AFTERPARTY (2019)

Talk your way out of Hell.

Flirt your way out of Hell.

Cheat your way out of Hell.

Dance your way out of Hell.

Party your way out of Hell.

(PC/macOS/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xboxes) AFTERPARTY is another narrative-forward videogame from OXENFREE developers Night School Games. Unlike OXENFREE, a deft interactive teen horror adventure, AFTERPARTY focuses on two platonic 20-something best friends — Milo (Khoi Dao) and Lola (Janina Gavankar) — just about to graduate from college.

Then they die and go to Hell and, in order to escape they need not only outdrink Satan, but also come to terms with each other, their past, and their future.

What follows is an extremely visually striking and darkly comedic game, perhaps containing some of the filthiest, well-crafted jokes I’ve ever encountered in a game. AFTERPARTY is also brilliant with its character work — not just its honest and complicated portrayal of a platonic friendship between a man and a woman — but also with its ancillary characters, including psychopomp ferrier Sam (HORIZON: ZERO DAWN’s Ashly Burch) whose life/death is both over-shared and enigmatic at the same time.

It is worth noting that, while OXENFREE featured some intriguing interface tools apart from dialogue trees, AFTERPARTY’s non-dialogue interactivity is reduced to a number of routine mini-games. While thematically that makes sense — beer pong and rhythm mini-games make perfect sense for the material — they often feel like they emptily get in the way of what you’d rather be doing: advancing the story and learning more about the characters.

Nonetheless, it’s perfect for playing over the Halloween weekend with a friend. AFTERPARTY doesn’t overstay its welcome, and while it actually takes place in Hell, it’s more emotionally substantive than scarring.

STORIES UNTOLD (2017)

(PC/PS4/PS5/Switch/Xbox One) Yesterday it was just announced that OBSERVATION developer No Code has quietly been working on a SILENT HILL game entitled SILENT HILL: TOWNFALL and, based on their prior psychological horror game STORIES UNTOLD, I’m delighted by the news and can’t wait to play it.

STORIES UNTOLD started off as a one-off short horror game called THE HOUSE ABANDON that took place in one room, in front of an old-school 80s computer where you’d interact with a text adventure (although the player does so via a LucasArt-ish SCUMM interface — in other words: a visually selectable number of verbs and nouns — instead of having to manually type commands in). It then grew to be a collection of four self-described episodes, all four (mostly) utilizing the similar single room tableau, but also incorporates interactive puzzles that somehow don’t feel contrived or shoehorned into the setting, as well as some ‘walking simulator’ elements. (I do hate that term, but it’s concise.)

This game will not be for everyone. No Code loves to focus on interfaces. Unlike OBSERVATION, which you played primarily through future-ish surveillance and digital interfaces, STORIES UNTOLD features different ones for each episode: one being the previously mentioned text adventure, another heavily relying on a microfiche reader, and another leaning hard on analog buttons and dials. It’s all supremely inventive, although I would suggest that if you can do so, play it on PC — there is a macOS version but it won’t work with Catalina or above — as the PS4 port I played was occasionally very frustrating and fiddly: the text is often too small if you’re playing in a living room and one chapter — which initially required keyboard input — is downright frustrating thanks to the reduced ‘selective’ input interface required by a controller-first sensibility.

Narratively, the game is a scarring treasure. I don’t want to go into any detail, mostly because trying to describe its delights might rob you of some of them but, while it does utilize a lot of standard psychological horror tropes, the execution and tone make them feel fresh and well-integrated with some of the more higher concept story choices.

Additionally, thanks to No Code’s resourceful reliance on environments instead of character models, it’s a visually striking game, one that knows its limitations but uses them as strengths.

It’s a thinking person’s psychological horror game, one that leans on the past while creating something completely original. Based on STORIES UNTOLD, I can’t help but believe that their iteration on SILENT HILL will be the most interesting and compelling and original one in some time.

SILENT HILL: SHATTERED MEMORIES (2009)

(PS2/PSP/Wii) The obvious SILENT HILL videogame recommendation would be any one of the first four. After all, the first two are especially iconic with their use of fog and sirens and psychological horror and trauma and mystery and brilliant horror character design. However, the third and fourth certainly shouldn’t be overlooked, as the third has exceptional character work — at the time, one of the more complex depictions of a teen girl in a videogame — and the fourth (SILENT HILL: THE ROOM) is brilliantly claustrophobic.

The series departs significantly after the fourth, from a depiction of Japan-based development inspired by Western works to Western development by mostly uninspired Western developers. They’re not exactly -bad- games, but it’s a case of fundamentally not understanding why these games resonate with people. These are games that take inspiration from psychological horror works like JACOB’S LADDER (itself a loose adaptation of the TWILIGHT ZONE episode named AN OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDE, itself an adaptation of Bierce’s short story) — not games inspired by basic slashers like FRIDAY THE 13TH, which is what most Western developers brought to the franchise. It feels like studios often wanted to turn the series into RESIDENT EVIL — more combat, less emotional monologues — which betrays the spirit of the series.

However, SILENT HILL: SHATTERED MEMORIES (SHATTERED MEMORIES from here on out) is a different matter, primarily because of British designer Sam Barlow. Barlow — who would go one to create one of the most memorable interactive media (IM) games with HER STORY, the ambitious IM game TELLING LIES, and just released another IM game with one hell of a cast: IMMORTALITY.

A slight aside: I absolutely love HER STORY, especially its use of the traditional murder ballad The Twa Sisters:

(“Anything you sing can be used as evidence against you!”)

Barlow is fundamentally concerned with people lying to themselves and others — he loves Hitchcock, which is no surprise — which is the crux of SILENT HILL 2, and the reason why SHATTERED MEMORIES works so well. There’s the classic amount of atmospheric town exploration, however it’s interspersed with therapy sessions where the player guides the story (slightly), but contains far less combat than most SILENT HILL games. You’re often endlessly pursued, chased down by demons of a sort. Sadly, as it launched first as a Wii game — which is how I played it — it has a lot of fiddly waggle controls, which is one strike against it, because it is often a tad frustrating, but it’s worth the struggle.

It’s a singular experience, which is more than I can say about most of the post-THE ROOM sequels. Obviously, unless you have a decade-old console/handheld, it’s hard to play nowadays and that’s a shame. As I write this, we’re about to receive a litany of SILENT HILL news from Konami and, while I wish a SHATTERED MEMORIES re-release was part of it, I’m not holding my breath.

OBSCURE (2004)

(PC/PS2/Xbox) Horror videogames are the best for playing with a close friend, even when they aren’t co-op and you’re just passing the controller left and right. The highs hit higher, but seem safer, and it’s a genuine bonding activity. I still have fond memories of playing RESIDENT EVIL 4 with a friend, both of us letting the other take over when it got too intense, while chowing down on some of the best garlic pita chips and hummus in Chicago.

OBSCURE is basically THE FACULTY: The videogame, and I also have fond memories of playing it in an old apartment with the lights off, brandishing my in-game flashlight. However, I did play it solo and most folks who still rave about it focus on the co-op. Rather than expound on it, I’ll let Dave Riley from our prior site, THE NEW GAMER, do so via his 2005 review. (Apologies for the few errors — the site shuttered almost a decade ago and I haven’t tended to it.)

EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE (2015)

(PC/PS4/PS5) From The Chinese Room and Dan Pinchback, the developer of DEAR ESTER — which can probably lay claim to being one of the most popular ‘walking simulators’ — came this extraordinarily fascinating and exceedingly measured look at an apocalyptic scientific event in a small English town.

It’s all there in the name: EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE. Scientific forces are toyed with, and an entire town’s inhabitants disappear. ‘You’ discover their memories and piece together the event that unfolded.

Some might not label this as horror as it’s quite bloodless — in fact, if you didn’t know the context of why you’re there, it might feel quite quaint and cozy to explore this verdant Shropshire locale — but you do know why you’re there, and you know peoples lives have disappeared, and they are not coming back. Despite being entirely different tonally, it reminds me a bit of Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS: the result of unbridled science.

I’d be remiss not to mention Jessica Curry’s orchestral score, as it’s expertly composed and woven into the work; it’s perfectly melancholy with its swell of strings and ethereal vocals, and is often what I think of first when I think of this game.

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST (2021)

My gaming comfort food during the pandemic — stupidly, I’m literally someone known for writing about comfort food games — have been open-world games; almost exclusively ASSASSIN’S CREED games. Their doling of bite-sized, mostly frictionless, quests have been a balm while trapped inside.

It’s been a while since I’ve played HORIZON: ZERO DAWN, but I recall it as being a rather concise, smaller open-world game, one that doubled-down on plot and character rather than scenery and scale, and I greatly appreciated it for that.

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN DAWN is the polar opposite: it’s absolutely overwhelming and mind-bogglingly grandiose. When I think of the hours spent to make this, I feel a bit sick. While I think it could have reeled in its scope, I did find it notable in a number of other ways.

UNRULY HAIR

Aloy is one of the most fascinating triple-A leading videogame characters of recent times. A clone of one of the most influential scientific women of the game’s fictional history, she steps up and fills her shoes, although she does so while also being petulant and impulsive, all while still missing her ‘mother’ (her search for her was arguably the focal point of her introductory game, HORIZON: ZERO DAWN).

She also has some of the most dynamic, radiant red hair in videogames. Hair is a touchy subject when it comes to tech, as it’s often a point of programmatic pride, rarely born of character motivation. While it’s a film and not a videogame, look no further than Pixar’s BRAVE for a quintessential example, which was explicitly created as a way for them to show off their hair rendering tech (and similarly features a vibrant redhead).

As someone who has had long, wavy hair for far longer than I have not, and as someone who often thinks about hair and identity and representation, seeing anyone with unruly hair (or as Guerrilla Games labels it: tousled hair) in media has become oddly strange to see, as production models for entertainment have skewed closer to generic hairstyles to maintain continuity and production costs. While Aloy’s hair isn’t exactly curly, it is remarkably distinct and, in real life, would require significant management, something most folks don’t often think about. Long hair moves, it gets in the way; it’s something you are always aware of. It’s either in your vision or in your mouth or getting caught on something or in somewhere, and how Aloy’s hair is animated — always in motion, always cascading around her — reflects that same sort of bodily self-awareness. Even if some folks seem to think the hair animation is a bug, I see it as a feature.

It’s also worth noting that, apparently, a number of people don’t realize that women have hair elsewhere.

THE FUTURE IS FEMALE

One of the most amazing things about HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST is that it’s all about women repairing the damage that men have wrought. Almost all of the men alive and dead are villains or sidekicks, and the game is more than fine with that, but never explicitly calls attention to it which, for a triple-A videogame meant for worldwide consumption, seems wild, which is a sad remark on the state of blockbuster videogames.

SHAPES AND SIZES

One other brilliant facet of HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST is its variety of character models. The world consists of people of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and hues; it’s not your standard post-apocalypse of wafer-thin white people, and the game doesn’t commit the standard narrative sin of playing someone’s girth for laughs or pratfalls. They’re just people trying to survive in a world that is constantly trying to kill them.

TALKING TO ONE’S SELF DURING THE END OF THE WORLD

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST features an absolutely astounding and exhausting amount of dialogue. I can’t even begin to fathom the script, but it consists of reams and reams of lore, meant to flesh out the world that was sketched out in the first game. However, a good portion of the game features Aloy simply talking to herself. While most of that dialogue is meant to prod the player towards goals, quite a bit of it is purely observational. Aloy is depicted as a singularly individual person, one used to being alone, one used to supplying her own entertainment, of comforting herself in her own way because who else would? Who could?

A NEW MODERN

All of this culminates into a game that comes across as remarkably fresh, as opposed to the hoary male-led misery porn of most modern big budget games. HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST feels like a new frontier for gaming, at least with its command of characters and scenarios, even as it leans on the old model of open-world gaming, of FAR CRY-ish puzzle towers and checking off map-centric quests. It’s a world that one can luxuriate in and explore to your heart’s content, and not hate yourself for doing so.

P.S. One facet of the game that is missing is any semblance of sexuality whatsoever, so I’d like to boost this piece.

P.P.S. Even I as a very white, prior New Englander felt that a number of character designs and attributes were not what they could have been. I’m definitely not qualified to critique this game’s Orientalism, so I’ll leave this here.

DISCO ELYSIUM: THE FINAL CUT (2019)

DISCO ELYSIUM feels like an imaginary videogame, the sort of game nostalgically described in hushed whispers by the protagonist in a cyberpunk novel; a game too lunatic, too distinct, too arty to actually be willed into the world. Yet, here we are.

However, when one spells out the basics of what DISCO ELYSIUM is, it sounds like an indistinct late 90s videogame: you’re an alcoholic cop investigating a brutal murder in a cesspool of a town populated by colorful, often distasteful weirdos, navigating around via an isometric RPG interface with walls and walls of text.

In reality, DISCO ELYSIUM’s real roots are in text adventures, in heading north, south, east or west, in finding the right responses to someone’s dialogue fragment. This is a game you read more than you watch or interface with. Not to belittle the complexity of the game’s systems — which are intentionally obtuse, complicated, and a fresh take on RPG levelling — but this game is first and foremost a vehicle to deliver writers’ words, and they’re some of the most enigmatically twisted and idiosyncratic words to describe the game’s unique, but also familiar, world.

Fundamentally, DISCO ELYSIUM is about introspection, identity, and masculine reckoning with a hostile world. Or maybe it’s not, and that’s just what I encountered in my initial play-through. Either way, it is an extremely dense, extraordinarily complexly detailed world, strikingly portrayed by Aleksander Rostov, one that feels a bit like HALF-LIFE 2 via cult-favorite adventure game series SYBERIA. In other words: bombed-out Eastern Europe.

If there’s one fault with DISCO ELYSIUM it’s that it is buggy, but I suppose that comes with the territory. Save early, save often. Otherwise, this is an astounding interactive experience, a game that will be talked about in hushed whispers in the years to come.

Favorites of 2021: Video Games

Despite having acquired a PlayStation 5 in 2021, I played far fewer games than normal this year, opting instead to mindlessly whittle away at long-haul interactive experiences as opposed to short-form works. Nonetheless, here are my favorite gameplay experiences of 2021!

ASSASSIN’S CREED VALHALLA

Thanks to the pandemic, the Assassin’s Creed series has been my interactive comfort food. I’ve sunk way too many hours into AC: ORIGINS, AC: ODYSSEY, and now AC: VALHALLA — as these series have been relatively non-taxing, rarely frustrating fare that allows me to routinely press buttons in order to check out of the hellscape of the last few years, which feature some surprisingly well-penned characters and situations, a far cry from the prior franchise games.

One of the great things about major franchise games like Assassin’s Creed are: you can play one of the entries when it launches, then wait a year or so and it’s a completely different experience, especially if you’ve purchased a season pass.

While I completed VALHALLA in 2020, I returned to it in 2021 for the two extremely generous DLC packages, which allows you to travel to both Dublin and Paris. The mission types are nothing new — really, very little has changed about the ASSASSIN’S CREED gameplay since the days of ASSASSIN’S CREED II — but the writing and character work has become far sharper and, it must be said, hornier.

These are games you can spend hours and hours and hours playing, especially if you’re like me and wants to clean the world maps of any unfinished tasks. While VALHALLA’s DLC isn’t terribly memorable — there were a number of missions where I explicitly uttered to no one: “Well, this mission is absolutely no fun.” — it works as the distraction toy that I needed for the end of 2021.

DEATHLOOP

An hour or two into DEATHLOOP, I questioned whether this was a game for me, as it was maddeningly difficult and, while it featured Arkane’s signature reliance on stylish vertical level design, I was turned off by the sweaty dialogue; it felt like it was trying too hard to appeal to youths.

By the time I made it to the third or fourth hour, I’d found a groove and realized how the game wanted you to play it. Really, it’s far simpler than you’d expect — although I admit I have yet to complete the game — so far this isn’t the roguelike loop that one might expect.

Additionally, the combative dialogue? The overly agressive landscape? It grows on you. It still feels slightly performative, at least at the point I’m at in the game, but it’s a game that gets to have its cake and eat it too: slyly smart while being stylish enough to sell.

FAMICOM DETECTIVE CLUB: THE MISSING HEIR

A completely unexpected, but very welcome remake of an adventure game/visual novel few of those in the US were even aware of. Oh, and it’s from Satoru Okada: the director of KID ICARUS and METROID, and the brains behind the Game Boy.

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/06/10/famicom-detective-club-the-missing-heir-1988-2021/

PSYCHONAUTS 2

“15+ years later, is PSYCHONAUTS 2 the sequel I wanted? Yes and no. It leans far more on spectacle and less on cognitive/character visual motifs than I would have liked. It’s certainly not as idiosyncratic as the first game. However, it […] does such a great job at detailing how flawed we can be, but how we can learn to be better with some help, and how we need to accept each other on these journeys.”

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/12/28/psychonauts-2-2021-pc-macos-ps4-xboxes/

RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE

While RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE has — rightfully — gained a lot of attention due to the very tall Lady Dimitrescu, it’s also a thrillingly executed bit of action-horror that only falters in the final act. It’s immensely playable, and I can’t wait for the upcoming DLC.

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/06/02/resident-evil-village-2021/

In my queue:

  • THE ARTFUL ESCAPE
  • CHICORY: A COLORFUL TALE
  • THE GREAT ACE ATTORNEY CHRONICLES
  • LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS
  • METROID DREAD
  • OVERBOARD!
  • SABLE

PSYCHONAUTS 2 (2021)

(PC/macOS/PS4/Xboxes) A bit of backstory: the initial PSYCHONAUTS (2005) was the first game from the fledgling studio Double Fine, founded by ex-LucasArts adventure game designer Tim Schafer, and not only was it not an adventure game as one would expect, but a platformer, but it was a very troubled production. Microsoft started off as publisher for the game but, halfway through development, dropped out, leaving Double Fine in the lurch. They eventually found a publisher via now-storied Majesco, and the game was finally released after a — for the time — lengthy development time of four and a half years.

PSYCHONAUTS has a lot of the hallmarks of a great Schafer work: a terrifically realized world, a unique and striking look, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and empathy for its characters. Unfortunately, it was also often a frustrating platformer, with fussy controls and level design that felt obvious to them, but not to the players. In case you are not familiar: it’s about a kid named Raz (short for Rasputin) who has psychic abilities, but who comes from an extremely physical family circus troupe. He is fascinated with a group of other psychically-gifted folks who try to help people by sorting out their mental mysteries, whose tales are told through a series of comic books, but then gets his chance to enlist via a summer camp.

Twenty years later, PSYCHONAUTS 2 has been released through a similarly complex development period. Long story short, like with PSYCHONAUTS, it took far longer to fund and actually shape the game.

My initially impressions of PSYCHONAUTS 2 were, I will say, unpleasant, perhaps because they expected players to be more familiar with the game’s systems and blend of platforming. Also, perhaps my platforming skills are rusty. However, I haven’t played PSYCHONAUTS in many, many moons, and PSYCHONAUTS 2 throws -a lot- at you in the first few hours. I traditionally play games at normal difficulty, occasionally raising it to hard or extraordinarily difficult upon a very rare replay (e.g. games like VIEWTIFUL JOE or BAYONETTA), but this time I added all of the control assists because I’m too old for this shit.

After the first few hours, I started settling in and really started enjoying it, but kept the control assists (which were much appreciated) the same. While the game spent far more time in development than Schafer expected, the effort shows as it’s an extraordinarily detailed and epic game, while still first-and-foremost being about family and mindful about mental health. However, unlike the first game, PSYCHONAUTS 2 is more about be a mental examination of the prior Psychonauts and the trauma they’ve been living with. So, yeah, not exactly a soothing balm for these COVID times, but definitely in TED LASSO territory.

Sadly, the level design does not meet the heights of PSYCHONAUT’s Milkman level, but it also doesn’t hit the frustrating lows of the Meat Circus. (I vividly remember swearing so much during that level that my partner-now-wife asked me if I was okay.) That said, it doesn’t have to, at least in these times. The single-mindedness and pure-pleasure of 100%ing a game right now is so very appealing to me — I’ve done so for a few ASSASSINS CREED games, and will likely do so for PSYCHONAUTS 2 — as a way to simply numb myself from a lot of the bullshit of the current world. Also appealing: I can drop-in and drop-out of the game as necessary.

15+ years later, is PSYCHONAUTS 2 the sequel I wanted? (I can’t count the VR game because I don’t have any VR tech.) Yes and no. It leans far more on spectacle and less on cognitive/character visual motifs than I would have liked. It’s certainly not as idiosyncratic as the first game. However, it — again, like TED LASSO SEASON TWO — does such a great job at detailing how flawed we can be, but how we can learn to be better with some help, and how we need to accept each other on these journeys.

DETENTION (2017)

I have to admit that, prior to finding out about a film screening of an adaptation of this videogame, I had never heard of DETENTION.

DETENTION is a very SILENT HILL 2-esque guilt-centric 2D horror point-and-click Taiwanese game that takes place during the White Terror which dovetailed with the U.S.’ Communist witch-hunts, except that instead of being blacklisted, you were abducted and killed.

DETENTION takes place in the mid-60s, in a Taiwanese high school and is relatively straight-forward, as adventure games gome. I’d love to discuss some of the specifics, but sadly, spoilers.

Yes, the translation work is not great — it’s extremely clumsy — but the original dialogue may have been overwrought from the get-go. Yes, the artwork is a bit flat, and the animation is stilted. Sure, it often feels like a student game.

Nonetheless, it’s an amazing piece, buoyed by it being a love letter to the political and cultural shifts with Taiwan. It’s utterly earnest and enlightening and engaging, and uses horror motifs and self-reflection in a way that few games do. It’s a bold piece, and one that doesn’t demand much of your time — you can finish it in under four hours — and it’s well-worth that time.