Everything Is Scary

Be responsible, contemplate the void.

Grim Fandango Remastered - a 17 year journey

Tim Schafer occupies a sweet spot both in gamer culture and in my heart.  In the former, because he is one of those designers that we point to as a sticking point in our ongoing battle of "video games are art."  In the latter, because he co-created or created the games that, in the formative years of my life, forever instilled in me a love of point-and-click adventure.

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Night Terrors: AMONG THE SLEEP

Playing through Among the Sleep, I was reminded of a quote from the Silent Hill film adaptation.  Yes, stinky as that movie was (as, let's face it, every video game film adaptation always is (but by all means, keep holding out hope for Warcraft, you poor saps)) it did nail one thing right: "Mother is God in the eyes of a child."

That being the case, the natural followup question is:  who is the Devil?

The answer, at least as far as Among the Sleep suggests, might not be what you think.

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Unter the Zee: Sunless Sea

When I sat down to write about Sunless Sea, I'll admit I had trouble organizing my thoughts, which, in a way, is somewhat appropriate.  This is definitely the most surprised I've been by a game in a while, and in the best way possible.  It also bears mentioning that Peter played this game a while before I did, and highly recommended it to me (in fact, he's remarked to me that this could be his pick for Game of the Year).  I have to say, I can't thank him enough for doing so.

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Urban Legends of the Internet: Slender: the Eight Pages

Does anyone else remember the show The Storyteller?  That amazing, short-lived TV show in the 80's from Jim Henson?

Essentially, the show was an anthology of classic folklore and fairy tales, hosted by the eponymous Storyteller (played by John Hurt and later Michael Gambon) and his ever-present dog companion, voiced and operated by Brian Henson.  And it was GREAT.  This show was imaginative, colourful, dark and brooding at times, bright and cheery at others.  It was propelled forward by a simple premise:  aren't the strange and wonderful things we dream up COOL?  Folklore is a goldmine of imagination.  Dragons, ogres, trolls, fairies...and perhaps the most dazzling thing of all is that it's still growing.

True, it is tempered by modernity's current wave of cynicism, but even against the tide of internet skepticism, we have people dreaming up creatures and stories and myths.  And we call them Urban Legends.

One such Urban Legend - one that is fully acknowledged to be a creation, not a tale with any basis in real life events - is that of the Slender Man.

(via Wikipedia)

(via Wikipedia)

Slender Man is the freak-child of a Something Awful forum contest, where participants were asked to photoshop pictures with their own ideas for a paranormal occurrence.  Eric Knudsen entered an amalgamation of the ideas of Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and the Tall Man character from Phantasm.  Depicted as a skinny, hugely tall, blank-faced man in a suit, the Slender Man has oversized arms and is usually accompanied by black tendrils growing out of his back.

Knudsen's creation struck a chord with the internet, and since his debut in 2009, Slender Man has been the product of fiction, videos, mockumentaries, and - you guessed it - video games, the first and perhaps best known of which is Slender:  The Eight Pages.

In Slender:  The Eight Pages, you play someone dumb enough to go looking for Slender Man in the woods.  At night.  Alone.  Because hey, you ain't 'fraid of no stupid Urban Legend, right? 

Your goal in the game, which takes place in cozy first-person view, is to track through the pitch-black woods with your flashlight, seeking out eight pages which give clues to the mythos around the Slender Man.  Naturally, Mr. Slender Man don't take too kindly to this, and he stalks you down for the purpose of...well, I'm not entirely sure.  But it ain't good.

The pages you find contain such helpful information as "Always Watches - No Eyes," "Don't Look, Or It Takes You" and simply "NONONONONONONONONONONONO." (had to count to make sure I got the right number of "NO"s).

For such a simple game, Slender:  The Eight Pages sure does work well.  My favourite story about it involves a friend "gifting" it to another friend.  Hours later, the gifter received this text from the giftee:  "F--K YOU.  I wanted to sleep tonight."

What makes the Slender Man such a compelling figure for the internet, and for pop culture, is his malleability.  Since he is rather loosely defined, he can flex to meet the needs of the content creator, and, for that matter, the audience.  Like I said, I don't know WHAT the Slender Man does to you when he finds you.  I only know that the screen goes all blurry, there's a horrible screeching noise, and darkness.

It is that malleability that I think helps contribute to his enduring popularity.  This is echoed in his physical appearance:  the faceless entity is one we assign our own meaning to.  His suit is merely an indicator of a being adopting the cultural norms of the time.  His gender is an assumption of that costume; perhaps he is genderless.

The canon of Slender Man is constantly growing and shifting, an apt metaphor for his very existence as a creation of the internet, itself a semi-organic beast of formless, evolving identity.  What will you contribute to Slender Man?

Trauma and Medication in LONE SURVIVOR

It's difficult to talk about Lone Survivor without spoiling the surprises and turns it weaves through on its way to a poetic, spectacular finish.

Suffice it to say the plot, as presented, is an elaborate deception.  Your character is the titular lone survivor of a mysterious apocalyptic event, the nature of which is murky and the effects of which are even murkier.  It seems as though the better part of humanity has been infected with some kind of strange virus, mutating them into into mindless monsters that feast on rotting meat and wobble about like the nightmare demons in Jacob's Ladder.  Taking refuge from these beasts, your character has holed himself up in his apartment and wears a surgical mask to keep their sickness off of him.

This isn't the only effect of the apocalypse, however.  Many parts of the apartment building have been destroyed.  Walls are exploded inwards and outwards, as if from a series of explosions.  Other parts are covered in Ridley Scott Alien-esque goo and slime.  Most of the background details you see show signs of advanced decay:  rotted mattresses, rusty beams, crumbling structures.

To survive this situation, you proceed through the apartment complex, gathering food and other supplies, trying to find others, and avoiding or confronting the monsters.  You are contacted periodically by someone via radio who calls themselves "the Director," a cryptic figure who speaks in riddles and somehow drops supplies for you.  In between forays into the eternal darkness of the apartment building, your character's fragile mental state is sustained by sleeping in your own bed.  The twist is that you are often given a choice of medication to use before hitting the hay:  the blue pills, or the green pills (there are also red pills which keep you awake longer).

In this medically-induced sleep, your choice of pill also defines your choice of dream.  Without giving too much away, these dreams will gradually determine the direction of your character's ultimate fate.

The ever-present medication, coupled with the clues of your surgical mask and the state of the world around you, should provide ample clues that not all is what it appears.  That said, it is never explicitly stated just what Lone Survivor is really about, so it is completely open to interpretation.

There is, however, one more glaring clue:  the title itself.

The words "Lone Survivor" seem, at first, quite literal.  Your character is the lone survivor of the plague.  What if, however, we were to take these terms in a more medical fashion?

Survivor Guilt is defined, bluntly, in the Dictionary as:  "feelings of guilt for having survived a catastrophe in which others died."  As an extension of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, this mental state of being is marked by severe depression, potentially suicidal thoughts, and in some cases by the sufferer blaming themselves for the occurrence that caused the deaths of those around them.

In Lone Survivor, you are positioned as being, quite possibly, the last human being in existence.  Whether this should be taken literally or not is in the eye of the player.  What is certain is that your character is struggling with a terrible feeling of fear and despair that only people who have been through deep, fatality-involved trauma will understand:  the fear of being left alive.

How you come to terms with that fear and pain within the game is in your hands.

Will you take the blue pill, or the green pill?  Stay awake, or sleep?  Shoot the monsters, or duck around them?

Come to terms with your fear, or let it consume you?

Fight Your Basic Instincts: Don't Escape 1/2/3

The human condition is defined by our shared experiences, desires, and life events.  We are all born.  We grow.  We die.  In the brief period of our lives, we are defined by our instincts.  The instinct to survive.  The instinct to breed.  And the instinct to be curious.

It's a natural resting point for us to question our surroundings.  Perhaps it ties back to the survival instinct; after all with knowledge comes power and the ability to survive with greater ease.  Discovery leads to invention.  Still, with our lives already quite comfortable, we strive for the unknown.  We go into the dark places just to see what's in there.

So what happens when you lock us away and throw away the key?  If you put someone in a room, and provide food, shelter and clothing, why would they ever want to leave the room?  Because they HAVE to.  There's a driving, burning need to be free to explore.

Adventure game makers have played on this instinct for years.  Indeed, this adventurous instinct has spilled over into real life as well, with companies creating scripted "Locked Room" scenarios.  People are paying to be given the experience of being trapped in a room, to feel the thrill of getting out.  Escape the room.  That's the goal, at all times.

So what happens when you have to fight that instinct?

You get Scriptwelder's Don't Escape series.

Don't Escape 1

In the first instalment of Scriptwelder's little series on turning the "Escape the Room" formula on its head, you are a werewolf.  That probably seems pretty on the nose, but that's what I love about this little game.  You play a person cursed with the standard trope:  full moon, gruesome transformation, bestial rampage, etc.  But you're not a bad person.  You don't want to hurt people.  To that end, your goal is simple.  You must lock yourself up with ropes, chains, blockades...anything you can find.  You have found yourself a remote cabin suitable for this purpose.  You have until nightfall to restrain yourself as much as possible.

Like Scriptwelder's Deep Sleep series, the Don't Escape series are point-and-click adventure games.  You explore the cabin, finding useful tools and items to help in your goal.  The tricky thing is that in some cases, items are hidden in unexpected places, or don't act exactly as you might expect (one of the first keys you find, for example, does not fit an obvious locked chest).

What I really enjoy about Don't Escape 1 is that, in the end, your efforts are measured by a scale.  When the night falls and you transform, the werewolf's attempts to break free are listed.  It chews through the rope.  It struggles with the chain.  And if you screw up, it mentions that too.  Maybe you left the window open.  Maybe you didn't lock the door, even if you closed it.  These things give you clues to completing the game to 100% on your next playthrough.  It's immensely satisfying.

Don't Escape 2

If I'm being honest, Don't Escape 2 is, in my opinion, the weakest of the series.  Why?  Because zombies.  And zombies have been done to death (pun most definitely intended).

So in this instalment, you are a survivor of a zombie outbreak trying to survive yet another night in a horrible post-apocalyptic wasteland.  When night falls, the zombies come calling, so you have only 8 hours to prepare your little fortress, with or without the aid of others.

This game does have some neat innovations over its predecessor, with a huge variety of ways to emerge victorious.  There are moments where you have to make key choices that will affect the outcome.  Do you allow your friend Bill, who has been bitten, to live?  Do you use the fuel you discover to power a generator, or a car?

What disappoints me is that unlike the previous narrative reasoning for trying to prevent your own escape, which was interesting and unique, this one falls back into clichés and tropes all too familiar.  There's no real surprises here.  All the usual beats are hit in all the usual ways, and this is less about defying natural instinct, and more about playing right into survival instinct.

Don't Escape 3

Finally, we have Don't Escape 3, to me the strongest and most unique of the series.  It kicks off with a jolt to the senses.  You're in an airlock, and if you don't do something right away you will have all the open space you want.

When I first started playing this game, I suspected that might be the play on the "don't escape" theme.  You do not WANT to escape the comfortable confines of your ship, derelict though it may be.  It and it's comfy steel walls are the only thing keeping you from a horrible death.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover, however, that the narrative leads to something much more interesting.  I don't want to give away too much, but what you find in the final piece of Scriptwelder's trilogy involves a trail of bodies, an alien lifeform, and a decision between self-preservation and the greater good.

What makes the Don't Escape trilogy unique in the horror game landscape is that it involves defying your natural gamer chops.  Generally speaking, horror and survival are so closely linked that people almost always refer to them as the "survival horror" genre.  Here, though, you're fighting for more than survival, or curiosity, or exploration.  Here, you're fighting your basic instincts.

The Alien Landscape of Dreams: Scriptwelder's Deep/Deeper/Deepest Sleep

"It was all just a dream."

Raise your hand if that line, or a slight variation thereof, sends you into paroxysms of rage.  In modern media, this is one of those unforgivable clichés, a flimsy explanation for events told in a fictional narrative that has been so thoroughly trod over that it could be repurposed as a doormat.  There was time when it was charming, even fresh, but that time is roughly about the same period when Dorothy and Toto were traipsing around Oz.  So if you want to set your work in a dream, you'd better bloody well have a good reason, or at the very least be bringing something fresh to the table.

Scriptwelder, thankfully, does, in his series Deep/Deeper/Deepest Sleep.

Yes, the title(s) is a bit of a lead brick, but what sets this little series apart from other "dream exploration" horror games I've played is the upfront acknowledgement that you are dreaming.  More to the point, you are dreaming deliberately.  You play an unnamed person who is fascinated by the concept of lucid dreaming, and is convinced that tapping into this space of imagination and self-awareness holds some strange power and may, in fact, be interacting on some level with reality.

The games are all point and click adventure games, which hold a special fondness in my heart, and feature the same style of graphics as The Last Door, all pixelly goodness.  The main difference, however, is that the third-person perspective of that series is replaced here with a first-person view more akin to Uninvited.

Throughout the three games, you traverse a strange landscape mainly reminiscent of a hotel, with a few outdoor environments, uncovering clues about the land of lucid dreams and its fearful inhabitants, the Shadow People.  There's not very much story here, and it gets a bit confused in the third instalment with the introduction of a new antagonist, but what Deep/Deeper/Deepest Sleep does well is atmosphere.  Since you know this is all "just a dream," it helps explain a lot of the strange architecture, and it also gives you a sense of false safety.

There's an exceptionally well-done sequence at the beginning of the second game where you make a trip to a library to research other peoples' experiences with the dream world, only to find that you have fallen asleep at some point and are now trapped in the realm along with the dreaded Shadow People.  It's very subtle and the transition is well done.  I know I said earlier that saying "it was a dream all along" is terrible, but here, the assumption is that you've played the first game, understand that dreams are a key plot point, and the turn is not lazy writing, but skillful development.

The stakes, unfortunately, are not wholly clear until partway through the second game, but in the third game they are made especially real and terrifying.  That game kicks off with a great moment where you wake up, in bed, unable to move.  You gradually become aware of the silhouette of a figure looming at your feet, standing in grim silence as you struggle to make your limbs come to life.  Then, it lurches toward you, shrieking horribly.

The whole sequence, incidentally, bears an eerie resemblance to the tale of Everything is Scary's own Peter Counter...  Coincidence?  Maybe..

It's clear that, with Deep/Deeper/Deepest Sleep, Scriptwelder is creating work from a place of personal experience and love of a genre.  There are visual callouts to horror classics all over the place, mixed in with environments familiar and alien.  It's a short experience even spread out over three games, but it's a memorable one.  What at first seems like a retread of clichés is in fact a rewarding experience, and though dreams are well-explored territory, Scriptwelder proves they are worth going back to again and again.  For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come...

We Do It Because We Love It: An Intro to Scriptwelder

People always say that you should do what you love for a living.

I feel like there's some truth to the perception that my generation was raised on that old adage, spoon-fed the belief that anyone can and should be able to do anything.  The thing is, though, real is just more complicated than that.  Sometimes, we fail.  Sometimes, we don't get our dream job.  I think what we should learn, from the very moment we're old enough to have an idea of the things that make us happy, is that we should make time for the things we love, even if we don't get to do them all the time.

I love writing.  I really do.  I can honestly say that I've wanted to be a writer since I was in Elementary School.  I still have the hilariously bizarre comic strips that I made as part of a class project.  "DUCKMAN" my little hero was called (no relation, I promise, to the show starring Jason Alexander).  I made several Duckman books for class, with varying levels of poop and butt jokes in them.  They were a great source of amusement for me, my sister, and my friends (and still are, in some ways, to this very day).  It wasn't until I wrote the Grade 6 English provincial exam that I really knew why I loved writing so much.

The exam - which, if we're being honest, should only be loosely referred to as an exam - had only one question on it:  write a story based on the prompt as given.  In this case, it was a picture of a young woman, eyes wide with fright, and a couple accompanying lines about her being pursued by parties unknown.  From there, I took it in the direction of a young man uncovering a Scooby-Doo-esque situation with fantasy touches, with old man impersonating a mythical beast to drive villagers away from his ancestral lands (and he would've gotten away with it too, etc.).

Yeah, it was silly.  It was Grade 6.  Cut me some slack.  Thing is, though, my teacher liked it well enough that she read it to the class.  Much to my surprise, they liked it too.  I made something, and people felt happy after reading it and hearing it.  And that felt...good.

Since then, I've written blogs, plays, stories...and I've only been paid for it maybe 1% of the time.  I don't do this because I'm trying to be rich.  I do it because it makes me happy.

It is a feeling, I think it is fair to say, that is shared by Scriptwelder, maker of many Flash games, all free to play on sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate.  Scriptwelder is a Polish programmer who has been making games in his spare time for the past 5-6 years.

I'm going to be devoting my posts to Scriptwelder's games over the next two weeks, and I wanted to give you an intro that drove home the respect I have for this fellow and his abilities.  It's not merely that he makes things for free; it's that they are of a quality and depth that are always surprising and interesting.  They are not, by virtue of the interface, of great length or graphically stunning, but what I find time and time again is that they are full of heart.  It's obvious when you play one of Scriptwelder's games that it is a project made by someone who genuinely cares about what he does.  He isn't doing this for money, or fame.  He's doing it because every now and then he has a great idea for a video game, and he wants to share it with the internet.

One such game, which is perfectly apt for the remaining space in this post, is A Small Talk at the Back of Beyond.

In this game, you awaken in a strange place in pitch darkness.  Across the room, a green monitor draws your attention.  Text appears...someone is trying to communicate with you.  The game invites you to answer back.

From there, the game is essentially a text-based RPG, albeit one with a small graphic display.  You talk to the mysterious person on the other end of the line.  You question them about your surroundings.  You might play a game with them.  But ultimately, your path - driven by the natural curiosity of the human mind - will take you to a final, powerful choice.

A Small Talk at the Back of Beyond lives up to its name.  The entire game can be played in as little as two minutes.  In that time frame, it somehow manages to find time to be emotional resonant, driving down to one of life's most basic fears (which I will not reveal here for sake of spoiling the surprise).  It's not meant to be a widely distributed commercial project.  It's not something which I think anyone would ever charge money for.  It's a little snippet meant to provoke an emotional response from an audience.  And that's enough.

Next week I'll take a look at the first of Scriptwelder's trilogies:  Deep/Deeper/Deepest Sleep.

Darkness follows.