Ying and yang. Fire and ice. Cheese and crackers…actually, no scrap that last one, they do go really well together. Why am I doing such a bad job of spouting off random pairs of antonyms I hear you ask? Well, that’s because I’m trying to think of a clever segue into my next paragraph about comparing…alright, look, so it didn’t work okay? Trust me, just keep going, it’ll all make sense in a few seconds or so.
In contrast to the standard EGX events which are traditionally more of a showcase for the latest big blockbuster triple-A games from big developers and publishers, EGX Rezzed puts indie developers and their quirky projects in the spotlight for a change.
So, last week, I hopped on a train and made my way down to London’s Tobacco Docks; presumably whilst an Indiana Jones style travel montage showed my progress south via a descending red line on a faded map of the UK. I was there for the Thursday and Friday sessions to mingle with game developers and game fans alike. The sun was shining, developers were smiling and…nope, still no decent third triplication point. So, without further ado, here’s my thoughts on a few games that caught my eye from the many excellent games on offer at this year’s Rezzed collection.
Okay, let’s start off my indie highlights of Rezzed with a big game that isn’t considered an indie game at all by pretty much any stretch of the imagination – Bloodborne. Great thinking I hear you say – you’ve fucked up the entire point of this article in only the first proper paragraph. But it was there in the Sony section and I thought, hey, why not? Got a problem with that? No, I didn’t think so.
For someone who didn’t really get all the Dark Souls hype, I have to say that Bloodborne looks pretty damn cool. I didn’t really give Dark Souls on the Xbox 360 the time and patience it deserved; even though I loved the heavy mood and mystery that permeated my brief adventure from prison cell to giant taxi- crow-thing, I never really found the will or self-discipline to keep going.
Having said that, I actually enjoyed my brief time in Bloodborne a great deal more than I was expecting to, which was a nice surprise. Perhaps it’s just something as basic as the dark gothic aesthetic of the game appealing to me more than the knights, dragons and trolls of From Software’s previous franchise, but it worked.
Being terrible at Dark Souls, I decided not to mess around with the unknown and opted to play as the standard class of character, who comes complete with a hideous scythe/giant barber’s razor blade in one hand a and a nifty blunderbuss musket/shotgun in the other. Of course, the way you build out your character’s weapons and equipment will impact on how they move and play, so it looks as though there’s perhaps a fair bit of variety in this game when it comes to player choice.
Though you’re dropped straight into this nightmare world with no introduction in this demo, the atmosphere still feels dark and heavy right from the off, and you feel suitably creeped out. It all looks great too, with atmospheric lighting and great attention to the audio – overall there seems to be a much greater emphasis on horror in Bloodborne in comparison to Dark Souls, which definitely appeals to folks like me.
In the scant few hours that I have spent in Dark Souls, that game felt more like a gloomy medieval mystery than anything particularly bone-chilling, but from what little I got to experience of Bloodborne at Rezzed, there certainly could be some nasty scares to accompany you on your swashbuckling way. One particular moment was hearing what could only have been a massive bird (perhaps the giant Dark Souls crow/taxi/thing maybe?) shriek incredibly loudly into the night as I was halfway up a tall ladder. Needless to say, I got back down onto terra firma as fast as possible.
There’s this horrifying Wicker Man feeling you’ll get when playing that pervades pretty much every moment. Alone and isolated, and with apparently the entire population of this town against you, it feels pretty intimidating to say the least. Seeing a long line of the wretched townsfolk marching through the streets in an ominous and slow procession before branching off to gather around a huge burning effigy (presumably containing lots of cattle and a screaming policeman) felt chilling to the core. The game manages to evoke a similar feeling to the one you get when playing the monster in the early stages of Evolve; everyone’s out to get me, I need to fucking run!
The enemy AI is just as smart and cunning as you might expect from a From Software game. Walking up behind a hulking monstrosity lurking round the back of a dark crumbling building, I promptly slashed away at the portly fellow, only to have him whirl round on me in a blur of speed and slash me with some giant axe-thingy. Battered and wounded, I retreated back a few metres to get some space and neck a health potion all the while desperately trying to remember what little information I could recall from my brief time playing Dark Souls.
Aha! I’ll get the brute to make a lunge for me, then dodge and get in some cheeky swipes with my giant retractable barber’s razor weapon-thingy whilst he’s recovering. Thus, I started to dodge back and forth in what I hoped was a patronising and annoying manner. To my horror, the giant toad like man-demon proceeded to leap forward into the air at me at such a speed that I could only watch in horror as he slammed down on my cloaked crusader, taking a great deal of my health away in the process. Ouch.
Retreating from this battle I’d surely lose, I scuttled back along the dark sidestreets in an effort to desperately survive for a bit longer. However, by this point, I knew that with my lack of skill my time would be rapidly drawing to a close any minute now anyway. Emerging into a large open street flanked by abandoned horse carriages, I tried to sneak along behind a gaggle of the mouldy townsfolk. Boom! A bleeding shoulder full of buckshot from an enemy’s rifle quickly let me know that I’d been spotted and that I needed to move. Fast.
Despite scuttling out of the range of the gunner, and managing to fell a few of my scarecrow-like assailants, I was inevitably cut down by the grimy hordes in next to no time. However, this time I finished with a big smile on my face.
One aspect to the combat that I’ve heard echoed by a lot of other critics is that the action and combat in Bloodborne feels considerably faster and less clunky and cumbersome than Dark Souls. I certainly found this to be the case myself from playing the demo; moves didn’t feel like they took an eternity to execute, and your character feels altogether more manoeuvrable, which personally definitely felt way better to me.
When I did attack when I should have blocked/dodged or vice versa, it didn’t feel like the end of the world and I could quickly right myself and keep going. Obviously, you can’t afford to make many mistakes at all, but the way the combat has been tweaked definitely felt much more palatable to me. It just feels a lot more exciting and way less gruelling than I expected things to be, which is surely only a good thing.
Salt; A Social Story
Right, so now let’s actually knuckle down and talk about indie games. Salt; A Social Story, by Holly Pickering of Indieful Entertainment, is one of the first I tried upon getting to Rezzed.
It’s a clever and interesting critique of social media and the way that it negatively influences a great deal of our interactions with others. Described by Holly as a “stalking simulator mixed with a choose your own adventure game”, you play as a woman following the messy break-up with her boyfriend, who’s subsequently wiped and reset her contact list of friends on her social networking site of choice, Mugshot.
The game plays out in the Mugshot interface, which looks like a chunky Windows 3.1 pixelated predecessor to Twitter/Facebook. The aim of the game is to restore your account by slowly adding back your previous friends one by one – you can only add one new friend per in-game day, and once you’ve reached a total of thirty friends, Mugshot will fully restore your account back to how it was before the break-up. The more friends you add, the wider the pool of potential friends and other social connections will become, giving you plenty of new connections to choosse from as the game progresses.
As the player, you can’t interact with these friends or actively participate in the networking, but rather you voyeuristically watch the interactions between your character and her growing network of contacts. It’s a fascinating playing experience, not to mention one that gets uncomfortably creepy at times; as you explore your character’s old social life through her and her friend’s social media posts, and reconnect with them one at a time, you start to get more and more of an insight into which friends she most values, which she doesn’t have much to do with, and just how this sprawling network of friends, work colleagues and near-acquaintances all fit together.
The conceit that you can only add one new friend per day means that you don’t feel overwhelmed by too many new characters too soon, giving you a chance to fully read up on their posting habits and attitudes over the course of the game.
Another interesting aspect of the game’s design is that there’s more than thirty friends that you can add to your friends list, meaning that you can’t get the full story and atmosphere on your first playthrough, giving you a cool incentive to go back and rediscover the connections and story details you might have missed the first time.
What’s really awesome is that in between each day, the game displays ominous short messages on the nature of social media, and prompt you to consider just exactly how we’re using the internet to communicate with each other. In particular, it makes you question just how ‘social’ social media really is. Having this quiet but powerful dissenting voice of critique in amongst all the vain nonsense and digital conversations of the characters is really effective.
It’s a really cool juxtaposition. As you get more and more involved in these character’s lives, stalking and probing deeper into their intricate connections with each passing day, getting these stark reminders about just how vain and and pathetic a lot of these interactions really are. It makes you question just what you’re doing snooping around in these characters lives and why exactly you’re enjoying cyber-stalking them?
As a result, there’s this strong sense of loathing that comes over you whilst playing – a feeling directed at these vacuous airhead characters who prattle on about their apparently awesome lives, and also at yourself for recognising your own personal desperate and pathetic social media habits in and amongst these fictional characters.
I played through the first eight or so days as I didn’t want to hog the booth for too long, but I can’t wait to play the full thing and carry on stalki-I mean observing. Just observing. Not that I do that normally of course…ahem. Let’s move on.
Okay, so this is a big one. Playing Monstrum at Rezzed was the first time that I finally managed to don the fabled Oculus Rift headset. Unfortunately though, whilst the game itself was good, my virgin-run with the Rift really didn’t work for me. Within only a few minutes, I started to feel very queasy, very fast – and that was before I fell prey to an impromptu mauling from my shrieking slimy alien pursuer.
Don’t get me wrong though, the Rift was certainly immersive up to a point, even when playing in a noisy, packed room swarming with excited gamers milling about all around me. It’s a clichéd turn of phrase I know, but it really is an incredibly cool experience to feel like you’re actually in the game world yourself. This of course is particularly helpful when playing a horror game where immersion is an essential pre-requisite to setting up any decent sense of tension and fear.
An incredibly basic thing that took me a long while to unlearn while playing was that when you’ve got a VR headset on, the right analog stick on your controller becomes redundant. In fact, I even asked the devs helping me with the Rift if they could invert the sticks for me, before I was politely reminded that it didn’t even matter – d’oh! Once you do get used to it though, it gradually starts to feel more natural to turn your head to look around you.
It makes me think that if this current bunch of VR headsets takes off whether we will just dispense with the right analog stick on our future console/PC controllers. The space could instead be given to more buttons or touch pads, or who knows whatever other new-fangled gadgets and gizmos we’ll be slapping into our controllers in the future.
Unfortunately though, as cool and immersive as playing with the Oculus Rift was, it was probably just way too much for my simple brain (and stomach) to handle. After years of ribbing non-gaming friends and family members when they got nauseous after only a few minutes of playing split-screen shooters of the past such as Timesplitters 2 and Goldeneye 007, I felt that perhaps I’d finally been given my karmic just desserts with the Rift.
Maybe I’d just overhyped the moment too much in my mind, but it certainly felt a bit underwhelming having to fight the feeling of motion sickness on my initial Rift experience; I didn’t quite have that glorious moment of digital euphoria that I’ve heard so many other people harp on about when they describe the potential of this exciting wave of VR tech.
However, that’s just my thoughts on the Oculus Rift itself. Thankfully, Monstrum itself didn’t disappoint. Having seen YouTube’s Markiplier shout his way through the game online, I was definitely interesting in giving Team Junkfish’s randomly generated monster maze a go myself.
Monstrum places you in the unfortunate shoes of a poor soul who’s trapped aboard a 1970s derelict tanker ship way out at sea. Like many horror games, your goal is simple – you just need to survive and escape. However, Monstrum is interesting in that it offers various possible escape routes for you to consider – do you try and patch up the escape raft, re-jig the helicopter or slink away on the sub?
Every playthrough, all the items you need are all jumbled up around the various rooms and cargo holds of the ship, meaning that you’re not sure exactly where the components you need are located.
On top of that, there’s also a randomly generated monster pursuing you through the bowels of the dark ship. There’s currently two creatures in the early access demo at the moment; a giant red molten rock man, and a slithery see-through creature (the one that eventually ate me) with a yet to be revealed third critter to come in the future. Each creature brings its own different mechanics into play, so you have to learn how they operate and how to throw them off your scent as you scramble around the ship.
If you’re a fan of escape-based horror games such as Slender or Vanish then I definitely recommend giving Monstrum a go. It’s perhaps not the most unique experience in horror gaming, but the game’s randomly generated elements and monsters mean that it has some interesting and unpredictable tricks up its slimy sleeves.
Her Story is the new game from Sam Barlow – one of the designers of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Silent Hill: Origins – and while there’s no bubble head nurses or other such fog-shrouded nasties in sight in his latest game, there’s certainly a similar sense of the mystery, intrigue and introspection that the Silent Hill series is known for.
It’s an interesting mystery/puzzle game which places you in the shoes of a police officer in the ’90s who’s investigating evidence and video files from a woman who’s husband has gone missing.
The game plays a simulated PC desktop experience (meta); you’re an investigator who’s using the police database to retrieve appropriate video files to the case by using specific search terms.
Wait, how is that interesting then I hear you ask? Well, the compromise with this database is that it can only list the first five video clips results for any search term, meaning that you need to vary up your linguistic choices and delve more into the nitty gritty specifics of the case if you want to make progress and access new clips.
What’s particularly interesting is the idea that the whole game is pretty much an open ended non-linear experience. According to what you search for and the order in which you come across the video files, there’s a plethora of different ways that you could theoretically proceed through your investigation, and in what order you view the clips.
While trying to solve the case is the main overhead objective if you will, what really came across to me was the way the game makes you empathise with the eponymous woman (played by Viva Seifert) of the title. While I didn’t get to spend as much time playing the game as I’d have liked, the range of emotions you see her go through as she’s relating evidence and, from the angle the trailer takes, denying that she’s killed her husband looks to be really intriguing.
All the while, the cold interrogation room she’s siting in, the grainy fidelity of the video files, and the moody ambient soundtrack that underscores your keystrokes and mouse clicks all contribute to this tense and mysterious mood the game manages to evoke so well. Definitely another fascinating title to keep your eye on.
So, those were just a few of the games I got to play and see at Rezzed this past weekend; stay tuned for an upcoming interview with the developers of Beyond Flesh and Blood, and in the meantime, here’s some of the other groovy games that were on display – prepare to feast your eyes on my mediocre camera work! Mwa ha ha ha ha ha!