Search Results for: horror

Soma: meanderings by a wuss

(This post will be generally spoilery for the setting and background of Soma. I will avoid specific plot details, however.)

I've had Soma on my stack for several months. Last month I pulled it off the (virtual) shelf to take a look.

Contemporary-world prologue: good setup. Transition to the creepy future undersea base: excellent. Creepy undersea base: admirably creepy. I pushed through the first bit of the base, moving very cautiously -- though, from a design standpoint, this was clearly the "shadows in the corner of your eye" phase. The monster was not yet on screen.

So then I get to the room where the Frictional monster comes on screen. "Oh," I said, "look, it's the Frictional monster."

I've played through Amnesia: Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs(🐷). They have the same monster. It shambles towards you and kicks your ass. And I remember specifically, in Pig Machine, that the monster is fundamentally harmless. If you just stand there and wait, it shambles up and whomps you and then disappears. I mean, you die -- or almost die, or the game gives you another shot, or something -- but the monster is gone and you can get on with the plot.

I can see how the designers got there. Getting stuck isn't particularly good for the game flow, and the threat of sort-of-death is a still a decent incentive to sneak around and play the game "right". For most people. I guess. Not me. "Face your fear!" I shouted, and let the monster walk up and pop like a soap bubble.

In that light, the Frictional monster is hapless and pitiable. Poor poor fleshy monstrosity.

So there I am in Soma's underwater base, and the Frictional monster is coming at me again. It's dripping black biomechanical goo this time, but still instantly recognizable. I tried hiding -- pro forma, just to see if I could -- but no, it spots me and shambles in. Whomp!

I wake up -- but wounded: limping, blurred vision. Interesting. And the monster is still there. Hm.

Clearly the designers have backed off from the Piggy soap-bubble stance. Okay, that's fair. Facing the monster down really isn't the intended play experience. So I manage to sneak around the monster and make it to the next room. Explore a while. Find a healing... thing. Makes sense. Getting hurt has consequences but you can recover.

Oh, look, the monster has followed me. I hide. It finds me and whomps me. I wake up wounded. Oh, wait, it found me again. Whomp. Game over. Game over? Yes.

Unfortunately, I am caught in the fork. Playing the fearless Piggy way might have deflated the tension, but I could do it -- I finished Machine for Pigs and had a good creepy time. But bold isn't an option in Soma. Playing the "right" way, hiding from the monster, is tense but it isn't working.

Conclusion: maybe I'm bored with the Frictional monster. After three games, maybe they should have come up with something new?

(Yes, I know Pig Machine was made by a different studio. Doesn't help.)

But, before I delete Soma forever, I think: maybe I'm not the first? Indeed! With a very little bit of Googling:

Wuss Mode: Monsters Don't Attack by The Dreamer

This addon renders nearly all enemies in the main story non-hostile during regular gameplay. Surprisingly, it completely changes the atmosphere of the game, often for the better, since the servants of the WAU quietly patrolling the abandoned halls of Pathos-2 have a chilling poignance to them. [...] Playing it is an incredibly surreal experience, and while I personally prefer the vanilla gameplay, I think for those with weaker countenances, this is certainly a worthwhile way to play. Perfect for wusses who can't take the scares but still want to experience the amazing story and atmosphere of SOMA!

I quote a large chunk of the creator's blurb because I agree and disagree. It is surreal and poignant. The monsters -- not just one, I got far enough to distinguish variations -- are once again pitiable, wretched things. But they're threatening wretches. There is a great difference, I find, between a soap-bubble monster and one that shambles around in your face until you manage to escape it.

To be concrete: it is really hard to sit down at a computer console when there's a howling monster behind you. Even when you know it won't whomp you.

There are also a couple of chase scenes where if you're too slow, you die. The mod doesn't affect those. (I imagine they're not implemented as monsters, but with some other engine mechanic.) But I didn't have too much trouble getting through them.

Back up; re-read that blurb. Note the whole social-signalling issue, where the mod author has to be very clear that people who use this mod are weaker and can't take the scares. (It is, in fact, the stealth mechanics that I couldn't take.) I don't read that phrasing as real contempt -- for a start, the author made the mod. They must have some empathy for me, the prospective user. But they couldn't address me directly, either! I imagine them standing in a crowd of gamer-bro stereotypes, holding up this sparkling mod... but not too high... not too far outside the circle... lest someone mistake them for some kind of... wuss.

Well, I'm happy to speak for them, and to you. Soma is a haunting game. The environments are oppressive and beautiful. The pacing ratchets nicely between exploring in the light and creeping through the dark (but always edging deeper and dimmer). Even if the monsters cannot hurt you, there is tension in where monsters might be, and where they are. And so the game works with this mod. I recommend it.

(To enable Wuss Mode for Soma on Steam, search for it in the Steam Workshop and subscribe; then launch Soma and select "Play Mod". I'm not sure if it's available in the Playstation version.)

I should talk about the narrative, but I don't have a lot to say. I'd already played The Swapper and The Talos Principle (my review) so a story based around identity-and-philosophy-of-AI? Not really new territory.

I will say that Soma manages to tie the player's actions into its philosophical concerns. (Talos didn't do that -- it had a lot of nice writing which never intersected the gameplay. As for Swapper, I'm afraid its story never made much impression on me at all.) Soma's story is a bit scattershot, but it lands a couple of solid hits which have thematic weight behind them. It's horror, but existential horror in the end.

(I will cordially disagree with the designers' decision about the final scene. Shoulda left that right out.)

(Or, okay, left it in but distanced? Third-person? I'm trying not to be spoilery here, but you see what I mean.)

(🐷 Such a shame that David Cameron resigned before I wrote this.)

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 4: Horror and Magic

The relationship between magic systems and horror is hidden and unexplored territory, as secret as the black arts that lurk within the games themselves. Horror as used here refers not strictly to the genre of survival horror, which is a marketing construct invented in association with the first Resident Evil. Rather, horror-themed games include any game whose purpose is to evoke a sense of fear, dread, and the sublimity of unknown dark forces. Horror-themed games can be first person shooters, action-adventure games, and side-scrolling beat 'em ups. Magic is rarely the core mechanic of horror-themed games, often because players are put in the position of fighting magic through firearms and melee, or using magic only indirectly through artifacts. Magic and horror are intimately wedded in terms of themes but not in terms of direct player interaction.

realmsofthehaunting.pngYet, horror games often have the most original and memorable simulations of magic in terms of atmosphere and mood. What horror games have to teach us is their atmospheric simulation of magic, the Gothic mood that they associate with magic through a combination of art style, audio, and (sometimes) haptics. If more closely melded with the core mechanics of games, magic systems in horror games can be superb examples of design and provide inspiration for other hybrid genres.

Magic appears prominently in horror games because of an endemic thematic preoccupation with the supernatural, with emphasis on its dark side as the infernal and the demonic. With this supernatural element in mind, the definition of magic systems can be further refined and extended from last week's blog entry. A magic system is a set of rules and symbols for rigorously simulating the alteration of reality through the will by the agency of a supernatural force, whether conceived of as a genuine metaphysical presence, a symbolic construct, or an energizing psychological reality. In keeping with Crowley's axiom from Magick and Theory and Practice that "any intentional act is a magical act," any act of gameplay requires the operation of the will to achieve a desired result in altering a symbolic reality; therefore, any game mechanic can potentially be looked at as magic. This definition could theoretically be extended to include snowboarding and guitar playing if the experience of these activities approached the transcendent (which according to some Rock Band devotees, it certainly does). However, those genres that most embrace the representation and simulation of the supernatural will tend to exhibit interrelated mechanics that can most rigorously be defined as magic systems.

 Next to fantasy, horror is the narrative genre that most readily takes the supernatural as a fictional premise, rather than rationalizing or dismissing it. Hence, horror games will often but not always include some supernatural element but will also sometimes struggle to integrate it with the game's core mechanics, perhaps in part because magic in horror is frequently represented in Lovecraftian terms as eldritch and unknowable. The need to obscure the workings of the supernatural within a cloak of mystery can conflict with the goal of making mechanics rational and accessible to players. Approached clumsily, this fictional premise leads to the conclusion that the enemy has magic and the player does not, so she must shoot the enemy or hit him with a stick. Approached with subtlety, a horror-themed magic system can be as consummately rational as the black arts themselves, with their dread economy of souls bartered for power, and at the same time dense with mystery that emerges from unexpected combinations and effects.

From Doom to Demon's Souls, games abound in demonic manifestations and exorcisms, and while the first response of players and designers may be to fire a shotgun in the direction of the approaching devil, sooner or later it makes more sense to fight fire with fire. Hence, the protagonists of horror-themed first-person shooters and action-adventure games become scholars of the occult, wielding not just a gun but the arcane knowledge needed to defeat their enemies.

Magic haunts the fringes of Doom in the form of burning pentagrams and demonic enemies, highlighting an element of gameplay that may have deep archetypal resonance. Indeed, the highest function of gameplay in horror games may be to allow players to face their demons, both literally and figuratively: a trope as old as the first mythic attempts to grapple with the problem of evil. Despite the presence of demonic elements in Doom, the players' abilities remain primarily physical. As the prototypical first-person shooter (though not the first one, which was Wolfenstein 3D), Doom keeps its gameplay grounded in the obliteration of demons with ballistic firepower. Nonetheless, the player's use of teleporters etched with occult symbols (both pentagrams and sigils), allows him access to infernal realms, forcing him "knee deep in hell" in the game's own words. Doom is a game about accidentally opening a rift from Hell onto Mars, and the demons that spill out of this schism mirror the spillage of the supernatural into the otherwise physical activity of shooting.

The Heretic and Hexen series, a line of fantasy-themed Doom clones published by Ravensoft within Id's hexen2.jpgDoom engine, moved the mechanic of magic from periphery to the center of the first-person shooter, albeit in the form of re-skinned shooting mechanics. Because the series is heavily influenced by Doom, it also carries over some of Doom's dark aesthetic, resulting in magic that is both darkly themed and wielded against demonic enemies. Hexen is German for "witches" (and, more literally, "casting a spell"), and its gameplay delivers on the experience of spell-casting from a first-person perspective through the use of magical staffs and other items that fling spells when swung. First-person games with magic tend to represent spells as projectiles that release their magical effects on impact with either a character or an environmental object. Spells are often also accompanied by an animation file that represents either the swinging of a melee object or spell gestures such as hand-waving.

The appearance of magic within first-person shooters is an outgrowth of the action-RPG, a hybrid of real-time combat, first-person perspective, and role-playing elements like stat-based character advancement. Ultima Underworld helps solidify this sub-genre, but it comes most strongly into its own in the Elder Scrolls series, particularly the celebrated late installments Morrowind and Oblivion. Action-RPG's are exercises in immersion, eschewing turn-based combat and mouse-driven auto-targeting in favor of aiming melee attacks and spells in real time. Third-person perspective and turn-based combat have tended to dominate RPG's of the last five years, especially MMO's, in part because these games place emphasis on the display of avatars for performance-oriented identity and socialization. Yet, this distancing of player from avatar, in which players peer down over the shoulder of a character rather than seeing through her eyes and gesturing with her hands, puts a gap between spellcaster and spellcasting that can be detrimental to the immersive experience of magic.

In the first-person perspective, players can feel as if they are the ones casting the spells rather than watching someone else cast them. The Elder Scrolls, in addition to its diverse range of spell effects, lets players run, swing swords, and fling fireballs simultaneously. Because this process requires quick thinking and quicker reflexes, it increases the degree of immersion associated with magic, rather than permitting players to simply select a target and then click a row of icons. The Elder Scrolls universe is not predominantly horror-themed, though it does incorporate Lovecraftian elements (such as the mythos-named Daedra Mehrunes Dagon and the R'lyeh-influenced architecture of the Daedric shrines) within a somewhat Gothic world. However, first-person action-RPG's lay the groundwork for full integration of magic systems within a horror-themed FPS, which occurs in the cult classic Realms of the Haunting and Clive Barker's Undying.

Undying is a classic example of a player character whose gameplay abilities entail using the powers of the dark against itself. In Undying, the player takes the role of Patrick Galloway, a scholar of the occult who wields both spells and guns. In terms of gameplay, this story premise allows the player to shoot weapons with one hand and cast spells with the other. Many of the spells in Undying are traditional first-person shooter projectiles with magical particle effects attached, yet even these spells have a Gothic flair. In casting a Skullstorm spell, the player as Galloway pulls shrieking skulls out of graveyard soil and flings them at enemies, with the restriction that the spell can only be cast while standing on soil. Another spell summons and strengthens demons but can be used to cause a human enemy to turn his gun on himself. The Scry spell reveals hidden apparitions and messages. Because Undying's spells actually function as casting effects rather than being dependent on items like magical staffs, they feel less like disguised shooter mechanics and more like a hybrid genre, such as the awkwardly hyphenated horror-themed action-adventure-shooter.

undyingspells.jpgWhile Undying successfully adapts magic to the first-person action-shooter, two other third-person action-adventure examples feature a less graceful integration: Nightmare Creatures and Shadow Man, both of which games are distinctly within the vein of the Soul Reaver series. In Nightmare Creatures, the player can take the role of a priest and scholar of the occult fighting off a cult led by a mad scientist with the suspicious name of Adam Crowley. Magic in this game appears as a metaphor for combat (much as in the later Bayonetta), specifically in the form of staff techniques unleashed through button-based combos, as well as magical effects created by power-ups. In Shadow Man, magic takes the form of voodoo abilities powered through dark souls and artifacts called cadeaux, reinforcing a French and Caribbean-influenced take on the horror-themed action-adventure game. One review wryly refers to Shadow Man as "Resident Mario" in reference to the importance of collecting the gameplay equivalent of coins and stars in order to unlock new areas and powers. As with Hexen, magic in these games plays a heavy part in world, art, and narrative design but is kept at a distance from the game's core mechanics--with a greater distance between world and mechanics in Nightmare Creatures than in Shadow Man.

When the magic system of a horror game does manage to mesh the atmosphere of audio and visuals with an equally rich core mechanic, the results tend to be superb. In Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, magic (or magick, as the in-game text calls it) constitutes one of the core mechanics of this tremendous cult game, explored through a combinatorial language of runes whose multimodal richness and mythological depth far outstrip most magic systems. Eternal Darkness demonstrates that horror games can teach as much about the atmosphere of magic systems as their mechanics. The runic language of Eternal Darkness owes a debt to Dungeon Master and Ultima Underworld, but the audio of demonic chanting and visual explosions of symbolically-charged color of Eternal Darkness takes the game's magic system to an entirely new level.

Another superb example of magic in a game with horror elements is the masterful Vagrant Story, an RPG with strong survival horror elements, in which magic is the manifestation of a mysterious force called "the dark." Vagrant Story resonates with occult authenticity, since the player acquires spells from grimoires and doors are locked by sigils, both of which terms derive from ceremonial magic. Eschewing the Vancian system of Dungeons and Dragons, each grimoire is a spellbook with one spell which the player acquires permanently as his memories of abilities from a former life return. In a display of shockingly extensive research into kabbalistic and occult thought, several doors in the keep of Lea Monde are labeled with Hebrew letters glowing in symbolic colors.

vagrantstorysymbol.jpgWhile Vagrant Story and Eternal Darkness may eschew the Vancian systems of Dungeons and Dragons, another classic horror writer casts his sublime shadow over both games and horror gaming in general: H.P. Lovecraft. The energizing influence of horror games on magic systems is analogous to the influence exerted by H.P. Lovecraft on Robert E. Howard, resulting in an infusion of Conan's low fantasy with a black dose of the Cthulhu mythos.

To contextualize this analogous influence, it is important to see that the predominant literary source of high fantasy in games is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien's Catholicism led him to downplay the use of magic by his protagonists, resulting in a predominately weak and diluted use of enchantments to harmoniously influence nature. (Gandalf's defiance of the Balrog is an exception, and Sauron's power is an exception that proves the rule by condemning magic as powerful but devastatingly wicked and destructive to self and other). The undeniable influence of Tolkien on fantasy RPG's has perhaps marred the seriousness and atmosphere of these games' magic systems, such that Gary Gygax classified magic in Tolkien's fiction as "generally weak and ineffectual." True to form, the magic system in Lord of the Rings Online can sometimes be a little less than thrilling, since the main casting class of Loremasters are a relatively lukewarm druid/mage hybrid with elemental magic powers and beast pets. (The addition of Runekeepers with electrical shock magic is slightly more intriguing but of dubious relationship to Tolkien's fiction).

In contrast, Robert E. Howard's vision of magic is sufficiently influenced by the Cthulhu mythos to become both darker and more rich than standard high fantasy, suggesting an analogous inspirational power for horror to influence magic systems in games. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard corresponded extensively because of their mutual tendency to publish in Weird Tales. Magic in Howard's stories has a distinctly Lovecraftian eldritch quality, merged with a fascination with Egyptology to produce a vision of sorcery as evil and founded upon dangerous ties with demons. It is this vision of magic that works its way into the black decks of Magic: The Gathering, with their Demonic Tutors who convey knowledge at a price and the Overeager Apprentices whose presumption ends with splatters of their own blood on the walls.

overeagerapprentice.jpgThe magic system in Age of Conan literalizes the analogy between game genre and game fiction through a magic system that is dark and deep in both mechanics and atmosphere. As explained in an interview and confirmed on the Age of Conan site, magic in this MMO is:

1) Dark

2) Dangerous

3) Difficult

As Gaute Godager, the director of the game, explains:

we try to make the visual look and feel of magic in Conan different from what you have seen in other games and the more traditional fantasy settings. The clownlike, fireball-tossing magic users in pointy hats, with puffs and multicolored robes, are not part of the Hyborian universe. In Conan's age, magic is dangerous, hidden, and dark. Men who meddle with magic inevitably fall to its temptation and powers. Magic uses you as much as you use it.

In terms of mechanics, magic in Age of Conan includes a high-level skill called spellweaving, demonologistspellweaving.jpgin which players can combine spells rhythmically in order to produce a meta-spell of devastating proportions. In an E3 demo of this feature, spellweaving was explained as representing the risky aspect of magic "where the magician summons a demon, does something wrong in the spell, and is pulled down into hell." This approach to magic is an attempt to represent within gameplay and audiovisual feedback the skill required to cast spells and the risk in misusing one's skills. Age of Conan drove many players away through a buggy launch and an initial lack of endgame content, but the vision behind this magic system and its larger place with a coherent and stirringly brutal world are unique. They entail a horror-influenced rejection of the cute and superficial approach to magic adopted by many mainstream RPG's and popular fantasy fiction, in favor of a vision of the arcane that is darker and deeper. As Godager explains: we have tried to make magic more "real," in a sense. Manipulation of the natural forces of the world, the summoning of "real" demons from a dark, untold hell, and touch-based shamanistic powers are major parts of our magic system. Yes, there will be magic in many forms, but you should feel the difference when playing this game. You should feel the age of darkness, the weight of history, and the fear of being corrupted when you walk the path of arcane magic. Funcom's upcoming release of The Secret World, a paranormal-conspiracy themed MMO with Lovecraftian elements and a mysterious magic system suggests that they could be on the verge of carrying forward the vision behind Age of Conan with the benefits of a first attempt and a refined Age of Conan engine.

Game genres are convenient categories for talking about features of mechanics and worlds that certain games share. Up to a point, these categories can be useful in refining mechanics, because they allow designers to contrast the varying virtues of the targeting functions in Doom, Call of Duty 4, and Gears of War. When a mechanic becomes wedded in the public consciousness to a particular genre, there is a potential problem of homogeneity, of cookie-cutter conformity. It is then that we as designers need to break up the mold a little bit, to invoke the forces of darkness not out of any ultimate love of evil but a desire to shake our systems out of their complacency. To create an atmosphere of the infernal is to court controversy, to step close to the boundary between occultism and gaming which created such bitter controversy in the 1980's. But this boundary is precisely the fertile ground from which new ideas can emerge. To take one of Godager's statements out of its original gameplay context in Age of Conan and into the realm of design: "the ultimate power comes when you are able to walk the fine line--the one between destruction and creation."

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Zeno Clash: Subtle horror, done right

MA_revisions_06-large.jpgThe opening cinematic of ACE Team's Zeno Clash shows a towering and unearthly creature -- cowled, hunchbacked and literally bird-legged, yellow eyes glowing like lanterns over a beaklike proboscis -- tenderly caring for some chubby, babbling babies. We see it helping one learn to walk, letting the child grasp its absurdly long, bony finger, leading it along gently.

The scene is not played as a shocking reveal; the entire, bizarre tableau is displayed at once, as soon as the game loads. The game knows damn well that you downloaded it after reading a blurb, either on Steam or on Xbox Live, that led you to expect an action-adventure about beating people up. And then it shows you this.

That, my friends, is a hook.

Here is another hook:

Mrs. Sloan had only three fingers on her left hand, but when she drummed them against the countertop, the tiny polished bones at the end of the fourth and fifth stumps clattered like fingernails. If Judith hadn't been looking, she wouldn't have noticed anything strange about Mrs. Sloan's hand.

"Tell me how you met Herman," said Mrs. Sloan.

This the opening of "The Sloan Men" by David Nickle, whose work I discovered via Pseudopod, a podcast of new short stories in the horror genre. I started listening to the show a couple of years ago as a change of pace from Escape Pod, the trailblazing SF podcast that became popular enough to spawn a handful of subgenre-specific shows, Psuedopod among them. I quickly came to prefer it over its parent show -- to my surprise, since I have never identified as a horror fan. And while I don't love every story it features, it manages to air a real winner with sufficient frequency that I look forward to each week's new show.

I quote Nickle because his stories, and the experience of having them read to me by Psuedopod's varied but consistently fine vocal talent, came to mind as I started to play Zeno Clash. From my perspective, the game appeared without warning or fanfare on Xbox Live Arcade last week. (It's been on Steam for a year, but, not much of a PC gamer, I hadn't noticed.) By coincidence, I'd purchased Nickle's collection Monstrous Affections earlier that same day -- after hearing and loving, for the third time, a story of his on Pseudopod -- so stories like "The Sloan Men" were fresh on my mind.[1]

The two stories' openings share the tactic of taking something familiar and domestic -- one parent lovingly caring for its infant children; another, enthroned in her kitchen, casually grilling her son's new girlfriend -- and mixing in something very wrong, letting it jut out in plain sight, as obvious as an exposed fingerbone. The disconnect, when executed correctly, produces a thrill in the audience, a recognition of the normal world gone horribly (aha!) awry somehow, and generates a hunger to learn more.

For me, this artful juxtaposition of the mundane with the monstrous is the very definition of contemporary horror at its best, far more so than the zombies and vampires that bulk up the genre's stereotype. What struck me about Zeno Clash, as I worked through the first hour or two of its single-digit playtime total, was its successful implementation of this particular flavor or horror literature into the videogame form, and the fact that I couldn't recall the last time I'd seen such a thing -- at least, not outside interactive fiction, which has long used the strengths of its text-based medium to establish its own tradition of horror-themed games.

You can say a lot of nice things about Left 4 Dead, but it doesn't make much room for narrative subtlety. The storied survival-horror videogame subgenre that informs it (Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, et al) relies on the formula of an audience-identifiable outsider trapped in a dark place they don't belong, trying to fight their way back to normalcy. The player-character of Zeno Clash, on the other hand, lives among the monsters of his world as a native; and unlike, say, the Oddworld games, the situation isn't played for ironic laughs. Instead, you-the-player find yourself both repulsed and tantalized by the game's setting, unable to completely sympathize with the alien protagonist but nonetheless finding just enough familiarity among the unsettling scenery to be drawn in.

The game does an excellent job maintaining the uneasy tone established with the opening nursery scene. The tutorial level takes place in an uncertain dreamscape. Your fighting instructor, while teaching you how the controller works, keeps saying odd things, always concluding with the repeated insistence "But you are not dead" in a breathy growl. What kind of trainer is this, exactly? Soon after the plot gets underway, the main characters find themselves in a forest populated by a tribe of gibbering madmen wearing bizarre costumes. Unexpectedly, the protagonist displays admiration for them, revealing that he used to be one himself. Between fights with the colorful (and spry) lunatics, he introduces them to his traveling companion, calling them by name and noting the unique, single-minded purpose that each displays. As the camera pans over a masked figure slumped against a fallen tree, the hero beams, "She peed on herself and starved to death anonymously, because that is what she did." This is perhaps the oddest thing my Xbox has ever said, and -- as the line came delivered via good, understated voice acting -- served to trigger the connection I drew between this game and my listening to the stories of Pseudopod.

The writing keeps its high quality throughout the game, sometimes seeming somewhat too good for a game whose interactive sequences mainly deal with pounding people to a pulp with your fists. It features perhaps the least intelligence-insulting bit of foreshadowing I've seen in a console game's story: an unusual event that happens early in the game remains memorable enough that, when it's echoed by a major mid-game plot development, it relies on no supporting flashbacks or voiceover to remind you. It's subtle enough that I missed the connection while playing, realizing it only when I stopped to take a break, and I laughed with delight. (That introductory cutscene plays a similar trick, incidentally. It, and a few short subsequent cinematics, play every time you load up the game. If you play through the game over several sessions, as I did, those scenes re-contextualize themselves with every repeat viewing, and the result made me smile each time.)

The artwork is fine, too, weirdly blending a gunpowder-using society with a neolithic aesthetic, looking something like the organic landscapes of Moebius by way of Jack Kirby. I could keep going, but the game is too short to pick apart further without spoiling the rest. I'll just place Zeno Clash among the most refreshing of console-style videogames I've had the pleasure to experience in a long time. I recommend playing through the trial which -- at least on the Xbox version -- gives you a taste of both the narrative flavor and the nature of the martial-arts simulation that defines the game's action sequences. If both appeal to you, you could do worse than invest in the full game, which offers several hours of phantasmagoric fighting and storytelling of a sort I've never quite seen before.

[1] Nickle has the full text of "The Sloan Men" on his website, but I especially recommend giving a listen to the story's audio version, read by Cunning Minx.

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