EGX 2015 – PlayStation VR, Kitchen Demo

PlayStation VR
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The Morning after the Fright Before

Picture the scene. You groggily come to, bleary-eyed, and find yourself in a dark, grimy kitchen. You try to get up and move, only to discover that your hands and legs are bound with rope to the chair you’re slumped in. The unblinking glassy eye of a camcorder stares back at you from atop a creaking tripod, recording your every wince and struggle against your restraints. A dishevelled man in a dirty suit lies sprawled out across the greasy tiles, and you can’t tell if he’s unconscious, dead or somewhere in-between the two sorry states. A typical morning after the night before in Huddersfield, you might say.

But no, this isn’t the morning after a particularly sordid night of bacchanal northern excess, or the opening to a new SAW film, but rather the opening to Kitchen, Capcom’s virtual reality horror demo for Sony’s PlayStation VR. While in Birmingham for EGX 2015, I got the chance to try out this sleek blue-tinged helmet to see what Sony is bringing to the virtual reality table…and find out what horrors were waiting for me in Capcom’s scary scullery.

Though I’m still yet to be truly swayed about VR gaming in general, from my hands-on with Kitchen I can safely say that there are some very cool things to be excited about if you’re even just the slightest bit interested in the marriage of horror and virtual reality. Particularly so if, like me, you’re also a cheery masochist who happens to enjoy having virtual sharp pointy objects thrust close to your virtual eyeballs from time to time, Dead Space style. Oh yes.

Before we get to the juicy bits though (quite literally in this instance) it’s time for a quick recap on Sony’s VR device itself. Initially revealed to the world at the 2014 Game Developers Conference as Project Morpheus (named after the Grecian God of dreams, and sadly not Lawrence Fishburne’s pill-popping pugilist), PlayStation VR is an in-development virtual reality visor designed for use in conjunction with the PS4 and due out in the first half of 2016. With a 1920×1080 display capable of running at speeds of 120fps, it’s a beefy piece of kit, and one that many of Sony’s first and second party studios are busy creating games and experiences for. There’s already a fair few decently fleshed out VR demos that are currently available to play on the device, many of which have been doing the rounds at previous events such as E3 and Gamescom. Sony followed suit with EGX in the UK, and so the usual suspects such as The London Heist and Battlezone were among the titles available for people to try out over the course of the event.

Sadly, due to the way the public appointments were scheduled, you couldn’t actually choose which demo you’d like to try in your PlayStation VR demo slot. Instead, it was simply down to the potluck of getting whatever demo just so happened to be free at the moment you strolled up for your allotted time. Luckily for me however, finding out that I’d be sampling Kitchen was pretty much the ideal personal scenario; after hearing Lucy O’Brien positively detailing her experience with the demo on the IGN AU Pubcast, I was keen to strap on a mental apron of bravery and check out this kinky kitchenette simulator for myself.

There’s an Onryo in My Kitchen, What am I Gonna Do?

Kitchen

Okay, so here’s how things played out. After an extensive wait in a Sony holding pen (seriously), I’m eventually collected, stripped, sheared, hosed down and deloused (not seriously) before finally being seated for my demo session. As my demo assistant carefully adjusted the PSVR unit for my noggin, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the PSVR headset is way less bulky and heavy than I expected. Although the only other hands-on experience I’ve had with VR tech was with the Oculus Rift earlier in the year at March’s Rezzed event, I can’t exactly remember an awful lot of how the Rift physically felt on my head, but that’s most likely because I was having a lot of fun running for my virtual life in the fantastic Monstrum at the time, but I digress. Having said that, the PSVR felt both lighter and comfier than the Rift from what I can remember. Of particular note is the fact that Sony’s headset has an adjustable slider to set the position of the internal cushioning around your nose and eyes, which is great if you’ve got a bit of a wonky ol’ konk like mine.

With eyes, ears and proboscis all sealed in my virtual sarcophagus of headset and headphones, it’s finally time for the fun to begin. A brief title screen appears, which is quickly replaced with the decrepit kitchen of my first paragraph. I’m told to hold my hands out, and shortly after I feel the warm clammy contours of a DualShock 4 placed in my palms – nice. I’m then instructed to keep hold of the controller with my hands loosely held together in my lap (to simulate being kinkily tied up), and to gesture forwards with it to begin the demo. I thrust my hands forward, clattering the camera tripod to the floor, and an unfortunate set of events are slowly set in motion.

So yeah, you’re sat in this grungy kitchen (think something along the aesthetic lines of The Evil Within‘s environments and you’re on the right track), and for a while, nothing happens – which is good, as this gives you ample time to have a good look around. Looking down at my virtual body, I see that yes, my hands (and also presumably my virtual feet) are trussed up, hence my current immobility.

However, unlike my virtual body, my physical one is under no such restrictions, so I can actually turn round in my seat and get a 360-degree view of the room. It’s hard to overstate just how impressive this basic motion is, even though it’s an extremely basic tenet of pretty much any VR experience, but it really is quite something. Even though it is sort of immersion breaking in this instance – surely if these bonds are loose enough for me to fully rotate around in my chair, I could wriggle out of them in no time right?

Another small point on the visuals was that while the overall fluidity of motion of PlayStation VR was very slick, the picture quality of the display did seem a tad grainy and fuzzier than what I had previously experienced in Oculus. This may well have just been a visual filter added for a gritty horror aesthetic in just the Kitchen demo itself, but it was hard to say for sure.

Anyway, I’m just nit picking here – time to go back to the demo. Eventually, the man on the floor slowly starts to get to his feet, looking dazed, confused and, perhaps most importantly, not hostile. In fact, he looks scared. No idea why though, as nothing has clearly gone wrong already, and surely nothing could continue to go wrong in a kitchen in such fine upkeep as this. Nonetheless, he picks up a rusty knife off the floor and gestures for me to hold out my hands – AKA the controller – that he can cut my bonds. Gulp.

As someone who gets a bit queasy thinking about things like wrists being in close proximity to rusty knives, this next section is a tad uncomfortable to say the least. Holding up the DualShock 4 doesn’t really feel like holding one’s bound hands together at all, yet somehow the sensation of holding the controller out in front of you whilst your eyes are simultaneously seeing your virtual hands held aloft in the visor is surprisingly immersive.

This immersion becomes even more effective when this dude starts hacking away at the messy tangle of rope lashed between your wrists. Seeing the blunt knife slip and slide through the thick ropey cords in quick jerky motions suddenly makes what you’re seeing feel all the more tangible and distressing. It’s easily one of the more uncomfortable bits of the demo, and it still makes me feel a bit queasy just thinking about it now as I write this. To make matters worse, with no warning at all, suddenly a ghostly Onryo woman raises up out of the floor behind your rescuer and shanks him up pretty badly before cutting off his head. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

From here on out, the final minutes of the demo involve this Hisako lookalike fiendishly toying with you in a number of dastardly ways, the most memorable of which happens in another uncomfortable section where this ghastly ghoul slowly points the business end of the knife closer and closer towards your eye. Even though it’s an ancient 3D film cliché at this point, it’s still effective and really unsettling to see something come within inches of your face. There’s a few more moments of her scuttling around the room while you rapidly try to locate her position, but eventually, a cold grey hand covers your eyes from behind, and it’s game over man. Game over.

Ghosts Versus Cockneys

VR Dude

The PlayStation VR unit in use by a bearded Zelda-loving chap (AKA not me), wielding a pair of PlayStation Move controllers, probably for The London Heist. Cockney rhyming slang not included.

So, what did I think to PlayStation VR and Kitchen? Overall, they’re both pretty neat. The PlayStation VR unit itself is an impressive (and surprisingly comfortable) piece of tech, and though it’s just a basic demo at this point, Kitchen certainly does make a compelling case for full-on VR horror experiences very nicely indeed. But…

Okay, so I’ve got a couple of issues here. First, there’s the classic problem of VR motion sickness. Just like with the Oculus, PlayStation VR it’s a device that seems to quite frequently make a significant number of its users feel sick, including yours truly. I started to feel pretty queasy only a few moments into the Kitchen experience – definitely from motion sickness I might add, and not the grimy aesthetic of the demo – and I continued to feel pretty grim for some time afterwards. Although Sony claim that the fast refresh rate (120Hz) of the PlayStation VR greatly reduces motion sickness in comparison to other VR headsets, I personally didn’t feel any noticeable difference on a user level and quickly found my stomach roiling with waves of nausea in no time at all. But hey, this technical wizardry is beyond my tiny little pea brain, and I’m sure this is the sort of the thing that will eventually be solved given the inevitable march of progress, technology and time.

Secondly on a software level, although Kitchen was a lot of daft fun, it wasn’t really what I’d consider an interactive experience by any stretch of the imagination. The only sort of interaction the game required of me as a player was to roughly gesture forwards with the controller on two occasions – that’s it. It’s immersive and visually impressive certainly, but Kitchen is basically just a short VR horror film. Not exactly the killer app you’re looking for in a new piece of gaming-specific hardware, right?

Perhaps if I’d got to try out Sony London’s The London Heist for example, my opinions here might be slightly different. In that game, I’d have needed to duck and crouch on the spot in reality in order to pop in and out of virtual cover in the game, and use PlayStation Move controllers to point and shoot weapons at incoming enemies. That’s while I’m also Benny Hill slapping burly Statham-like skinheads on their shiny domes, slurping down great salty bowlfuls of jellied eels and yelling “Cor blimey mate, get down them apples ‘n’ pears, faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaackin’ ‘ell!” between each briny mouthful of moray. Typical video game stuff, in other words.

Yeah, I know, it’s pretty standard faire to want to shoot endless hordes of goons in a video game, but at least The London Heist‘s gameplay actually requires a significant level of interaction from me as a player, as opposed having me sit still as a passive observer like in Kitchen. A VR experience like that with a few basic mechanics and gameplay elements in play might have sold me on the use of PlayStation VR as a serious gaming platform, and not just a fancy supplementary VR cinema contraption. The small vignette demos and experiences on the PlayStation VR right now are very cool and exciting, but personally I need to see something more involved, more interesting and way more interactive to seriously consider buying a finished retail unit in the future (I’m looking at you, No Man’s Sky).

Speaking of which, there’s the cost issue. PlayStation VR is certainly a flash and exciting device for the PlayStation 4, and going forward we’re probably going to see Sony put a much greater emphasis on its VR headset as a premium way of enjoying its burgeoning catalogue of games. But damn, what a premium it’s going to be. The latest news on the pricing is that PlayStation VR will retail at somewhere around the $300-$400 mark, after Andrew House (President of Sony Computer Entertainment International) suggested to the press that the headset would have a price point comparative to the cost of a new next-gen console, and would be marketed as such. That’s one hell of a lot of money to spend on what’s essentially still just a console accessory, no matter how revolutionary it may be.

Obviously, developing this VR stuff is expensive – I’m an idiot (that’s a given) but I do understand that developing tech like this costs a lot of money. Hell, you could even say that the headset being priced at the equivalent of a new console is actually cheap considering how advanced this VR visor actually is. But the fact remains that $300-$400 for a secondary PS4 device is still a hefty price tag for the average consumer, no matter which way you cut it.

However, even with all those whiney concerns of mine, there’s still an awful lot to be excited about with PlayStation VR and the whole VR industry in general. If you’ve read this far (you poor misguided sod), you’ll have no doubt realised by this point that one of the inherent problems with trying to explain all this VR stuff lexically is that it’s a massive injustice to the whole concept. Particularly when it’s an idiot like me who’s the one typing all these lexemes out for you to read. VR is an experience which you really have to see for yourself in order to grasp it’s full potential – you have to get your head inside a VR unit and nearly have your eyes poked out by a knife-wielding wraith to see why it’s such an exciting concept. It’s way more fun than it actually sounds, trust me.

While I personally think a great game will draw in and immerse a player in its world regardless of whether they’re experiencing it with a VR headset on their cranium or not, I’m sure that one day VR will probably be the way most people experience and play video games. It’s a cool and exciting future, definitely, but I think for most of us, that future is still a way off from being a practical and affordable reality any time soon. In the meantime, I’m happy to be stabbed by ghosts and shot at by Cockneys in the place where I’ve always enjoyed those activities – on the TV. Now where did I put those jellied eels…

Tim Newsome-Ward & Darren Flowers Interview (Desktop Daydreams)

The Corridor
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Life after Kickstarter: Catching up with The Corridor

Around this time last year, I happened across a rather interesting indie horror game called The Corridor: On Behalf of the Dead. Developed by Bradford-based indie studio Desktop Daydreams, it’s a 3D first-person horror game coming to PC and Xbox One, and, if I may say so myself, I think it looks pretty damn cool.

You haven’t heard of it? Allow me to bring you up to speed. The game places you in the shoes of Ri Anderson, a Custodian (think a neurological Sherlock Holmes mixed with equal parts Judge Dredd and Inception‘s Dom Cobb and you’re on the right lines) who has to enter the mind of a suspected murderer and navigate through their various memories to get to the truth of a (probably rather grisly) murder case. This process of entering minds and poking about with their memories is facilitated with the use of a special program called The Corridor (think The Matrix‘s VR program, only with less gun-blasting lobby scenes and designer sunglasses and more creepy monsters and mind-bending madness). As the name might suggest, the program displays the suspect’s mind to the Custodian as a virtual corridor, which acts as a hub area from which the player accesses the various scattered memories of the subject. I say scattered, because the order in which they are accessed is randomised each playthrough. The player has to navigate their way through mysterious mental echoes to find important clues, avoid creatures and gradually build up a case of evidence in order to make a final judgement on the suspect at the climax of the game.

Sounds neat right? Intrigued by the game and its curious cognitive concepts, I previously spoke to the game’s Designer, Tim Newsome-Ward, on the eve of the game’s August 2014 Kickstarter campaign to find out more. Although the game generated positive media coverage, was selected for Steam Greenlight and picked up plenty of new fans along the way, in the end the project sadly didn’t reach its minimum funding goal. Since then we haven’t heard much from the Desktop Daydreamers, and to an outsider, it looked like the lights might have ultimately been switched off on The Corridor for good.

Thankfully, I can tell you right now that this is definitely not the case. I once again met with Tim and his colleague Darren Flowers, Desktop Daydream’s Creative Director, to talk about what’s new with The Corridor, and it sounds like things are very much full scream (sorry) ahead.

Pig Head

“It’s a been a tough road,” laughs Tim good-naturedly as he nurses a hot cup of coffee, “We’re still going strong even though we’ve had a rollercoaster ride at the beginning of this year.” It’s a bright sunny Bradford morning when I meet Tim and Darren, and in contrast to their pleasant and cheery company, the nice weather and the plush furnishings of Waterstones’ cafe, I’m about to learn just how dark and tough this rollercoaster ride through the harsh reality of indie development has been for the tiny two-person studio. I kick things off with a rather unsophisticated opening question; what happened next after the Kickstarter failed?

“We had to think positively,” Tim recalls. “Steam have given us the okay, so we thought look, let’s keep working on the game keep pushing as far as we can.” Their resolve to keep going in the face of adversity is even more impressive when it’s revealed that the team’s programmer left the project at the end of last year. “We got to Christmas, and then our coder Chris left, so we lost our technical side. As a designer I’m part technical and part arty, and Daz is full art on the creative side of things, so we just thought oh shit!” he laughs. “We’ve known Chris since university, and we mean no disrespect to him; he had other things to do and his own financial concerns to deal with. He had to move on. We still talk to him and he’s still interested in working with us at some point, but basically he couldn’t dedicate the time that we needed and that’s fair enough.”

Chris’ departure inexorably forced the team into the unenviable position of having to find a new programmer – fast. “Everything we’d done up to that point was just a prototype, there were no solid or fixed frameworks; everything was hashed together to get a playable idea down. What we really needed was someone who could come in and tackle the engineering side of things. Someone to come in, take the reins and tell us what we need to do from a tech standpoint. We were humming and hawing for ages, but eventually we just turned to the community to see if there was anyone who liked the idea. We set up a post on the Unity forums at the beginning of this year which contained a few screenshots and the basic premise of the game.”

Little did they know however, that their programming soulmate was just around the digital corner. “We got tons of replies from coders, so it took a while to sift through all these applications. Eventually, we contacted Tony Li from Pixel Crushers in the States – he’s been fantastic as he bought into the whole idea and just gets what we’re going for completely. There was just something about Tony that made you know he was going to deliver; he was very much to the point and he came across with a lot of confidence. He was really good because he just knew what we needed and was totally professional. We sent Tony the GDD (Game Design Document) and he read through it and said what would work and what wouldn’t. We actually ended up ripping out more or less everything we’d started with and started again from scratch.”

On top of the personnel setbacks, another big concern from a technical standpoint was the game’s engine. Up to this point, The Corridor had been developed using Unity 4, but the release of the shiny new Unity 5 engine in March 2015 posed an enticing, but costly temptation for Desktop Daydreams. “Unity 5 had just launched and we thought wow, that looks nice! We’d already built a lot of the game in Unity 4 by this point – we had about five or six full levels finished and looking nice with the physically based shading kit, so we set these up in another test project and started converting them over to Unity 5.”

The decision to move things over to the newly announced Unity 5 was a particularly agonising choice for Darren. “I went kicking and screaming into Unity 5!” he laughs. “I didn’t want to do it at all, because there’s only two of us tackling this side of the game, so to completely changeover from Unity 4 to 5 would be a lot of work. We’d both put so much time into the game already, but were at a point with Unity 4 where I think we’d pushed it to its limits.”

Nevertheless, as Darren explains to me their visual aims for the game, it certainly sounds like all the extra work that went into migrating the project over to Unity 5 was well worth the trouble. “The main thing we had to be sure of was that it would be visually acceptable. We’ve set ourselves quite a high mantle – we’re not skimping anywhere, and if there’s something that doesn’t look right then we do it again. At first, when opening what we’d already made in Unity 4 in the new engine, it didn’t quite have that ‘wow’ factor, despite all the new shaders, lighting and textures in there. Now though, there’s nothing of the original game left – we’ve rebuilt everything, and it all just looks totally different and so much better now. We’ve worked on levels where we’ve completed everything, and then decided it’s not good enough, so we scrap everything and start again. It can be quite tearful binning something that you’ve spent the past six months working on, but we’ve had to do it because we want the game to look and feel the best that it possibly can.”

Basically, we started the whole game again, and reassessed everything,” Tim adds.With the new lighting, everything has this new realistic look to it because of the new physically based shaders and stuff, it works really well. It feels a lot more in line with other games that are already out there, but it’s going to take more time yet. We’re getting to a point where in the next few days we’ll be at the Alpha stage, all the in-game systems and mechanics are present and working. We’ve still got to do a lot of work in terms of getting levels and memories working, and getting the actual gameplay of those levels up to scratch, but because all the base frameworks are in place that will be a lot easier now. Looking back, we’ve done the right thing moving to Unity 5 because we think that we’ve got a much better game now as a result.”

With a new programmer in place, and the migration from Unity 4 to 5 well underway, Desktop Daydreams’ next move was to seek out potential publishers. Tim and Darren reached out to Microsoft, specifically their ID@Xbox program, who were quick to help step in and support the game. “We thought about what we needed to do next and decided to approach Xbox One and the ID@Xbox team. Having been Greenlit on Steam gave us a bit of leverage, and Xbox shipped us through the ID@Xbox onboarding process really quickly. We’ve got the XDKs, they sent the kit out really fast. It was really surprising and nice because they wanted to see a bit of the game, some screenshots and what figures we’d got from Steam. They were really good and supportive – it was like wow, we’ve got some kit from Xbox, even though we haven’t really got anything solid to show yet! I think they just saw the idea, thought that it was good and decided to get us onboard.”

Understandably in light of the tumultuous events, the game’s release window has now been delayed to Spring 2016. “Originally, we were aiming to have the game out by Christmas of this year, but with all the setbacks with losing staff and upgrading to Unity 5, it’s pushed us over into next year. I think towards the first quarter of next year, around April-ish hopefully. It’s going to be another few months before we get to Beta, but once we’ve signed off on the Alpha and we’re happy with everything, the Beta will progress pretty quickly as it’ll just be a case of building levels, building the gameplay in those levels, getting the story working and then testing it all. Testing is a big phase though, so we’re thinking of trying a closed Beta. We would like to do an open Beta, but with the game being so story-focused, we don’t want the narrative to get out there and onto YouTube before the finished thing is actually out and ruin it for people. We might release some specific playthrough videos or small slices of trailer footage, but it’s tricky because of course we want people to play it, but we also don’t want to give away the story. When you’ve only really got two people working full-time on a game and you’re going for top quality on all parts of it, then it does take time. It’s all part of the cycle of development; it’s been hard work, but we’re getting there.”

“We’ve been working on this for so long, and we’ve had such a knockback with the changeover to Unity 5 – all those events have put us back at least six months or so at least – that we don’t want all the people who helped us get through Steam Greenlight to forget that we’re still bringing this game out,” Darren earnestly attests. “Hopefully the game will have matured a lot, and it’s now just about giving us the time to get the finished thing out. But hey, these things happen when you’re making your own game with basically just two people and no budget!”

Without a central office for the team to work out of, there’s also a pressing need to keep morale levels up amongst everyone on the team. As well as Tony, Tim and Darren also regularly collaborate with animator Andreea Lintaru, but due to both geographic and chronological concerns, it’s hard to find time when everybody is free to touch base. “I think for a team to successfully work virtually without an office, everyone needs to be self-disciplined and have that drive to get up and do what you need to do,” says Tim. “Otherwise, you’re going to lose motivation and it’s just not going to work. Thankfully though, the DIY attitude of indie development certainly seems to have focused the team’s ongoing efforts, and kept them a close-knit group. “We’ve been working on the game for over two years now. We’re such a small team for a project of this scope and we’ve got to do everything ourselves. It’s an exciting process, but in terms of finance we’re running on fumes really. It can be a strain at times, but that’s also part of the fun of it all; you can only rely on yourself to get everything done. Daz tackles the creative side of things and I do the design, Tony writes the code and Andy animates. It’s how it is, you’ve got to learn what you need to do and just get things done.”

Spider Man

With the main pieces of Desktop Daydreams’ story over the last year in place, our conversation moves onto more specific details about the state of The Corridor itself. As a story-heavy singleplayer horror game with a mixture of linear and non-linear parts, I’m keen to hear how they still plan to get these potentially conflicting narrative elements working together cohesively. “We want it to be different to your typical linear video game story even though you’ll play it linearly with junction points where you’ll be able to choose your path,” Tim tells me.

“We had an idea first that when the player moves through these memory booths, you’d end up in a completely random level, but we decided that to get it right it just wouldn’t be a practical thing for a team of our size to do. So instead we decided to come up with a set amount of levels and really, really polish them.”

Interestingly, Tim explains how they have looked to real world brain psychology for inspiration when designing the structure of these in-game memories. “How would you access the memories in somebody else’s mind? Would you randomly access these memories, or would they come to you in some sort of structure? Could you travel back through that mind again and go to a different memory? Thinking in terms of the science behind real life memory engrams, we don’t really know how they work or how they are stored in the brain, so we built that idea into the in-game science and lore of The Corridor. The game might give you two hatches to go through, each taking you different ways – so that concept plays into how this virtual mental corridor is structured. We came up with the idea to have these branching points where you have to make a choice, and then once you’ve played through a memory, you’ll go back to the main path.”

“As you choose your own path through the game, you might do or see something in a memory that might influence how you perceive the story, and your decision process might be completely different if you went another way. You are going into these different memories at various branching points, and although it might feel disjointed along the way, when you get to the end you’ll be able to look back and piece it all together.”

While we’re on the topic of jumping into people’s minds and rooting through their memories and whatnot, I ask how the process of integrating Oculus Rift support is going. Unfortunately, although the whole premise of The Corridor makes it an ideal fit for VR, sadly it sounds like things are still at an early stage here. We haven’t got any of the Oculus kits at the moment,” admits Tim, “but we’ve also not really been at the stage where we felt like we needed one just yet. It’s still something we really want to do though, because I think it adds to that feeling of immersion we want. We’ve been building the levels with a 60fps target in mind, so things have already been optimised a lot for VR. It’s a time consuming process, but we’re getting there.”

Aside from the general narrative concerns, another big challenge for the two developers is designing a horror game around the personal and mutable tastes of its players. “We’re trying to scare people – that’s our main aim really, but it’s such a subjective thing. What do you do exactly?” Darren muses.

“Creating a universal fear is a very hard thing to achieve,” adds Tim. “We’ve done a lot of research into different types of horror, and ultimately fear is a relative thing to each person. People take their own personal fears and experiences into the games they play. Jumpscares are probably going to be a scary factor for some people, but we don’t want to overuse them as a mechanic.”

“A lot of games rely purely on jumpscares, but I find that once I’ve had one or two thrown at me then I just quickly get used to them,” interjects Darren. “It’s about keeping that fear in the player throughout the game. We’re almost trying to get people frightened of themselves. They might walk into a room and see something and make a decision based on what they’ve seen. Later on, it might turn out that they made completely the wrong decision, and we might try to make that realisation a bit upsetting. We want people to be aware of what they’re doing within the game’s environments all the time. Getting that idea to work within a horror framework is quite hard.”

“That’s why a lot of horror games don’t work, because they probably don’t have that level of fear to them.” Tim reasons. “It’s all about getting that uneasy feeling of being somewhere you don’t ever really feel comfortable. Some horror games are largely about the combat and the blood etc., but for us I think the important word isn’t so much horror, but fear. One of our main points of reference which we always go back to is Silent Hill. That first game had that feeling of constant dread, you never really knew what was coming, you never felt safe at any time – that’s the atmosphere we’re aiming for. It’s not necessarily about being anxious of dying, but rather capturing that feeling of tension and discomfort and sustaining it throughout an entire game.”

Darren suggests that a crucial factor in effectively creating and sustaining anxiety in the player is the aesthetic design of the world. “A lot of that goes back to the environment design. For example, one of my favourite bits from the first Resident Evil is the part where you move the bookcase in the Dormitory and go down into this flooded chamber just before you reach Neptune’s Aqua Ring. The creepy music playing in the room before you get to the flooded lab was so effective and it just sent shivers up and down my spine. It’s about creating that sense of fear and eeriness and having it pervade throughout the game continuously; We’re trying to create similar moments and memories in The Corridor that will hopefully stick with players for a similarly long time.”

“I think above all, you’ve got to capture that feeling of the unknown, so we want the environments to be as diverse as possible. They might throw unexpected things your way, so it’s not just about what you’re seeing and what you feel, but also questioning the nature of the spaces that you’re in as well. Am I actually in this environment or is it something else? One minute you might be outside, one minute you might be in something very cartoony, but they’ve all got that element of horror running through them, that similar atmosphere of fear that we’re after. Silent Hill did it with the radio static; if you were near to a creature you’d get the static crackling through on the portable radio. You might not even be able to see what you were close to, but it still sent that shiver down your spine.”

Silent Hill has not only inspired the team artistically, but also in regard to what elements aren’t necessary for The Corridor – such as a combat system.

“The only thing I didn’t really gel with in the game was the combat. You’d find a creature and have to batter it to death with a dodgy stick! It just felt like it was taking something away from the mood for me,” Darren reasons.

That’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to put combat in The Corridor,” Tim affirms. “A full combat is not in the game because we’re trying to keep things true to the story of the game. The player’s character is attached to a machine that connects them to another person’s mind, and you’re entering their thoughts and walking through a virtually constructed representation of their memories to see what they’ve done and to find evidence of a potential crime. Would you really be there to fight things? Would you be there to shoot and kill? Your character is more of an observer, but would you still have to defend yourself from this other mind? We’ve gone through all these questions so many times! Thinking along those lines, we’ve come up with a scenario where you might come across a gun or weapon, but it might not be necessarily for shooting something or someone. If you fire off the gun, then you might actually just ruin the puzzle it was the solution to.”

Having said that, the team has experimented with the idea of a combat system to see how it could function. “We’ve temporarily got guns in the current game at the minute actually,” Tim reveals. “You can run round and shoot at stuff as part of a test mode we’ve built, and it is quite cool to have those weapons in there to see what combat in the game would be like. But we’ve got to be realistic and remember that to build an entire combat system with such a small team and to suitably balance the levels to accommodate combat would be a real strain on our already limited resources. It’s also a question of whether the game actually needs all this stuff?”

Darren jumps in right away to answer. “I don’t think it does. I remember playing Doom 3 for the first time and I was petrified. There was a time where I walked through a dark room and I could hear something breathing next to me, and when I got a tiny bit of light in there I could just see this bloke stood next to me! He didn’t do anything, but still, that moment was very creepy! The moment the combat started though I just lost interest in the game as it was not really what I wanted anymore. I really liked that emphasis on the fear element, I liked the uncomfortable feeling that you got from the characters and the environment.”

Angel Statue

I get a particularly insightful look into Tim and Darren’s different design philosophies when the topic of Konami’s cancelled P.T. comes up in our chat. Specifically, it’s talk of P.T.‘s metagame puzzles which sparks up an ongoing debate the two developers are still currently working through for their own game about how much help should be offered to the player in a game via the user interface. Darren wants to create a totally immersive experience in The Corridor, one that doesn’t overtly direct or influence the player by highlighting items or displaying textual hints whatsoever.

I like that feeling of total immersion where there’s just the barest minimum of UI elements present to guide the player. I like to know what I’m doing in a game without being explicitly told what I’m supposed to be doing. For example, if you see an item such as a book, if it’s part of the game you might be able to interact with it, if it’s not, you can’t. I don’t like it when you walk into a room and you’ve got two or three objects that you’re obviously supposed to interact with and they’re all shining brightly. Personally, I’d rather have those items not so directly indicated to the player,” he says.

On the other hand, Tim would prefer the UI to subtly call out important items and offer additional information to the player when necessary. “It’s about finding that balance. A lot of games will highlight important items in the game world, and we’re trying to work out what the best method is of calling out important items to the player. Do you highlight or put a glow around an item, do you change the cursor to a hand icon when it’s hovering over it? Do you put important items in more light, do you design that room in such a way that the items stand out? Do you make them aesthetically pleasing, or do you put a little red carpet running right up to each thing? There are good examples of this in games like Bioshock, where important primary narrative items had that golden glow to them, where secondary pickups like ammo and audio diaries had more of a subtle silvery shimmer. If you’re going for a totally immersive experience though, where the idea is to put the player into the game as if they were actually there, then you don’t want to have those sort of effects present. It’s a hard thing to get right!”

Darren suggests that a careful ‘less is more’ approach to the level and item design is vital for such a stripped down UI to work. “Basically it means that you’ve got to put less clutter in a room. If you put too many things in one area and people are searching absolutely everywhere, they will likely get bored, so the trick is to put less items into the environments but make them more meaningful and clear.

It’s fascinating to see how the two guys go back and forth on this tricky issue. Ultimately, they tell me that they’ve decided to go with a traditional UI and hint system, and give the players who want a hands-off experience the option to turn all UI hints off. “In The Corridor, we’re going to put the option in of being able to turn off visual hints in the user interface, so if you want you can play through without any overt visual feedback to guide you through the game,” elaborates Tim. “It’s been a point of contention, but some players will want that sort of fully immersive experience, while others will want more direction.”

“At the same time, we don’t want people to get totally stuck, to the point where it becomes frustrating. If the player has been working around for five hours and just can’t find the solution to a puzzle then you can just turn the hints back on again. I remember playing games like the original Tomb Raider, where I’d be looking for a missing cog puzzle piece for about four or five days! By that point I just didn’t want to play anymore, but then once I finally found the missing cog it was simply the best thing ever!” he laughs.

As we finish our coffees and our conversation draws to a close, Darren speaks about reconciling the contradictory schools of thought around what constitutes good indie game design. “I was reading something the other day on Facebook from Ga-Ma-Yo where one lad was giving some advice, which was basically when you make a game you need to make it for yourself. Then somebody else said no, that’s totally wrong, you need to make it for everybody! I think we’ve done a bit of both; we’ve made a game that we’d like to play but we’ve also tried to do a game that other people would really want to play as well.

Tim echoes his sentiment. “We have to be realistic. It’s bad to say it, but we’re running a business, we’re trying to make a living doing this, and you’ve got to consider the market. You’ve got to make something people want to play, something that people will want to pay money for. When you’re an indie developer, you’ve got to do something a little bit different to put yourself out there, and people will pay for quality. The good thing is that now we’ve got all the core mechanics working, it’s more a case of just building assets now and getting them all working correctly. The end product will hopefully be something that gamers will absolutely love to play.”

At the end of the day,” Darren laughs “we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t love gaming. It’d be great to get a game out there that we were involved in that people enjoy. But loads and loads of money would also be alright as well, I’ve got a wife and two small children to feed!”

Here’s hoping 2016 goes plain sailing for Desktop Daydreams. You can follow Tim and Darren’s progress over @desktopdaydream on Twitter, and keep an eye glued to their website and Steam Greenlight page for the latest updates.

Jaime Cross Interview – Team Junkfish (Monstrum)

Brute Attack
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If for some tragic reason you’ve been locked in Davy Jones’ sub-aquatic locker for the past two years, then you might not be aware of Monstrum, the brilliant and brutally addictive horror game from Dundee-based Team Junkfish. Let me fill you in on the details while you splutter up all of that rancid seawater.

In development since 2013 and approved for Steam Greenlight program in March 2014, Monstrum has proven popular with horror fans since the game left Early Access in May of this year. The game is essentially a massive nautical nightmare; you find yourself trapped on a decrepit 1970s cargo ship, with the rest of the crew nowhere to be found. Well, sort of – it depends on what exactly you classify as ‘the crew’. Unfortunately, it soon transpires that you’re actually stuck on board with a monster who is only too happy to make your acquaintance…before it mercilessly crushes/eats/twists your head off, naturally.

Your goal then is pretty simple; repair one of the three escape vessels by collecting the necessary tools and get the hell out of dodge. So far, so Slender, you might say – but wait, there’s a twist. What sets Monstrum apart from the majority of its creepy collectathon rivals is the fact that it’s a roguelike with extensive procedurally-generated systems in place. Every time you fire the game up, you have no idea what the interior structure of the ship will be, no idea where the specific items you need are located and, perhaps most importantly of all, no idea which of three different monsters is currently hunting you. With no one layout to memorise or a single strategy to master, the pressure can quickly ratchet up to ridiculously high levels as you desperately try to make your daring escape. In the words of Scooby Doo‘s Shaggy, “Zoinks Scoob!”

Monstrum is a harsh, demanding but incredibly rewarding game of hide and seek on the high seas, and one that’s had me gripped (like a monster slowly crushing the life out of a frightened, isolated sailor perhaps) since release. Keen to learn more about the game and its dastardly delightful design, I reached out to Jaime Cross, Team Junkfish’s Director and Audio Designer to talk about monsters, audio design and the exciting multicultural future of the horror genre.

How did Team Junkfish originally form as a studio, and what’s the story behind the cool name?

Team Junkfish came together in 2011 at Abertay University. In the third year we had to do a big group project – they have a lot of big briefs from Microsoft, Sony, Disney etc., but students also have the opportunity to form their own team and present their own idea. They can pitch it to the lecturers and if it’s good they’re given the go-ahead. Back then, there were currently nine members of what would become Team Junkfish, and they wanted to do this big idea but they were told they were probably not going to be able to do it unless they got a sound guy. So they pitched for a sound person in front of the entire year, and I just said “I’ll do it, aye!” and that was kind of it. There’s been ten of us ever since, and it’s coming up on four years now in total that we’ve been working together. It’s scary when you think about games companies and the way they can come and go, but yeah we’ve been doing this for four years and we officially became a company two years ago now. The Team Junkfish name came from when we did our first big prototype, and it was basically a giant flying mechanical whale, and we just went “Yeah, let’s call it Junkfish!”

Your previous projects FooFoo and DinerSaur were aimed more at children and younger audiences. What prompted the shift to darker, more adult material, or was it just a natural evolution of the team’s creative urges?

Originally the FooFoo game was part of the Samsung Student Developer Challenge, so we put it together mainly for that competition. We did quite well – we got a lot of press out of it, which was very cool. DinerSaur was made for the Dare to be Digital competition a couple of years ago, it was a cool augmented reality arcade shooter. The game itself was technically made just by six members of the team (then known as Prehistoric Spatula) over a period of nine weeks. That included three programmers, two of the artists and me doing the audio. We had thousands of people come by and play it, and after that we sort of decided “So what do we actually want to do now?” Everybody pitched in with ideas, and the one that we thought seemed the most interesting and doable was Monstrum. It was more of a diplomatic way of moving forward rather than an impulsive choice of “Let’s just do horror games”.

Where did the original idea for Monstrum come from, and what were the main influences throughout the game’s development?

The original pitch was basically what would happen if you mixed The Binding of Isaac with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We ran with that concept for a roguelike horror game, something that would be replayable over and over and where you’d never get the same jumpscare twice or anything like that. That was the main emphasis that we were working on – to make a really replayable horror game.

What was the reason for situating Monstrum in the 1970s? What is it about that time period and aesthetic that was crucial to the look and feel of the game?

With regard to the game’s setting, the designer decided that with landlocked locations – such as the usual horror game tropes of hospitals and asylums – not only are these environments overused, but theoretically you could also just break a window, escape and you off they go. However, if you’re stuck on an abandoned ship out at sea then you have to escape in a more specific way, because otherwise you’re probably just not going to meet a great fate otherwise! (Laughs) As far as the ’70s aesthetic went, it was down to a mixture of things. In the original concept for the game, the player was supposed to be exploring an old ship but one that’s set in the current time period. It’s since shifted from that obviously, but generally we just thought that it was an interesting aesthetic that hasn’t really been done all that much. We thought it would be something that would make the game stand out that little bit more.

Hunter StairsYou’ve previously described the Monstrum experience as ‘Alien on a boat’ but interestingly you suggest that the player’s experience is more closely aligned with the character of Captain Dallas rather than Ripley. Can you elaborate a bit more about this distinction?

It was one of those weird things where we thought yeah, ‘Alien on a boat’, that’s a really great way to describe the game. Then Alien: Isolation got announced and we were just like “Fuck!” It kind of put a bit of a dampener on us all; we thought we were screwed. This new game is coming out, it’s going to look amazing – we’re done. However we gradually started to pick ourselves up after that and reminded ourselves that actually no, Monstrum is probably going to be quite different from Isolation – we’re aiming at different markets, let’s just keep going. We were at EGX Rezzed in 2014 and Creative Assembly were also there with a big Alien: Isolation booth set up with VR headsets, so we got a good chance to compare the two games there. That was quite reaffirming, as it showed us that they were different enough.

The focal point of the Ripley/Dallas character comparison was based around that sense of impending doom that surrounds your character in Monstrum. Namely that Ripley survives her alien encounter and makes it through the film as a survivor, whereas Dallas doesn’t! We wanted to apply those feelings to the players; that you’re not Ripley, that you’re probably not going to make it out of this. You’re just going to have to get out of there as best you can and try. I think that was the basis for comparing the two characters.

I understand that you prototyped Monstrum as a board game first before moving ahead with the bulk of production. How was that as a testing experience, and did it highlight any issues about the game that you hadn’t previously considered up to that point?

It was very, very loosely tied into the game and really strange, but it did give us a feel for how the real game would eventually play out. Essentially it was a singleplayer board game where you had to move through the randomly placed corridor pieces and rooms to find the random items potentially hidden in them. We had all these different systems going on, but some of them didn’t carry across all that well because they were based on dice rolls and stuff like that, but in terms of generally planning out whether all this would work as an actual game, it really helped us look at different issues we might not have properly considered before. How should things be placed? What speed should this monster travel at? How easily should it be able to find you, or chase after you? Little concerns like that eventually become much bigger things once you actually start to develop the game and are really important, so having that sort of stuff trickle down into the final thing was pretty useful. It’s stuff that we’re doing again now as we’re prototyping new ideas – paper prototypes are still very important.

Did you ever have any ideas about including randomised sea conditions in with all the other procedurally-generated elements of the game, or would that have been just a technical nightmare or simply not fun for the player?

Yes we did speak about having different environmental conditions as part of the experience. Things such as large-scale environmental fires – you can manually set small fires in the game with the fuel cans, but we wondered what if they could break out around the ship itself? Or what if you had some decks which were flooded and now underwater? We even talked about small things such as whether to have the ship rock back and forth, but ultimately it was one of those things where in the end we decided that it would be a nice idea, but it really wasn’t that important and far too much work for the little return it might give. They were all good ideas, but ones we couldn’t really make viable. Also, on the topic of having choppier seas, because we started Oculus Rift integration very early on, that was one of the big things that made us think having a rocking ship wouldn’t work well and potentially might just make people feel even more sick! (Laughs)

Notes

Speaking of Oculus, how is the VR integration coming along? With the game already out at this point, how do you plan on making VR functionality feel like an integral part of the experience rather than just a bolted-on extra?

We’ve been working on the VR integration right from the beginning of the project, developing for Oculus Rift alongside the game since we started in September 2013. It’s not like we finished the game and just decided to stick the Oculus stuff on it and then start again from scratch. So in that sense it’s been really good, we’ve been aware of any issues that we need to address, and we’ve been going back to fix them as we’ve been moving along.

Our programmer Stephanie has been getting all the VR stuff sorted; there’s a lot of weird things that you might not consider when designing for VR, such as user interfaces and post-processing effects. Elements like that don’t really work the same way in the Oculus because of the stereoscopic screen. Getting that sort of stuff working has been quite difficult, so she’s done a lot of iteration on the UI systems and solved some weird clipping and animation issues. It’s all these little weird problems that you might not consider all that much until you run into a wall and you can suddenly see through the entire ship – that is a bit of a problem!

The concepts of player agency and responsibility are particularly well implemented in Monstrum – how did you manage to balance the game’s difficulty so that it works well for both brand new players as well as expert ones?

A lot of this stuff came about from simply doing lots of playtests to see if people wanted another shot – yes or no? If players came from a background of having already played roguelikes such as The Binding of Isaac and knowing how those sort of games work, then they could quickly adapt, learn and experiment through dying. The main issue came from people coming in from the opposite end of things who hadn’t played a roguelike before. They would go “What do I do? I don’t know what to do with this thing! Nothing is telling me anything!” We didn’t want things to be hand-holdy; Monstrum is very much a difficult game, and we say up front that it is hard and you will die quite a lot. So we iterated quite a lot on the initial tutorial room which basically just says “Here’s some stuff, this is what you use it for, press these buttons for interactions”, but beyond that you’re on your own. You have to explore, you have to check your journal to see “How do I solve this situation? Ah, I need to need to find X, Y and Z to escape – okay, got it.” The main thing that we were looking to build into the game was that as long as the player learns something from each death, it doesn’t feel like a complete failure on their part. It’s stuff like that where if you’re new to the game and run into a new monster, you don’t know what it’s going to do so it’s about picking up on its behaviours. On your next run, if you get the same monster again, you’ll then have a better idea of how to deal with it. Picking up important information like that is very cool, and interesting to see how different people do it.

Hunter Attack

Have you been surprised by the ways in which players go about tackling the various monsters and escape routes? Have there ever been instances where you’ve seen players do something totally unexpected?

Yeah, there’s been quite a lot of those instances just because of the way the game is built. The procedural generation is one thing, but the monsters are all AI-driven, so there’s no real pre-set things or scripted things that happen as a result. There have been a few instances where I’ve seen players carefully following a plan, and then suddenly BANG! A door suddenly just flies through the corridor and you see them freak out! This also goes on in the Team Junkfish office itself, especially with the Oculus Rift testing. You just see people go jumping right out of their chairs! It happens at trade shows as well, so it’s been fun to see how people take to that and all the different instances that can happen. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody have the same exact runthrough, which has been our main thing, our overall objective. It’s a very emergent experience; we hear people telling their own stories about how they would be trying to find a particular item, and then out of nowhere this intense chain of other events kick off. I think that’s an interesting thing in games in general. Being able to give people that opportunity to have their own version of the same game is pretty cool.

Brute Grab

The way you have designed the monsters according to various forms of fear is a really interesting concept; the animalistic rage of The Brute, the claustrophobic paranoia of The Hunter and the cruel psychological mirth of The Fiend all come across really effectively in their designs. Can you talk about the inspirations behind each monster and what went into designing their unique AI behaviours?

In terms of the monster designs, we’ve always had those three basic archetypes in mind. The Brute is big and chunky, triggering your primal fear response when it’s chasing after you. Then you’ve got The Hunter which is the thing lurking in the dark making creepy noises, and then The Fiend which is the sadistic psychological one. Even when we didn’t know exactly what the monsters were going to look like originally, we’ve always had these design concepts in mind; we basically thought about what each one’s going to do, and then expanded out from that. The Brute was the first one we built because technically he’s the simplest. We built a lot of the backend AI work around him, and then adapted it for the other monsters to make sure that it worked for each of their unique behaviours. It was interesting to see it change up, especially when it came to stuff like The Hunter, because he’s completely different from the other two monsters in that he’s not really available on the ship and instead he pops out at you from the vents. It was interesting to get those systems all working together, especially from the audio perspective, to make sure that they all tied into the ship and the environmental sounds. You might hear a rumble and be able to identify it as the monster, or you might not and think “Oh no what was that? What do I do now?”

The Fiend

On that topic of encountering a new monster, you ingeniously put The Fiend into the game disguised as part of a routine lighting update. I’m guessing you must have heard some crazy horror stories of people encountering it for the first time?

We snuck it in just to basically beta-test it and see what we thought. Then we saw people on forums just going “Why are the lights going weird? What the hell is this thing?” and all that sort of stuff. We saw videos where people were just freaking about this strange new thing that had just killed them, and calling us sneaky bastards – we were just like “Yes, yes we are!” So yeah, it was pretty cool and it gave us a decent opportunity in Early Access to see how people took to it and tighten it up a bit more before release.

The in-game notes dotted around the ship allude to a spawning ground from which the monsters were presumably collected – is there a possibility that we’ll get to see this area in a future game?

We’ve talked about future stuff, and even if we’re not necessarily doing a direct sequel, it’s something that we’d like to keep continuity wise. It’ll be interesting to go back to it in a future game, even if it’s not the next one. We’ve created this little world, now how can we expand on it? We’ll see.

Sparky

Any chance we’ll get to go up against the original test monster Sparky?

I’m not sure! It’ll be interesting to see if we can polish and change him up a bit more, and see what else he can bring to the table. I’ll mention that to the team – “Hey we’ve got a half-finished monster here!” (Laughs)

You’ve been using Ableton as your primary digital audio workstation throughout the project. What is it about that program in particular that appeals to you over Cubase/Logic/Pro Tools etc. and what VSTs and plugins do you tend to favour when working?

Ableton was one of the things that I was taught when I was at college alongside Pro Tools. I was mainly using Pro Tools going into university but it just kept crashing too much, so I decided “No, go away I’m using Ableton!” That was basically it, there was no big overarching decision to it and since then I’ve been using Ableton for the past four years nearly exclusively. As far as VSTs and everything goes, for a lot of the sound design in both the music and the game itself, I basically used a lot of Ableton stock stuff. Their granular delay is really cool – I’ve used it quite a lot on various different things, and it’s just a really weird sounding delay which stretches the sounds out – it’s weird to describe without letting you hear it, but it was one of the ones I’d always go back to. It was just basically a lot of the standard Ableton tools that I used, nothing super fancy or expensive. I’ve got some Waves stuff that I’m sometimes using in newer projects, but when it comes to stuff like EQs or compressors, I’m still find myself going back to Ableton because I know their tools so well. I know exactly how they affect sounds so I can get them to work really quickly. I suppose that’s me being lazy and not learning new tools to a degree, but it’s also down to familiarity of speed. There’s a trade-off there I guess.

The game’s soundtrack is an interesting blend of atonal textures layered with creatively melodic noises and effects. How did you approach the composition process for Monstrum?

A lot of the music wasn’t necessarily instrumentation as much, but rather a lot of sound design and manipulating samples. All the monster themes were built around that idea.

For example, with The Brute’s theme, I really wanted to focus on it being driving and pulsing because he’s this big physical thing charging after you. That’s a lot of percussive elements with a strong drumming pulse going on, which also ties into the creature’s fire elements too. There’s actually an engine loop playing on the track which I basically warped out of time, then pitch stretched it in Ableton to make it into a constant triplet rhythm. So you’ve got these two pulsing rhythms running through the track which give it this chaotic chase feeling. Then there’s other sounds like steam screeches and stuff like that going off in the background which are basically samples where I was pitch shifting them to have them sound melodically in tune.

Another VST I made use of was Camel Audio’s Alchemy. That one was really cool, but unfortunately it doesn’t really exist anymore. It allowed you to sweep through various presets, and it had the two XY pads which are similar to Ableton as well so it meant you could do really quick automations and stuff like that. It was very handy, especially for The Hunter’s themes where I used it quite a lot.

For The Fiend’s themes I ended up using one of the Max for Live plugins called Granulator. It’s an interesting granular synth that reads little bits of a WAV file which you can then stretch out and control how many times they’re repeated. Once I’d composed the Wander theme I simply dragged it into that synth to use it as an instrument. I ended up using the Wander and Chase theme as three separate instances, so that was interesting.

You’ve mentioned before that Silent Hill‘s composer Akira Yamaoka was a big inspiration for the soundtrack. What is it about Yamaoka’s music and compositional style that appeals to you?

There are a few different things which come to mind. Looking just at his music on its own, it’s the way he uses sound and samples to create that signature feeling of his. Like with the original Silent Hill soundtrack, it’s dark, gritty and very industrialised, whereas the later ones sort of become slightly more melodic. You can sort of see a different musical feel in the other games from that point on, but he still keeps that familiar really oppressive feeling across the whole series. When you’re hearing his music in the context of the game, it just works so well with all the stuff that’s going on. One of my favourite Silent Hill moments is the final Pyramid Head encounter from Silent Hill 2. There’s those big screeches and crunching sounds playing which mirror the movements of his knife and helmet, but then you’ve got this eerie choir coming in behind all that which gives the scene this sort of otherworldly, god-like feeling. It’s moments like that where he uses those sounds and contrasts really well together which I find pretty cool.

When designing the diegetic sound effects, did the procedurally-generated room reverb systems make your mixing process easier or more complicated?

It was a mixture of both really. Some things we made quite dry, such as footsteps, but because of the way our system worked, in some cases we had to pre-bake the reverb onto specific effects. The reverb in the game engine is mainly for spatialisation – making an effect sound like it’s actually in that area and space you’re currently in. There were some sounds which didn’t play well with our in-game reverb system, such as the environmental rumbles I mentioned earlier for example, so in those cases we had to pre-bake all of the reverbs onto those sounds and give them all different distances and drop-offs and things like that. Sometimes you just have to do one or the other really! (Laughs)

I particularly enjoy the small changes you make to the music as the game progresses, such as the way the main Wandering Alone on a Ship at Night theme will irrevocably change once you’ve encountered the monster for the first time.

It’s one of those things where I didn’t think it felt right for the music to sound the same after the player experiences the monster for the first time in a game. The way you’re now perceiving the game world is different, and so the music should reflect that change. It was one of those things where musically you’re almost starting from a blank slate, but then after the first monster encounter it should change and morph into something else. You know what you’re up against now, and you want to carry that feeling across in the music even when it’s not there onscreen. That’s what I wanted to accomplish with changing up the wandering themes.

You wrote a really interesting blog post which explores the fallacy of the ‘game audio as 50% of the experience’ adage. Why do you think that audio design is overlooked in a lot of games design, and what can be done to better integrate the process with the other design disciplines?

I have this personal philosophy about world building when it comes to games. I think everybody should work together to make a cohesive role as opposed to everybody doing their own little thing separately and hoping it’ll all come together and work somehow. In other words, there needs to be plenty of back and forth on everything – conversations like “What’s the monster design in terms of the art team’s perspective? What does it do design-wise?” I see what I can take from those discussions and make music from them basically. Rob Bridgett talks a lot about this design approach in his book, Game Audio Culture, which is definitely worth reading. He writes about this sort of stuff and how we should improve game audio workflow, and just game workflow in general. It’s a really interesting concept and I really hope it carries forward.

It’s one of those things where people will have a lot of appreciation and nostalgia for things like game music, but they might not necessarily understand how it actually works in the context of a game. A lot of the time, other members of the team might just say we need a sound effect for a specific thing, but it’s very much a black box situation. They’ll tell the audio designer what they need, but not talk about what they’re doing, and the audio designer will just make the effect and say “Here you go, does it work?” Again, communication is the big issue, and it’s essential in order to have programmers, artists and designers understand audio designers workflows and vice versa. It’s about seeing how you can come in from the audio side of things and how you can influence your fellow designers, how they can influence you, and making sure that when you’re trying to explain stuff to them, they’ll actually understand what you’re saying and not get confused with really weird technical jargon. I think that’s where a lot of the issues lie. With artists and programmers and designers, they have this shared lexicon where they can probably speak to each other roughly but they might not know the technical nuances of everything. However if I started speaking about things like parametric EQs, they’d all just be like “What is that? What does muddy mean? I have no idea what you’ve said…but okay!” (Laughs)

Yeah I suppose it’s hard to express some of those sonic qualities accurately from a linguistic perspective. It’s similar to trying to describe the minutiae of a particular part of the colour spectrum to another person; what might appear as a bright red to my eyes might look more like a reddy-brown to yours.

Yeah, it’s all about understanding the implementation process. When it comes to getting the right ‘feel’, a lot of people will say they really want an element to feel a certain way, but getting it to that point is not necessarily down to just making the right sound effect. You can make the effect so that it sounds good on its own, but when played in the game, it might jar with everything else that’s going on. Things are getting a bit easier with middleware programs like FMOD and Wwise, which are opening things up a bit more. We actually didn’t end up using anything like that in Monstrum for the final game, but we did use it for prototyping early ideas, which made it a lot easier for me to explain the various systems to programmers. I just had to set up all the logic and explain that this is how it works; these are all the music things, if you trigger this element, then this will happen. Even using it for non-traditional methods like that, it’s still really handy, and learning those tools is really useful for anybody who wants to do game audio and game music.

How do you see the future of Monstrum going forward? You’ve successfully released the game through Steam Greenlight and it’s now out there in players’ hands – do you consider the game to be a completed project now that you’ve left Steam Early Access, or as more of a platform you can go back and add new content to over time?

Well we did say we’d get the Oculus stuff out, so once that releases then the game’s technically ‘finished’, but it’s one of those things that’s never really finished as such. There’s lots of stuff we’d like to add in, or maybe even things we could go back to and patch up, but it’s just a case of having limited time and resources to actually do these things. That’s the unfortunate reality of the situation which has kept us from just going “Yeah let’s keep working on this and adding loads of extra monsters” and stuff like that. It’s a shame really, but we’ve got other projects that we’re trying to do as well, and I suppose we have to make sure that we can keep roofs over our heads!

As far as future plans go, I’m not entirely sure right now. We’d like to add more stuff, even if it’s just smaller things, but we’re just sort of seeing how things pan out. We’ve got a few bits and pieces of work that we’re doing just now to keep us ticking over while we’re sorting out new prototypes and all that sort of stuff. We’ll see how it goes, but we’d like to anyway.

Any thoughts about porting Monstrum to PS4 and Xbox One?

We’d really like to, but it’s another question of resources, and figuring out all the necessary backend stuff. If we speak to somebody at Microsoft for example, it’s working out whether they actually want the game on their platform and all those sorts of other hurdles. Hopefully though – it’s one of those things where if we got the greenlight to do it we probably would, but getting there is still quite a lot of work. Maybe!

Nightmare BonnieWith the rise of streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube, do you see traditional horror games becoming something of a rarity in the future? In other words, do you see traditional solo horror experiences giving way to more community-based spectator sport experiences?

I’m not too sure. An interesting game to watch out for, especially in that regard, would be SOMA. I’m hoping it does really well and it does still prove a point that you can make these horror games that are primarily singleplayer experiences that you’ll want to really immerse yourself in and go through by yourself. At the same time though, I don’t think group/spectator-orientated horror games are necessarily bad. Things like Five Nights at Freddy’s have done really well, and every time I’ve seen [creator] Scott Cawthon speak about the games he’s basically said look, this is my work – if my games don’t appeal to you, they will to someone else. A lot of people complain about the rate at which he’s producing his games, but from a game developer perspective I think it’s really clever, because he’s got all this extra stuff that he adds in with each new game. It’s not just another churned out sequel with the same content, there’s more things going on in each new one; he might need to develop extra systems and stuff like that, but a lot of the same signature backbone is there every time. In that respect, I think he’s done really, really well off the back of it, and the way he’s kept the continuity across all four games is impressive as well. Reading all he’s posted about the series, he comes across as very humbled by it all and grateful for his fans – a genuinely nice guy. People are obviously engaging with that series and really enjoying his games, so there’s room enough for all types of horror games to co-exist. So Five Nights at Freddy’s might be a great horror game for one audience, whereas Silent Hill, Amnesia, or say something like Clock Tower might be more to the tastes of another. They’re all different horror games but they’re all horror games in their own right.

I suppose they aren’t mutually exclusive categories are they really – like you say, horror is now such a broad genre that there’s now games available for pretty much every particular niche.

I think the more interesting thing to look at is the different types of horror that will come in to the genre from other cultures. Japanese horror games are obviously quite big and they’re based on their own culture’s thoughts and considerations of what horror is, and the same goes for their films too. When films like Ring and Ju-on get remade as for American audiences, they didn’t really have the same sense of horror to them. They still work as basic horror films, but not in the same way; there’s this feeling that some crucial part was lost along the way. It might just be people insisting the Japanese versions are better because they were the originals, but other people might say that there’s slight translation issues and influences that aren’t as apparent culturally to western horror audiences as they would be to Japanese ones. That’s why those films might be way much more terrifying for Japanese audiences than western ones. In that respect, I’m sure there are horror things things we have in British culture which aren’t necessarily applicable to America or anywhere else in the world.

Dreadout

Seeing new horror games exploring different cultures of horror will be really interesting, especially with the advent of major game engines like Unity now going for free. This democratisation of game engines allows smaller teams or even individuals to make their own games – Digital Happiness, the Indonesian developers who made DreadOut are a good example, and seeing titles like that coming out of countries you might not expect is very exciting. There might already be a really thriving scene there, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s going to be really cool to see all these different aspects of horror, or even brand new genres coming out of these different cultural elements. A lot of people moan that this means we’re just going to get a load of random people flooding Steam trying to sell a load of random crap. While it’s kind of true on one hand, on the other it enables people who might never have had the opportunity to make their own games now have the means to get stuck in. Instead of just rushing something half-baked out, they could take years working on their magnum opus before finally releasing it; it might be this really good game. Look at people like Tom Happ with Axiom Verge for example. He was doing everything himself on that game, and when it came out people just thought it was absolutely amazing. People always seem to look at the negatives rather than the positives when it comes to things like an abundance of Unity games appearing. We used Unity for Monstrum, and other companies much bigger than us have also used Unity to great effect, it’s a powerful engine. Lots of people don’t seem to consider that however, instead just writing off anything on the engine as just another random Unity game. It’s a shame. I guess it’s one of those things – if you don’t like these games, then don’t play them – but people like complaining I guess!

What’s next for Team Junkfish then? Any plans to revisit Into the Sky perhaps?

Right now, we’re prototyping two different projects. One of them is completely different to Monstrum, while the other one has a couple of similarities, but is still quite a bit different. I’m not entirely sure which one we’ll be pushing ahead with, but hopefully we’ll have that sorted out in the next month or two. Into the Sky would be interesting to go back to, but it’s one of those things where we’d have to start from scratch again and look at the core idea and ask ourselves can we rebuild it. If these prototypes pan out then we’ll hopefully announce something next year. One of them is very similar to Monstrum, so hopefully we can capitalise on our success as well as learn from our mistakes.

Hunter Sub Escape

Are you looking at going through the Steam Greenlight process again for these projects, or have you considered crowdfunding it through Kickstarter etc.?

Greenlight is a weird thing, in that Valve have been saying for a long time that they’re planning to get rid of it, so we’re not really sure what the deal with that would be. It might be a case of having to go through the Greenlight process with new projects anyway, or it might already be gone by that point – we just don’t know. It’s the same with Kickstarter – we don’t know if we need to do a Kickstarter, and if we did that then there’s so much planning that needs to go into that. Now that’s a scary thought! (Laughs)

Fiend Attack

Monstrum is out now for PC, Mac and Linux.

Piotr Ruszkowski (OhNoo Studio) Interview

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I recently played through an awesome 2D point and click horror adventure game called Tormentum: Dark Sorrow and, to cut a long story short, I really enjoyed it. Successfully funded through Indiegogo in August 2014 and launched on Steam in March 2015, OhNoo Studio’s game is a dark and surreal journey through a nightmarish land, complete with disturbing demons, forlorn figures and bioorganic backgrounds. Curious as to what exactly inspired all this grotesque horror and melancholy, I reached out to Piotr Ruszkowski, Tormentum‘s artist and co-designer, to ask him a few questions about his career, the creation of OhNoo and Tormentum, and what monstrous muses lay behind his haunting but beautiful creations.

How did you first get started in the games industry, and what were your early inspirations?

Well, all of OhNoo’s crew previously met at an educational company and our job was to create educational software including games. The games were rather simplistic and aimed only for local distribution, but they were the means for us to learn to work together as a team. This helped us a lot later on when we tried to do our own little project for tablets. This wasn’t a game in the true sense of the word, but rather just an app, but it was a small step to larger ideas for the next projects like Tormentum. So I like to say that we have come a long way in our evolution. During that process, we have been inspired by many successful independent developers out there like Amanita Design and their Machniarium and Botanicula games. They proved to us that it’s possible to make something beautiful using limited resources. We knew at that time that we wanted to make an adventure game because we weren’t able to do anything else gameplay wise, so we focused on making story driven games.

Tormentum Team

How did you meet Łukasz and Grzegorz, and how did OhNoo come together as a development studio? Also, where did the name come from?

I’ve known Łukasz for many years, we’ve been friends since highschool. We went to different universities but we met again in the same job in the educational company. Grzegorz joined the office to work as a programmer later on, and we all worked in the same room for five years. When the company started a reduction process and fired many workers, we decided to stay together and make our own projects. The name ‘OhNoo’ was the result of a joke we shared during an annual event integration of the past company. We liked the simplicity of that name and decided for it to be the official name of our team.

Door Creature

What was the initial inspiration behind Tormentum, and what made you decide to make a 2D point & click adventure game specifically?

I was creating the Tormentum world almost two years before the actual development of the game took place. Back then, I wanted to make a dark collection of works for my personal portfolio (I had only 15 works at the time) but then I realized that it would be much cooler to have a whole game in such a style. So it was a starting point for us to clarify more details about what genre it should be or how to build an interface etc. The point and click genre was perfect for images to be exposed. Of course I had to prepare them for the parallax effect which needed foregrounds to be cut out from backgrounds etc. but the motion effect was totally worth the effort. The end result was 75 game backgrounds and hundreds of zoom-in screens.

Desert Statues

You’ve listed the painters H.R. Geiger and Zdzisław Beksiński as main influences on the game’s visual style. What is it about their surrealistic art that appeals to you as a creator and artist, and why do you think it still resonates strongly with people today?

In my opinion Beksiński and Geiger were focused on showing fear, death and suffering in their paintings. That is what I wanted to share with the audience as well in Tormentum, so I was strongly inspired by these artists. The aspect of metaphysic is somehow present in Beksiński’s works which also strongly resonates with me. I think that people appreciate their art for similar qualities.

Embracing Skeletons

The game’s world draws from an eclectic visual mix of sci-fi, high fantasy, steampunk and body horror – genres that traditionally don’t always fit well together, yet somehow you’ve successfully managed it with Tormentum; the game has this unique feel and identity to it as a result. How did you go about incorporating all these various styles and blending them together so cohesively

First of all the world of Tormentum is very dreamlike, so I could go crazy and put whatever I wanted in there. Of course I had to stick to a decayed sense of style, in order to kept it coherent. I was guided by my personal rule that the player must be entertained and not be bored, so I was thinking about how to surprise the gamer to keep her/him motivated and rewarded once she/he finds new locations. So I focused on creating stuff that was both cool and interesting for myself, but also hoping that it would also be interesting for the players as well.

Mine Creature

In the process of designing the levels and backdrops, did you have to make any compromises from your original artistic vision? For example, did you have to simplify any areas to make levels easier for a player to navigate, or make areas more complicated to better serve a tricky puzzle design?

Of course! It’s a natural part of the designing process. Sometimes we would have a puzzle ready first and then I’d have to create a background for it, other times it would vice versa. Sometimes I had to add something to support a riddle, but I must say that we didn’t do any drastic changes or throw away any of prepared graphics simply because we cannot afford to. I remember some stages that needed tweaking a lot to serve as a cool puzzle chamber such as the weight puzzle with the guard in the background or the mine level with wagons. There were a ton of changes.

Castle Chamber

Did the game’s dark story come about as a result of the art style, or did it evolve separately to the visuals?

The world and the whole setup came first and the story was thought out later on. When we were designing the game we had some core ideas for the story, but the finer details had to be hammered out later on. I was loosely inspired by movies like What Dreams May Come and others – especially those about underworlds. At one point we had a dedicated writer who was responsible for the script but he was just not reliable and didn’t deliver his work on time so Łukasz and I had to take care of the story and dialogue ourselves. It was a tough task because we aren’t trained writers.

Grey IcariTormentum reminded me of Silent Hill 2 in the sense that the various creatures and characters you encounter are all visibly suffering and pitiful in their own way. What challenges did you face in designing the creatures and characters in such a way as to get the player to sympathise with them rather than feel revolted?

I didn’t particularly wonder about how the players would receive the characters in the game when I was creating them – it was too early for that. Rather I was focused more on making something interesting, and that was the most important factor for me at that point. Later on, I sat down with Łukasz and thought about how to shape an interesting character with their dialogue. Sometimes it cast a whole new light on them. I think we did a good job with some characters – like the Rat for example. He was the most developed personality from the entire cast of our characters in my opinion, because he was quite an important NPC in the story.

Tower Beast

Having read that you’re a fan of From Software’s Demon’s Souls, I was quite nervous when first playing Tormentum as to whether clicking on the various creatures would cause a death or fail state. While I’m glad the game doesn’t punish the player’s curiosity in this way, was there ever any talk of including a similar cruel but fair trial and death mechanic in the game?

No. The From Software inspiration in Tormentum comes only from a visual aspect of their games. We thought about raising the difficulty of the puzzles during the development process, but in the end we didn’t want to frustrate the players; I wanted to make more of a streamlined and smooth adventure game with awesome 2D graphics. The punishing methods in Dark Souls are great, but in adventure games it could be a pain in the ass! We were looking more at modern adventure games in the Telltale Games’ style for gameplay inspirations.

Eye Socket Puzzle

Personally, I thought you struck a great balance between accessibility and difficulty with the design of Tormentum‘s puzzles. Was this a challenging thing to achieve or did it just come about naturally as part of the design process?

Early in the development stage we had several harder puzzles in the game, but we discovered that they were just frustrating and weren’t fun. We didn’t want to create stupidly hard ones that needed external assistance. We always questioned ourselves – is it fun? Is it enjoyable? If we found a puzzle to be too difficult then we put some helpful hints in, because we wanted players to be able to finish the game without having to break off to check YouTube walkthroughs etc. As for the item puzzles, we always kept in mind the idea to stay as logical as possible. We tried to avoid the usual adventure game tropes of MacGyver-like item mixing and strange illogical item usage. I hope we did it quite well. The main goal in creating this game was to make a sweet and short game that everyone could finish and enjoy.

Cage Puzzle Notebook

I thought the game’s user interface was very considerate to the player in a way that a lot of puzzle games just aren’t. Did the idea to include a virtual notebook for the player come about from your own experiences of playing adventure games?

User Interfaces should be as easy and minimalistic as possible. Notice our game’s inventory placement and its functionality. We have seen many modern adventure games with huge inventories just pop up in the centre of the screen when you click on them. In my opinion, it’s just a terrible design choice because when it happens, I don’t have any room to see where I can match my items on the backgrounds. That is why we chose to move the player’s inventory to the right and make all the items you are holding visible without interrupting the game backgrounds. As for the notebook, we discovered that some of the puzzles might need a pen and paper to solve, so we didn’t want to force people to physically make diagrams on paper in front their computers.

Statue Close-up

The music in Tormentum complimented the melancholic atmosphere and dark visuals incredibly well. I know you’ve already released the game’s artbook, but do you have any intention of releasing the soundtrack?

Unfortunately no, because all the tracks are licensed. Łukasz did a fantastic job of selecting all the tracks to match the atmosphere of each of the locations, and it wasn’t an easy task to do! So yeah I’m afraid we don’t have rights to release a soundtrack.

Your IndieGoGo campaign for Tormentum was a big success – were you pleasantly surprised by the positive response to the game right off the bat?

Yes we didn’t expect anything frankly speaking. It was just a test for us in such crowdfunding methods. The response was positive and very motivational, but I have to mention that the biggest feedback we got was after we released the demo of the game because not everyone treated us too seriously based on just a few images and GIFs.

Is the crowdfunding process something that you’d want to try again with future projects?

Of course! I can hint that very soon we will be back with another project but this time on Kickstarter. It will be a drastic change from Tormentum, so stay tuned. For us, the crowdfunding approach is a great opportunity from a marketing standpoint to let people know about our projects before their release. It is a very important thing in today’s world where it’s hard to be noticed.

TsioqueFinally, what’s next for OhNoo? Can you talk a bit about Tsioque, Snot & Muff and Sky Islands?

Tsioque is a point and click game with cartoony graphics so it’s quite a drastic departure from Tormentum. The main feature of this game is the handmade animation. If you appreciate such craft you will enjoy this game. We were inspired by old classic games like Dragon’s Lair or Heart of Darkness in aspects of their animation and design. We hope it will be an enjoyable point and click game! As for Snot & Muff I can only say it’s cooking away right now. It’s not so much a game but rather a simple storybook as Amelia and Terror of the Night was. It’s just a side project for us. The rest of the projects are secret for now until we’re ready to announce them.

Tormentum: Dark Sorrow – Review

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Eldritch Excellence

Well, it’s safe to say that Polish developers OhNoo Studio certainly know how to subtitle their games. When I first laid eyes upon Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, it was pretty clear that the game was going to be dark and disturbing, but quite frankly, I wasn’t at all prepared for the range of emotions it would make me feel. Revulsion, disgust and grotesquery of the highest order yes, but sadness? Regret? Despair? Surely not.

Thankfully though, OhNoo Studio completely blindsided me with their melancholic masterpiece. Upon reaching the end credits, I felt depressed, drained, but also deeply moved in ways I just completely wasn’t expecting. Tormentum is easily one of the finest point ‘n’ click adventure games that I’ve played, and one that I just can’t stop thinking about long after the credits rolled. Though it’s a fairly traditional take on the genre, the game is nonetheless a wonderfully crafted sombre and poignant gothic tale, woven together with incredible care and attention to detail throughout. Its puzzles won’t perplex you for long and the majority of its morality mechanics are predictable and formulaic, but Tormentum delivers with such confidence, style and finesse that it manages to feel both surprisingly refreshing and hauntingly original.

Zeppelin

Take a look at that picture and tell me that’s not a fantastic opening scene. Bravo OhNoo!

Starting with quite possibly one of the most instantly intriguing main menu screens I’ve ever seen, Tormentum immediately beckons you into its strange and twisted world by enveloping you in the tattered, musty robes of its mysterious hooded protagonist. Awakening from an amnestic dream, you find yourself suspended in a cage from the skeletal underbelly of a rather disturbing flesh-covered zeppelin alongside a fellow prisoner (a rather peculiar rat/weasel hybrid fellow to be precise), with no memories whatsoever of your past, or how quite how exactly you managed to end up in this rather worrying scenario. Yes, that tired old storytelling chestnut I hear you sigh, but trust me and stick with it, as from this well-worn opening cliché, Tormentum crafts a gloomy and intriguing story.

Knight

The friendly knight is only too happy to help you settle in.

Initially imprisoned, our cloaked character feels compelled to escape the gloomy castle he finds himself trapped in after receiving threats of torture-induced penitence, (completely understandable under the circumstances) and embark upon a perilous pilgrimage to a mysterious stone statue out in the wastes. However, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange and perilous land…

Tormentum is a concise nightmarish journey through a dark and distorted landscape, but not one without depth and heart. For a start, the game’s art direction is absolutely stunning. Heavily inspired by the works of H.R. Geiger and Zdzisław Beksiński, the game has a beautiful yet horrific painterly style, incorporating all sorts of hideous body horror elements, hellish landscapes and cruel creatures into its palette.

Desert Statues

From start to finish you’re surrounded by suffering; torture, misery, death and pain permeate each and every screen, and the effect is like journeying through a gruesome gauntlet of Bosch paintings, each one more disturbing and demented than the last. Sepulchral towers of flesh and bone wrench their gnarled towers and screaming buttresses toward the dark stormy skies as if writhing in eternal agony. Grotesque beasts and withered beings cloister in dark recesses, some acting as direct demonic deterrents, others as ominous omniscient observers. Hell, even the relatively humanoid characters you encounter aren’t reassuring in the slightest; often hissing, snarling and sneering at you, or just coldly indifferent to your presence.

Everything feels hostile, desolate and utterly alien, and there’s that familiar sickly combination of loneliness and fevered paranoia in the air that you get when playing games like Dark Souls or Silent Hill 2. At times it can feel like you’re playing an interactive Bergman film; your hooded character roams through dark catacombs, barren wastelands and decrepit mausoleums on an existential Kantian quest for answers in a hopeless, rotting world. In other words, it’s not exactly a laugh-a-minute comedy.

Wall Demon

Strangely though, despite the game’s oppressive atmosphere and visuals, Tormentum surprisingly never slips over into gratuitousness or farce. I found that the heavy mood actually instilled in me a mood of quietly morbid fascination rather than shocked disgust or unpalatable revulsion. The game’s world feels vast, oppressive and completely devoid of warmth, yet somehow it remains fascinating and dangerously exciting to explore. In fact, the closest parallel I can draw to Tormentum in terms of mood and atmosphere is possibly something like the excellent Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem; not in terms of outright horror or psychological frights per se, but that it evoked a similar cocktail of deeply uncomfortable foreboding, tinged with the morbid thrill of discovery.

Mirror Angel

Speaking of morbidity, like a lot of the best horror experiences, Tormentum has that exhilaratingly tense juxtaposition of temerity and trepidation clashing together at all times to drive you deeper into its mysterious world. Interestingly, I found that a lot of this tension came not just from the creepy art direction, but also directly from the puzzles themselves. In particular, the game does a fantastic job of forcing you into making some absolutely gut-wrenching moral choices with the various characters you encounter on your journey. Although a great deal of these choices are largely the sort of typical well-telegraphed binary good/bad nature you find in countless games (i.e. do you kill a certain character or decide to spare their life), their presentation in the context of the game’s heavy atmosphere makes them feel gripping and compelling rather than hackneyed. As the whole world is twisted and strange, it’s never quite clear whether what you’re doing is right or wrong, good or evil, caring or cruel.

Tree

As Tormentum progresses however, there’s a handful of more nuanced interactions which aren’t so transparently labelled as a clear-cut right or wrong, good or evil choices, but rather lie in much more juicy and ethically ambiguous territory – several of which left me extensively agonising over which was the right decision to make for quite some time, let me tell you. It’s here where the game excels, requiring you to make decisions that, at times, felt comparable to Telltale Games’ usual modus operandi. What’s important though is the fact that regardless of how you decide to act in the strange world of Tormentum, the fact that you can sympathise with each and every one of these wretched creatures and sorry souls you encounter, no matter how repugnantly vile, is testament to the game’s minimal yet powerful narrative.

The minimalist ambient soundtrack is also a key part of the experience, subtly contributing a great deal to the game’s atmosphere and mood. Eerie drones, dissonant horns, ominous synths and booming timpani swirl around with rustic guitars, weeping theremins, ghostly vocals and sombre strings to create a warped yet delicately melodic score. It interweaves incredibly well with the visuals, and it’s also cleverly used as a sneaky red herring in a couple of scenarios to completely deceive the player. I won’t spoil how exactly, but the audio design demonstrates an astute and admirably devious intelligence lurking below the soft harmonic surface.

Skeletons Embracing

Tormentum’s rich visual tapestries subtly use clever and deep symbolism throughout. Clever and creepy.

Whilst the game may look like a Dante-esque nightmare you can’t escape, it actually plays more like a lovely dream you enjoy spending time in. At first, on my first playthrough of the game, I often never knew whether I was safe like in prototypical point ‘n’ clicks, or one wrong click away from a grisly death at any time. Luckily for me then, OhNoo Studio wisely focussed on immersive storytelling over implementing punishing trial and error mechanics and the result is a game that relishes and rewards both your company and your curiosity. You’re never punished for exploring; rather, Tormentum encourages the player’s interest, and rewards those who take the time to really poke around in the gorgeously disturbing environments. The level of detail in each disturbingly picturesque scene is incredible, and more often than not you’ll be startled by some small thing you might have missed on your initial observations, or find a helpful detail which might shed some much needed light on your current predicament.

Cube

ITV’s gothic reboot of The Cube certainly had Phillip Schofield a little anxious.

The game’s puzzles aren’t particularly taxing, but neither are they insufficiently challenging, striking a nice equilibrium between intrigue and potential frustration. With the exception of a rather devious musical notation conundrum towards the end, you’ll rarely be held up for long, and you can comfortably complete the game in one sitting. While I can appreciate that this might well be a negative for players who really like to wrestle with a challenging set of fiendish puzzles, I personally I think that OhNoo have managed to get a nice middle ground here that makes sense for the type of game they wanted to make. The emphasis is clearly first and foremost on immersing the player in this strange world and the mysterious characters that inhabit it. Obviously, puzzle difficulty and player immersion aren’t mutually exclusive, but as the game world itself already feels hostile and uninviting, I could see that including some seriously hardcore riddles could easily put players off the game for good. Either that, or I’m probably just an idiot.

If you do happen to get stuck on a troublesome puzzle however, the game does a great job of helping you out without crossing the line into patronising hand-holding. An often overlooked part of any game is the user interface – fortunately, Tormentum has a brilliant one; it’s simple, clear and most importantly, a joy to use – the best part of which is the protagonist’s notebook. Upon discovering any important puzzle clues, your character will jot down the relevant information in its yellowed pages, which can then be later referred to at any time during puzzles etc. This saves you having to tediously traipse back and forth between a puzzle and it’s corresponding solution whilst trying to desperately remember absolutely minute visual detail, or having to write down notes yourself. While I do love that old school DIY aspect of having to keep a pen and paper handy (or perhaps ink, quill and suspiciously-fleshy parchment if you feel inclined to roleplay) when playing a good adventure game, it’s undeniably helpful to have the game provide you with persistent digital equivalents.

Cave Painting

Unfortunately, Tormentum does suffer some pacing issues in the third act, and ultimately the conclusion felt a bit heavy-handed in contrast to the wonderfully ambiguous nature of the rest of the experience. Compared to the nebulous opening, the ending feels more like a contrived deus ex machina; admittedly, although this does sit well with some crucial themes of the game, personally it just felt really at odds with the delightfully indefinite nature of the majority of the experience.

Regardless, it’s the journey not the destination that matters, and upon completing your pilgrimage across the wastes, you’ll have experienced quite the (disturbing) adventure you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. This a big month in the gaming calendar for Poland and the Polish dev scene – thanks to a little game called Witcher III: Wild Hunt – but if you’re more of a point ‘n’ clicker than a hack ‘n’ slasher, then I highly recommend Tormentum. Just remember, as Tolkien wrote:

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.”

Statue

Solarix – Preview

Title Image
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(Played on PC)

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

A question I find myself frequently mulling over is whether I’m more on edge when playing as an armed or unarmed protagonist in horror games. Whilst my personal preference is generally for the unarmed variety, there’s certainly a strong case to be made on both sides of the argument. If you’re playing a title like Resident Evil or Dead Space, then there’s definitely something intensely panicky and stressful about having to make every last shot from your weapon count in order to survive; hearing the chilling empty click of its chamber when in combat can really make your blood run cold. Likewise, when sneaking around in a game like Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Alien: Isolation or Outlast, where discovery is practically synonymous with death, the constant dread and terror of being found with no way to defend yourself can feel like a nightmarish game of cat and (terrified) mouse.

Pulsetense Games’ Solarix is a stealthy sci-fi horror first-person shooter which has clearly been influenced by both stealth and weapon-based horror games. Described as “a science-fiction horror game featuring open-ended levels for both combative and stealth-focused playstyles”, Pulsetense’s goal was to “combine old-school sci-fi horror with next-gen style and graphics”. A hybrid of these two broad approaches then, Solarix has moments where you must hide from enemies, and moments where you must use your limited arsenal of weapons and tools against them. Unfortunately though, whilst the game has some interesting ideas and story themes going for it, the game’s clumsy presentation, awkward stealth mechanics and its overall lack of horror and tension left me in the dark.

Hallway

Let’s start out with the basics. There’s not much of a narrative setup included in the game itself to immerse you into the world of Solarix, but what you do get does the job; you play as Walter, a survivor who’s stationed on a military/research base on an alien planet who wakes up to discover that the base’s inhabitants are slowly becoming infected by some mysterious virus. Contacted by A.M.I., the base’s AI, you’re instructed to go about the steps required to synthesise a vaccine, whilst dodging both infected humans and hostile guards. Along the way though, you’re also contacted by other characters, such as the mysterious Betty; a rather neurotic survivor who alongside telling you that she’s erased parts of your memory also grants you access to weapons and items whilst offering her own warped advice along the way. Not exactly the ideal person you want on your side in a dangerous space quarantine scenario, but hey, you take what you’re given I guess. You pull on your hazard suit and start to explore, twitching with apprehension as you venture out into the darkness.

Bloody Hallway

Unfortunately, one of the first significant issues that I encountered when playing Solarix was that for a horror game, it very quickly loses what little horror and tension it manages to build up in the game’s opening moments. The opening level easily felt the most suspenseful, featuring a suitably tense evasion section against one of the many infected humans who roam the facility’s corridors. While it’s perhaps not set in the most original of environs to be creeping around in – a dark abandoned industrial warehouse – nonetheless it’s familiar horror game territory; you’re unarmed and with no way of fighting back, you absolutely have to play stealthily and stay out of sight.

Courtyard

So far, so good – but the problem is that when you shortly get hold of a gun in the next section, the horror elements are pretty much gone. You walk outside into a rainy courtyard, and the game becomes just a mediocre stealth shooter – but unfortunately one that doesn’t particularly work very well. From this point on, you’re mainly dispatching the rather bland human guards (who rapidly spout their repeating lines of dialogue over and over) as they routinely patrol their posts. Gone is the dread of being discovered; now your aim is to just sneak further into this nondescript base and dispatch the rather dim guards that are in your way. To be fair, being found by a guard does usually means a quick death, but it’s nothing particularly scary or horrific – you just catch a facefull of bullets, and one checkpoint reset later and you’re back in. It’s about as frightening as Perfect Dark or Metal Gear Solid (bad example, the Metal Gear series has some really fucking weird stuff going on in it actually, but you get the point).

Solarix‘s stealth mechanics feel dull and frustrating, and there’s a variety of reasons why – a rather annoying one being that it’s incredibly easy when sneaking through a level to get caught in the environment’s walls and floor textures. You’re encouraged to play stealthily and avoid making direct confrontation (i.e. shooting people), so you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time slowly crouching your way around the edges of the maps, sticking close to the shadows to slink past guards and space zombies alike. However, whilst slinking around, I’d far too frequently end up getting stuck in the ground, walls, objects, practically everything and anything in close proximity to my character over and over again. At one specific checkpoint, I would have to consistently untangle myself from the floor by repeatedly moving, jumping and crouching before I could move on, every single time I respawned. Annoying to say the least, but hopefully these glitchy moments will be fixed by the time the game properly launches at the end of April.

Zombies

When you’re not busy getting trapped in the environment, there’s further frustrations to be had when trying to play like a sci-fi Solid Snake. The taser-like tool the game provides you with for performing stealthy non-lethal takedowns has an interesting design (it only works when fired at the back of your opponent’s head) but more often than not it just feels fiddly and awkward to use. It has an undiscernibly vague range, and there’s no visual feedback to the player with the targeting reticule to let you know if the jolt is going to hit. You have to get right up behind your wandering guard/space zombie of choice, but not too close or they will whip round and start blasting/mauling you. Fair enough, this does add some mild tension back into the experience a tad, but using the taser still felt like a consistently awkward and arbitrary process to me even after several hours of playing.

Strangely though, you’re actually better off ditching the stealthy tactics altogether. It’s actually significantly easier and a far more enjoyable experience to simply forget about the taser and go in all guns blazing. You see, this is one of the more fundamental issues with Solarix; you have no real incentive to play stealthily whatsoever. Rather than bothering to spend time carefully distracting guards with thrown objects or shooting out lights to sneak by, it’s far easier and way more enjoyable to charge through each level whilst gleefully headshotting your enemies like a maniacal madman.

Contrary to the information the game tells you, you actually have plenty of ammunition to take on all threats in the demo, and spare clips can often be acquired from the various storage boxes littered around the levels. It’s a shame, as tighter ammo restrictions would have easily made the stealth mechanics feel much more relevant and tense to the playing experience. Making sure that the player has to carefully keep track of a dwindling supply of bullets would naturally encourage them to opt for using stealthier playstyles…but as the stealth mechanics are so frustrating in their own right, I’m actually quite thankful that Walter is packing plenty of heat in this case.

So, without a serious threat of running out of bullets, you can save yourself the rigmarole of going through the game’s awkward stealthy shenanigans. Even when you re-encounter the space zombies in the third level, it’s easier to just take the opportunity to practice your sharpshooting skills and pick them off from a distance than to bother trying to sneak up on them. Unfortunately though, even shooting your way through Solarix is not exactly a glitch-free walk in the park either. Just like the non-lethal taser, the pistol is plagued with its own particular set of frustrating and obtuse quirks as well. Sporting a vague and inconsistent range, and wildly fluctuating damage output, every time you virtually squeeze the trigger you’ll never be quite sure whether your bullet will hit its target, and if it does, kill or just alert your opponent to where you are. For example, killing an unaware opponent takes a single bullet to the head, whereas an aware one can take upwards of four. Again, there might well be some narrative explanation for this in the finished game, but in this demo without any external context, it just ends up feeling inconsistent and cheap.

Computer

Actually, speaking of hypothetical story explanations, let’s hold up just for a second here; while you don’t get many narrative threads to cling onto in this demo, what little story elements you do get are actually pretty good. While I found most of the in-game world and its inhabitants itself to be largely uninteresting, there’s a handful of crew logs scattered about which help to liven things up quite considerably. One in particular had a chilling written account about a group of technicians unearthing and observing an ancient alien machine, and the threat of a sentient AI interfacing and infecting the crew of the base. It’s in these moments that Solarix manages to claw back some of the horror and unsettling atmosphere that it regrettably jettisoned out of the airlock so early on. The piecemeal delivery of the story information here reminded me of the effective way in which the horror is slowly drip-fed to the player through written artefacts in games such as The Chinese Room’s Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs; even though you’re not told exactly what’s going on, your mind can’t help but uneasily churn the few disturbing details you do have around in your brain as you blast your way through the game.

Loading Screen

Additionally, there’s some cool Silent Hill-style implications that what you’re seeing and experiencing might not be real, which might be an issue that the final game explores as part of the narrative – is it right to be gunning down the clean-up squad mercilessly? Are these infected humans I’m pumping full of intergalactic lead actually innocents? In this demo though, there’s no such moral restraints to hold you back, and the combination of the frustrating stealth mechanics and the ever so fiddly taser mean that you’d probably not care all that much if such in-game ethical concerns actually were an issue.

Crashsite

Regretfully, there’s still another problematic aspect of the game that I’ve yet to address, and get ready, it’s a pretty big one. The game is just too damn dark. It sounds like an utterly ridiculous complaint to level at a horror game, but trust me, in this case it’s entirely appropriate.

Things are fine to start off with in the indoor corridor sections, but it’s once you get to the great alien outdoors and you’re mainly wandering around in wide-open valleys in murky darkness that the lack of light starts to really grate on you. You have an unlimited flashlight attached to your suit, which you think would solve this problem, but for whatever reason it’s ineffectual after the first indoor level, throwing out just a watery crescent moon of pale yellow light at your feet and nothing else. It barely illuminates anything, rendering it practically useless. The game’s Steam blurb boasts about its next gen-graphics, but you’ll have a hard time appreciating them without whacking the gamma settings up to max.

Gloom

At first, I didn’t mind the gloominess all that much. As I trekked my way in practically pitch-black darkness across through these strange alien hillsides and picked my way through various burnt out spaceships in order to find supplies, things initially felt nice and eerie. After about five or ten minutes of uneventfully wandering around however, I soon found myself getting bored of looking at nothing but the same dark dull environments, empty save for a few dopey infected milling about in specific spots. There’s just so little contrast in terms of the in-game lighting that the ubiquitous darkness quickly stops feeling sinister and just becomes plain boring. While it’s nice to not be in the typical claustrophobic tunnels of practically every other horror game, by the time I got to the crashsite in the third level, I was just tired of seeing nothing but empty, perpetual darkness.

Trees

This unfortunately means that in these low-light conditions, it’s incredibly easy to repeatedly miss items and areas that are necessary to make progress. As the majority of Solarix is a featureless black landscape, it can be painfully dull to try and navigate your way around successfully, and just one glance at the fuzzy, undynamic in-game map let’s you know that it’s going to be completely unhelpful in your attempts to orient yourself.

Map

On top of that, there’s these invisible walls that prominently protrude into several paths you have to take throughout the levels, and others that block off empty areas that otherwise look perfectly accessible, making your fumblings about in the dark even more confusing. To make matters worse, there’s also places where there aren’t any barriers in place where you do want them – i.e. solid rock walls, meaning that it’s actually incredibly easy to end up accidentally clipping out of the map entirely. It ends up creating this no-win, no-fun situation; you have to search every nook and cranny of the maps to find what you need, yet if you do go poking into the nooks and crannies of Solarix then you also risk getting stuck out in the great dark beyond with no obvious means of getting back in. Once again, I appreciate that this is a pre-release demo that I’m playing here so hopefully these are things that will also hopefully be patched out for the final release, but the fact that it’s so easy to get trapped outside of the level without explicitly trying to force your way out doesn’t exactly encourage you to go off and explore the game’s world.

Outside Map

Obviously, horror games are loved for the very reason that they don’t offer the player as much help as other genres, that they are designed to make you stressed and anxious and that more often than not they can be more punishing than other genres. Yet while I admire Pulsetense’s choice to not hold the player’s hand as they explore, or to not broadcast giant distracting navigation markers to herd the player towards the next objective, I felt that Solarix ought to have done a lot more to clearly communicate important information to the player about just what exactly they’re supposed to be doing at times, or what specific item they’re currently after.

For example, in my first playthrough of the demo, there was a point where I just got completely and utterly stuck. Perhaps I’m just a complete fucking idiot, but after finding a door locked with a handprint scanner in the second level, and later a conveniently-placed hacksaw nearby, I felt pretty confident that I knew exactly what to do next – namely go back to one of the still-warm guard bodies I’d only seconds ago riddled with bullets, roll up my sleeves and start to slice ‘n’ dice.

I then proceeded to spend what felt like an eternity trying fruitlessly to chop hands off the fallen guards, and getting increasingly baffled as to why I couldn’t. As I wandered from corpse to corpse, desperately trying to detach a hand (and even in a moment of grim determination resorting to hurling a dead body at the scanner to see if that worked, sadly to no avail) a string of ever-more puzzling questions were starting to race through my head. What am I doing wrong? Do I need to equip the hacksaw as a tool? Why can’t I equip the hacksaw as a tool? Is it space bar or left mouse button to cut off their hands? I keep clicking on their hands but I can’t chop them off? WHY OH WHY ARE THEIR BLOODY HANDS NOT COMING OFF ALREADY!?

It was only after spending the best part of an hour fruitlessly clicking and aimlessly wandering back and forth in the level over and over again like a complete chump that I just happened to stumble across a pitch-black cave hidden round a corner and completely off the beaten track which contained the very specific corpse and the very specific hand that I needed to sever to use on the door panel. Nowhere had the game bothered to inform me that only a specific hand would work, and thanks to the vague in-game map, it was just pure luck that I’d stumbled across the actual solution. The reason that I’d missed the cave every single time as I roamed the area was – yup, you guessed it, the entrance was pitch-black. I could have still been there in that section to this day, furiously clicking on corpses and mashing the space bar to no avail if I hadn’t stumbled across the solution by accident. By this point, I was just so annoyed that I desperately wanted to start hacking Walter’s own hands off just to make it all end right then and there.

Corpse

Anyway, look, I know I’m just textually ranting by this point so I’ll draw things to a close. Overall, there’s also just this sort of rough, unpolished feel to Solarix which makes it really hard to get into and properly enjoy. There’s some cool ideas in the game, wrapped up in what looks to be an interesting narrative, but there’s just a such a litany of various annoying problems cluttering up the experience which repeatedly get in the way of the player’s immersion. The stealth mechanics don’t really work that well, and there’s practically no horror elements whatsoever, and the interesting narrative ideas buckle under the weight of boring and dull level designs. Whether you play stealthily or aggressively, combat in Solarix is vague and murky at best; you’ll be crossing your fingers each time you line up a headshot or prepare to jolt the back of somebody’s head, never quite sure of whether things are going to work predictably. In short, you’re left with an underwhelming and fiddly shooter experience in a dull world that’s shrouded in darkness.

Pit

Again, just to be totally clear about this, I’ve been playing a pre-release demo of Solarix, so hopefully Pulsetens can get the smaller glitchier problems with the weapons, invisible walls etc. fixed before the proper release. I’m just concerned that the bigger problems the game has with the stealth and combat systems are fundamental design issues that unfortunately can’t just be fixed with a quick patch. Personally, the game feels undercooked; Solarix needs to get out of the shadows and back into the developmental oven – ASAP.

Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 – Review

Old Freddy Attack
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(Reviewed on iPad)

BOO!

“Hello, hello hello! Erm…well, if you’re hearing this, then chances are you’ve made a very poor career choice…”

These are the Phone Guy’s first words in the trailer for Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, and he’s certainly not wrong. The sequel to the original Five Nights at Freddy’s, takes everything that you loved/dreaded about the original game and somehow manages to make things even more stressful, tense and overwhelming than ever before. It’s faster, far, FAR more difficult, and there’s even more abhorrent animatronics desperate to thunder down corridors at you than before. In other words, it’s absolutely time to get the brown trousers out.

Whilst the game is quite possibly one of the most stressful heart in mouth experiences I’ve played in a game recently (well up there with Alien: Isolation and Outlast), the ultra fast state of blind panic that the game works you up into actually manages to significantly take away from the things that made the original game such a frighteningly good game in the first place.

At times, it can feel like a brutal rollercoaster of non-stop jumpscares, each one whipping by faster and faster than the last, a macabre merry-go-round of mecha-misery. Overall, there’s just a lot less of the drawn out tension and stomach-churning dread that made the original game so enjoyable.

Title Screen

However, although at first the emphasis on frequent faster furry scares may not appeal, if you’re a fan in any shape or form of the first game, then Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is absolutely worth venturing back into that dark, fascinatingly and creepy restaurant that is developer Scott Cawthon’s mind once again for.

Although it’s perhaps a logical and straightforward evolution of the franchise – more scares, more gameplay mechanics more animatronics etc. – there’s enough brand new creative and twisted changes in the sequel that show there’s a whole new level of fiendishness in its design in comparison to the original formula.

Put simply, if you’re a fan of Five Nights at Freddy’s in any shape or form, then I highly recommend you give the sequel a try. Providing you’ve got the patience of a saint and the gluttony for punishment of a basement-dwelling gimp, then it’s a game that’s absolutely essential to experience if you’re a horror game fan.

So, fancy a second greasy slice of Fazbear pizza?

Not So Bunny This Time Eh?

Help Wanted

Well, whaddayaknow? There’s a brand new Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza that’s opened up in town, and once again you play as another hapless (read: stupid) chump who’s unlucky enough to have snagged a summer job as the restaurant’s night watchman. Over the years, the original animatronic mascot models of the original establishment – Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie the rabbit, Chica the chicken, and Foxy the pirate fox (naturally) – have fallen into a state of disrepair, and a new set of cuter ‘child friendly’ (read: completely unsuitable for children) animatronics have taken their place. These new ‘toy’ models are cuter and more colourful interpretations of the old gang, but they are still just as creepy in their own special/murderous way; looking like brittle porcelain dolls, there’s a classic horror film vibe about them that screams that something’s absolutely not right – no matter how rosy and cute their metallic cheeks might be.

Functionally, the game plays almost identically to the original Five Nights at Freddy’s. Once again, the set up is very simple; as the night-time security guard, you have to monitor the cameras at this new Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza restaurant, surviving your 12:00-6:00am shift and trying to not get stuffed into spare metal-filled animatronic costumes along the way. Scott Cawthon once again provides the voice of the Phone Guy – presumably another recently expired security guard – who leaves you voicemails at the start of each shift in a similar fashion to the first game, dropping new titbits of information vital to your survival as the game progresses. Scott speaks in a manner that both amuses and makes you very anxious in equal measure.

Like the first game, you can’t move, run, or hide; your stoical character remains seated at their desk at all times; the camera feeds are your only way of tracking the animatronics as they stalk you throughout the restaurant. On paper, it’s the same deal as last time; all you’ve got to do is survive the agonisingly long graveyard shift by not letting any of the freaky furries get you. However, on the subject of home office defence, this is where you’ll notice the first cruel deviation from the original game’s drawing board – there’s no doors. Yup, that’s right; those big heavy doors, those beautiful blockers of brutal beasties are stripped away from you this time, leaving you completely exposed and vulnerable.

If that wasn’t bad enough, don’t worry, it gets much worse; there’s now three separate points of entry to your office this time. Directly across from your desk is a long corridor that stretches out into the dark dingy catacombs of the restaurant, and in place of the dearly departed doors there’s now two air conditioning vents to the left and right of you.

So the question you’ll be immediately asking yourself after seeing your new office environs is just how the fuck do I defend myself from animatronics without a god-damned pair of doors? huh? Well? Answer me!

Hide and Shriek

Freddy Head

Well, the good news is that you’re not totally screwed…no scratch that, you are pretty much screwed without those beloved doors of the original, but to paraphrase 28 Days Later, the end isn’t quite so extremely fucking nigh yet either – you do have an alternative final line of defence in your arsenal against the malicious machines. Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 introduces the Freddy head – a spare Freddy Fazbear costume head – that you can put on in order to fool the animatronics who do get into your office into thinking that you’re one of them, and hopefully leaving you alone.

Putting the head on, as you might imagine, really doesn’t give you anywhere near the same level of temporary comfort or that fleeting sense of sanctuary you got from shutting the doors in the first game. Your view is restricted to the head’s small eyeholes, and its a lot harder to hear the ambient audio clues in the environment which tell you whether an animatronic you can hear is bumbling about in the background or ready to pounce on your prone protagonist. Plus, the amplified breathing sounds of your character when in the mask really don’t help matters at all; the muffled, wheezing breaths adding another layer of paranoia to proceedings.

Okay, cool – no doors, but the Fazbear head keeps the robo-ruffians away right? Well, not quite. The bad news is that it doesn’t fool all the animatronics – there’s always one eh? You see, unfortunately, another unpleasant twist to add to the growing tangle of twisted things that is Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is that your old decaying friends from the first game are back. That’s right – the original Freddy, Bonnie, Chica and Foxy are back, and absolutely with a vengeance.

Old Freddy Office

If you thought Freddy, Bonnie, Chica and Foxy were frightening looking before, they look hideously ghoulish now. Bonnie (again, always the animatronic from the first game that freaked me out the most) in particular looks terrifying; the top half of his head has been sheared off, leaving just a row of broken teeth on what remains of his lower jaw, and a devilish pair of glowing red eyes where his face used to be.

These old models have been relegated to the storeroom, and are just kept around and used for their spare parts to keep the newer models up and running. However, you learn pretty early on that these familiar furry furies are unfortunately prone to getting up and having a wander about the restaurant to reacquaint themselves with you once again – with just as much screaming and the same unrelenting determination to force you into a Fazbear costume as before.

Naturally then, in a similar fashion to the first game, the one animatronic from the original bunch which once again throws a giant spanner in the works for you is your ol’ pal Foxy. Sailor of the seven robo-seas and swashbuckling scaremonger extraordinaire, Foxy is wise to your costume-donning antics (he can probably tell you’re human from the pool of urine and tears puddling around your legs) so like in the original game, a different tactic is required to keep him at bay.

Torching Wood

Toy Chica Corridor

The different tactic you need in this case is the flashlight/lights – any animatronic can be temporarily stunned by shining a beam of light from your flashlight on them, and in the case of Foxy, it’s your only form of defence against him and his razor sharp teeth taking a chunk out of your cerebrum.

Touching in the specific box indicated onscreen illuminates a portion of the scene you’re looking at – either putting a feeble light on the darkened corridor stretching out before you, or offering a glimpse at whatever horrors might be lurking in the dark realms of the restaurant.

The flashlight mechanic is essentially a tweaked version of the original game’s Pirate Cove, a mechanic intended to keep you from just monitoring the camera feeds and hiding (and whimpering) in the Freddy head.

Toy Chica Vent

 

Well, to get a bit nitpicky for a second, your (presumably) handheld flashlight and the camera lights all run off the same single battery, but hey – videogames right? Your generous employers have also neglected to provide you with any spare batteries for your nightly cringe-fests, so you have to make your flashlight/camera lights last as long as possible.

Despite only having a limited amount of juice for the lights, it’s still a way better situation than the original game, where everything ran off the ridiculously small petrol generator that provided the original building’s power. As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining…and the lining to this ominously dark storm cloud rolling in overhead is the fact that unlike the last pizza premises, this Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza does run on mains power. Whilst your flashlight/camera lights are limited, the cameras and air vent lights can be used indefinitely without them draining your battery power.

This means that you can monitor the cameras for as long as you need to, and you can turn on the vent lights to temporarily freeze anything crawling through them. Hmm…come to think of it, who puts lights in an air vent anyway? I’ve no idea, but obviously someone who’s used to being regularly attacked from them anyway.

Freddy Party Room 3

This change to the way the power system works is a really smart design move on Scott’s part. There’s now a much greater incentive to track the robots as they make their way towards you. To jump back to the way the original game worked, arguably the scariest parts of Five Nights at Freddy’s weren’t particularly the jumpscares per se – it’s all over at that point of course – but rather those moments where you’d be nervously searching through the camera feeds to find where the animatronics were lurking. Peering intently into the grainy static snowstorm of the feeds to try and make out shapes in darkness were incredibly effective moments of the original game; moments which you were technically penalised for with the limited power supply, and moments you’d experience less and less as you got to the later levels, where success tended to come from keeping your camera glances to a bare minimum and holding back your energy for the door and light controls.

Five Night’s at Freddy’s 2 fully embraces those terrifying moments of the original by making the camera feeds more of a help to the player rather than a slight hindrance. As a result, you’re more likely to spend time flicking between the various feeds, desperately trying to find out where all your nocturnal nemeses are and getting all flustered and really worked up in the process, as they slowly and inevitably make their way towards you, George Romero zombie style.

Nocturnal Plate Spinning

The Puppet Prize Corner

So, to recap – no doors, but you’ve got a Freddy head; limited lights but continuous camera feeds and vent lights. If all these additional complications to the original game’s base formula we’ve been through didn’t sound stressful enough already, just wait, it gets even worse. There’s several new animatronics and animatronic mechanics introduced in the sequel which serve to make things in the pizzeria even more stressful and panicky than before. I won’t yak on about these new night-time terrors too much as part of the fun/terror is encountering them for yourself when you’re totally unprepared, but one in particular deserves a more detailed mention.

One of the major proverbial plates that you’ve got to keep spinning during your night shift is to keep checking on the ‘Prize Corner’ area. Instead of having to check on Pirate Cove to keep Foxy in place in the original, Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 introduces the Prize Corner’s fiendish music box mechanic. You have to keep winding up this box (somehow performed over the camera feed – videogames again) in order to ‘soothe’ one of the brand new animatronics, The Puppet.

The Puppet Attack

This horrific thing resembles a cross between Marcel Marceau and the Billy the Puppet toy from the SAW films. The Puppet essentially acts as a secondary Foxy – style figure which isn’t affected by your flashlight either. In fact, from my understanding, once The Puppet is out of his box, he isn’t affected by anything; if you go too long without winding the music box, you’re totally screwed. Once this jack is well and truly out of his box, there’s nothing you can do except brace for impact as it hurtles towards you, jangling out the tune of Pop Goes the Weasel like some demented shuttlecock of doom. Basically, The Puppet is terrifying.

On a gameplay mechanics level, the music box works really well in conjunction with the Freddy head. It means that you can’t just rely on pulling on the disguise and desperately hoping to cower away behind your desk until the morning light, or decide to only focus on those threats directly coming for you from the vents or down the corridor.

If the overarching design theme to Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is basically to take everything you loved about the original game, and make it even more frightening and fucked up than before, then it excels with flying colours. Unlike the first game, it’s almost impossible to keep tabs on all the threats out to get you at once. You’ve got to be checking the cameras, stunning animatronics with your lights, jumping into the Freddy head when things are getting hairy and last but by no means at all least, remembering to wind up that god-damned music box.

Brain Drain

Old Chica Attack

Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 does a lot of things right. More animatronics, less office defences and more finely detailed mechanics all add up to create an experience that is bigger and at times, even more frightening than the original game. However, with all these new systems introduced in the sequel, it can get very complicated very quickly. Too complicated in my opinion.

It can be confusing at first just working out what you’re supposed to be doing, even for someone like me who has spent an awful lot of time playing the first game and who’s very familiar with its systems. This is obviously par for the course with horror games – the best ones tend to be those which are challenging and difficult as part of their nature, pushing you onto greater feats – but at times Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 manages to lose sight of what made the original game so effective.

For me, what I personally loved about the first game was its beautiful simplicity. At its very core, Five Nights at Freddy’s could be distilled down to three simple rules:

  • Run out of power – Freddy will get you.
  • Fail to check Pirate Cove frequently enough – Foxy will get you.
  • Don’t check the corridor blindspots – Bonnie/Chica will get you.

In my opinion, it was just the right balance of tension, jumpscares, uncertainty and luck. Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is considerably more complex than its predecessor, which is great as an escalation and expansion on that fantastically simple set of formulae, but also mildly irritating at times. There isn’t quite such a clear-cut set of rules to learn, which is great as it means that events are much more spontaneous and unpredictable, but it can also make it hard to learn from your mistakes. You’ll find yourself quickly getting frustrated and getting stuck in what feels like an impossible luck-based rut far sooner than in comparison to the original game.

Whereas the rhythm of Five Nights at Freddy’s was built on an increasingly tense slow build-up of dread, Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 is a much faster-paced game that’s all about getting you into a hysterical blind panic. It manages to do this to a truly exceptional degree. Unfortunately as a result though, the creepiness and horror of the original are rapidly lost – the sequel almost goes so fast that you pretty much don’t have time to be frightened once everything is kicking off. Yes, the animatronics are freakish and frightening to look at, but after you see them lurch up into your face time and time again, you quickly get desensitised to their gnashing jaws, glowing red eyes and outstretched metallic paws.

To play devil’s advocate here though, I would have been disappointed if this sequel was simply pretty much the first game again, only in a new restaurant, with no new mechanics or characters etc. It’s the age old paradox with sequels in general, and specifically sequels within the gaming industry – how do you repeat or recapture the experience of the original whilst at the same time making a brand new experience for fans to enjoy? How do you deliver something at once familiar, but at the same time bigger, better, and brand new?

Bearing this in mind, the changes and twists that the sequel makes to the first game’s rules are really well thought out and interesting, giving the old ideas of the first game some refreshing, different and downright devious twists that manage to mess with your head to a successful degree. But they do make things a bit more awkward and harder to get into at first, even for a player like me who’s sunk a lot of time into playing the original game.

Old Bonnie Party Room 1

One of the major stumbles the game makes is that it doesn’t really do a satisfactory job of communicating to the player how and why you’re (repeatedly) failing. Whereas the Five Nights at Freddy’s Phone Guy dispensed tips on a need to know basis, the Phone Guy’s dialogue in the sequel is a bit more explanatory and narrative based. This is great on the one hand as you get to learn more about the horrible history of the restaurant and the cruel fates of the animatronics as you go, but this seems to come at the cost of receiving survival information that’s more relevant to your current predicament. For example, the game only really reiterates how to use the flashlight properly when you’ve reached the second night. As surviving the first night is no mean feat, it feels like a piece of information that needs to be told to the player far sooner into the game.

BB Office

For another example, a major hurdle that happened to me when playing came when I first encountered (slight new animatronic spoiler) Balloon Boy, or BB as he’s known for short. A small human boy animatronic, BB is rather unique in the cast as he’s the only one that won’t directly attack you once he gets inside your office. Instead, his modus operandi is to just giggle incessantly and block the entrance to your office. Whilst blocking up the entrance to your office might actually sound like a useful thing, it’s really not. It means that you can’t shine your flashlight down the corridor at whatever might be lurking there – usually Foxy, who’ll more often than not take the opportunity of BB blocking the corridor to take a running leap at you and perform yet another aerial lobotomy on you. In other words, if BB gets in your office for good, you’re finished, and what’s more, there’s absolutely no way of getting him out.

Foxy Attack

The game never really explains anywhere what BB does at all or how or why you should be worried about him. Until I went online looking for help, I couldn’t understand how I was failing whenever he would show up, or why I couldn’t forcibly remove him from my office. In hindsight, it’s all rather straightforward, and it’s a cool mechanic to keep me extra diligent (and extra panicky) as a player. Obviously, you wouldn’t want the game to handhold you through everything in the way of it’s secretive new animatronics otherwise there would be no challenge or suspense, but some more specific clues from the Phone Guy would have been massively helpful and way less frustrating, particularly on the early levels.

Old Bonnie & Foxy Corridor

In fact, there’s just generally much less discernable correlation between your actions and the environment in Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, both visually and aurally. On the subject of information that the game doesn’t manage to visually communicate effectively to the player, a significant area of murky uncertainty is the dark corridor to the security office. It’s confusing and really difficult to judge when you’re in danger from something lurking down it, or whether you can afford to temporarily divert your attentions elsewhere. An animatronic’s position in the corridor often does little to tell you just how prominent the threat is. It’s often really unclear as to whether you’re safe when an animatronic is right down at the far end, or still alright for the time being. It makes things very unpredictable, which is great at first, but when you realise there seems to be no reason or pattern to their positioning, it just becomes frustratingly vague after yet another flying fox attack from the dark.

BB Vent

While playing the original game with a decent pair of headphones was the preferable way to play, it’s absolutely essential to use them in Five Nights at Freddy’s 2. Whereas the ambient background bangs, clatterings and evil chuckling animatronic noises were mainly there to keep you on edge in the first game, having an acute audial awareness of your surroundings is crucial to surviving into the later nights in the sequel. In a similar manner to Alien: Isolation (a review of which is hurtling towards this blog as you read this), being able to hear when an animatronic attacker is clambering around noisily in the vents, or moving down the corridor could be the key between life and a grisly costume-based death.

However, having said that, the audio quickly becomes indecipherable after only a few minutes into a stage. A strange whining klaxon will start to incessantly play about halfway into each night, which has absolutely no apparent meaning. As a player, I’ve struggled to attribute even a shred of meaning to its prominence in the audio mix. It’s really confusing for the player, as it sounds like it should signal something crucial, but from my personal experience with the game, it’s all rather meaningless. Perhaps there’s something really obvious that I’ve missed, but I can’t for the life of me work out just what this hooting wail means.

Additionally on the topic of audio issues, there’s some admittedly minor but still very annoying grievances I have with some of the sound effect choices in the game. For example, the exact same buzzing audio cue used to denote that you’d taken too long to close a door in the original is confusingly used as a basic error sound when trying to activate your torch in this game. If you heard that buzzing noise in the original when trying to hit one of the door controls, then you knew you’d fucked things up, and you were about to be suit-stuffed momentarily. However, in this game, the sound appears to be used as a general error noise when trying to activate your torch when an animatronic is entering/leaving the corridor.

It’s really confusing and off-putting how the sound effect is used here, as it doesn’t appear to mean that you’ve entered a fail state anymore, rather it’s that you just can’t use the torch just then. It’s a really hard thing to unlearn, and having to fight my mental muscle memory from the first game, I personally found that it made learning the new systems oblique and unnecessarily convoluted at times. Not knowing why your torch is not working one second but then working again the next is scary, but also very frustrating after a while, as there’s no clear reason or discernable meaning behind it.

Night Trapped

Old Bonnie Attack

Overall, I found that Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 just felt too impossibly hard for me to enjoy to the same degree as the original. There’s just so many different variables to keep track of at once that in order to succeed, you’re going to need huge amounts of patience, determination, and above all else, a whole fucktonne of luck. As a result, I found my determination to get past the later nights quickly waned after yet another whirlwind round of lights, music boxes, Freddy heads and flying mechanical foxes tore my resolve to play on to pieces. Whereas in the first game, things felt incredibly stressful but just about manageable, beyond the first few nights of the sequel things feel even more luck-based and just ridiculously cruel.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s darkly hilarious and enjoyable to play, but only the most masochistic and patient players will have the endurance to reach the later levels. Like the pacing of a good horror film, you need moments of uneasy respite and eerie quiet to balance out the adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster ride of scares; skimp on the tension and the slow builds and you’ll find that the frights and shocks lose their effectiveness faster than an eight-foot animatronic bear can crush you into a metal-filled suit. However, if you’re a fan of the original game, you owe it to yourself to sit down, pour yourself a cuppa, crack open a packet of Hobnobs, and get comfortable in that familiar security guard’s chair for another 12:00-6:00am shift. What could possibly go wrong?

Game Over