Sunday, May 27, 2012

Horror Off-Season: Chernobyl Diaries

Before we begin, there is one thing that I should probably get out of the way.  Whenever I write these movie reviews I try to be as objective as possible.  Of course reviews are by nature opinion pieces, and it's impossible to form an opinion of something that isn't colored by personal experience or feelings regarding a given topic.  So what I mean is that I try to be as aware of these biases as I can so that when one of them makes me feel a certain way about a movie, I can explain it and not just stumble around trying to claim my opinion is absolute truth. 

In the interests of being as clear about my own personal biases regarding the subject matter as I can, I will preface this discussion of Chernobyl Diaries with the fact that I am Ukrainian.  Now, I was born and raised in suburban America but I'm 50% Ukrainian by blood.  My mother immigrated here when she was 14 and attempted to raise me to at least be aware of my heritage.  While I never managed to incorporate the language or culture into my own personal identity (unless a drinking contest is involved), there are aspects of my upbringing that are impossible to get around.  Namely, I was born in 1985 and the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, well before my first conscious memory.  I have literally been aware of what happened since I could understand human language.  When I was a kid my mother's church would hold fund raisers for Chernobyl victims in their basement, so I would be there toddling around and being exposed to these science fair-style triptychs of the devastation.  I saw photos of abandoned and looted apartments and midways, mutated animals, mutated people...for better or worse these images are a part of my formative years, and nuclear disasters and mutants are some of my earliest nightmares.

So I don't need a movie to show me all the gory details or parade a freak with a melted face in front of me like The Hills Have Eyes did.  All it needed to do was say "Pripyat" and establish a credible atmosphere and I will take that ball and run with it, imagining nightmare fuel around every corner.  And on that token, Chernobyl Diaries performed admirably.

From a visual aspect the film felt a lot like Cloverfield or Quarantine, using mostly handheld camera shots making you feel like you were another person in the middle of the scene.  They also had some great wide shots that really drove home the eerie stillness and isolation of the city.  The dialog and pace of the plot was all very frantic keeping you moving along from point to point without too much time to stop and catch your bearings, but it was never too difficult to tell what was going on.  There was a point towards the end of the movie where an incredibly creepy looking little girl appeared; before you could really get a good look at her, shit went bananas and everybody had to run again.  I lost track a bit there because a roving band of theater hoppers appeared in my 11:30pm showing and started critiquing the characters.

The introduction bits were difficult to get through because the film knew that with as little as it was going to show of the Pripyat inhabitants that it needed to get going as quickly as possible.  As such, it felt like we were being forcibly dragged through the first several minutes of the movie, establishing the character relationships.  I'm not really sure if it was a bad thing, but I didn't feel like I could really focus on anything until the movie settled into the main storyline.

There were bits where it could be argued that the characters behave retardedly for plot convenience and that no real person would act so stupid, but I didn't see it.  Yes, there were instances of information being withheld until after it would've been most important, or just mentioned and brushed aside...but from the perspective of the characters that information did not matter.  Even if they had been able to put 2 and 2 together to get 4, it wouldn't have made a lick of difference for their situation.  The characters weren't particularly deep, but nobody seemed like an obviously obnoxious stereotype without any other qualities, and the acting was passable enough that everyone felt genuine.  That's not to say everyone was memorable or unique, some of them were boring and forgettable, but they felt like real people.  Uri is a standout because while I may question his badass credentials, he felt a bit tragic when he was giving the tour.

The group dynamics were a bit chaotic, but can you really blame them given the situation?  In the chaos, it also seemed like the movie kindof dropped a few things.  There was a moment where one character was bitten pretty badly by some mutant fish, and then nothing is ever made of it again.  It's a little odd, but I didn't even think of it until several hours after the movie.

The very end of the movie threw me for a total loop, I think it could've actually benefited from being maybe 5 minutes shorter.  It's one of those totally unexpected, very unfair, twist ending sucker punches where they kill the final cast member in like the last frame of the movie in a very cruel way. It was just so sudden and strange that I couldn't really make sense of it.  I'm sure there's an audience for that sort of thing since I've seen a lot of other movies and episodes of The Outer Limits end like that, but it just rubbed me the wrong way.

Chernobyl Diaries isn't some grand horror statement, but it is a pretty competently done scary movie.  I think that all it was aiming to do was have some fun with an interesting premise and do something exciting, and at that I can't fault it.  I know I have a large bias regarding the setting going in, but I don't think that has anything to do with why I think it's not a bad flick.  I think that given the subject matter and just a bit of imagination anyone can psych themselves up for a scary movie set in a mini-nuclear wasteland.  It is creepier because it really exists.

I enjoyed it, it was a fun movie to watch and it had some very well done scary moments.

Anyway, that's just opinion, man.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Self-extension, Video game characters, and the horror of discovery... Oh my?

It took me a really long time to write the previous article because I just had too many topics I wanted to bring up, and that led to an over-long and meandering article.  I'd still like to discuss them a bit, so while I edited them out of the previous post so it could focus on SCP-087 I'd like to visit some of them now.

Firstly, when I was writing Bro-Horror I became really interested in the nature of horror games vs movies.  Video games are in a unique position to tell their stories because you interact with them, it's an active experience instead of a passive one like watching a movie.  In a movie you can connect with a well written character and vicariously experience the horror they're going through, but that doesn't quite compare with the depth of connection you have to a player character in a game and the game world.  People always talk about the immersiveness of video games, and how a great game can pull you into the story.  I think there's also more at play here, because as SCP-087 shows: it's not just the world/story/character, you can immerse a player with nothing but an in-game avatar.

Gordon Allport
What I'm referring to are the theories of psychologist Gordon Allport (1897 - 1967).  Allport was one of the first humanist psychologists, and his theories on personality and self went on to influence other major players like Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs.  He posited a concept he called "Self-extension", basically that at around age 4 we begin to incorporate external identifiers into our sense of a self.  Concepts like "I'm a New Yorker" and "I'm a software engineer", and also why we take damage or slights to our cars or other possessions so personally.  There's something really special about controlling the car that really gets people to identify with it.  We often take damage to our cars personally, and we talk about things that happen while we're driving without referencing the intermediate vehicle.  Think of how often you hear "That guy cut me off!" vs "He cut me off with his car" or some other variant.  It can't just be the constant use or the cost because I don't feel like this about my shoes or other property like my computer.

We tend to incorporate the car so far into our sense of self that it becomes part of "us" instead of "ours", and it seems this extends to video game characters.  When we talk about video games we always refer to our characters in the 1st person instead of talking about them as characters.  If you think about the sentence "So I cleared out all the Medusas." vs "Kratos cleared out all the Medusas." or "I had Kratos clear out all the Medusas.", the first seems more natural.  If we're talking about God of War we talk about what we did in the game, not what Kratos did.

It's not surprising with this, that horror games have historically been really effective at creating a lasting connection with players.  Some of the bigger games that came out of the PlayStation/PS2 era were survival horror games: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Clocktower.  But more recent AAA titles have failed to recapture that magic, but other people have already contributed enough to why that is.  The games that have succeeded have been smaller indie titles.  I'm not entirely convinced this has to do with the budgets directly, but comes about as a side effect of where a studio has to focus their energies with the small budgets.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Enter, one of my favorite games: Amnesia: The Dark Descent was released in late 2010 by Frictional Games and was a great hit, even notoriously difficult to please Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation enjoyed the game and said he was scared by it.  In the game you are Daniel, a helpless British guy with no memory or so much as a sharp stick to defend yourself with. 

The game tells its brutal and Lovecraftian story through flash backs and diary entries that force you, as Daniel, to remember a past that you obviously didn't want to remember.  Although at first glance it seems a little trite, the amnesiac protagonist trope does something very useful to the story: it equalizes your knowledge with Daniel's.  Even in a game like Skyrim or Fallout where you have a huge amount of customization available, your character has had a rich life before you got ahold of them.  That gap will always insulate you from the character, but because both you and Daniel know exactly as much about Daniel's life as he does that element of separation between you and the character is removed.

Amnesia's story is based on the need to know more and what happens when you learn terrible knowledge not meant for man.  This theme is present in the game as the Orb, and the Shadow that kills anyone who attempts to learn its secrets.  However, it's also present in what happens to you as the player when Daniel learns more about his past.  His past was filled with very unsavory things, and as you continue to uncover them you can't help but feel that you didn't want to know that.  What's important is that when you learn that Daniel had done these things, you actually feel a little bad about them because Daniel is a part of "you", to some degree.  This makes the first play through so uncomfortable, but the affect does diminish.

Silent Hill 2
In the Silent Hill games, particularly Silent Hill 2 because I've never played 1 or 3 at all, James is a fully fleshed out character with a life, personal connections, and flaws to put it lightly.  And you know none of it, but the both of you have been placed in the middle of all this craziness that neither of you understands, that similarity can connect you.  In this game part of the horror relies on the story, and the connections to James, so they need to have a character they can tack all these flaws on and build a connection to the town into.  Those things themselves are disturbing so they can still be scary when they're not internalized to the degree that Daniel's actions were.  Also, they're unknown to you at the beginning of the game so when the connection is revealed to you and James there is still some of the horror of discovery because you've both had the same experience in the town.

While it's not related to self-extension, I think the horror of discovery is worth mentioning because it does play such a huge role in making these two games psychologically disturbing, and plays to Amnesia's Lovecraftian theme.  While everything in both games is pretty messed up on its own, it's passive: the monsters are just being presented to you.  Discovery is active: when you think about the story while you play, and put James' or Daniel's actions into context and discover for yourself how they relate to the situation.  You've been forced to participate in the disturbing realization and that really makes it internal to your've been incepted except instead of "break up my father's empire", the idea planted in your head is "James murdered his infirm wife and half the monsters in Silent Hill are manifestations of his own sexual guilt.".

In Dead Space, which is a technically wonderful game that I've yet to get around to finishing, the best and most skin-crawling parts are when I see logs with Dr. Kyne or encounter Mercer.  It's that feeling of realizing your trapped in a tin can breached to the vacuum of space with an absolutely insane and truly zealous adherent of some Necromorph religion.  Unfortunately, what should have been gut-wrenching tension spent most of the game as frustrated nervousness because everything is a jump scare and Necromorphs kept sneaking into my camera's blind spot and eviscerating me in one blow.  I did the same battle probably close to 20 times before I finally got through it, that made it annoying and not scary.  The game thought the monsters were creepier than their story, so I had to get through them before continuing the story and that ruined the atmosphere.  Nothing takes you out of the immersion like a game-over screen every few minutes for a few hours.

Anyway, those are just some ideas I had.  What do you think?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Horror games only work if you want to keep playing

I don't often discuss games publicly because I just don't feel qualified to talk about most aspects of them with any sort of authority.  However, horror games are definitely something I feel like I understand, since I spend so much time talking about horror outside of games.

Recently, someone on posted a link to a small game based on the horror/creepypasta project called "The SCP Foundation".  The game is specifically based on SCP-087, the code name given to a bottomless stairwell located at an unnamed college campus, and is one of the most terrifying games that I have ever played.  I'm not lying when I say I lost sleep because of how deeply frightened I was after playing this game for like 20 minutes at 3 in the afternoon.  This is despite the fact that it has maybe 3 distinct textures that don't even wrap correctly, no story beyond the SCP itself, and seems to have been made in spare time then released for free by a bunch of guys from 4chan's /v/ board.  I noticed something interesting about what exactly made it so compelling and horrifying at the same time and I wanted to talk about it.

SCP-087 is cheap and ugly but it is, knowingly or not, a brilliant exercise in purely experiential gaming.  Video games, while generally being pretty immersive always break that immersion in a very fundamental way:  You aren't your character.  You always know something or see something your character doesn't, and the disconnect is either integral to the story or the gameplay.  It's either creating tension by giving the players knowledge of events that affect the character but that the character doesn't know, or assisting gameplay by giving the character knowledge or skill that the player doesn't know about until told.  I can't think of very many games that have stories that are told entirely during the run time by what happens to the character.  Maybe some of the early FPS games that are more about the run-and-gun experience and don't need more than a very simple story.

The story frames the experience, but a story needs characters so in order to exist in a story you have to have a vessel to act through, and this will always be not-you.  The horror you experience in these cases is a lot more like the horror you get when you're really immersed in a movie or a book.  It can be really terrifying but there's always a comfort in the fact that it's happening to a character in a story, not you.  The eventual resolution of the main plot is also a satisfying experience which gives you a nice payoff.

By doing away with an in-game story SCP-087 has removed the need to have a character for you to act through.  By not having any sort of goals, the game no longer needs any of the traditional mechanisms for interacting with the player so it has no options, no HUD, no inventory or anything.  With all of this out of the way there's nothing separating you from your in-game self, for all intents and purposes you are in the game and that makes it uniquely terrifying.  There's no more disconnect, or comfort because this is all happening to a character.

In most other games, horror or not, the motivation to keep playing the game comes from a desire to reach the end.  If a game is too long, without giving us anything new most people will stop playing, but if a game continues to weave new and interesting events into the narrative people will just keep playing.  Look to RPGs, especially Mass Effect and Fallout for evidence of this.  A game like Amnesia uses this to great effect since as you go on you learn more and more about Daniel's past and experience the dawning realization that Daniel has done horrible things.  The very act of continuing the story contributes to the horror of the experience and also has the effect of strengthening the player's resolve to reach the end-game and take revenge on Alexander.

SCP-087 doesn't have an end game, but you keep playing beyond the point where you've seen everything because you want to continue the experience.  I had always thought a good horror game relied on a compelling story and a great player character, with mechanics and visuals that supported the themes of the game, but now it seems like everything else is just a means to an end because you can have a truly terrifying game without any characters or story.

This just goes to further my theory that major studios simply can't produce a good horror game anymore, because how on Earth would you market a game without characters or a story?

Games are weird, man.