donderdag 12 juli 2012

Lonely In The Dark

Lone Survivor and Limbo are both very creepy games.

Limbo has its gruesome-shadows-in-the-dark aesthetic. The way it veils itself - the details reduced to shadows, shapes - is a very efficient tool in promoting terror, giving you just enough information to realize something terrible is happening, and just not enough to let you fully grasp how. Lone Survivor crafts its terror with sounds (the sucking, stalking, crawling noises of zombies in the dark), bloody imagery and the strange, nightmare-like quality of the interactions with other sentient beings.

Both'll give you nightmares.

But there's one significant difference between the two games: how they play with fear. Limbo never lets you come down from it; you're always going forward, sometimes because something is forcing you to, sometimes because there's simply nowhere to go. After a while, it becomes nigh-claustrophobic. The unsettling feeling it forces on you keeps increasing, and there isn't any sign of it letting up.

It plays like a traditional horror narrative: The only escape you've got is quitting the game and returning to it later. You have to take yourself out of the experience to kill the tension.

On the other hand, Lone Survivor very consciously gives you an escape that's embedded in the narrative. Rather than pushing you onwards, the game anchors you in your own apartment, and thus gives you somewhere to return if the unsettling noises and sights of the outside world become too much. Suddenly, the game that was all about fleeing zombies becomes about cooking dinner, sitting down on the sofa to play a video game, and maybe petting your cat.

And that's not a bad thing. It's a grounding experience in the middle of a game that seems so intent on alienating your character from reality. It provides a place to recharge - not just your character, but as a player - before going on. In a strange way, your character's apartment starts feeling like it's home, because it's your only refuge.

In the latter case, the inclination to quit the game to take a breather isn't quite as strong, or at least it's framed very differently. Saving in Lone Survivor only happens when you go to bed for the night (an act that also influences your character's sanity rating), forcing you to return to that refuge whether you like it or not. In Limbo, you can step into and out of the experience at any time. It's more like putting a movie on pause.

With Limbo, there's no way but forward, but you can also skip out any time. It's hitting a pause button that you can hit again at any time, removing your character's experience from your own. I want to keep going as long as I'm playing the game, because the only promise of an in-game 'safe state' lies at the very end. But when I'm not playing, I don't feel as much time pressure to continue; the character will stay where he is until I decide otherwise.

I feel like Lone Survivor's take draws you further into the game, in that time spent away from it doesn't quite feel like a break as a player. Rather, your experience of living in that world keeps a 1:1 ration to your character's experience. When you are away from the game, he is asleep. When you return, he wakes. I found myself making sure my breaks in between playing sessions weren't too big, because I was left with the feeling of a story - or a life - unfinished. At the same time, I found myself dithering curiously about taking steps further into the game's narrative, because it meant leaving the safety of home base behind.

This difference has a very real influence on the flow of tension in these narratives. Lone Survivor's is perhaps the most interesting, because it steps outside of the regular horror movie mold. It's a more interactive experience: you choose when to take the lid off the pressure cooker, letting off some of the tension. Or perhaps 'letting off' isn't the right expression; it changes the tension of the game, shifting it from an intense in-the-moment sense of acute terror to a more location-locked, there are bad things outside feel.

And by changing the tension, it also changes the narrative of the game. After all, it's perfectly possible to do a straight-up run of Lone Survivor that involves spending almost no time in the apartment at all. That brings it closer to being like Limbo, with its constant driving force forward, and the idea that the goal is getting out, period. But if you take your time in the apartment, that's different. The story becomes about a character who's trying to survive with as much comfort as they can manage, sacrificing time and rationing food in order to keep their head screwed on straight.

Does the concept of this hub slow down the game, deflating the tension in a negative way? I don't think it quite does. The simple existence of the resource management gameplay element (you have to eat every x hours) means that your apartment is a temporary safe haven at best. The time will come where you have to go outside and collect more food, and that means facing the dangers of the outside world again. 

There's always a sense that the evil is lurking just outside your door, and you will have to go out and face it again-- but right now, you can sit your character down, play a video game, and take the edge off your mind-numbing fear... without ever quite forgetting where you are. As a consequence, the immediate fear is not as strong, but the tension might in fact be higher, because every day you dither is another day you risk death, whether by zombie or by running out of food.

Obviously, I'm not advocating that all games should be more like Lone Survivor. I like Limbo as the gruesome burst of high-octane adrenaline fuel that it is. But Lone Survivor's is an interesting take which plays with gaming as an interactive medium, where you determine the speed and direction of your own narrative-- and it does so without giving you the time-honed RPG tropes of obvious dialogue options and clearly demarked forks in the road.  

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