Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Game Talk #18: The Thing

This game is another one that I have a lot of history with. I was kind of obsessed with it for awhile. In fact, I novelized this game more than once. I finally got it right (I think) in 2015. And then I wrote a sequel to it. So, I really liked it.

A bit of history.

This game, released in 2002, is a sequel to the masterpiece horror film John Carpenter's The Thing. In short: Watch the damn movie if you haven't. If you're a fan of horror or mystery, even a little, this is an absolute must. And this film isn't a masterpiece in the sense that some films are considered masterpieces even though, by today's standards, they're boring as hell or 'they were great at the time'. Not to knock those movies, or anything.

No, even by today's standards, The Thing is fucking amazing.

Just watch this trailer.

Basically everything about this film is stellar. And the practical special effects for it are so good that they look better than most CGI even today. In fact, the guy making them, Rob Bottin, worked so hard on it that he both invented new forms of practical effects and had to be hospitalized from exhaustion after the film was finished being shot. As a bonus, Stan Winston, possibly the best practical effects guy in history, had a hand in this film.

So obviously the game had a lot to live up to.

From what I remember, it didn't have a lot of fanfare when it came out. It was just kind of...there, one day. Of course, I could be totally mistaken, I'm not exactly know for my attention to detail. Anyway, I got it from Blockbuster for PS2 as soon as I was able.

You know when you're on the start menu of a game, and if you don't do anything for like a minute or so, it launches into a trailer?

I used to watch that like over and over again. I mean, is that not just fucking awesome?

Obviously I was in love with the game.

As a side note, I think a part of what really cemented the game in my mind was the fact that the only copy Blockbuster had...was broken! I would make it to about the 1/3 mark in the campaign, go to load the next level and...nothing. The game would freeze every time. And this went on for months and months. I don't think I even got to see the rest of the game for another year or so, when I finally got an Xbox.

Anyway, let's talk about the game now.

To be honest, it hasn't aged very well, and it isn't a masterpiece. So keep that in mind.

The Thing is a third person shooter with survival-horror aspects. In it, you play Special Forces Captain J. F. Blake. You have just been flown down to Antarctica and given command of a small squad to investigate Outpost 31, which has gone silent. You arrive to find the base in ruins, and the further you search, the more the mystery grows. Things only get worse as a bad storm sets in and you receive fragmentary distress calls from a second team investigating the Norwegian outpost. You are then dropped off, alone, and begin your search for the second team.

That's when shit gets real.

The game takes you across a lot of different locations, ranging from old, burned-out outposts to derelict more recent structures to a submarine to chaotic high-tech (for the 80s) installations. It features a fair amount of different enemies. You've got horrific smaller enemies called Scuttlers that are basically human heads walking around on little legs. Then you've got Walkers, which is just the general name for a varied of horrifying twisted proliferations of waxy flesh and protruding bone and slit mouths stuffed with uneven, broken razor teeth. I mean, there is one monster that has a silently screaming human torso for a tail.

So obviously they really captured the body horror of the original movie.

There are a fair amount of guns, though they're all kind of basic. You've got the MP-5. The pistol. The shotgun. The sniper rifle. But the interesting one is the flamethrower. This is absolutely necessary to make it through the game because you cannot kill Walkers without fire. The idea is that you've got to hit it with gunfire first to whittle down its health, then set it on fire. This can create some pretty chaotic gameplay.

And then there's the infection.

One of the core ideas behind the Thing is that basically, it's an entity that infects you. If you touch a Thing, there's a decent chance that it will infect you and slowly take you over from the inside out, the end result being that you are no longer you. You are dead. Now, something is wearing your body. So obviously, this means that anyone can be a Thing. They walk, talk, and act human. They are chameleons hiding in plain sight. This bleeds over into the game, though unfortunately not very well. You encounter a variety of different NPCs that you induct into your squad. They can be infected and they can become infected.

Seriously, if they get attacked by a Thing, there's a chance that they are now infected and may, at some point in the future, at random, turn on you.

Unfortunately, this is a very primitive implementation of this really cool idea. It often doesn't work out like that and one thing that's really annoying is that even if you are SURE that some characters aren't infected, they have scripted moments where they turn on you. Which kind of sucks.

They can also distrust you if you do things like shoot them (accidentally or on purpose, they don't discriminate), take away their guns, stuff like don't they. If their trust meter drops low enough, they attack you. Even unarmed, they will steal your gun. They can also totally lose their shit if they're in a particularly fucked up, gore-soaked room. And you have ways to counteract this. You can try to gain their trust back by proving you aren't a Thing, or giving their guns back, or, if you're a dick, you can manually aim your gun at their head and coerce them. Literally. Also, if they're flipping out, you can give them a shot of adrenaline to calm them down.

Wait, what? That never made sense to me.

As for your squadmates, you've got the classic trio: Soldiers, Medics, and Engineers, just like Half-Life: Opposing Force and Quake 4. Soldiers and medics are useful, but in some areas, Engineers are an absolute must. And everyone can die in this game.

While graphically the game is a dinosaur, aesthetically, it's amazing. The artists and sound designers managed to do a brilliant job in capturing the hauntingly desolate and mind-numbingly bleak isolation of Antarctica. The wind howls constantly. You can't see more than ten feet in front of you when you're outside. Windows are smashed, rooms are frozen over, and although the gore can be excessive, if you pay attention, certain areas tell little stories. Sometimes literally, you can find text documents or hastily scrawled last messages from dying men. And the minimalist soundtrack, which obviously takes its cues from the film, only accentuate all of this.

This is a bleak fucking game.

One more thing that's really cool is that John Carpenter officially endorses this game. So much so that he offered his likeness and voice for one of the characters. And that's awesome.

There are some bad things about the game. For the most part, it hasn't aged too well. Although it probably looked pretty decent at the time, the talking animations are kind of laughable now. On top of that, and this is honestly the worst part for me, the plot is really threadbare. I don't want to talk about it too much, because the game really should be played for itself, but there just isn't a lot going on. Or, maybe it's not even that. There's actually a fair amount going on, but it never leads anywhere. They hint at a lot, but nothing comes of almost any of it.

My last real complaint is that the game gets INSANELY hard at about the three quarters mark. I mean, I get it, the endgame has to be tough, but they went kind of overboard on it. Once everything starts catching on fire, you'll know you've just entered this section.

The last thing I want to go into is that there was going to be a sequel! I didn't find that out until like ten years later, but apparently Computer Artworks was green-lit for an immediate sequel and promptly began work on The Thing 2. Concept art and basic animations still exist, and from what I could see, it looked like it was going to be awesome. They were something like a year into production when it got canned. There's no real explanation for why as far as I can tell.

If you want, you can check out the info and concept art here.

That's all I've got to say about it really. Go watch John Carpenter's The Thing, then go play the game. Also, PLEASE disregard the 2011 The Thing. That's utter garbage. You want the 1982 The Thing, with John Carpenter's name on it.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Game Talk #17: Beyond Good & Evil

This game is just...unreal.

I don't even know where to begin.

I guess with the premise, which should give you an idea of how out there this game is. It's the future and you are Jade, a photojournalist living on a distant world called Hillys, which is caught in the middle of a conflict between the dark, mysterious, and very alien DomZ and the human government, the Alpha Section. On this planet, humans live alongside many anthropomorphic people. They've got everything here from an air-hockey obsessed shark guy to a group of Jamaican rhino mechanics. Yes I said that.

Jade lives on an island with a lighthouse with her adoptive uncle, Pey'j, a middle-aged overweight, badass pig man, where they take in war orphans. Near the beginning of the game, a lack of funds leads you to lose power during a crucial moment: during a DomZ attack. After defeating them, (Jade is a badass with a combat stick, called a Daï-jo), she decides that they need money, badly, and she manages to pick up a job from the local science institute, who needs someone to photograph and document all of the various species that inhabit the planet. This ultimately leads her into an underground rebel network intent on uncovering a dark truth behind the war.

And that's the set up to this game. Seriously.

I kind of feel like this game was made near the end of the era where publishers were willing to take more of a chance on the weird, out there games that don't easily fit into a certain kind of genre or narrative. Maybe I'm showing my ignorance or age, but it seems like most AAA titles are getting a lot more cookie cutter. And I honestly get it. I mean, it sucks, but video games are becoming absurdly expensive to make, and the price isn't really reflecting the rising costs, not that I'm necessarily wanting to pay more for video games, but I can understand why some people would hesitate to sink a hundred million dollars into a game that wasn't pretty damned certain to sell, and sell big.

But anyway, Beyond Good & Evil is a unique game.

It's a...an action-adventure game with lots of stealth elements. Or that's what people say about it. And it's largely true. But there's a lot more to it.

I'd like to say that I played the game way back in the day, when it came out in 2003 for the Xbox and PS2, but I didn't. And, in a way, I think that's actually for the best. In 2011, the game was given an HD makeover, both on the visuals and audio design, and released onto the XBLA and PSN. Somehow, we ended up with it, and I saw my wife playing through it.

I thought it looked really weird and interesting.

So I gave it a shot, and despite the fact that it had some...annoying gameplay aspects, (I suck at stealth sections and don't have the patience for them, plus this is from the era where stealth wasn't much of a thing and it was often half-baked at best), I beat it. And did almost every side quest. I don't do that unless I really like the game, especially if it's annoying.

One of the things that stood out was, despite the fact that everything has kind of a cartoony feel to it, and there certainly is a lot of comedy in the game, the plot gets very heavy and very serious at times, but not in a way that a lot of people think of as serious, where everything gets unrelentingly 'grim and dark', but they actually tackle some heavy issues in a fairly mature way.

Now it's time to talk about what I think is the most significant thing about this game: Inclusion.

Although it was just as big a problem back when the game was being made, if not more so, inclusion in gaming wasn't really being talked about. (Or maybe it was and I just didn't notice, but it seems like this is a discussion we as a society are having far more often and openly now.)

But there are so many different types of people in this game that it's just impressive as hell. People don't feel very cookie-cutter. And although most of the characters are anthropomorphic, Hillys feels like a realistic cultural melting pot. It's clear that a lot of work went into all the various characters.

And another great aspect of the game and plot is the main character herself: Jade. It's obvious that most form of entertainment struggles with female characters. I'm not really sure why, there seem to be a lurid cocktail of half-assed reasons, but that's the way it is. Jade is a great example of how to do it right, not just in her character, but in the way the game, the plot itself, treats the character. Jade ends up doing some extremely risky, dangerous things, a lot of them, and no one questions if she can do this based on the fact that she's a woman, no one is overprotective for this reason.

In all honesty, her gender never seems to be taken into account. It's almost as if being a woman has nothing to do with her capabilities, her resolve, her role in the larger plot.

There's a lot to say about Beyond Good & Evil, but it's better to experience it yourself, instead of having someone tell you about it. I'd highly recommend it. Right now, you can get it for 10$ digitally. I'd suggest at least getting the demo, because although this is a great game, I can also understand that it's really not for everyone.

Final piece of news: They're making a sequel! Beyond Good & Evil 2 has been in and out of production for years and years now, but as of October 2016, it is official, the sequel is being worked on full force. And as for how that's going? Well, just read this quote to see how insanely ambitious the team is: "Beyond Good & Evil 2 is a very serious development for Ubisoft, big questions that are so big you can't know the answers because no physics engine can handle all of the dimensions and speeds and things like that, It's like 'Okay, if no physics engine can do it, how can we achieve that? It's crazy and difficult to explain to people how technical making a game is. Now it's not anymore about polygons and things like that, it's about millions of behavioral AIs, systems, and giant spaceships crashing on big planets."

So...yeah. Obviously it's going to be a huge game. I'm looking forward to it.

The Near Horizon: May 2017

So, for once, I think I'm not disappointed with the amount of work I got done on The DOOM Chronicles and Gathering Darkness. Although I can't say that I'm satisfied.

That being said, I'm afraid that I must now deliver unhappier news. After almost a four month break from writing original fiction, I am now officially back at it. As of this week, my original fiction project has shifted from planning and pre-production into actual writing. So far, I've got about 4,000 words written for it.

I don't want to say too much about it, mainly just because although I'm very certain about the project itself, I'm not sure about its publication. This is a list of what I'm willing to release.
  • I am going to attempt to get this published at an actual publishing company. I've been scoping them out for years and not only do they seem pretty competent and dedicated, but they seem interested in publishing primarily exactly the kind of stuff I write. Honestly, I'm more concerned about convincing them that I'm good enough to offer a contract to.
  • It will be novel length. Probably longer than most of the Shadow Wars books.
  • Although it can stand alone, it definitely can and, if at all possible, will be part of a series.
  • It will be a post-apocalyptic survival/horror story.
  • Yes, there will be monsters.
  • This will not be released under my name. I'm staring a second pen name. I learned a lot writing The Shadow Wars, and it'd be nice to be able to put that knowledge to work from the beginning, instead of precariously piecemealing it together over months and years.
That's about it, honestly. I'm going to try and focus hard on getting this novel written. Waiting to find out important stuff really messes with me, and this novel is kind of the next big step in my career. Honestly, the biggest so far. I need to find out if this is going to work.

As always, thank you sincerely for the support!