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.

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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: 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.

WIBUT 9/7/2014

I have another nowPlaying post in the works, but I thought I’d break those up with an update on what else I’ve been up to as of late. Before I get to that, I should say the nowPlaying posts will probably be rare from now on. I’m excited to announce I’ve been taken on as a writer over at Cubed3, where I’ll occasionally post news and reviews relating to video games.

nowReading

I’m about halfway through Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins. I’m enjoying it; its style reminds me a lot of Wes Anderson’s movies, as well as Arrested Development. Lots of humor, lots of irony.

I’m also reading Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley. I found it annoying at first (for reasons I’ll detail when I write a full review), but it’s quickly growing on me.

nowWatching

The Leftovers on HBO. I love Damon Lindelof, I loved Lost, but I have to admit that the show lost focus at some point and never quite got it back. I fell in love with the trailer for The Leftovers and knew I’d give it a chance, but it looked like the kind of show that could go anywhere.

There’s a lot of mystery, but it’s a lot more self-contained than Lost was. Unlike the magical island, there are limits to what can and can’t happen, but that doesn’t stop the show from constantly pushing those limits a little further each episode. It’s riveting, it has an attention to detail comparable to that of Breaking Bad (but not quite the character development, not yet anyway). It’s one of few shows that keeps me on the edge of my seat, constantly wanting to know what comes next.

What I’m Working On

Things have been exciting for me on the writing front. I’m maybe 85% finished with a project I’ve been working on for a long time now. It’s a horror novel, and I can’t say much else about it, other than that I will most likely self-publish it sometime next year.

I’m also still working to get things published traditionally. There are certain projects that are better suited for self-publishing, and certain projects I’d rather do the traditional way.

I have a few other things lined up, one of which I’ll talk more about pretty soon here.

This all leads me to a major project I’ve been working on. I was hesitant to get this one out in the open because I’ve never done something like this, so keep in mind there’s a slight chance the following might never come to fruition. I’d like to introduce my project, tentatively titled Let the Moonlight Give You Wings.

That’s quite a mouthful! So what exactly is it?

First and foremost, it’s a game I’m making in RPG Maker VX Ace. I love games, and I’ve always had ideas for my own, but nothing ever really took off. I’ve worked with engines like Unreal Development Kit and Unity, but I’m not good at making models or scripting, so I always reached the limit of what I could do pretty quickly.

RPG Maker, however, is a little more suited to people like me who are more reliant on GUIs, and it’s also easier to make a game without a team of people working on it. RPG Maker also has an amazing community of people behind it for those moments when a single person runs into some trouble during development.

My sister bought me a copy of RPG Maker VX Ace during Steam’s summer sale. I started playing around with it, and eventually a story began to develop. It’s very loosely based on a fantasy novel I’ve had on the backburner for a while, but it’s different enough that I’m willing to consider it its own story.

Because of this, I’m planning on writing a novel based on the game. The current plan is to release the game for free or under a pay-what-you-want model (with a portion of each donation being forwarded to a few people whose scripts my game wouldn’t work without), and completing the game will give you a coupon to get the book at a discount.

Keep in mind, everything from here out is subject to change.

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings is the story of Emery, the oldest child at an orphanage. It’s a hard life for Emery, as she helps take care of the other kids between chores and school. Emery often daydreams about a fantasy world full of magic and mythical beings, and one night, Emery goes to sleep only to wake up in a world not unlike that of her dreams.

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings
As currently planned, the game will transition between day and night, and character armor will change depending on what’s equipped.

All dreams must end, and when morning comes, Emery finds herself awake in her old life. Much to her surprise, however, when she goes to sleep that night, her dream picks up right where it left off.

Emery is caught between a world that desperately needs her and one that seems as though it doesn’t want her, and embarks on a journey to save them both from disaster.

The game itself will have a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek tone, for the most part. I want to pay homage to all the games I grew up with, but bring something new to the table as well. There’ll be quests, side quests, puzzles, and a lot of backstory told only to those players who seek it out. I like being rewarded for exploration, and my game should reflect that.

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings
Four members of the party explore a cave.

A large emphasis will be put on the game’s characters. I currently have a system in place that randomizes most of the game’s conversations. Put simply, pressing the action button on certain objects, characters, signposts, etc. brings up dialogue and comments from the game’s characters, but it’s randomized. You might get a different conversation every time you play it. Having certain characters in the party will make different dungeons and puzzles easier or elicit different responses from NPCs.

There’s also an affinity system in place. Leveling up certain characters will unlock special conversations with them, and eventually allow them to tap into their full potential.

This is a lot of work. Writing out a single event can take all night, but so far, it’s been worth it. My main priority with this game is to tell a story that can only be fully realized in video game form, though I’m still going to try my hardest with the novelization as well.

Let the Moonlight Give You Wings
An in-battle screenshot.

I wish I could give a timeframe for release, but it’s way too early to tell. Certain things I think will take a while to finish end up taking a few hours, other things I think will take a few minutes end up taking days. There are a lot of variables involved (pun intended) and there’s just no way to say when this’ll be finished, and even then, I have to have people playtest it, look for bugs, etc. I do, however, think it’ll be a few months at the most (knock on wood!) before the bulk of the game is finished.

I’ll hopefully talk more about the game as it progresses. Certain things aren’t set in stone yet, but for the most part, the core of the game is. I’m hoping to eventually devote full posts to some of the game’s cooler features.

And that rounds out some of what I’ve been up to lately. It might not seem like it, but this is mostly backburner stuff. My current major project is coming along nicely, but I’m saving it for its own post, coming up pretty soon.

nowPlaying: P.T.

I try to make my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, but there is an aspect to this game that can’t be ignored, yet I don’t want to spoil. For that reason, I’ll include the spoilery parts under a “read more” link for those who aren’t aware of what P.T. really is.

All screenshots were taken by me using the Playstation 4’s share feature.

Last week, at Sony’s Gamescom conference, they debuted a trailer for a new horror game called P.T. The playable demo for P.T. launched immediately after, available for download on the Playstation 4 store.

As it turns out, P.T. was harboring a huge secret that only took the internet about an hour to figure out, after which news broke everywhere. I went into P.T. after reading the headlines, so I knew what I was working toward. I did not, however, have any idea what I’d be working through.

P.T. Intro
The opening shot of P.T.

P.T. is a horror game. You’ve probably seen my thoughts on the horror genre in video games on this blog before (if not, I touch on them in my Outlast review here). In short, all of the horror classics have either gone on hiatus, or have shifted genres until they’re not really horror games anymore. Many indie games have come forward to fill the gap, but a lot of them are too short for their own good (and let’s be honest, a lot of them are also ripoffs of Slender).

P.T. pays homage to recent works of indie horror. Played from a first-person perspective, you wake up in a grungy basement, complete with cokcroaches. The basement has only one exit, so you take it, and find yourself in a hallway.

Immediately noticeable are the game’s stunning graphics. While the anti-aliasing is almost nonexistent and screen tearing is present at times, the lighting sets the mood. Things are perfectly reflected in the hallway’s polished floor, the lights bounce shadows down the hall as they would in real life. It looks like a real hallway.

The first hallway you find yourself in. It won't be the last time you see it.
The first hallway you find yourself in. It won’t be the last time you see it.

Walking down the hallway reveals a messy house. Food and empty beer cans litter the floors and counters, cockroaches scurry across all surfaces. Rain hits the windows from outside, a rusty hanging light groans as it swings back and forth in the foyer.

There’s a radio near the front door that blasts a news report about a father who snapped and killed his family. He’s the latest in a rash of similar events. The report is staticky but audible. When it’s done, you try the front door and the hall door. Both are locked. There’s one more door, down a set of stairs, leading to the basement. Yes, the basement you just came from.

So you try that door. You swing it open, and beyond you find the same dirty hallway, the same lights and cockroaches and rain. It’s a sight you’ll want to get used to, because every trip through that door leads back into the same hallway.

From here, the ambiance takes over. Musical cues and sound effects become just as important as the lighting. Playing with headphones is a must, and this hallway comes to life.

P.T. is a psychological adventure, so I’m not going to spoil all of the fun things that happen along the way. There are many puzzles to solve, most of them extremely difficult. This is not an understatement; the game’s creator recently said he wanted this thing to take at least a week to solve, and require teamwork from people around the world. This is evident as flashes of text in multiple languages pop up on the screen, and the events that play out are randomized—how one person solves a puzzle can be completely different from how another person solves it. If you ever played video games before internet guides existed, you might remember your friends at school swearing that if you do some quirky thing or another, something special will happen. “Stand right here, spin around three times, press A-B-A-B-X-X-Y-Y and you get the ultimate weapon!”

P.T. conjures echoes of that, with people on the internet swearing by certain events that produce no results for others who try them. The psychological creepiness of this game extends far beyond the game itself.

There’s another aspect to the horror of this game. It doesn’t take many trips through the ever-looping hallway before your character begins to be followed, and then directly haunted by an ethereal being. This creature will persist through the rest of the demo, and can get you at any time. Sometimes she’s harmless, other times she kills you, sending you back to the basement (but with all of your progress intact). Oh, and don’t make the mistake of feeling safe on the pause screen.

When this clock strikes midnight, all bets are off.
When this clock strikes midnight, all bets are off.

Atmosphere is the main source of scares in P.T., which is exactly what the horror genre needs. It can be frightening to see a horde of creatures approaching you, it can impose a sense of impending doom that makes you sweat as you try to off the nearest ones or simply run away successfully, but I think it’s more frightening if a game manages to give you that sense of impending doom without any visible cues at all. “Something’s going to get me pretty soon” is always trumped by “Something’s going to get me and I have no idea what, how, or when.” P.T.‘s essence is the latter.

Keeping with its psychological undertones, P.T. is more than it seems. Beating the game unlocks a post-game trailer that reveals all. If you want to unlock it yourself (and have somehow avoided all of the news spoiling it), you should stop reading here. Otherwise, feel free to press on to the next page.

nowPlaying: Destiny (Alpha)

The following screenshots and impressions were created during the Destiny Alpha phase, and may not reflect final game decisions. The game enters its beta phase on July 17th, 2014.

I won’t go into detail about the way the Halo franchise changed video games. I’m assuming anyone reading this who has even a passing knowledge of video game history probably noticed it. Keeping it to a minimum, Halo redefined online multiplayer, paving the way for first-person-shooters for years to come. On the campaign front, it didn’t have the most original story (which isn’t to say it had the most unoriginal story either; the game was perfectly average in that department).

Behind the first three Halo games was a studio called Bungie. Bungie wasn’t new to the video game world, and while they saw moderate success in games like Marathon and Oni, it was Halo that established the studio as one of the most prominent developers in the industry. Bungie’s work on Halo would end with a game called Halo: Reach, a prequel to the series.

Some fans of the series found the changes to Halo: Reach’s multiplayer unwelcome. I don’t hate it, but it’s a different experience from Halo 3. With that said, Reach is my favorite game in the series for its campaign. Creating my own Spartan made the story a lot more personal, and the emotional impact of the game is present from the beginning: The first Halo game begins with the human race becoming nearly extinct. Halo: Reach takes place before that. You know from the gate it isn’t going to end well, yet every comrade who falls along the way takes its toll on you as a player, until that final moment when you provide cover fire so the humans, along with one Master Chief, can escape Reach. A post-credits scene puts you in control of your Spartan one last time, and ends only when your health is depleted and you’re overcome by enemy forces.

I found Halo: Reach impressive in terms of graphics and story, with a solid multiplayer component as its backbone. After Reach, Bungie could’ve done a lot of things. For a long time, fans of the studio waited to see what they would come up with next. After a few years of little to go on besides industry leaks, Bungie’s next game was revealed in 2013: Destiny.

For a lot of us, having Bungie behind the game is the only hype we need. Others aren’t so easily convinced, and early screenshots and videos showed what almost looks like a Halo skin for Borderlands. That in itself isn’t a terrible premise for a game, but compared to Halo, it was hard to see Destiny as an industry-changing juggernaut.

That changed during E3 2014, when Bungie unveiled a pre-release Alpha phase, inviting PS4 owners to play a small part of the game before the upcoming Beta phase. Anyone with a PS4 could sign up, and I made sure I was among them.

“It’s just a game,” I thought over and over again in the days before I received my invite via email. On the one hand, what if it sucked? If the game were terrible, it would easily become the biggest flop in video game history.

But what if Bungie really could pull another Halo?

Sometimes a work of art is more than its medium. Some movies are more than movies, some paintings are more than paintings, some songs are more than songs. The same can be said for video games: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Shadow of the Colossus, and Half-Life 2 come to mind. Halo was close; if not for the lackluster story that seemed tacked-on in comparison to the multiplayer element, it would be there. (Halo: Reach had the opposite problem: A fantastic campaign with a multiplayer element that wasn’t quite up to snuff compared to its predecessors.)

The pre-release information on Destiny sure made this seem possible. Bungie promised a world in which single-player and multi-player aren’t two incompatible selections on a main menu, but a perfectly blended media through which an epic work of science fiction would be told. But promises are wind; I was told I could step on a flower in Fable and it would butterfly-effect my entire game, I was told I could approach anyone in Skyrim and ask them to go on a quest with me. Neither ended up being true, and those things seem easy compared to what Bungie had promised with Destiny.

I signed in. I created a character. I wished there were more customization options; it seemed like I had a choice between five or six faces and maybe ten hairstyles I was willing to use. The only customizable part of your Guardian is their head. You can pick a gender and one of three species, and change those parts of the head I mentioned, but it’s all but in vain: Your character will almost always be wearing a helmet. Some customization in terms of body size and proportions would’ve added to the immersion. But this is all superficial, a tiny part of the game.

The Destiny Alpha threw me right into the story, on what I surmise is chapter 3. Out of how many, who knows. I was dropped into a map many times larger than the largest Halo map, my Ghost (a robotic companion voiced by Peter Dinklage) gave me a few clues on what to do, and then I was on my own.

The game's layout and style will be immediately familiar to fans of Halo.
The game’s layout and style will be immediately familiar to fans of Halo.

Well, not quite. Two other people were dropped into the world right next to me. The three of us set off, unfortunately in different directions. This is likely to become one of the biggest criticisms of the game, I think. Much of the game revolves around the idea of forming teams of three players, but unless you’re playing with friends or get matched with people willing to cooperate, you might as well be playing alone.

Not that playing alone detracts from the game. It certainly didn’t for me. It was always interesting to be exploring on my own and run across another person (or several) who were engaged in a fierce battle, drop what I was doing and help out, and then go on my way. It’s also nice when you’re in a pinch, expecting to be taken out any second, and then three or four Guardians show up out of nowhere and turn the tide of battle.

Exploration was fun. There are always things to do, whether it’s fight enemies, collect items from the environment (there was only one type of collectible I noticed, I’m hoping there are more in the final build of the game), or just summon your vehicle (which could use a more specific name, in my opinion) and ride around the terrain.

This story mission offers only a peek into what’s going on: There are two factions of aliens fighting each other and you. As a Guardian, your job is to defend the last living humans.

The story has a lot of potential, and Bungie appears to have circumvented one of the biggest problems you’ll find in gaming. When a game mixes single-player and multi-player elements, it’s difficult for any player to feel special. There are games like those from Bethesda, where your character is special and no other human-controlled player ever enters your game. There are others like Pokemon, where your character is special and you can play with others only in a select mode in which they’re little more than passing strangers, a step above NPCs. Then there are games where you play with as many people as you want and nobody is special, or NPCs refer to you as though you are when you’re really not; there are a thousand other “chosen ones” running around next to you.

In Destiny, there isn’t just one Guardian. There are many of them, so the presence of other players makes sense. When you enter an area that would make your character unique, the game un-loads other players. They see cinemas and events on their screen, but they don’t see you, and vice versa. This makes you feel like you’re not alone in the world, but that your character is actually a person experiencing things other people aren’t. It’s very interesting, and I’m excited to see just how crazy the story gets.

The game itself is immediately familiar to anyone who has played Halo. That “Borderlands with a Halo skin” analogy works to an extent, but only insomuch as the game’s controls. I never felt like I was playing Halo or Borderlands; it was clear I was playing something new.

Something else stood out from the beginning, this one negative. It’s almost hard for me to type this, but Peter Dinklage’s voice acting is… sub-par. It’s actually shocking. I love the guy on Game of Thrones, and I know he can voice act, so I don’t know what’s going on. I keep hoping there’s some logical reason behind how bored he sounds (he is, after all, playing a robot; but there’s monotone robotic voice, and then there’s actor-is-half-asleep voice, and Destiny very abrasively has the latter). There are a few possibilities. I was dropped into the game on chapter three, so maybe the beginning offers some kind of explanation for the droning, unexcited tones Ghost speaks in. It’s also the Alpha build, and the playable part of the game was shown over a year ago, so it could also be a sort of rough draft. There is also the possibility that Dinklage, his voice director, or some combination of people involved just plain dropped the ball. In the end it’s no dealbreaker, but I was very excited to play through an entire game with Dinklage’s inimitable voice accompanying me, and the Alpha defeated much of that excitement.

UPDATE: After playing the Beta, it’s clear that the Alpha included a very rough version of Ghost’s voice. The Beta includes re-recorded and enhanced vocal effects to give ghost a more mechanical sound. The flat audio from the Alpha appears to have been a deliberate choice after all, and the end result is much better. I’ve left my original complaints in the article to reflect my reaction to the Alpha, but the Beta has very much cleared all of my doubts about this part of the game. Props to Bungie and Peter Dinklage; I love the character already.

Once the story mission was finished, I was taken to an overworld menu. Here it’s clear what Bungie is doing in terms of gameplay. You select a planet, then a part of a planet, and then you’re given three choices in missions: Story, Explore, and Strike. Story missions progress the main story behind the game. Exploration drops you into the area and lets you roam, but it’s also full of little blinking boxes that, when found and activated, give you sub-missions, such as defeating a certain type of enemy, scouting an area, or finding supplies. Strike missions are sort of a mix between the two, and require teams of three to complete a more linear series of goals.

Aside from those three modes is The Crucible, which is the player-vs-player mode. This will again be familiar to fans of Halo: Two teams compete in deathmatch, capture-the-flag, or various other modes.

The Crucible loading screen. Each ship represents a different player on the same team, and while they all appear the same in this screenshot, your ship is customizable and will appear so on such screens.
The Crucible loading screen. Each ship represents a different player on the same team, and while they all appear the same in this screenshot, your ship is customizable and will appear so on such screens.

Where it differs from Halo (and just about every other FPS) is that it doesn’t take your things away. You aren’t given a carbon-copied mannequin to play as; you get your Guardian, complete with their armor, weapons, special abilities, everything.

This is a concept I’m sure every FPS player has thought about, and one that usually looks better on paper. After all, when you have a game as customizable as Destiny, where each player has different weapons, armor, and abilities, how do you create a fair fight?

I can’t answer that, but somehow, Bungie pulled it off. I never felt like I was being overpowered or that I was dominating; almost every match came down to the wire. Neither team was ever far ahead of the other, victory was never squarely in my grasp. The matches were fast-paced and fun. Since I was never sure I was going to win or lose, I found myself not even caring, and just playing the game. I don’t know of any other game that does that for me. And this is just one PVP mode; there are a handful, but only one was available during the Alpha.

A standard PVP results screen.
A standard PVP results screen.

There’s also the Tower, which is the hub of humanity. To my surprise, when you enter the Tower, the game switches to third-person mode. This is the only area (in the Alpha, at least) in which your character doesn’t wear their helmet.

The tower, with my character sans helmet in the foreground.
The tower, with my character sans helmet in the foreground.

The Tower is full of NPCs that run shops, give missions, manage items, and deliver mail. It’s an interesting area, though the third-person controls are a little rusty (think Fallout 3 as compared to Skyrim), and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Tower is, essentially, a main menu that makes you walk to each selection.

On the flip side of that, other players popped in and out of the Tower, and a few emotions were available, such as waving and dancing. This led to a lot of humorous shenanigans between players, and makes the Tower a worthy addition to the game. At one point I found a guy sitting on the edge of a skyscraper looking out at the Traveler, that iconic gigantic white orb at the core of Destiny’s story. I sat my character next to him, and a third guy joined us. After a little sightseeing, the three of us stood and danced for a while, after which the two of them jumped to their in-game deaths. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at something in a video game.

Enjoying a night at the Tower.
Enjoying a night at the Tower.

 

Also, dancing.
Also, dancing.

It’s that inter-personal connectivity that makes Destiny what it is. You’re playing alone and with others at the same time. It’s easy to see why the game took so long to complete; everything just works. Playing the Alpha was everything I thought it would be: It’s like when you’re younger and you have all of these awesome ideas for a video game, and as you get older you realize how impossible it all was, how so many different nuances and elements couldn’t possibly work together. Destiny has the potential to be that game you always wanted to make, and Bungie made it work together. I don’t know how, I don’t want to know. I’ve never played a game like this, and I can’t wait to see the finished product, and what the projected sequels have to offer.

The Destiny beta begins on July 17th for Sony consoles. I play on PS4, where my username is crackedthesky. Feel free to add me and play along in the beta.

NowPlaying: Outlast

All screenshots were taken by me from the Playstation 4 version of Outlast, and may contain graphic imagery.

I have a long history with the horror genre. Nearly all of the short stories I wrote as a teenager were horror stories. I loved horror films as well, and it’s no surprise that my fondness for the genre eventually extended to video games.

It started with Resident Evil, as it probably should have. I bought Resident Evil and Resident Evil Zero for the GameCube, in time to play through them before the then-impending release of Resident Evil 4 (which I still consider one of the greatest video games ever made). Eventually I’d move on to other genre classics like the Silent Hill series, Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, you name it.

I think the horror genre works particularly well in the world of video games. The added layer of interactivity video games provide gives you a sense of peril not possible in film or literature. It’s not impossible for a book to be frightening (I can easily refer you to House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and the short story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin) and you’re even more likely to find a frightening film, but video games have an innate ability to hit the fear sweet spot.

I grew up on survival horror video games, but the last few years have yielded a drought for the genre. Resident Evil is more about action now (and I liked Resident Evil 5 and I liked Resident Evil 6 even more, but the horror element is barely present). Silent Hill sees few releases these days, but the series has gone more or less the same way, and while Dead Space 3 tried to strike a balance between action and horror, it mostly abandons all attempts at fear after the first third of the game.

I must not be alone in my yearning for the survival horror classics of the past, because indie developers have stepped up to fill the void most major publishers seem to be ignoring. Games like Slender, Underhell, and Amnesia bring a lot to the table and prove survival horror is alive and well, but my favorite slice of this indie survival horror pie has to be Outlast.

Outlast

The Blair Witch Project didn’t invent the found footage genre, but it did propel it into the mainstream. A few attempts have been made to translate it into video games, but Outlast does it the best. You play as Miles Upshur, a reporter who receives an anonymous tip about atrocities being committed at Mount Massive Asylum. Armed only with his video camera, Miles breaks into the asylum. The video camera plays an integral role in Outlast, being Miles’s only ally within the walls of Mount Massive.

The anonymous tipster wasn’t joking, and Miles immediately becomes trapped in Mount Massive, wandering the dark and bloodied hallways, using the camera’s night vision mode to navigate dark corridors and sneak around pursuing enemies. Night vision isn’t unlimited, and Miles must keep a stock of batteries to power it as he tries to record the events unfolding in the asylum, or just find a way out.

A few survival horror games put you in the role of a defenseless protagonist, relying on stealth and running away rather than confronting enemies head-on. Outlast is interesting in that not everyone in the asylum is trying to kill you–some of the inmates will actually aid you, some will ignore you, and some will aid, ignore, or attack you depending on their mood.

Outlast Locker
Outlast features no playable combat, forcing you to rely on stealth and hiding to avoid enemies.

There are no ghosts or monsters in Mount Massive, only mentally disturbed people. While some have an inherent propensity for violence, others only mistake Miles for another “doctor” arriving to further torment them. This human aspect permeates the game, and even extends to Outlast’s primary antagonist, Chris Walker.

Walker is an ex-marine committed to the asylum long before Miles’s arrival. Easily the largest inmate, Chris stalks the halls grunting about completing his mission, rattling his chains, breaking down doors, and occasionally ripping off people’s heads. He has a particular interest in Miles Upshur, and if he catches you with low enough health, it’s an immediate game over.

Chris Walker
Protagonist Miles Upshur tries in vain to defend himself against Chris Walker.

Other characters (like Father Martin, Doctor Trager, and the twins) give the game a sense of personality. They’re well-written, oddly charming, and create lingering presences that keep you on your toes throughout your stay at Mount Massive.

The story behind the events at the asylum unfold through documents and in-game dialogue and graffiti, all pointing Miles toward one thing: The Walrider. I won’t spoil what the Walrider is, other than it’s the one inhuman thing in Mount Massive, and Miles will eventually come face-to-face with it.

A lot of the game’s events are scripted, and the layout and level design are genius. While you’re rarely not in control of the protagonist, the building is designed to make sure you’re looking at the right places at the right times to see exactly what you need to to progress the story, or just to frighten you.

Outlast had me on the edge of my seat, but the game’s ending left a lot to be desired. My largest gripe with the horror genre is the way many works end. Often they’re predictable, ambiguously grim, and usually avoidable scenarios that feel more like the writing team checked out early than actually sat down to wrap up the story they created. Outlast was no exception to this rule. At least, not until Whistleblower.

Outlast: Whistleblower

Outlast: Whistleblower is a DLC prequel/interquel/sequel to the main game. In it you play as Waylon Park, the anonymous tipster who first alerted Miles Upshur to the events at Mount Massive. The two stories heavily intertwine, which is apparent from the beginning: Your first objective as Waylon Park is to send the email Miles Upshur receives in the main game.

While it starts earlier than Outlast, Whistleblower is meant to be played after. As Waylon Park, you’ll experience echoes of Miles Upshur’s actions throughout the game, which leads to several Easter eggs and clever encounters with old enemies and allies.

Waylon Park prepares to send an email that will change his life--and Miles Upshur's--forever.
Waylon Park prepares to send an email that will change his life—and Miles Upshur’s—forever.

Whistleblower doesn’t rely entirely on the old, however. The DLC introduces new characters equally as creative and frightening as the ones found in Outlast. Dennis, Frank Manera, and Eddie Gluskin almost make you wish you were being hunted by the twins or Doctor Trager again.

Outlast and Whisteblower touch on the “body horror” subgenre made popular by works such as Alien, The Thing, and Dead Space. As far as subgenres go, body horror is one of my favorites. When you can all but feel what’s happening on the screen, the horror becomes more visceral, more effective. Again, I don’t want to ruin the fun, but neither Miles Upshur nor Waylon Park will emerge from their time at Mount Massive entirely intact.

Outlast Operating Table
Inmate Eddie Gluskin’s operating table.

Whistleblower is a much shorter experience than Outlast (my first playthrough of the main game took almost seven hours, while Whistleblower hovered around two) but it remedies all of my qualms with the game’s ending.

Both Outlast and Whistleblower come with a layer of social commentary (the former on mental health and treatment of those suffering from disorders, the latter on the titular concept of whistleblowing) but it never gets in the way of the game’s main intention: Telling a story. A very disturbing, frightening, and totally fun story.

The team at Red Barrels consists mostly of former employees of Ubisoft and Naughty Dog, and proves that a game doesn’t need a huge budget or a large studio to be as good as the $60 discs you’ll find on store shelves. Outlast is a lot of fun and one of the best survival horror experiences I’m aware of. I’m excited to see what else the studio has to offer, not to mention any future entries they might have in the Outlast vein.

The halls of Mount Massive are difficult to escape, but I can't help but hope Red Barrels will one day let us back in.
The halls of Mount Massive are difficult to escape, but I can’t help but hope Red Barrels will one day let us back in.