book will release around the same time, and I’d love for both to be out by this winter. That said, I just can’t say for sure about either.

In the meantime, here are a few screenshots of some of the more complete graphics, ideas, or places, along with a description of them. Something I definitely don’t want to do is make promises that are mysteriously missing in the final product, so know that if I show something here, it’s something I’m almost positive will be in the final game, and if it isn’t, I’ll probably post about it the moment I have to cut it from the game. So expect minor changes, but if I say a feature is going to be in, it’s most likely going to be in.

Also, I apologize for the image compression. It’s not terrible, but the screenshots are slightly blurrier than the actual game will be.

Moonlight Test Bedroom

This picture is from a scene early on. The player character, Emery, can change outfits at a dresser in her room. In this scenario, she has to put on her school uniform, and can’t leave for school until she does. In both worlds (our world and fantasy), she’ll be able to change clothes and the character graphic will reflect this. I haven’t decided yet whether her party members’ graphics will also change depending on what they’re wearing; it’s time-consuming to make different graphics for each outfit, and even more so considering another feature I’d really like to implement into the game (which I’ll probably show next time).

As a bonus, you can see my custom text background in this picture, as well as the screen tint to reflect what time it is (I should note that while this scene is supposed to be in the morning, the screen is actually tinted to be evening because I was in debug mode at the time I took the screenshot).

Moonlight Alpha City

Here’s a shot of the city Emery lives in. I need to animate the flies on the dumpster, and the double-door needs a custom door graphic, but otherwise, this is more or less complete. Also note Emery’s school uniform.

Moonlight Alpha School

The lobby of Emery’s school. I’ll populate it with NPCs later. Also, it won’t be so orange in the final game; the lighting is currently set to sunset.

The next two pictures will highlight a major difference from the first time I showed images from my game. Last September I posted an image from an example battle, seen here:

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings

As you’ll see in the next screenshot, I’ve added a different battle engine:

Moonlight Alpha Battle

The characters now appear to the side of the screen, and characters and enemies move when they attack, like in classic RPGs, thanks to Yanfly’s visual battler system. I still have to tweak it so characters aren’t floating like they are here and enemies aren’t oversized, but it’s more imaginative than the default battle engine.

Moonlight Alpha Lake

Here’s a lake and some cliffs. I’m hoping to include a lot of nooks and crannies to explore, and a fishing system is currently way on the backburner and might not be included at all, but these are the kinds of things I’d like players to be able to do in Let the Moonlight Give You Wings.

You’ll notice a few more characters in this screenshot. These are more or less final designs; there are currently 9 characters players can add to their party. I might introduce a few of them later, but on the whole I’d like them to remain a mystery, part of the story that unfolds as players play the game. I haven’t decided how many can battle at a time yet.

Moonlight Alpha Port Town

Here’s an early version of a port town with docks. Driftwood and other wood can be chopped for firewood, and will eventually re-appear. Note the clock in the lower-right corner; this can be toggled on and off.

Moonlight Alpha Snow

Here’s a snowy environment. It’s currently snowing (hard to tell, but there’s a snowflake over the black cave entry in the upper-left). Weather is something I’m trying to make dynamic; it won’t always snow in snowy areas, it’ll sometimes rain in other places, or be windy. I’m hoping to have some cool weather-based features in the final game.

So that’s it for this progress report. My main focus will probably be on the book for most of April, and hopefully I can get a rough draft down, then go back and work on the game for a while before I get to editing the novel.

Next progress report I’ll hopefully be able to show off some of the cooler features I’m putting together, possibly some music, possibly a video, maybe something even cooler than that.

This game wouldn’t be very good without the use of several assets made by other people. Here are the ones seen in these screenshots:

SES Dynamic Time and Clock by Solistra
Ace Battle Engine and Animated Battlers by Yanfly
Shigekichi’s Resource Pack by Shigekichi
Modern Day Tileset by Enterbrain / Lunarea
Sprite base by Mack

If I missed any, I sincerely apologize, will edit this post if I’m made aware of any mistakes, and the final game should include all appropriate credits.

nowPlaying: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D

Full disclosure: I’m a staff writer/reviewer at cubed3.com. The reviews I post here on my blog are original and don’t necessarily reflect the views of that site.

Screenshots were taken by me, using the 3DS software and Nintendo’s Miiverse connectivity. All content in them is obviously Nintendo’s, not mine.

Allow me to play the Song of Time and take you a little way back along my timeline.

When I was a little kid, sometimes I would sit and watch my uncle play an old game on his NES, The Legend of Zelda. Try as he might, he just couldn’t find the entrance to the 7th dungeon. I tried to help in whatever way I could, which, looking back, probably wasn’t much. This was before the internet, before walkthroughs and GameFAQs and what have you. I don’t think we ever found that dungeon. Not back then, anyway.

Flash forward a few years. I have an NES (and even a Super Nintendo!) of my own. Nintendo has recently released their brand-new system, the Nintendo 64. While at the grocery store with my parents, I found a Nintendo kiosk with a playable game called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I remember thinking “Hey, they made a third Zelda!” (Much later I would come to learn this was actually the latest in a whole series of them.) I tried to play it, but I didn’t know how to work the controller, and I couldn’t get Link to jump. I thought it was strange, and I gave up and left to catch up with my family.

More time went by. I Got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas, and eventually I had my own copy of Ocarina of Time.  As far as fiction goes, there isn’t a lot in this world that I can easily say “changed my life” but this is one of them. Everything I thought I knew about video games, everything I thought I knew about fiction was turned upside down. New fields sprawled out before me, all thanks to an elf-looking kid in a green tunic.

Then came the next console game in the series, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. This time I was ready and waiting.

It was a long wait.

All the Time

I got the game, but it required a new accessory, the Expansion Pak. We couldn’t quite afford it, but the local video store did have them available for rent. So I played the game a little bit at a time, each a few weeks or months apart, until I finally got an Expansion Pak.

This game changed things as much as Ocarina did. Ocarina of Time invited me to a world I could play in. Majora’s Mask brought me to one that desperately needed saving; every NPC wandering the streets of Termina had their own fate that I could track over the course of three in-game days, a time loop that required attention and timing to get right.

The game became my favorite in the series, and still is. The series is dear to me, but no game after this one made me care so much. Sure, Midna is one of my favorite characters ever, and Wind Waker and Skyward Sword re-defined the titular Princess Zelda, but on the whole, NPCs and side quests are entirely skippable. The sense of urgency is gone, the trippy, otherworldly location of Termina remains unmatched.

While I eagerly await the next game in the series (which will hopefully arrive this year), the long-speculated Majora’s Mask 3D remake came out recently, and of course I showed up at midnight to pick up a copy.

Overall, the game has stood up to time well. Seeing these characters brought back to life is wonderful, and once again I find myself lost in that three-day time loop, struggling to help characters I know aren’t real, but boy oh boy does it feel like seeing an old friend from my childhood again.

A Band

Certain parts have been dumbed down or made easier, but they aren’t forced on you, and enough of the game has changed to keep things interesting. After all these years, the Kafei and Anju sidequest remains probably my favorite sidequest in video game history, and a certain moment toward the end, before the final boss, is as beautiful and breathtaking as it was the first time I experienced it.

Still, a certain sense of regret came from how much I already knew how to do. part of the game’s legend is in the mystery, in living each three-day cycle over and over, taking note of what happens, where, and when, until you can finally put things right. That doesn’t happen so much on subsequent playthroughs. There’s nothing to be done for it; a poster on reddit once said something to the effect of “If I could, I’d erase my memory of Breaking Bad so I could enjoy it for the first time again.” I would, too! But while I was at it, I’d throw a round of Majora’s Mask in there.

I don’t know where this series is going. I’m not even sure I know where I want it to go. But if, in the future, Nintendo decided to give Majora’s Mask a spiritual successor (the way they made A Link Between Worlds a spiritual successor to A Link to the Past), I’d welcome it. You know what they say: Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow. However, that parting need not last forever.

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings Progress Report #1

A while back I announced a project called Let the Moonlight Give You Wings. It’s an RPG Maker game I’m making, along with a tie-in novel. This post is a quick update on my progress, and I hope to post one of these from time to time.

I had the whole project on the backburner while I finished other things, but now I’d say Moonlight is on my middleburner.

The Game

My major focus right now is on the main locations of the game. I’m putting together the barebones dungeons, mostly geography, a few key events. Later I’ll go in and spice up all of the locations with clutter, things to do, events, more intimate designs, etc. For now, I’m mostly making the hallways and floors, so to speak.

I’m also working on some of the more complicated main storyline events. These are time-consuming; having a system that randomizes conversations means there’s a lot going on in the background. Playing the game, you might press the action button on a signpost and see a character say something, but what’s really going on is the game is determining which characters are in your party, randomly picking one to speak, and then often randomly picking someone to reply or add onto what they’ve said, and often times there’s a third or fourth nest of the same. The more party members you have, the more complex the conversations can get. Since all of the playable characters are required at some point, this means scripting conversations for all of them, even though in one playthrough the player will likely only see one of the responses I’ve written.

It’s complicated and it takes a lot of time writing and testing, but it’s worth it. I want this world and this story to be dynamic, not a static replication on each playthrough or button press. I want the characters to banter, antagonize, agree, argue, and play with each other, so I’m trying to work in as many in-character, believable outcomes as I can.

I’ve been bouncing back and forth on whether to implement a dynamic time system. Originally, I wanted time to progress automatically and kick the player out of the “dream world” after an in-game day. This idea didn’t last long. Besides requiring a lot of always-running processes that might cause lag, it put a huge restriction on me from a writing standpoint. It’s no good if a character says “We have X amount of time to do this!” and then the player can take an in-game year to get it done. I also don’t have much for players to do in the waking world, and I decided it would be boring if half of the game is spent waiting for the clock to strike midnight again.

What I have in place now is a dynamic clock, but kicking the player back into the waking world isn’t based on time. Instead it’s based on progression through the main story. I didn’t like this at first, but the idea grew on me, and so far it’s working best with what I have.

Weather likely also be dynamic. It might snow in cold areas, it might rain in others. I have a basic system in place for this, but it’s a little too random at the moment (it’s odd to walk through a rainstorm, go inside a house for two seconds, then come back out to a bright and cheery day). It’s another thing I’ll probably tweak to my liking later in development.

I’ve opted for mostly custom graphics when it comes to characters and their equipment, but currently I’m also heavily relying on the built-in stuff (RTP). I’d like to rely less on this. I’m not a good artist, however, and I reach my limits pretty quickly. That said, what I hope to eventually do is go through and tweak everything. All of the existing tilesets can receive minor overhauls, little things to keep development simple for me, but make the game look and feel less vanilla to players. I want this world to be mine, so I’m going to tweak tilesets and build my own graphics along the way to get it further and further from the default graphics.

I originally wanted this post to include screenshots, but I decided against it for now.  I’ve already made quite a few battlers, character faces (tons of these), in-game outfits, custom tiles etc. but at the moment I’d say the game is about 75% vanilla assets, and I don’t want to present the game in that light. I’ve posted a few screenshots already, mostly to prove I’ve actually done anything, and I’ll probably post some in my next progress report, regardless of how custom the graphics are, but for now, I’m leaving them out.

My biggest hurdle right now is that the game has three major story arcs to it, and while I have two of them mostly planned out, the third eludes me. I know the ending I’m working toward, and right now I can get from point A to point M, but I haven’t figured out how it gets to point Z from there. I have a few ideas I’m kicking around, and I don’t need that problem solved until I’m finished with this first round of locations, so I have plenty of time to get this sorted out.

The Book

I haven’t started yet, for a number of reasons. I want this experience to unfold as a video game, so the book automatically comes second, for me. That said, it’s not like I’ve done nothing, story-wise. All of the writing I’m putting into this project so far is going into the game, but much of it can also be used in-book, especially in regards to dialogue. I imagine this’ll be one of the fastest books for me to write, maybe a NaNoWriMo project, if I happen to be working on it next November or, more hopefully, in the summer.

Timeframe

I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m making decent progress. As I said, I’m working on the major locations and their major events. Everything after that is like seasoning the main course, and it’ll likely be small, easy things, but a lot of them. I’m able to devote more of my free time to the project, and when I do sit down and get to it, I tend to knock out a large chunk of what’s left. I don’t even want to attempt guessing at how much time I have left to spend or when the game might be finished. Some days it feels like I’m just getting started, others it feels like I’m in the final stretch. I think it’ll sneak up on me, one afternoon I’ll just realize I’m finished. But that’s a while from now, and hopefully my future updates will be a lot more exciting than this one.

nowPlaying: Alien: Isolation

Full disclosure: I’m a staff writer at Cubed3. The reviews I post here on my blog don’t reflect the opinions of Cubed3 and are written on my own time.

All pictures taken by me using the PS4’s share features.

The horror genre is very close to me, and nothing has ever scared me as deeply or profoundly as the titular creatures from the Alien franchise.

I couldn’t tell you when the first time I saw Alien was, but I know it was a long time ago. I’m sure I watched it with my parents, and most likely, my dad had me cover my eyes every time the alien appeared. (Looking back, I wonder if I imagined things far worse than what appears in the movie. More likely, this is the one series that I couldn’t.)

H. R. Giger’s iconic aliens have a beauty and an aesthetic that remains unmatched. No reboot or redesign has ever been needed (or, as far as I know, so much as wanted); the aliens are as ethereal and frightening today as they were when they were first brought to life by designer H. R. Giger, writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, director Ridley Scott, and actor Bolaji Badejo. Nothing has ever starred in more of my nightmares, and those are always the worst; I’ve had dreams where the creatures are only mentioned and they’ve caused me to wake up sweating and afraid.

As connected as I was to the films growing up, I never really played any of the games. As a big fan of Borderlands, I was excited to hear that Gearbox Software would be making a video game set in the Alien world: Aliens: Colonial Marines. Then the game actually came out, along with a firestorm of controversy, finger-pointing, and disappointed gamers.

I eventually rented the game after a few patches and updates had dropped, and it was more or less playable. While a few parts were fun in their own right, it wasn’t exactly the Alien experience I was hoping for.

Along came Alien: Isolation. Sega took a big risk in even planning another Alien game so soon after the disaster of Colonial Marines, but it’s one that paid off. Just by looking at the game, you can tell it’s something special.

Alien: Isolation

The game looks like something right out of the movie. Just about everything aboard Sevastopol is faithfully recreated, from the clunky, 70’s-inspired vision of future technology to the oddly invasive manual input, like huge levers and parts of the ship that have to be physically cut away to gain access to certain areas.

The concept of the game is an immediate winner for me: Set on a space station called Sevastopol, Alien: Isolation ditches the more action-oriented concepts behind the previous game in favor of the more subtle horror the first film had.

I was so excited to get into this game, but playing in a dark room with headphones was almost too much. Here was the creature from my nightmares, presented to me in an interactive format like never before. At times I found myself hiding just to catch my breath, afraid to move like when I first played Outlast. In some ways, Alien: Isolation almost feels like an Alien mod for that game.

And, as much as I loved the game at first, things quickly went south. By the fifth mission, I was getting tired of rushing from locker to locker, wasting most of the game just hiding. It seemed like as soon as I lost the alien, it was right on my tail again, and I could spend an hour just traversing a hallway.

Alien: Isolation
Not to mention dying again and again. And again.

The game’s fifth mission almost sank the ship. Taking place in Sevastopol’s medical bay, which is a huge, multi-room area, it seemed absurd that the alien would follow me from chamber to chamber, hallway to hallway, supposedly unsure I was there but somehow miraculously always within a few yards of me. The motion tracker seemed like it was toying with me—at one point I watched the alien enter a room across from me, and I pulled it out only to see the thing tell me the alien was somewhere behind me. It was clear the game’s mechanics weren’t quite up to the task with its presentation. This culminated in nearly two hours of winding my way along this hall, only to have the alien come down from the vents overhead right as I was about to reach the door that led to the end of the mission. I quickly ducked under a table to wait for it to leave, and watched as the alien rounded a corner only to somehow spot me, despite absolutely no input on my part, and return from around the corner and kill me. And this was on easy mode!

At that point I swore I was done with the game, but I couldn’t keep myself away from it. It felt like I had come too far to just give up. It was personal now: That alien had to die. No way was it getting the best of me.

I went in with a new mindset. I decided the game was most likely not as logic-based as I was assuming, and it appears I was right. For example, the ambient noises aren’t always the alien, and even when they are, they aren’t often indicative of its position. A noise to the left doesn’t mean the alien is over there. The same was true for distant footsteps; as soon as the alien rounds a corner, there’s a good chance he’s not even there anymore. Assuming he’s prowling that same hallway is an exercise in futility, and a great invitation to spend the rest of Amanda Ripley’s life in a locker.

Alien: Isolation
Get used to this view.

 

I still died a time or two in the medical bay, but this new philosophy proved fruitful, and I made decent progress through the game. The cat-and-mouse bits still caused me anxiety, and sometimes were more annoying than they were frightening, but I was having fun again, and a lot of it.

The game changes pace once the player gets the flamethrower. No longer entirely defenseless, the alien still can’t be killed, but it can be scared off, so long as you see it before it sees you.

On the whole, this might be the most frightening video game I’ve ever played. I found myself dreading it, hoping each thing I had to do would be the last. There are very few ways for the alien to “get” you, only a few death animations, and while they’re very well done (and expertly touch on the franchise’s body horror elements) they also become repetitive. Still, I was constantly afraid of the alien, especially at times when my flamethrower ammunition was dwindling.

I had an odd determination to finish the game, akin to facing my fears. Alien: Isolation is well-crafted and gave me the perfect opportunity to do that. Xenomorphs have always been indestructible to me, especially in my nightmares, and I respect how much effort was put into this game to recreate that aspect of them.

Alien: Isolation
Oh dear.

Alien: Isolation has its flaws. Sometimes it seems like the writers had no idea where to take the story next, so they just borrowed scenarios straight from the films. I appreciate longer games, but this one has a very select few enemies and ways of dealing with them, so more diversity in mission objectives, enemies, or avoidance techniques would’ve done it justice. On the whole it was fun, terrifying, and gorgeous. Unfortunately, the ending seems like it looked great on paper, but passes by as a ten-second long cinema, and just looked weird and unfulfilling.

I don’t know if I’ll ever play this game again. I think once was enough. That weird ending did leave things wide open for a sequel, and I’m conflicted about that. I’d love to see this team expand on their ideas, but I’d prefer to see them do it with a new story instead of painfully dragging out the one they have. If nothing else, Alien: Isolation proves that there is a treasure trove of storytelling and scares to be had in this franchise, something that hasn’t been successfully tapped into in a very long time. In a lot of ways, this game is a true successor to the films, and is better than most of them. The last thing I want is for it to careen down the same path that brought us the likes of Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem and Colonial Marines.

nowPlaying: The Last of Us Remastered

As previously mentioned, these nowPlaying posts are going to be rare from now on. I’m a staff writer at Cubed3, where I post news and occasional reviews. The reviews I post directly to my blog are done on my own time and don’t reflect the views of Cubed3.

This review won’t be spoiler-free. I’ll try to leave the biggest things out, but if you intend to play this game knowing next to nothing about it (as I did and heavily suggest you should), please don’t read on. The Last of Us is an experience I don’t want to rob you of. Go ahead, I won’t mind if you stop reading.

All screenshots taken by me, using the PS4’s share feature.

Growing up, I had a Sega Genesis and a Super Nintendo. I always liked the Nintendo more, but even then, part of me understood that great games can’t be confined to a single platform. This is true now more than ever.

The downside of this truth is that most people can’t afford every gaming platform available at any given time, at which point marketing takes over, with various game companies trying to sway gamers to buy their device.

The last generation of gaming found me with a Wii (I’ll always opt for Nintendo first; I need my Zelda and Super Smash). That part was easy. Picking between the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 was more difficult. The PS2 had won handily a generation before—Kingdom Hearts and Shadow of the Colossus had seen to that. The idea of a third Kingdom Hearts and another masterpiece from Team Ico sold me on the PS3, but when neither came to fruition, I sold it, eventually picking up an Xbox 360 for series like Halo and Left 4 Dead.

Toward the end of the PS3’s lifespan, a game called The Last of Us showed up on my radar. I watched a few trailers, looked into gameplay videos, read the previews; it was pretty clear that The Last of Us was always going to be the one that got away. Here, finally, was the PS3’s killer app. It definitely wasn’t too little, but it was certainly too late.

I wasn’t concerned. Pretty much everyone knew a PS4 port was imminent, and it was only a matter of waiting. So I waited, and I avoided all spoilers from the game. (This wasn’t difficult to do, and I suspect the game’s fans are a large reason for this, so to them I extend my thanks for not spoiling the game for those of us who didn’t get to play it the first time around.) Finally, Sony released The Last of Us Remastered for PS4.

Going in, I knew almost nothing about the game, other than it was a post-apocalyptic adventure/survival game. The very first cutscene made me uneasy: The game opens with a little girl, who we soon learn is the daughter of the main character, Joel. I had seen pictures, trailers, the cover of the game—this was not the same little girl I saw on those. Joel was accounted for, but his daughter, Sarah? Nowhere to be found. Not good.

Then the game’s first major roundhouse-kick-to-the-feels comes when the cutscene ends and control reverts to the player. I found myself not playing as Joel, but as Sarah. Oh boy. Sarah wakes in the middle of the night to a series of strange occurrences, all the while looking for her father.

"Oh, this is bad."
“Oh, this is bad.”

It doesn’t take long for events to careen out of control. It also doesn’t take long for the game to inspire awe. There’s an unparalleled sense of realism in the game’s opening, whether it’s wandering the house half-asleep as Sarah, or switching to Joel, carrying the wounded child through a crowd of people all pushing and shoving to escape the frenzied infected among them. The characters have a sense of weight to them, like they actually interact with the digital game world presented on the screen. Everything feels real. This is something I didn’t quite notice until I played The Last of Us. Most games are games, no matter how intuitive their controls. The Last of Us feels more like I’m using a controller to tell an actual person somewhere what to do, and he immediately does it. I wish I could explain this better.

The opening isn’t physically difficult. You really only have to keep moving forward. It’s what you can feel yourself moving toward that makes each step harder than the last, that nagging feeling that this little girl you’re trying to save is not the girl you see with Joel in all of the promotional material. And then you find out why, and the game cuts to its opening credits.

I could tell it was going to be a heavy story before I even played it, but the opening scene, which culminates in something I knew was coming, was still hard to digest. I could only imagine what else was going to happen in the game, how far it could take me, how heavy it could become. This didn’t turn me off in the slightest; I was ready to press on.

The game’s realism only gets better. Using a health pack during the tutorial resulted in an actual bandage that stayed on Joel for the rest of the playable portion. More of that realism. Characters change and develop, they interact with each other and the world around them. You craft new items to use, you get ammo (very little of it) and scavenge houses. I didn’t want to miss a thing. Somehow, I did. It felt like I scoured every inch of the game world, yet I found something like 40% of the game’s hidden collectibles by the time it was through. The world is bigger than it seems, the post-apocalypse holds many secrets.

Tess helps Ellie and Joel climb onto a platform.
Tess helps Ellie and Joel climb onto a platform.

Little by little, more game mechanics revealed themselves: Placing ladders, throwing bricks and bottles to distract enemies, sneaking, swimming, climbing, helping others climb, moving furniture; the possibilities seemed endless. A lot of work went into this game, but this is all superficial. This is just the presentation. I’ve always cared more about the story.

That same depth extends beyond the gameplay. The story unfolds little by little, characters come and go and leave their mark on the world. I was surprised to see that Joel and the girl from the cover, Ellie, get off on the wrong foot. The way wrong foot, as in she-tries-to-stab-him-and-he-can’t-wait-to-get-rid-of-her wrong foot. There’s little left to the imagination here; you know what the characters feel. You can hear it in their voices, you can see it in their eyes. You’ve probably heard plenty about what an amazing job the actors have done, but words don’t do it justice. I’ve never seen performances like this in a video game.

It was particularly weird for me because (hipster mode activate!) I was a fan of Troy Baker long before he was the main character in every video game ever, back when he was Action Bastard in Shin-Chan, back when he was Excalibur on Soul Eater. It wasn’t until he voiced the Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins that I realized he was capable of so much more than I’d heard, and even that performance pales in comparison to his role as Joel in The Last of Us. Of equal talent is Ashley Johnson, who at the time I recognized only as Gretchen from Recess, portraying Ellie.

Ellie is a character that could’ve gone so wrong. A single mistake with this character would’ve sunk the whole ship; while you play as Joel, Ellie is the character most important to the story. If she had been annoying, if she had been portrayed wrong, if she had been in any way unlikable or unbelievable, the whole game would’ve dropped to a level that could hardly be described as more than just solid. It’s only because I loved the character that the story makes sense, it’s only because I dreaded seeing the credits and knowing my time with Ellie (and thus, this story) was almost over that every victory in the game was also a defeat, that every minute of playtime was an experience I could never have again.

Ellie in the midst of a harsh scolding from Joel.
Ellie in the midst of a harsh scolding from Joel.

A talented supporting cast moves the game forward. There’s Bill, the lovable asshole who likes tripwires and talking to himself. There’s Tess, the brains to Joel’s brawn, and clearly the only reason he’s still going in this world. Marlene, the leader of the enigmatic Fireflies, is charismatic where Joel is on autopilot. There’s even Ish, a character you meet only through handwritten notes he left behind, but whom you grow to love and know and feel for when his world eventually falls apart around him.

This isn’t to say the game is perfect. The infected, while interesting, are underused. The vast majority of your enemies are uninfected people who are just so deliciously evil, you can’t help but laugh as you blow their heads off. Now and then they’ll say things that project them as real people with their own motives, but there just isn’t as much thought given to these characters. They exist to be fodder for Joel’s gun, and most of their dialogue comes across as a tacked on “feel for me, damn it!” that tries to push itself on you, whereas the rest of the game invites you into whatever emotion it’s trying to convey.

Bricks can be thrown to lure enemies away—Or strike them directly.
Bricks can be thrown to lure enemies away—Or strike them directly.

There is an exception to this rule in one of the game’s later protagonists. While what he does is cliché and easy to spot from far off, you can’t help but like the guy, almost even understand him, and that’s a kind of horror all on its own.

All of this pushes you toward an endgame that’s never quite what you think it is. The goal posts keep moving, the objective keeps changing, until the game reaches its climax.

Here I’ll split my post onto another page. If you haven’t finished the game, don’t read past here. I’m going into full spoiler mode, because a lot of things happen at the end, and I want to give my own interpretation of what they are, and welcome discussion from those who might not agree. If you’re aware of the game’s ending, feel free to continue to the next page.