I’m beginning to realize that the game I hold up as an example of Survival Horror perfection – Silent Hill 2 – is a complete aberration. It was the first Survival Horror game I really played (aside from dabbling a bit with a couple of games for a half hour or so) and I assumed there were more like it out there. As far as I can tell, there aren’t. I can’t help but judge Survival Horror titles – games ostensibly designed to frighten the player – by the criteria I wrote about a while ago on how to scare players. That’s not really fair, since what I’m looking for is apparently very different from what the designers are trying to do. But until I become so fabulously rich that I can make my own game for other people to pick apart, I have to make do with what I find on the shelf. I buy these Survival Horror titles, each time hoping that my list of ideal features and the designer’s list of features have an area of intersection on some unidentified Venn Diagram.
ObsCure is very much a standard SH game. All the usual suspects are here: 1) Clunky combat 2) Rationed saves 3) Aggressively difficult gameplay and 4) A story that collapses like a house of baking powder if you accidentally think about it.
This is not to say it’s a bad game. In fact, if you’re a fan of old-school survival games then this is probably exactly what you’re looking for. But I’m going to pick it apart for not being the game I want it to be, because I’m petty and unfair. This nitpickery begins now:
|Four students get locked in the school overnight. In defiance of horror conventions, none of them claim “everything will be just fine”, and none of them get naked.|
There are a lot of rough edges on this setup, and some of it is just silly. It’s clear the goal of the writers was, “four students, locked in a spooky old school”, and they didn’t want to waste exposition explaining away any of the hundred or so objections that might arise in the mind of the player. It’s a good setting for a game, I just wish they had at least hung a lampshade on some of the more obvious narrative anomalies.
I like lampshade hanging. When a writer has something that doesn’t make sense – say, a school so fortified that you can’t escape if the gate is locked, or a town that has multiple teenagers disappear and doesn’t become a national news sensation, or the fact that the school faculty has a preposterous number of hidden guns – it creates a hole in the story that’s obvious to everyone. Was the writer stupid or lazy? Or was he smart, but he assumed the player is stupid? Or is the writer saying the characters are stupid for not noticing? Is this hole deliberate, or just carelessness?
All you need is for a student to say something like, “Another gun? This is crazy. How many guns does this school have, anyway?” This is a nice nod from the writer to the viewer: Yes, we both recognize this doesn’t make perfect sense. It’s okay. We’re going along with it for the sake of the story.
|You can explore the school with any two students you choose. If you need access to the special abilities of a different student, you can go back to the hub and trade off.|
Here is the big twist of the game: The students are all expendable. If one dies, you switch to their companion. If that person dies you switch back to one of the remaining students. You don’t actually get a game over until all the students die, and no one student is central to the plot. This makes the game a bit like a teen slasher movie, with students getting picked off as the story progresses.
At first I was frustrated at how aggressively difficult the game was. There just weren’t enough healing items to go around. But eventually I realized that this was on purpose. They aren’t all supposed to survive. The students themselves are a sort of resource that you use up. As a videogame completionist, this drove me nuts at first. I don’t want to lose any! I want to keep them all! It’s possible, I’m sure, to reach the endgame with the whole group intact, but I didn’t have the patience to replay each area and practice it until I could do it “optimally”, which is what it would take to keep everyone alive.
This does force the player into some interesting choices: Who do you save and who do you sacrifice? Aside from whatever meager contributions they make to the story, there’s the question of which special abilities you value most.
Spread around the school are “save discs”, which work a bit like the resident evil typewriter tape. You collect them, and saving the game costs you a disk. No disk, no save. It binds the ability to save to an economy, although unlike in Resident Evil ObsCure allows you to save anywhere.
I realize this is a convention of the genre, but in my own view this is a wrongheaded way to approach things. From an immersion standpoint this is the absolute worst possible system, since by design it forces the player to do all sorts of meta-game thinking and worrying about the mechanics instead of the story. In a game this hard – where a surprise ambush can kill or cripple a character – you don’t have a lot of room for mistakes. You don’t know how many save discs you’ll find. (Will the game get really stingy with them later?) You don’t know what sort of challenge lies ahead. (Am I coming up on a major encounter / boss fight?) You don’t have any information except how long it’s been since you saved. This also punishes you for short play sessions (since saving to quit uses up a save) instead of sitting down and playing in one massive session.
Saving and loading becomes a sort of strategy mini-game, where sub-optimal decisions lead to the game getting increasingly (perhaps impossibly) difficult down the road, or to the player needing to replay large sections of the game. Actually, it’s a sort of tradeoff between those two, neither of which makes the game more fun.
This is great if you want to play a game of careful rationing and resource management, and abysmal if you want to just enjoy a narrative and lose yourself in the experience. In a genre that relies so heavily on immersion, it’s crazy that they are often so ridiculously mechanical and reliant on player foreknowledge.
I’ve been resorting to using a hint guide on this game, which is never a good sign. But the limited save system basically punishes you for exploration and experimentation, and using a hint guide is just the most basic level of defense against that punishment. I will also note that the old rule holds true – I’d rather have cheat codes than read a walkthrough, but cheats aren’t available here.
Despite my many gripes with the game, I still enjoy playing it. I’ll get into the good stuff in a later post.
Grand Theft Railroad
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Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
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A video Let's Play series I collaborated on from 2009 to 2017.
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People were so worried about the boring gameplay of The Old Republic they overlooked just how boring and amateur the art is.