Friday, October 28, 2016

#7DaysOfHorror Day 4 - P.T.

I know I probably shouldn't be recommending something that is no longer available to download, but I've been meaning to write about this game for a long time and there's no time like Halloween to talk about it. If you don't know, P.T. was a demo/teaser for a new Silent Hill game that was to be directed by Guillermo del Toro and Hideo Kojima. Konami had a falling out with Kojima after Metal Gear Solid 5, which lead to the cancellation of Silent Hills and the removal of P.T. from the Playstation Network Store.

I still remember how the whole release of P.T. went down. Sony announced the release of the 'game' during a press conference with little fanfare. Players dove into the game and found out that at the end it plays a teaser for Silent Hills. It was a crazy way to announce a game of that caliber, and it was one of the most Kojima ways to reveal a game I could think of. I didn't have a PS4 at the time, so it was a bummer that I wasn't able to be caught up in that moment in time. Thankfully I got a system before the game was taken off of the store and it's been living on my hard drive ever since. 

But besides all the drama and mystique, how is the game? Honestly, it's one of the best horror games I've ever played. The entire game takes place in a looping hallway in a house, one that doesn't spatially. It seems fairly harmless at first, but as you progress the game adds layers of nightmare onto the setting. The decision to give you a space that you get familiar with and then slowly transform it into something that feels increasingly unsafe is so effective. It reminds me a bit of how they handled the Room segments of Silent Hill 4, which were the most interesting parts of that game. One loop through really changes things up, making the hallway fold back on itself and trap you in there while you move at an extra fast speed. While there are some jump scares, most of the horror is just from the powerful atmosphere created by these changes. 

 One thing that's really interesting about the game is that the gameplay is very simple. It's in first person, which is a departure for the Silent Hill series, and pretty much the only action you can do is zoom in slightly to examine things in the world. The 'puzzles' of the game involve finding things hidden around the hallway in order to progress. It's hard to describe, but the way you figure things out is immensely satisfying. I like to call it an 'OCD Simulator' because you really have to go over things with a fine-toothed comb because the game doesn't give you much in the way of obvious guidance. The final puzzle is way too obtuse (it took my wife and I an hour and a half to figure it out while looking at a walkthrough), but other than that the game moves at a decent pace without being easy. 

Everything about this game has the makings of a great urban legend. From the stealth way it was released to its current scarcity, this will be a game that people will talk about for years in the horror community. It's easily one of the biggest cancelled games of all time, but at least we got P.T. out of it. Despite just being created as a 'Playable Teaser' for the main game, P.T. can stand alone as one of the best horror experiences of all time. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

#7DaysOfHorror Day 3 - Eldritch Horror

Last October, I did a series called Creepy Cardboard where I highlighted some board games that featured a horror theme. One that I wanted to write about was the co-op horror game Eldritch Horror. There are few games that capture such a feeling of overwhelming desperation, and it's all the better for it.

Eldritch Horror casts you and your friends as investigators and adventurers trying to stop evil cultists and their army of otherworldly creatures from bringing about the end of the world. The game is a variation/simplification of Arkham Horror which is based in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft. At the start of each game you pick which of the Lovecraftian Great Old Ones you are trying to stop, which sets the difficulty and affects some of the mechanics of how things will play out.

The board is a world map with various cities highlighted that are centers for cultist activity. Each turn, players can take two actions, from moving around the board to fighting creatures to investigating mysteries. After the players all go, you perform certain actions that make the game more difficult. Monsters will spawn, clues will pop up around the globe and the countdown to doom will progress. Each turn you have to draw a card based on your location and complete a dice check of some sort based on your character's stats.

The gameplay really makes you feel like you are constantly spinning plates trying not to let any of them fall. You're trying to collect clues to pass a certain objective and you're just about there, but then some other evil thing shows up that has an effect on all players if it goes unchecked. Do you complete your objective, bringing you closer to winning, or do you try to stop the force affecting everyone? These are the types of decisions that you have to make as a team, and it takes a master planner to be able to figure out how to properly prioritize objectives and win the game.

The flavor text on the game is really top notch. The event cards all tell compelling little mini-stories that perfectly match the Lovecraftian tone of the game. You may find yourself going through a portal into a strange dream dimension or finding out that the clerk at your hotel is a cultist that poisoned you in your sleep. Even though each card is dense with text, you'll definitely want to read it outloud to everyone at the table to keep the mood of the game going.

To me, Eldritch Horror is a perfect combination of theme and gameplay. As the horrors on the board begin to stack up, you can feel your own sanity slipping away alongside your characters. This game isn't for everyone though. The rules are complex, so it helps if you have someone how has played before 'run' the game for you, as it's easy to miss steps in the process. The game is also fairly long, so if you're not willing to use up three hours of your game night on one game, don't bother starting.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

#7DaysOfHorror Day 2 - The Spread

The Spread is a horror comic from Image that has kinda flown under the radar. Written by Justin Jordan with art by Kyle Stahm, this book wears its influences on its sleeves while still doing its own thing. If you imagined the twisted combination of The Thing and Mad Max, you'd have a pretty good idea of what The Spread is all about.

The world of The Spread is a frozen one that has been overtaken by parasitic, shapeshifting creatures. Part of the intrigue of the series is that, like The Thing, the monsters aren't exactly defined, which ads a level of unpredictability to the proceedings. Strahm's art is gloriously gooey, creating The Spread as a big bloody red mass of tentacles, eyeballs and viscera. He does a great job capturing action in a way that's both frantic and easy to follow. In his intro to the first volume, Strahm mentions growing up in the '80s and '90s watching gross out horror movies, and it's easy to see that influence carry over into his work.

The comic follows No, a solitary warrior who is making his way across the frozen, post-apocalyptic wasteland. While wandering, he saves a woman and a baby from marauders and ends up taking them under his protection. This simple hook is made more important when it is discovered that the baby may have some sort of way of destroying the Spread.

The society that Jordan presents us with is one that has truly broken down, with a very kill-or-be-killed survivalist attitude ruling the land. Mad despots rule small towns through fear and violence. It's a classic 'the people are just as dangerous as the monsters' setup. While none of the elements of the story are completely unique, they all mesh together perfectly. The introduction of a creepy man in a suit who seems to have some tie to the 'will' of the Spread is an interesting wrinkle that I can't wait to see explored more.

If you're a fan of John Carpenter-style horror, you can't go wrong with The Spread. The ton is right in line with the '80s splatterfests that Strahm mentioned, with great action and gross monsters. There's also some pretty disturbing events that go on throughout, so it's not for the feint of heart.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

#7DaysOfHorror Day 1: Nameless

Halloween in my favorite holiday season of the year, so I thought I would take some time during the week leading up to Halloween to give you guys some recommendations for things to read or play in the horror genre. I'll be doing recent horror books, video games and maybe a board game or two.

To start out, I would like to recommend a book that I have been meaning to write about for a long time: Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham's Nameless. I loved their run on Batman & Robin, so right when this got announced I was extremely hyped. Since it was a miniseries, I waited until it was all out and picked up the hardcover (directly from Burnham at C2E2).

Morrison called Nameless his first foray into straight up horror, and this book is certainly that. The book follows Nameless, a Constantine-like man who reluctantly deals with the paranormal when no one else can. He's called into action when an asteroid that seems to be able to enter people's nightmares ends up on a collision course with Earth. It's a bit like Lovecraft meets Event Horizon, but even that doesn't capture the true craziness of the book.

Burnham's crisp, Frank Quietly-like style brings to life Morrison' disturbing script. There are some really intense moments of gore that are much more... intricate than your typical splatterfest, and the art does a lot of heavy lifting to keep you in the story when it starts getting crazy.

It wouldn't be a Morrison story if it didn't end up searching the internet after you finished to try to make sense of what happened, and this book certainly makes you do that. I really thought I had a bead on it for the first four issues, but he really flips the script in the last two, changing the direction of the story. There's some very interesting thoughts about religion that pop up in the end, and that certainly wasn't something that I was expecting off the bat.

I'm a huge fan of Morrison, so it was awesome to see his take on cosmic horror. It's hard to say that this book is for everyone because of how confusing it gets near the end, but i definitely think it's worth checking out if you like your horror both gory and metaphysical. This partnership has created such great works, and I hope to see them reteam again for something equally terrifying and mindbending.

Monday, October 24, 2016

R.I.P. Steve Dillon

Last Saturday night came home late and saw the news of the tragic passing of comic artist Steve Dillon. It was a huge shock to me, and I'm now able to put down my thoughts.
Dillon was responsible for one of the comics that truly got me into the medium. Preacher was one of what I liked to call my Holy Trinity of Vertigo, along with Sandman and The Invisibles. These books made me realize that comics were more than just superheroes and really helped shape me into the reader I am today. I always considered Sandman and The Invisibles more of a 'writer's comics' because the art teams weren't consistent throughout the run, but the way Dillon worked with writer Garth Ennis showed me how truly collaborative the medium is when you have two creators that compliment each other so well. They did so many great projects together, and you could always see that creative spark between them.
Preacher was such a crazy comic, but his simple yet distinct style helped draw you into the world and love his characters. I still remember that the final issue of Preacher was the first comic to ever make me cry, and that's a crazy task for a book that featured hard-drinking vampires and a character named Arseface. He was one of the best at drawing the 'acting' on a page. You can always pick up a page of his work and know immediately that he drew it.
Besides Preacher, their Hellblazer run was also great. You could see the start of many of the ideas that they would later use in Preacher begin there, and they helped define the character that was still pretty early on in its existence. Dangerous Habits still remains the quintessential story for John Constantine, and I doubt it will ever be topped. Their work on Punisher was also outstanding, drawing me back into the world of Marvel after Vertigo had me thinking that superheroes were for kids. Dillon's work on Punisher might be his crispest, creating an interesting balance of cartoony style with shocking violence worked excellently with the story Ennis was telling, and once again ended up being the definitive take on the character. He returned to draw Punisher again, for a run with Jason Aaron and a run with Becky Cloonan, which was still going on at the time of his passing (as far as I know). 
I was fortunate enough to get his autograph at last year's C2E2, and even before his passing it was my most treasured signature of the convention. I think we just exchanged words about how well-worn my copy of Preacher was (which he was glad to see), but it meant a lot just to meet someone who had that much of an influence on my reading habits.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Metal Gear Solid War Journal - MGS 2: Sons of Liberty

There's been a lot of good games this year, so it took me a bit longer than I wanted to get through Metal Gear Solid 2, but boy was it worth it. I first played this game when it originally came out, so I would have been a teenager, so playing this game as a more discerning adult made the experience even sweeter than it was the first time through.

Right off the bat, the game is a huge leap from the first. I don't think we'll ever see the improvement of graphics we got between the original Playstation and the Playstation 2 again. With the better graphics also came better gameplay. While it was still basically the same with the overhead camera and such, you could aim and shoot in first person, which really changed the game for taking out guards from a distance. A tranquilizer gun was also introduced, and it was most effective when you hit a headshot, so aim became very important. The gameplay sometimes dragged in the first MGS, so this easier gameplay really upped the fun factor.

Like most, my first experience with this game was the demo that came with Zone of the Enders. The demo was the first portion of the tanker mission that kicked off the game. I remember how impressed I was with the attention to detail. You could spend time watching ice melt, and that blew my mind. The tanker mission was classic MGS. Snake, with Octocon guiding him, infiltrated a military tanker to get a look at the latest prototype Metal Gear. When he gets there, the tanker is overrun by Russian soldiers looking to hijack the experimental weapon. Eventually you run into Ocelot, who seems to have Liquid Snake's personality hiding out in him, and Snake goes down with the ship.

This is where things start to get Kojima. We flash forward to two years later, and you're playing as a completely different character name Raiden. None of the advertisements leading up to the game showed this character, and Kojima never mentioned him once during any interviews. Once again, we're being commanded by Colonel Campbell, but this time we are saving the President from terrorists that have taken over the facility that was built to clean up the disaster of the tanker mission. Eventually you meet up with the real Solid Snake and he helps you as the mission progresses. The structure seems oddly familiar to the first game, and soon enough similar things start happening to you.

There's even a new group of odd terrorists, known as Dead Cell, challenging our hero. While they aren't quite as memorable as Foxhound from MGS, I think that may be just because they are a smaller group, and none of them are as memorable as characters like Sniper Wolf and Psycho Mantis. My favorite is Fatman, the mad bomber who goes around on roller skates and drinks wine. He's both menacing and weird, which is a tone that Kojima knows so well. The weakest one to me is Solidus Snake, who never reaches the heights of Liquid.

As you progress in the game, you find out that there is a reason that this game mirrors the first so closely. You find out that the whole plant you are infiltrating is the newest weapon known as Arsenal Gear, which is meant to help control the world by editing the information that's being shared across the internet. Not only that, but Colonel Campbell is an AI from Arsenal Gear, and they have orchestrated this entire incident as an exercise to create a soldier the caliber of Solid Snake.

This twist is such an awesomely surreal thing that I'm always surprised that they let Kojima do it. It's easily one of the most intelligent games I've ever played, and the metafictional elements of the narrative made some interesting comments on the nature of video games. Creating a narrative that mirrors the first game is a way to comment on what fans expect out of sequels, while using a different character is a way to direct subvert that. There's a very famous part in the end that occurs as the Campbell AI starts to break down that rivals the surreal nature of the Psycho Mantis encounter.

Not only was this game ahead of its time as far as narrative, it seems to predict a lot of how the internet shapes the world. Look at quotes like this:
"But in the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness. Never fading, always accessible. Rumors about petty issues, misinterpretations, slander... All this junk data preserved in an unfiltered state, growing at an alarming rate. It will only slow down social progress, reduce the rate of evolution."
This was before the rise of social media, so for Kojima to have that much foresight about how the digital world would change society as a whole is amazing. Arsenal Gear would be such an effective weapon in the real world because editing information really can change the world. If only a certain number of people can know the truth, that gives them a power that can't be measured. I can't think of any current works of fiction that say as much about the effects of the internet as this game from 15 years ago, and that's seriously impressive.

There were some things in this game that didn't quite get fleshed out as much as they could have been. The strange twist of Liquid Snake living on in Ocelot through an arm transplant is strange, and really only pays off in a moment in the finale that doesn't have anything to do with Raiden. There's also a lot of talk about the Patriots, which are a cool idea but don't have any resolution in the game. While I was looking into the game, I found out that this was originally supposed to be Kojima's last Metal Gear game, so I find it fascinating that he included these things like this without any intention of wrapping it up. From what I've heard, a lot of what happens in MGS2 is retconned in MGS4, so I'm really excited to get to that game to see how they follow up on things.

While Metal Gear Solid is a great straight up spy story with a smart script and wonderful weirdness, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is a completely different beast. It masquerades as a similar game, but it's really an intelligent mindfuck of a game that challenges the nature of video games. I still can't believe the bait and switch of Raiden that they got away with, and I respect them so much for it. With how much preview coverage every game has nowadays, I don't know if they could pull off something like that today. Kojima did something close to this with P.T. and Silent Hills, but his fallout with Konami prevented this from happening. I wish he would have tried again with Death Stranding, but he showed a trailer before even beginning production on the game. Hopefully we can get as little as possible about the details of the game between now and whenever the hell it comes out, because I would love to have another experience like this.

Friday, October 14, 2016

2016 Fall TV Impressions

Fall is upon us once again, and that means the biggest and best in new and returning television. There usually isn't much that catches my eye, especially from the big networks, but this year there were a couple that I thought would be fun to check out. Here are my impressions on how the seasons are going so far.

Even though this is technically a returning show, it's an anthology series so each season is a new thing. The only seasons I've watched completely are the first two, and those were entertaining but wildly inconsistent. So far, this season seems to be a lot more restrained. It experiments with an interesting new format (it's presented like a haunting show with interviews and 're-enactments'), and the storytelling is much more focused. While the idea that we have interviews with the main characters cuts the tension a bit (we know they survive), the creators have promised the show will change drastically in episode six. I like the mix of modern day haunted house with creepy historical happenings, and I can't wait to see where this season is headed.

With the success of American Horror Story, it was only a matter of time before another network created another horror anthology show. SyFy has tapped into the power of the internet for their new show Channel Zero, which brings to life popular CreepyPasta stories. When they announced that they were going to be doing one of my favorites first, I knew I had to tune in. Right off the bat, you can tell by the production value of the show that they are taking this very seriously. Based on the pilot, it's got all the makings of a good horror story: creepy puppets, missing children and a monster made out of teeth. It's really smart that they are keeping the season limited to six episodes. This will keep them from stretching it out too long and make it feel like more of an 'event.' I hope this is the start of a successful new franchise for them.

FALLING WATER (Episodes Seen: 1)
In the wake of Mr. Robot, USA is trying to take a stab at moving away from their Monk-esque branding into something more heady and surreal. Falling Water combines bits of Inception with Netflix's Sense8. The first episode was fairly slow, introducing us to a few different characters and their respective dream lives. Some of the dream sequences are really inventive and eerie, but a lot of the waking life stuff just kinda dragged on. While it wasn't completely engaging, I definitely think that the ideas of the show are compelling enough that I will give it a couple more episodes before I render my final judgement.

WESTWORLD (Episodes Seen: 2)
I saved my favorite new one for last. Westworld takes the basic concept of the original 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton and fleshes it out into a complex examination of human morality. Taking cues from video games that give you free reign over your choices, this show presents us with a world where you can pay a price to play what is essentially an MMO populated by lifelike androids. It really makes you ask the question about what kinda person you are if you go into something like that and just want to kill your way through it like how many people play Grand Theft Auto. Not only are these questions so interesting, but the plotting on the show is awesome. The robots of the park are slowly starting to remember all the things that have happened to them, despite the fact that they are wiped on a daily basis. HBO has apparently put $100 million into the production of this show, and you can see it all on the screen. The recreation of the western setting looks amazing, as does the behind the scenes part where they are performing maintenance on the 'hosts,' as they are called. I will probably end up writing up an in-depth thing at the end of the season, but right now, this show is everything I wanted Dollhouse to be and more.