Monday, July 30, 2012

Combat's place in horror games

I got a lot of flack from a few people for disparaging Dead Space as much as I did and engaging in the typical exalting of the early Silent Hill installments last time I talked about games.  In the first post, the bit about Dead Space was mainly a footnote so I didn't really explain myself.  I never wanted to leave something like that without a good explanation, because that's not fair to the game.  But in seeking to flesh out my stance on Dead Space, I started thinking a lot about combat in general since it tends to be such a contentious aspect of horror games.

For the sake of this exercise let's define combat as your single player-character in a direct, weaponized altercation with one-to-n enemy combatants.  This should be broad enough to encompass everything I want to talk about while excluding squad-based combat and other non-first person forms of combat.

Combat is obviously the core gameplay mechanic in games like Modern Warfare, Call of Duty, God of War, Prototype, and all their forefathers.  Even games like Arkham City and Arkham Asylum where navigation and puzzle-solving often take center stage, combat is a huge mechanic and part of what makes these games notable.  And in all these games the purpose of combat is to serve the emotional engagement of making the player feel like a badass (or in the Arkham games: Batman, the ultimate badass).  That's what they're for.  These games all serve to immerse the player in an environment where they can experience the visceral joy of dominating one's opposition without moral ambiguity.

However, the same sort of combat exists in the survival horror genre in games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Dead Space, etc.  A lot of these games are about that moral ambiguity, they force the player to make uncomfortable decisions or confront uncomfortable reality.  There is no visceral joy to be had here, yet they still involve combat.  So in this genre, combat isn't around to make you feel like a badass but why is it around?  An easy theory is that combat exists in survival games to place a strain on your resources which forces you to ration instead of simply horde.  Without something depleting your supply of ammunition and health restoration items, the game simply doesn't have the stress factor involved with making sure you have enough of everything to make it to the end, which is a significant amount of the point.

While this is true, I think there's deeper engagement.  First, the focus on resource maintenance inherent to these games makes each combat situation you survive a Pyrrhic Victory: You live to fight another day, but at what cost?  Forcing the player to ask that question in any form keeps them in a state of introspection, and makes sure they don't get too cocky.

The combat also feeds you hope.  Survival horror games often have a puzzle solving or key-quest component to go along with their oppressive atmosphere.  Unfortunately this can quickly become demoralizing because if your experience of a game is a constant stream of endless puzzles in similar environments it doesn't feel like you're making any progress.  But the thrill of combat, of facing down the mutated hellbeast zombie creature and emerging victorious gives a sense of accomplishment.  It lifts you up and gives you the feeling that maybe you're capable of making it out of whatever situation you're in alive.  Also, the tense and immediate nature of combat raises the pitch of the game briefly making the experience feel more varied, similar to the rising and falling action in the story structure of a book or movie.

Part of the reason combat is so tense is because of how quickly it happens.  Decisions have to be made and executed so fast that a wayward second being taken aback by a monster will get you killed.  Simply put, you don't have the time to be scared during combat, you just have to react or you probably won't make it out of combat.  In an FPS after the post-combat relief you get congratulated, it's a positive payoff because you're told you've done well.  In survival horror after combat you have to examine your situation and resources, and get to reflect on whatever unholy face-craving scarecrow you've just seen.

Closing thoughts?

The combat in a horror game serves the same basic purpose of tense action with a feeling of victorious exhilaration when its done, but its use and context within a horror game let it evoke a much wider range of emotions.  However, in order for it to evoke the intended emotions it needs to fall into context of a resource-limited survival horror game.  Trying to include long combat scenes or waves of enemies doesn't make sense because it becomes too stressful and gives the scene a Contra-like failure rate which prevents it from making the right impact.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Beerening: Decoction Mashing, Take 2

Recently, my boss went on a business trip to meet with out clients in Germany and while he was there discovered Kellerbier.  Kellerbier, sometimes referred to as Zwicklebier or Zoiglbier, is sort of a German lager version of British cask ale.  It's a very young, fresh beer, often served just a few weeks out of primary fermentation with very little carbonation.  Unlike cask ale, to which a fining agent like isinglass is added, kellerbier is usually very cloudy due to a lack of extended secondary fermentation.  It contains much more proteins and yeast than traditional lager which has been filtered or aged for weeks or months at very low temperatures.

Not much kellerbier is produced commercially and even less of it makes its way to the states, but I did manage to find a bottle of Mönchshof Kellerbier at my local liquor store.  After drinking this and reading about the style a little, I set about trying to make my own because I found it an interesting challenge to try to duplicate a traditional style with origins dating back to the middle ages by description alone.  Also, trying to impress my boss with a home-grown version of a beer he really liked would probably not go amiss.

What I had tasted was a beer towards the dark side of golden, pretty well balanced without much overt hop character.  The beer had a pale malty backbone, evoking buttermilk biscuits.  It had a slight aroma of the herbal character European hops are known for as well slightly sulfurous twang of lager yeast.  With all this in mind I started to think about a recipe.

Since the unfortunate Wee Heavy incident I've been favoring simple grists and using the process or other means to achieve certain kinds of complexity.  This is really similar to Drew Beechum's "Brewing on the 1's" idea from his NHC lecture, see the video here.

Schloss Westtor zweikatzen mit zweimaischverfahren altbier im keller

10lbs Munich
1lb Flaked Barley

1oz German Northern Brewer @ 60 minutes
1oz Perle @ 5 minutes

Ferment with Wyeast Bohemian Lager (2124)
As I mentioned in the last post a decoction mash is a mash where you pull an amount of the thick mash and boil it in a separate vessel before adding it back to the main mash to raise the temperature.  This is a good way to do a mash with rests at multiple temperatures when you're not able to directly heat your mash, like if you're mashing in a wood vat or...a Rubbermaid cooler.  Beersmith's default double decoction schedule includes a 35 minute protein rest at 122F before adding the first decoction, which is why I included the pound of flaked barley.  Low protein rests like this can sometimes be detrimental to modern malts, actually breaking down too many proteins and ruining the beer's head and mouthfeel while having the opposite affect on older, less modified malts.  A low temp protein rest like this is recommended when working with significant amounts of flaked grains, so I added some.  I would use decoction boils to step up to 147F and then 156F before mashing out at 168F.  All this would get me an OG of 1.052 with 36 IBUs.  Also, I'm using the Bohemian Lager yeast because of the Lager Workarounds episode of Brewing TV, where they fermented that strain at ale temperatures and still had the beer turn out very lager-like.  Or at least, that was the plan.

When I got to the homebrew supply store I found that at some point during the week a crowd of thirsty brewers intent on making their Marzens for Oktoberfest had descended on the shop and cleared it of Munich malt.  So I had to modify my malt bill.  So, err...ahem
Schloss Westtor zweikatzen mit zweimaischverfahren altbier im keller

2.5lbs Munich
3.75lbs Vienna
3.75lbs Pilsner
1lb Flaked Barley

1oz German Northern Brewer @ 60 minutes
1oz Perle @ 5 minutes

Ferment with Wyeast Bohemian Lager (2124)
My mash was a downright disaster.  Unfortunately instead of using Dawson's 1qt thick mash/1lb grist formula from the Brewing TV Decoction Day episode, I elected to trust Beersmith's decoction volumes and only pulled 7 quarts for my first decoction instead of 11.  I boiled the decoction during the protein rest, but when I added it back in I didn't quite hit 147F.  I had to pull a few more quarts and boil again to make up the difference before starting the beta-saccrification rest.  My second decoction, which I started just a few minutes later was plagued by similar conditions.  So while I've technically performed a viermaischverfahren, I'm going to continue calling this the double decoction it would have been had I listened to Michael Dawson.

One thing I should mention, since I didn't know this when I was just reading about decoction mashes.  When you pull the thick mash it will be very dry looking, like a porridge without enough water.  It will have very deep cracks and seem like it'll scorch long before it bubbles.  It's not needed to add more water because as the mash sits on the heat getting stirred it will soften up and liquid will come out of it.  It's similar to making egg nog, when you add the sugar to the yolks it's very dry and crackly, but as you mash it it slowly becomes a thick syrupy liquid.

Also, this took me by surprise as well.  When you decoction mash, I think because of the protein rest you get this weird film that settles on your grain bed.  It looks kindof like break material from the boil, which it sort of is since it's also coagulated proteins and peptides.  It's nothing bad, it just looks really weird.

Check it.

As my punishment for misplaced trust, I was mashing for almost 5 hours.  When I finally went to sparge, it was absurdly cloudy.  I normally don't recirculate, but I felt like I had to this time.  Also, it was draining incredibly slowly.  I'm not sure if there is something wedged in my braid/valve or if the sparge was sticking as a result of degrading the grain husk material by boiling it.  Eventually I managed to collect just over 6 gallons of 1.049 SG wort, which slightly undershoots the volume I was hoping to collect, but is a slightly higher gravity than what I was predicting.  I probably could have drained a little more but it was taking forever.

I've yet to have a problem with DMS from using pilsner malt, but I decided to err on the side of caution and extended my boil to 75 minutes.  I hit my boil, waited 15 minutes and started my regular boil schedule adding Northern Brewer, Irish Moss, and Perle at the appropriate times.

When the boil was done I chilled down, but after running for about an hour I was only down into the 70s.  By this point I'd been at it for almost 9 hours, so I decided to just rack to the ferment, leave the sediment in the kettle instead of trying to strain it out and call it a day.  I wound up pitching a 2L starter of Wyeast Bavarian Lager into 4 gallons of 1.053 OG wort.  If I leave the fermenter directly in front of an air conditioning vent I discovered I can get down into the mid 50s, which is perfectly adequate for a primary lager fermentation.  Since this is a kellerbier, I won't be doing a long and cold secondary fermentation.

It's taken about 40 hours to start showing signs of life, so I'm going to let it ferment as cold as I can justify keeping my apartment for about 14 days.  Then I think I can let it rise to the high 60's, maybe 70 for 2-3 days for something resembling a diacetyl rest before racking it to the keg where I'll probably condition while carbonating under about 8PSI at 45F for a week before starting to serve.  Here's hoping it works out.

Drink on!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Horror Off-Season: Asylum Blackout

I don't have too much to say here, but since I had put it on the to-do list I should make an entry about it.

The Incident was released in Europe in 2011 and released in the U.S. in 2012 as Asylum Blackout.  It was Alexandre Courtès', formerly one half of the music video directing duo Alex and Martin, feature directorial debut.  Despite the English script and American cast, this seems to be part of the New Wave of French Horror that has been making quite an impact lately.  The movement seems to be characterized by gritty realism, extreme graphic violence, and a left-field psychological twist ending.  That last one is mostly just my observation from the few movies I've seen.

Asylum Blackout is set in what looks to be the late 80s in an asylum for the criminally insane.  It focuses mostly on the kitchen staff at said asylum, who are also in a band together.  Their relationship is oddly antagonistic for people who are supposed to be friends, although they do have some good moments where they show that they really are looking out for each other before the insanity begins.

The inciting event here is that there is a very bad storm raging outside that blows out the power at the asylum, which for some reason has no backup generators and I think like 3 security officers.  The lights go out, which for some reason triggers a group of inmates led by Richard Brake (he played the creepy pervert in the Doom movie) to riot.  They free all the other inmates who proceed to brutally maim and murder the staff.

Most of the meat of the movie is really dark, with a lot of contrast.  It makes everything look really sharp and dangerous which lends to the unsafe atmosphere they seem to be going for, but it also makes it really hard to follow sometimes.  I quickly found myself disoriented and lost.  I didn't know where we were in the asylum, who people were, or what they were trying to do.  I was just watching "things" happen.  It led to me losing interest and realizing I missed huge swaths of movie that I would then go back to try to rewatch, only to realize I'd actually seen these parts but couldn't tell the scenes apart.

The gore is really convincing and uncomfortable and the setups for the tortures are really deranged.  I was doing a lot of "'t do... oh.. just... ew."  But that's about all it was.  There's no motivation to the inmates' actions except to be cruel and violent, so the writers may be trying to make some point about the senselessness of violence.

The film seems pretty well put together, narratively, but the low lighting made it hard to follow.  The extreme brutality without purpose thing has really become quite boring to me at this point, and while I would call it horrific it's just not what I want out of a horror movie.  The very end of the movie is also one of those left-field moments that I don't think anyone saw coming.  I guess it's supposed to be showing that George's shattered psyche has trapped him forever in some hellish nightmare version of his workplace because of what happened.  It's a bit confusing, but probably my favorite part of the movie because of how surreal it is.  It's bizarre and actually creepy, instead of just shocking.

If it's your cup of tea, it's probably a very fun watch...but you've been warned about how weird the ending gets.


Monday, July 9, 2012

Horror Off-Season: Absentia

So I have no idea where I first heard about Absentia, or why it took me so long to get to watching it.  I'm now grateful to the Netflix shipping glitch that delivered the DVD to me a few days early because after the mind-bending story and gnawing questions of Prometheus and the brutality and left-field ending of Asylum Blackout... Absentia was a breath of fresh scares.

Absentia is an indie horror movie written and directed by Mike Flanagan and released in 2011.  And it is one of the best put together indie movies I've seen.  It's not without flaws and you can definitely tell it didn't have much of a budget but the movie looks excellent.  The soundtrack is practically non-existent but it serves to accentuate the uncomfortable sparseness of the movie.

The basic plot here, trying not to give too much away, is that 7 years ago Tricia's husband Daniel vanished without a trace.  7 years later Tricia is still living in their apartment directly across the street from a pedestrian tunnel under an overpass.  She's devoted the majority of her life over the last 7 years to searching for Daniel, as evidenced by the opening shot in which a very pregnant Tricia replaces tattered Missing Person posters around the neighborhood with fresh ones.  Tricia's sister, Callie, arrives to help her finalize the paperwork declaring Daniel "Dead in Absentia" and move to a new place.  The emotional strain is causing Tricia to have nightmares and hallucinations of a ghastly Daniel with sunken eyes and a gaping silently screaming mouth.

During the days Tricia makes arrangements while Callie goes jogging.  On one of these jogs she almost trips over a beat up emaciated stranger played by Doug Jones.  This is Walter and he's the first hint we get of a larger plot involving the tunnel.

This is how most of the rest of the movie plays out, Tricia holds the plot thread of Daniel while Callie holds the plot thread of the tunnel.  The threads are mostly separate until the sisters come together near the end.  After a massive reveal/twist at about the halfway point, the movie becomes a very different kind of supernatural thriller.  This 2nd half focuses more on straining the character relationships that have been developed.  The movie also starts to tie in existing fairy tales into its mythology, giving it a real urban legend quality.  The movie ends with a heroic sacrifice that unfortunately was for naught and closes with a similar sequence to the opening bit with the Missing Person posters, making everything nicely circular...although really depressing.

I really like the scares in this movie, there were pretty slick looking and the editing worked well.  There were lots of shots where it seemed like there were two Daniels and that was pretty cool.  I also really liked that they weren't punctuated by the sound track in that face-smack way a lot of movies do.  I loved the scares in Insidious partially because of the soundtrack, but here it would have seemed silly and out of place since the entire movie is presented with a massive sense of restraint when it came to focus, lighting, and soundtrack.

Absentia isn't a perfect or amazing movie, but it is really good and a nice change from the increasingly violent horror mainstream.  It's a great tragic story with well executed scares.  The camera work and soundtrack create a atmosphere of brooding depression and strained emotions that really gets under your skin and sits with you for a while.  But the cop characters are so awkward they almost don't seem like people.  There is an odd subplot involving Doug Jones' character and his son that I wish had gotten more fleshed out, especially given the time they spent with it in the first half of the movie.  I felt cheated when it got downgraded to "supporting evidence" status.  It's well worth watching and the scares were so good they almost kept me up at night.


Monday, July 2, 2012

I'm on the latest Downloathable Content!

Just a quick update:

I'm a guest commenter in this week's Downloathable Content podcast from  Gamertagged is a gaming blog run by an old friend from college, and still hosts the archives for the GameLandEtc comic I used to color.

For this episode I discuss horror games with Chris and Matt and totally guess the name of a Christopher Walken movie wrong.

Check out:
Downloathable Content #004

I had to finally cave in a buy a headset microphone, this one's pretty comfortable and sounds good.  The on-ear controls are a little odd, but it kindof makes me feel like a comm officer in a movie: