Author Archives: curlyhairedboy
When humans get scared, our bodies prepare to take action. Adrenaline courses through our systems, our heart rates skyrocket, and certain bodily functions like digestion get suspended entirely. This is commonly known as the body’s “fight or flight” response. But while “fight or flight” may have a nice ring to it, the terms suggest a simple duality that doesn’t quite mesh with the reality: our fear response covers not just fight OR flight, but every combination of the two. Furthermore, the fear response varies between people. How you react to something scary may not be how I react to it.
Horror game developers are aware of this range of response, and they design their titles to fit a certain segment of it. Some horror fans prefer games that trigger their “fight” reaction. Others prefer games that trigger their “flight” response. Neither is a more valid horror experience than the other, and, contrary to popular belief, titles like Resident Evil 5 and Amnesia can occupy the same market space.
Enter the Dead Space series. The first game appealed to both “fight” and “flight” enthusiasts with its mix of extreme player vulnerability and engaging dismemberment. The second game ramped up the intensity in all respects. The hero, Isaac Clarke, is faster and deadlier, but so are the bladed undead necromorphs he faces. With added environmental hazards, the player is thrust into situations that constantly challenge him or her. Despite all these new features, the developers at Visceral knew they needed something extra to combat the greatest enemy of fear: familiarity. As the second game in the series, Dead Space 2 would automatically start off in a weaker position. Thus, a new difficulty was included. Hard Core mode would give the player only three saves for the entire game. Checkpoints would be disabled, and death would return the player to his last save, regardless if that was 5 chapters ago.
Hard Core offers players quite a different experience than usual. The cost of failure is not a few rooms’ worth of progress, but rather, entire chapters and multiple hours of gameplay. Similar difficulty modes have appeared in other games, but it’s particularly suited to the survival horror genre. The player is already used to being extra careful about enemy encounters, and the more serious consequences serve to heighten the tension. All this is just fluffy theory until you actually screw up, however.
Then the game changes.
I should probably start out by saying I hate fantasy games. The tropes of the genre range from slightly annoying (British Accents Everywhere Syndrome) to eye-rolling (Child of Destiny, Generic Big Bad Evil) to infuriating (Elf Angst, Dwarf Angst, Fairy Angst, etc.). This isn’t to say that I hate all fantasy; far from it – I enjoy reading it in books and watching it in movies, but in game form it doesn’t quite click for me.
I think my distaste mainly has to do with plausibility. If I’m going to play a character, I have to believe that he or she started out as someone normal. Progression to a superhuman level as the game progresses is fine, but I can’t feel for a character who starts out as some overpowered, mystical other. I can’t relate to him. I can relate to Luke Skywalker, for example, because he’s got a mum and pop and an aunt and uncle and chores to do before he can go have fun. By contrast, Anakin Skywalker is some Force-born immaculately-conceived wunderkind, and his problems and motivations are rendered moot because he has a destiny. It doesn’t help that he’s a whiny entitled bastard, either.
In most fantasy games, however, Anakin Skywalker is the default character. Sure, you can build your hero however you want, but he’s still touched by fate, destined to save the world. Unfortunately, everyone he comes across knows this implicitly, and therefore must ask for his help with whatever issue they’re currently facing. Now, this problem isn’t exclusive to fantasy games. This is a crutch used by pretty much every game to frame its content. However, it’s particularly jarring and out of place when combined with the Child of Destiny archetype. You’ve got arguably the most important job in the world, and you’re stuck doing fetch quests for inept farmers. It doesn’t make any sense, and thus most fantasy games remain, in my view, a hodgepodge of old habits and tropes.
Enter The Witcher. Unlike most fantasy games, which can trace their roots to Dungeons and Dragons and Tolkien, The Witcher draws its inspiration from Slavic myth. This provides a basis for bucking a lot of genre traditions. First off: you’re not Anakin Skywalker. You might be Wolverine, though.