Screams by and for the Masses: KONA and Crowdsourcing
As a not-so-closeted über patriot of the Great White North, it was a no-brainer that KONA would come across my radar eventually. The first independent gaming project from Quebec-based studio Parabole, KONA is still in early Access on Steam and GOG, but is powering towards a full release tentatively around September 2016. So at this point, it would be unfair for me to review it, but I do want to say that even in Early Access, this game plays and looks better than hundreds if not thousands of survival horror games in full release on Steam, and is absolutely something you should check out. What I do want to talk, with regards to KONA and the broader picture, is the idea of crowd-sourced horror.
Video games occupy a very interesting space in our society. There's a constant push-pull in the media and the elite to allow the inclusion of video games in the "artwork" of the era, and even in the mainstream as a form of entertainment. The constant sneering articles that emerge in derision of Pokemon Go players is a testament to how the establishment looks down on gamers and gamer culture. At the height of the Gamerg8te (deliberately misspelled because yes, they are still out there) kerfuffle, the media was still publishing articles deriding the leaders of the group as neckbearded losers who live in basements. Yet despite all the sneering contempt hurled at video games from an older generation, the changing face of gaming repeatedly proves that it is the arts and entertainment industry most open to adapting, most open to surviving evolving technologies and tastes, and, perhaps most telling, most open to responding to audiences.
Which brings me back to KONA, and the crowd-sourcing experience of video games. As it has gone through development, KONA has been publicly available to play for months, first with a limited Beta release, and now with a wide Early Access release. As Parabole continues work on the game, it has routinely sought feedback from players: does this feel immersive? Is this fun? Is this scary? Their social media presence is always active, and you can publicly see them responding to their fans. The entertainment industry has always been responsive to fans; as long as art has existed, people have been allowed to comment on it and shape it. But never to this extent. Films have test audiences, yes, and in some cases directly affect the final product (take, for example, the infamously recut ending of I Am Legend), but the test audience phase is so far into production that re-filming and re-creating an entire experience is impossible. Not so with video games.
With video games, programmers and designers have complete control over their product. To be sure, rebuilding a product from the ground up is, generally speaking, not something that will happen, but there is still the opportunity to do so if it is desired. In my review of SOMA, I mentioned that the final product differed radically from the earliest trailers and screenshots. While that may not have been due to direct fan influence, it's fair to say that films in particular do not go through the same kind of complete shifts. For a more direct influence, In Frictional Games' earlier title, AMNESIA: A MACHINE FOR PIGS, the studio crowd-sourced screams (literally, they asked fans to send them audio files of screaming) for inclusion in the final product. All this is to say that video games, more than any other medium, have a unique opportunity to change how art is both created and consumed.
For better or worse, it can now truly be said that art by and for the masses is being made. KONA may not be the best example of that phenomenon, but it is nevertheless a product of its time: funded by crowds, critiqued by crowds, shaped by crowds. And what frontier awaits horror in particular? The curiosity of this direction of media is that what appeals to one person will certainly not appeal to all people everywhere, and so it goes with horror: what scares you might not scare me. Will we reach a point where horror in video games is a calculated aggregate? Where the scares in the game are determined by the pull of a voter lever, and parsed out accordingly? Who knows.
In the meantime, KONA trucks steadfastly towards its release date. I highly recommend being part of it: to enjoy, to influence, to experience, to participate. Perchance to scream?