<![CDATA[Ginger Nuts of Horror - 13 FOR HALLOWEEN]]>Fri, 17 Nov 2017 10:57:45 +0000Weebly<![CDATA[Thirteen for Halloween:   SCP-087-B]]>Sun, 30 Oct 2016 07:36:38 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/13-for-halloween/thirteen-for-halloween-scp-087-bBy George Daniel Lea 
I agonised over this. So many possible subjects; so many works that have moved, distressed, disturbed...many cliches and much well-trodden ground (your Silent Hills, your Resident Evils...in recent years, titles such as Amnesia, Until Dawn and Heavy Rain).
 
All discarded; too familiar, nothing new to say on them.
 
A dive into independent arenas and horror obscura: the Five Nights at Freddy's series, Limbo, Braid, Inside, Franbow, Amongst the Sleep...all potentially worthy, but all somehow too exposed or not enough to warrant the Halloween slot.
 
Then, revelation: memory of a title that not only disturbed, but elicited that rarest of paranoias; transcending its on-screen parameters to shudder me in waking life, as all the very finest horror does: rendering the familiar and the ostensibly banal threatening.

 
For those unfamiliar with the SCP Foundation (Secure, Contain, Protect), it serves as an on-line database of peculiar and bizarre phenomena; the (apparently) fictional foundation one that transcends governments, countries etc and whose purpose is to document, record and contain the bizarre, the abstruse and the potentially apocalyptic.
 
Each entry on the website consists of a description of the phenomena, often with attendant photographs, testimonies, data-logs and recordings of its apparent effects...all in a fairly dry and clinical style, that in itself becomes a source of unsettling comedy. The phenomena themselves range from the strangely curious to the horrific: accounts of self-replicating cakes (yes, really) to demonic, sentient masks, from living teddy bears (more sinister than it sounds, when you read the entry) to indestructible leviathans whose only expressions are pathological and violent loathing for all around them. In many respects, like its sibling, CreepyPasta, The SCP Foundation represents an evolution in certain kinds of storytelling and myth making, in that it is communal (each of the entries is written by a different author, and anyone can potentially submit their own for publication on the site) and exhibits a profound awareness of its audience's influences and culture, not to mention its own format, entries often referencing such phenomena as memes, video games, websites etc.
 
Unsurprisingly, the site has spawned a handful of independent video games, including the fantastically tense and horrific SCP: Containment Breach, in which the player is thrown into the midst of an outbreak in one of the SCP facilities (encountering a number of some of the more monstrous and threatening SCP entities) and the more subtle SCP-087 and SCP-087-B, which concern themselves with a single entry, and certainly one of the most popular.
 
For those who have not read the entry, I would advise you do so before either playing the games or reading the rest of this review:
 
http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-087
 
It stands as an excellent example of what the SCP website does so well; taking something ostensibly ordinary and distorting it out of true; providing little in the way of explanation or back story for the phenomena, relying instead in insinuation and inference, in the manner of certain highly successful horror films such as Don't Look Now, The Blair Witch Project, Jacob's Ladder et al.
 
The phenomena in question consists of a bare, stone stairwell, of the kind that might be found in any hotel or apartment block, that spontaneously appears inside seemingly random buildings, behind doors that may or may not have been present in the building's original construction. 
​Upon investigation, the stairwell seems to descend endlessly, with little in the way of signs to determine how deep it goes or where its ultimate destination lies. Below lies little but darkness, so deep that no bottom can be determined.
 
Those exploring the phenomena often report odd sounds; a distant grinding, as though somewhere above or within the walls, footsteps on flights above or below, an uncanny sense as of someone behind them, someone watching...
 
Certain investigators have reported sounds of children weeping or laughing on lower floors, or those of animals in distress or pain. Investigation generally reveals nothing, save for an escalating sense of dread and paranoia, so profound in some instances that investigators have fled, back up the stairs or become unconscious under the weight of it.
 
The least fortunate report visual sightings of some unidentified entity; a pale, almost featureless face that hangs in the darkness, watching their descent or appearing directly behind them, as though following them on their way down...
 
The games inspired by this SCP recreate the phenomena almost verbatim: as one of the Foundation's “D-class Personnel” (generally prisoners on life sentences or death row who have been “selected” to aid the foundation in their investigations), you are thrust through the door onto SCP-087's first landing with little more than a torch and a jump-suit and commanded to descend, pausing to record any phenomena you encounter.
 
This is all the games consist of; the gameplay, design and graphics minimalist to the point of absurdity: surrounded on all sides by brick and stone, darkness ahead, a sealed doorway behind, all you can do is walk forward, descending when the path comes to a stairwell, deciding which way to turn when it forks or splits...in any other title, the sheer lack of gameplay would be a resounding negative or evidence of incompetence. Not so here; the minimal controls are absolutely deliberate, so as to leave the play with time and mental focus to appreciate the sheer tension of the situation, the escalating paranoia of the environment. The stairwell itself is randomly generated, so you will never have any idea of what structure it takes; whether this or that turn is correct; whether it would be better to continue on or to turn and seek an alternative route. The palpable dread as you come to new landings, corners; as you descend stairwells or peer into the dark, is phenomenal, and evoked with only the subtlest cues and techniques: much of the ethos and atmosphere of the game derives purely from the environment, its dark brick walls and stone floor creating the feeling of a crypt or some abandoned, subterranean bomb shelter, the player straining eyes and ears to catch even the slightest hint of what might lie ahead. 
​It is perfectly feasible to descend for multiple floors without encountering anything; only strange noises in the distance, the occasional grinding of stone and stone, which seems to emanate from within the walls themselves, as though some great engine is rearranging them. If you turn back, you might find yourself simply peering back up the flight of stairs you just descended, or the environment might have changed: a blank wall abruptly barring your way, as though it has always been there, the stairwell having given way to a branching tunnel or another that descends rather than leading back up to salvation.
 
Sound design is paramount; the preternatural quiescence of the game broken by grindings and growlings, by footsteps above, behind and on the floors below. Occasionally, you'll hear an intake of breath at your back, wheeling around to find...well, that's for you to discover, isn't it?
 
Though many quit before realising it, there are entities to encounter in the dark; if you delve deep enough, you'll find yourself startled by a shadow in the distance or peering around a corner; a vaguely human spectre, waiting for you to approach. Look at me...a faint whisper, which, if obeyed, results in the spectre hurtling towards the player, ending the game. There are no instructions, here; no helping hands. Attempting to retreat will also result in death. The only option is to look down at the ground, and approach the spectre. Drawing closer, the creature's demands ill escalate: Look at me, look at me, look at me...the player will see its feet on the ground before them, and, if they're brave enough, pass through. Unobserved, disobeyed, the creature disperses, allowing you to continue. 
No description does these encounters any justice; they are heart-stoppingly terrifying, even when they recur, the entity sometimes difficult to make out in the dark, sometimes distinguished by a faint glow of red eyes, a manic, Cheshire-Cat smile...
 
Elsewhere, you may encounter something directly from the SCP's entry on the foundation's website: a white, spectral face suspended in the air, sometimes in the distance, sometimes directly behind. Lingering will cause the face to rush towards you, the only option to retreat, until it disperses. Sometimes, a small window appears in the stone walls, through which bizarre and peculiar sounds emanate (the laughter or weeping of children, the snuffling of beasts, the grinding of machinery). Peering through reveals...something; too strange and curtailed by the parameters of the window to clearly make out, but staring at it too long will result in the player's death and a return to the top-most floor.
 
Everywhere are false turns and blind corners, the stairwell becoming a treacherous labyrinth in which a false turn can result in the most tense and terrifying encounters.
 
Yet, for all this, the game is nothing in terms of design or mechanics; the simplest, most rarefied example of what constitutes a video “game.” In that, it echoes certain traditions in horror fiction and cinema; the paring away of redundancy such as plot, character etc in favour of layering up tensions, inducing pure, survivalist dread. In many respects, it is antipodean to enshrined titles such as Silent Hill, which evokes fear and disturbance using entirely other (and often opposing) means, not to mention most other titles in the Thirteen for Halloween series.
 
As with most experiments of its ilk, it is something of an esoteric work; many will find its (almost) endlessly shifting floors, corridors and stairwells a trial to traverse, the often extended periods of absolute nothing boring rather than increasingly tense.
 
But for those of us that appreciate quiescence in their horror, that are engaged by little but pure atmosphere, there is very, very little like it; a startling experiment in the evocation of pure dread, and one from which mainstream creators could certainly stand to learn. 
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<![CDATA[THIRTEEN FOR HALLOWEEN: Gynoug/Wings of Wor]]>Thu, 27 Oct 2016 23:00:00 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/13-for-halloween/thirteen-for-halloween-gynougwings-of-wor
Side-scrolling shooters were ten a penny during the days of the 16-bit era; both the Sega Megadrive and Super Nintendo (the dominant systems of the era) were replete with such titles, most of them not terribly good; pale emulations of those that stood at the very height of the genre such as R-Type, Gradius et al.
 
The bafflingly titled Gynoug (Wings of Wor in the U.S.A) distinguishes itself amongst the dross not by dint of its mechanics (which are hardly revolutionary) or game design (again, hardly different from any other random side-scrolling shooter you might pluck from the shelves), but in terms of its subject matter, aesthetics and atmosphere. Whereas most in its genre boasted some form of science fiction backdrop (space-ace dog-fighting with marauding alien invaders, for the most part), Gynoug is more mythological; the player character not a space ship, but a winged angel, the enemies not various forms of alien craft or swarms of semi-robotic machines, but demons, devils and spirits, all of which are derived from genuine occult and religious symbolism.
This, more than anything, lends the game a layer of weight and disturbance that it might otherwise have lacked: from the tortured souls of the cathedral level to the flayed, Hellraiser-esque demons of the Hell-scapes that come later, each of the enemies is bizarrely distressing and often outright horrific; highly unusual for the genre and for games of the era in general. 
As for the levels themselves, their sheer variety and invention is startling: from the rumbling caverns in which the game begins to under-water explorations, from Satanic cathedrals to great, warped and distorted factories of Hellish industry, the levels are superbly designed, various in tone and flavour, each disturbing in their own, unique ways.
 
Easily the stand out in this regard is the game's final realm; the bowels of some immense demon, walls of flesh and flayed muscle, systems of veins trailing across the foreground, enemies resembling hideous parasites: human faced worms, skinless souls, clutching at the player from the fleshy depths...the atmosphere is palpable, enhancing the overall feeling and weight of the game, and making it a cut above the more usual parade of tired and derivative space-shooters.
 
In terms of gameplay, anyone who has ever played any flavour of side-scrolling shooter will know the mechanics instantly. In more recent parlance, the game is an example of “Bullet Hell” titles, in which the screen fills so fast and furiously with enemy fire, swarms of monsters and traps and missiles, it becomes an exercise in survival. To aid him in his quest, the angel can pick up various scrolls that appear on screen and combine them into spells whose effects vary from making him temporarily invincible to enhancing his fire power with enemy-seeking fire balls, blasts of lightning etc. 
​The game is also fiendishly difficult, particularly in its latter stages, requiring the player to familiarise themselves with the environments, the patterns of enemies and projectiles, if they are to stand a ghost of a chance of survival. This can actually be rather difficult when the environments are so compelling and distracting, especially since many of them are also animated (the later flesh-stage, for example, is constantly rippling and distorting, making it difficult to discern enemies and bullets from background details).
 
But the very, very best element of the entire work is undoubtedly the bosses. In terms of presentation, they are fantastic: an ominous chord sounds, the music slows, the background flickers and grows dark...then, immense grotesqueries emerge on-screen, from the first level's fusion of demon and locomotive to the eviscerated, mutilated Orpus, guardian of the fourth industrial level, every boss is luridly graphic in its design, strangely threatening and fantastically atmospheric. 
​The stand out example, once again, occurs at the end of the final level; a Giger-esque monstrosity that resembles an immense, phallic worm, pock-marked with disease, swellings, tumours...its torso that of a hunched and sickly man, its eyes swollen shut with what look to be seeping cancers...a truly vile creation, redolent of designs that might be found in Silent Hill's bestiary.
 
Whilst extremely simplistic and repetitive by present day standards, the game certainly stands out in its genre. Given the overtly occult and religious symbolism in the game, not to mention its gore and horror stylings, it's a wonder that the game was released at all into the market of the late 1980s/early '90s, and that it didn't court an enormous amount of controversy. 
​ 
As it stands, the game went mostly unnoticed and unremarked upon, even in terms of its unusual design and subject. It has recently garnered something of a minor cult status as a game that people vaguely remember playing at friends of friend's houses, but not knowing the name of; only that its imagery freaked them out as children, and perhaps inspired one or two nightmares in more sensitive souls. 
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<![CDATA[THIRTEEN FOR HALLOWEEN:  DEMON'S CREST]]>Wed, 26 Oct 2016 23:00:00 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/13-for-halloween/thirteen-for-halloween-demons-crest
 
Who remembers Ghouls 'n' Ghosts?; That nigh impossible, Demon's Souls of its day; that coin-munching, teeth-grinding, temper-fraying icon of arcade cabinets and home systems of the 16-bit era?
 
I do. I have many (sort of) fond memories of being hunched over an arcade cabinet whilst on a family holiday in Cypress, mashing those buttons, wrenching that joy-stick, desperately trying to take my limited supply of coins as far as they could go (without, of course, pestering Mom and Dad for more).
 

A title that still resonates; part of video gaming's history; essentially a platform game with a cartoon-horror motif in which, as the Knight Arthur, you set out to rescue your bride-to-be from the clutches of Satan himself. Along the way, you battle undead hordes, scabrous vultures, werewolves, titanic cyclopses, wolves of living fire and many more bizarre and miraculous beasties.
 
Most players recall the half way point of the second level (if only because that's as far as many got, owing to the game's fiendish difficulty), at which point you would encounter a mountain of skulls, atop which crouches a red, winged demon who dive-bombs Arthur with such speed, he is almost impossible to dodge.
 
This unambiguous bastard (who, from this point, is encountered at various points throughout the game) is Firebrand, a demon who, in one of the most bizarre marketing decisions in history, became the subject of his own spin off game, Demon's Crest. 
​​
​ 
Now, I imagine most of you who were even into video games during the era are scratching your heads and wondering whether or not I'm making this up. This is due to the relative obscurity of the game, certainly in Western markets: having only an extremely limited release in the US And, I believe, none at all in the UK and most of Europe, the game went largely unnoticed by the video game playing public and press of the era.
 
And that is a crying shame, as, it's ultimately one of the best titles you can play on the Super Nintendo; a genre-defying mixture of platform and RPG elements, the game has more than a whiff of the Mega Man X series about it in terms of dynamic and structure; as Firebrand, you travel the demon world (more or less at your leisure; the structure of the game is extremely open owing to Firebrand's ability to fly around a world map and land in particular areas, at which point the game switches to a side-scrolling adventure), seeking out rival demons and the eponymous crests they have stolen from you (the crests are magical items each representing particular elements, which lend the demon who wields them power over the entire demon realm). By facing your rivals and not only recovering the crests (which are stolen from Firebrand early in the game), but absorbing their powers as well, you become gradually more powerful, able to switch between various modes that allow you to traverse obstacles in the playing arenas (for example, one power allows you extended powers of flight and greater navigation, another allows you to batten onto walls and climb, another to break certain barriers and so on and so forth) and to defeat enemies who were previously all but impossible.
 
The game is expansive, even the smaller, side-scrolling stages vast and multi-layered. Owing to Firebrand's ability to fly and climb (and later, to burrow and blast through floors), the stages are unusually expansive for games of this type and era, containing any number of secret passageways, sealed off areas and various obscure pick ups. Each one bears revisiting numerous times as Firebrand's abilities grow, if only to find what has been missed and to unlock the game's numerous secrets (there are potentially numerous endings to the game, depending on what Firebrand has managed to uncover). 
​In terms of style and design, the game is redolent of its parent, Ghouls 'n' Ghosts, in that it is a fantasy game with vaguely horror overtones, but here, the latter element is emphasised: the demon realm is, as you'd expect, a cruel and Hellish place, the earliest encounter in the game fairly tense and distressing: inside an immense, bone-strewn necropolis, Firebrand encounters the current wielder of the Crest of Heaven: an immense zombie dragon; a decaying titan of bone and exposed organs, of loose, tattered skin and burning eyes. Like most encounters in the game the monstrosity has weight beyond simply being a big boss monster; initially, you hear it growling, dragging its claws and tatters across the floor. Then it emerges, bursting through a sealed doorway, rampaging at Firebrand, leaving the player little time in which to react. Being the first encounter in the game, it's actually deceptively easy, but the panic induced by the sudden emergence of the immense and beautifully grotesque sprite is enough to unsettle the player and disrupt their reactions. This is a consistent theme throughout the greater encounters in the game; all are set up with small, visual set pieces or heralded by ominous sounds, distressing music, enhancing tension and making their eventual revelations all the more impressive.
 
Certain encounters even boast dialogue; another rarity for games of this type, establishing Firebrand's relationship to consistent rivals and his desires for dominion over the demon realm. Most consistent in this regard is Arma; lieutenant to the game's principle antagonist, the demon king Phalanx, who currently controls the majority of the crests. With each encounter, Arma demonstrates new abilities based on the crest he wields, expressing a degree of grudging respect for Firebrand each time he is defeated. Arma is very much the consistent nemesis of the piece, every encounter with him having the feeling of a grudge match, making him far more than just a boss to defeat.
 
The boss encounters in general are fantastically designed and deliciously atmospheric; providing fitting culminations for the fiendish levels, each of which is macabre, intricately detailed and fun to explore.
 
The gameplay can be occasionally frustrating, owing to re-spawning enemies, some truly malicious traps and enemy placements that are, at times, irritatingly difficult to overcome. There are also potentially problems with the RPG or “free roaming” elements of the game, in that part of its longevity relies upon replaying the same stages over and over in order to find what new secrets can be unlocked there. This can become a little repetitive, certainly towards the game's latter quarters. 
That said, the game is notable in that it actually transcends the parameters of its parent by leagues and bounds: Demon's Crest is the superior game, in terms of design, atmosphere, graphics, music, structure...in almost every aspect; a rarity not only amongst video games, but media in general: how often to spin-offs and sequels, especially those this bizarre in conception, actually prove successful, let alone enough to supersede what spawned them?
 
Hardly ever at all. 
​Were the game more broadly released, I have no doubt it would have garnered classic status on the Super Nintendo and likely been one of the iconic titles of the era. As it stands, it's a well loved, cult obscurity; a game that is still highly playable, even in the present day, and which is slowly gathering a degree of well deserved, posthumous praise. 

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<![CDATA[THIRTEEN FOR Halloween: NIGHT TRAP]]>Tue, 25 Oct 2016 23:00:00 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/13-for-halloween/thirteen-for-halloween-night-trap
Unlike most games in this series, Night Trap is not one I suggest you make any effort seek out or play, on the grounds that it's simply not very good. At all. It wasn't any good at the time of release and it isn't any good now.
 
It is, however, historically significant, owing to the contrived media frenzy that the likes of The Daily Mail and other morally minded (and odiously myopic) quarters whipped up against it.
 
A specimen of the (mercifully) short-lived FMV or “Full Motion Video” era, Night Trap is a game that, rather than utilising drawn sprites and pixellated graphics (as was the pervasive style of video games at the time) instead utilised actual sets, actors and (very badly compressed) video footage. The trend originally marked early experiments in CD technology; a sort of transitional fossil between the more standard cartridges and floppy disks of the era to that format. However, being transitional, it was far from perfect: whilst some studios (such as the behemoth Sierra) had some limited success in this format, the vast majority of FMV titles are over-produced, absurdly expensive tat that is barely watchable, let alone playable.
 
One of the flag-ship titles for the Sega-CD peripheral for the Sega Megadrive, Night Trap began courting controversy even before it was released (and often on the basis of little more than hearsay, most of the self-proclaimed “journalists” who opined on the work not only never having played the game, but having little to no connection to the medium or its then burgeoning culture whatsoever).
 
A rare example of an attempt to hybridise a horror film and video game, Night Trap is a weary and turgid little affair, in which you play the part of some vague “special ops” team member sent into a suburban US neighbourhood to monitor a particular house for signs of...unusual activity. From a van parked (more than conspicuously) not very far away, you monitor the interior of the house through various cameras, activating a series of (idiotic to the point of slap-stick) traps that the team have apparently installed throughout the house whenever something ghoulish turns up. Meanwhile, a group of actors clearly in their thirties but pretending to be teenagers throw a slumber party, invited to the house by the family that resides there, who, I'm sure you'll be shocked dumb to find out, are actually vampires, who preside over a brood of shambling, more-funny-than-scary vampire thralls who, if you are not fast enough, pick off the girls one by one and drain their blood via a series of instruments and devices. Even that is far, far less graphic than it sounds; there is next to nothing in the way of actual gore or graphic violence, the most you generally see the creatures cornering one of the girls in some area of the house and dragging her away. To horror film fans, the game is tame beyond belief; more comic than frightening, with some of the worst acting, direction and special effects you're likely to see. For children, whom the video game market of the time was largely aimed at, well...there were scarier and more graphically violent cartoons readily available on broadcast television, and frankly more disturbing scenes to be found in soap operas at the time. 
​As is the case with most FMV titles, there is next to nothing in the way of actual game play; the limitations of the format truly do betray themselves here, as what the player can actually do and the degree to which they can engage with the game are profoundly truncated by the number of scenes and actions that could be filmed and compressed onto the disc.
 
Most of the “game” is spent passively flicking between the various cameras, watching events inside the house until something occurs. Then, the game essentially becomes what would be termed a “quick time” affair in present day video game parlance; you have to activate the right trap at the right moment by pressing a button when the vampire-beasties are properly positioned. Success will cause walls to swivel and seal them away, floors to open beneath them, stairs to become slides into suddenly gaping pits (yes, it really gets that stupid) and so on and so forth. The only real challenge of the game comes from monitoring the various areas and trying to cope with multiple incursions at once; it is entirely possible (if you have the damn patience) to get through the night without losing a single girl to the vampires. That said, it is marginally more fun to just let the vampires take them, if only to see some of the worst, B-movie acting, direction and effects you are likely to ever experience.
 
So, as a game; nothing much to say: it's a terrible example of a terrible era that buried more studios than you can count (owing to the exorbitant costs of producing FMV games at the time, coupled with the fact that hardly anyone bought them, because they were dreadful).
 
However, as an historical artefact, Night Trap occupies an almost mythic status: here in the UK, but also throughout Europe and the US, the game garnered the kind of moral lash back that hadn't been seen since the Mary Whitehouse days. Before the game was even released, tabloids and popular press were rife with articles on its apparent graphic gore, sex and misogyny (this last at least somewhat true, in that the largely female cast are treated as little more than mild, adolescent eye-candy and as victims for the vampires to chow down on), wider conservative hyperbole concerning the video game market and its “corrupting” effect on youth and so on and so forth.
 
​ 
Once again, hardly a one of these commentators had even seen the game, much less played it through. If anything, there exaggerations lent it wider acclaim and advertisement than it would have ever had otherwise. In all likelihood, the game would have been little more than another of the damp squibs that pervaded the Sega-CD (the vast majority of the system's games piss poor ports of arcade shooters such as Mad Dog McCree, Ground Zero Texas, Tom Cat Alley etc). As it was, Night Trap became far more than it ever warranted or than its developers might have dreamed.
 
Along with the likes of Mortal Kombat, which garnered similar reaction a few years earlier for its cartoon, exploding-ketchup-bottle splatter and hilariously over the top “fatality” animations, Night Trap became one of the key titles that resulted in the establishment of ELSPA (Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association), whose advisory age ranges and synopses of potentially offensive content can still be found on video games to this day. The situation became so heightened at one point, the matter was even discussed on parliament and there were even calls for the developers of Night Trap to face legal proceedings.
 
I know, right?
 
 
If you are masochistic enough to play the game now (or, preferably, just watch a long play of it on YouTube), you'll find yourself wondering what the Hell the fuss was about; not only is the game lacking in any and all of the (often highly specific and gruesomely detailed) scenes of gore and graphicness that the tabloids of the era claimed, but it is so banal, so boring, not to mention clearly more comedic in tone than horrific, that the only way even a child could be disturbed by it is if they've been exposed to no other media in their entire lifetimes.
 
Here's the irony of Night Trap: were it not for the media furore cultivated by those who would rather the game didn't exist (I'd rather it didn't exist, quite frankly, but because it's just an appallingly dull piece of work, rather than any finger-wagging reasons), it would have been long, long forgotten; I doubt anyone would remember it as more than a sad and baffling moment in video game history.
 
As is always the way with censorious souls, its detractors have ensured that its myth sustains to this day, as an artefact in the ever evolving history of video games and their relation to wider culture. 

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<![CDATA[THIRTEEN FOR HALLOWEEN: ELVIRA THE JAWS OF CERBERUS]]>Mon, 24 Oct 2016 23:00:00 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/13-for-halloween/thirteen-for-halloween-elvira-the-jaws-of-cerberus
Strangeness and disturbia were hardly uncommon to the now archaic Commodore Amiga and its contemporaries; owing to the relative youth of the video game market, invention and free expression was rife, though not always successfully manifested.
 
Straight examples of horror, however, were exceedingly rare, owing to video games still largely being regarded as toys and the reserve of children. The UK based Horrorsoft was a rare example of a video game company that specialised in exclusively adult products, their most consistent output Dungeon Master style RPGs that, rather than being fantasy-based, explored horror themes and subjects instead.

 
Their first notable work, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, was loosely based around the late-night TV host of the same name, who appeared in the game not so much as a “damsel in distress” as a kind of guide and sage who could provide hints, help to solve puzzles and even mix up spells and potions for the player character's use. Whilst generally well received (most notably for its atmosphere and imagery), the game suffered one or two crippling faults, as did almost all of Horrorsoft's output, some of the most notable being almost unavoidable “instant death” situations, the likelihood of making the game unwinnable from very early stages by not picking up particular items or losing them along the way and so on and so forth. 
​ 
For all that, the game garnered some significant attention for its horror stylings; whilst somewhat adolescent by present day standards (much of the scares are cliché to the Nth degree, not to mention extremely crudely rendered), this was, for many, the first time they had seen anything even approaching horror-film like grue, gore and mutilation in a video game, let alone experienced anything like dread or fear. The game and quickly amassed a dedicated audience, especially amongst older players, resulting not only in arguably Horrorsoft's seminal work, Waxworks, but also a direct sequel to the original Elvira in the form of The Jaws of Cerberus.
 
A fairly standard set-up: the eponymous Elvira is featuring in a number of films being produced by Black Widow studios. However, unbeknownst to those involved, a genuine demon (the monstrous Cerberus) is influencing affairs from its particular circle of Hell, influencing those on the horror film set to make it synthetic body to infest and to perform a ritual that summons its spirit to the material world. Once unleashed, it kidnaps Elvira with a view to sacrificing her, then transforms the various film sets into Hellish parodies of themselves; special effects monsters becoming real, what was previously only paint and cardboard becoming stone and soil.
 
As one of potentially four characters, you arrive at the lot to find the gates open, the studios in absolute chaos and Elvira taken. In a cliché directly from the Stephen King playbook, after being shocked out of your wits by mutilated corpses tumbling from closets etc, you encounter a token ethnic-minority character (this was the 1980s, after all) -in this instance, a native American gentleman-, who has some insight into what is happening and tells you what you require in order to banish Cerberus and its minions back to the abyss.
 
​ 
Those familiar with Elvira's TV and film antics will know that her schtick was a potent cocktail of raunchy humour and horror commentary; factors which definitely feature in The Jaws of Cerberus but do not dominate. Furthermore, many of the flaws that dogged the original game have been improved, if not done away with entirely:
 
A completely overhauled interface and spell-system, far more variety in environments, enemies and generally better presentation...what's more, the game is far more sophisticated in its horror than its predecessor, with many set-pieces and the imagery they contain being genuinely unsettling.
 
The game is divided into multiple distinct sections based upon the film sets within Black Widow studios, each of which can technically be tackled in any order, though you will need certain items and knowledge from one to progress through certain sections of another.
 
The “haunted house” film set, for example, is where much of the genuine horror in the game occurs: a slow and ominous section filled with logic puzzles and encounters that, whilst potentially lethal, are generally not solved through violence. Here, the player might fall asleep in a conveniently vacant bed, only to experience beautiful and faintly erotic dreams. On waking, the beauty from those dreams lingers over the bed, descending for another kiss, only for its features to shrivel, its hair to recede; puckered lips to become a lamprey maw of spiny teeth...Elsewhere, a dining room is set as though for a lavish feast, investigation and removal of a tray lid not revealing a roast bird or a joint of meat, but a severed head whose eyes flutter open, that grins at the player, drooling blood onto the plate below...wandering a nearby hallway results in the emergence of a spectre so hideous, the player character faints dead away, only to wake in a large storage freezer amidst the hacked and eviscerated corpses of numerous other victims. The only way to survive is if you have some form of fire-based spell prepared to dispel the cold, at which point the spectre itself will return: a diseased and gangrel woman, teeth sharpened to cannibalistic points, bearing a butcher's knife that she immediately starts hacking the player with...
​Such set pieces infest the area, many of them not immediately lethal, at least, so long as the player is well prepared, others being examples of what so dogged the original game: encounters that come with no warning or clue as to how they might be survived, their result an instant and hideous death (graphically portrayed in one of the game's many gory “game over” screens). This highlights one of the consistent flaws carried over from its predecessor, and which are extremely common, not only amongst similar adventures of the era (certainly amongst Horrorsoft's back catalogue), but video games of the period in general: the game ultimately becomes a matter of trial and error; it's all too feasible to stumble into a room or corridor that has no indication or signifier of impending threat, only to be met by a trap, puzzle or encounter that, unless you have the correct spell, item or tactic prepared, will end your game instantly. This certainly enhances the longevity of the game (it is fiendishly difficult; notoriously so, amongst the Amiga's gauntlet of games), but also makes it a uniquely frustrating experience, particularly in the days before internet walk-throughs or long-plays.
 
For example, early in the game, it is necessary to fish a set of keys from a fish tank. Dipping in with bare hands results in the piranha infesting the tank graphically gnawing the player's fingers to ribbons, halving their strength and carrying capacity. Making the attempt again will result in the loss of their hands, meaning that they can no longer carry anything, wield weapons or cast spells. The game is effectively over. Similarly, if you happen to blunder into the attic of the house, you will encounter a vampire in its coffin that rises and hurtles at you with next to no time given to defend yourself. The trick is a fairly simple one; all you have to do is smash the window above it to let the sunlight in. However, the moment comes with so little in the way of warning and is over so quickly, the vampire will be gnawing on your throat in a matter of seconds, sending you back to a previous load or, potentially, the beginning of the game.
 
This element of the unexpected certainly makes the game tense and somewhat scarier than lesser titles, but, once again, also makes for an insanely frustrating experience.
 
Other sets on the lot include: an immense labyrinth of subterranean caverns, infested with giant worms, ants, centipedes and scorpions. This is the “grinding,” combat area of the game, which is essential not only for building up the player character's levels and finding essential ingredients for spells, but also contains a number of essential secrets that the player must discover if they have a hope in Hell of defeating Cerberus. This is where the game grinds to a halt for many, and where its age certainly begins to show; the maze of caverns is little more than a series of identical tunnels and chambers, no auto-map available to chart your progress. This is a true “pen and paper” experience; in order to navigate, you must have graph paper and pencil handy in order to map out the caverns manually, or you don't have a chance of finding your way through (or, for that matter, finding your way back out again). Enemies are numerous and crop up almost randomly; gigantic worms bursting from the ground, hideous, giant mosquitoes hurtling at you out of the darkness. Combat, whilst much improved, is still something of a trial; you must learn the attack patterns of enemies and know when it is best to dodge, defend or attack. Even then, you are highly likely to suffer damage and multiple deaths until you reach higher levels. A number of encounters here are unique and essential to completing the game: a gigantic ant-queen that sprays acid in your face, a monstrous scorpion and, finally, an immense spider in whose web writhes a captive Elvira. The spider in particular is absolutely terrifying: looking out from a small cave into a vast cavern, the player sees the web stretched below and Elvira snared in it. From an adjacent vent, the spider emerges, scurrying down across the web before its legs crawl over the lip of the tunnel in which you're standing. Facing the spider head on is next to impossible; if you don't have the correct spell equipped to defeat it from a distance, it will snare and murder you instantly. 
​Clambering down to release Elvira results in another encounter; the eponymous heroine morphing and transforming into a giant wasp that must be defeated. This is a consistent situation throughout all of the sets: at the climax of each comes an encounter with a false “Elvira” that then morphs into something hideous which must be taken down.
 
Ultimately, if the player proves patient and canny enough, they will gather the items for the ritual to summon and dispel Cerberus, culminating in encounter in the parking lot, in which the triple-headed, canine demon bursts from the ground, drooling lava, belching fire. If the player does not follow the ritual exactly throughout the encounter, then they will die instantly. If they succeed, then the beast's beating heart is (graphically) torn from its moorings, and the demon is banished back to Hell.
 
However, owing to its insane difficulty, the all too feasible likelihood of losing or simply not finding an essential item from the game and having to start over from scratch, the vast majority of players from the era of its release never even got close to this final encounter, which is a shame, as it is well rendered and suitably epic.
 
The game is all but unplayable by present day standards; an example of the evolution of horror gaming in its early adolescence; certain consistent kinks not yet identified and ironed out, certain follies still pervasive not only in assumptions of video game design, but also in the very technology on which they operated.
 
That said, the game is visually arresting (for the era), intriguingly atmospheric with some decent scares, an excellent sense of humour about itself and a notably “adult” sensibility; there is no hand holding or on-screen instructions here: the player is expected to engage and experiment; to find their own seeping, bleeding way through the insanity, whether they ultimately expire (highly likely) or emerge gasping and half-mad on the other side. 

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<![CDATA[Thirteen for Halloween:   The Binding of Isaac.]]>Sun, 23 Oct 2016 12:11:46 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/13-for-halloween/thirteen-for-halloween-the-binding-of-isaac
You may have heard of this one; a certain Mr. Kit Power has already detailed his own passion for this game hereabouts. Not only that, but it's certainly one of the biggest “Indy” hits in video gaming in recent memory.
 
The Binding of Isaac is a phenomenon; already having spawned a remake, myriad forms of DLC and a fan-community that could realistically form its own small nation, the game is one of the very few that has entirely transcended the limitations of its independent roots, becoming a genuine competitor for market space far, far beyond any intent or expectation on behalf of its creators.
 
Type the title into YouTube's search engine, you will be bombarded with more videos than you can realistically consume in a lifetime. The “Let's Play” community have been a key component in the game's marketing and popularity, the nature of the game itself making it ideal fodder for prolonged or on-going series.

 
Essentially an example of what has become known as “Rogue-like” video games, the premise and structure are ostensibly simple: As the eponymous Isaac, the player must progress through various rooms and levels, each of which has its own lay out of monsters, traps and items. Killing all of the enemies within a particular room will open the doors to other areas, each floor containing an item room, sometimes a shop (where Isaac can pick up or purchase upgrades), a boss and various other potential secrets and areas for exploration. Along the way, Isaac can pick up keys to open locked doors, money to purchase items from the shop, bombs for blowing up enemies or opening the sealed ways to secret rooms. Every floor has its own randomly determined lay out, ensuring that no two games are the same, and items often work in synergy with one another, unlocking odd effects or capabilities, meaning that there are numerous potential combinations. Every item picked up also transforms the player character, meaning that combinations of items can result in some truly wacky and bizarre sprites. Certain parameters unlock potential secrets, for example, if you succeed in completing a floor without taking damage, you may earn a “deal with the Devil” or a “deal with the angel;” rooms that spontaneously open after defeating the boss of any given floor, the former allowing you to sacrifice health for potentially devastating items (Brimstone, The Pact, The Mark and various others), the latter offering a much more limited pool of items for free.
 
Part of The Binding of Isaac's enduring appeal is that the end is not the end; every time you play, not only is the game different, but fulfilling certain parameters unlocks new floors, new items, new characters and bosses...the range of unlockable elements is enormous, ensuring an almost infinite replay value. Should you, for example, happen to beat two floors without taking damage, you will unlock the Sampson character; a player character that starts the game with different stats and abilities from the standard Isaac (most notably, the Rage capability, which enhances his damage every time he takes a hit). Should you reach the first “Mom” boss fight and defeat it within twenty minutes of starting the game, you will have the chance of partaking in “boss rush;” a gauntlet of almost all the game's bosses spawning one after the other, in return for a series of items. The game also has numerous modes, ranging from a truly fiendish “hard” mode (which is the only way to truly play it) to a recently created “Greed” mode, which changes the dynamic of the game profoundly and even boasts a unique end of game boss in the form of “Ultra Greed.”
 
But all of this; the game's mechanics, its design, its structure...they pale in comparison to what the aforementioned Mr. Kit Powers discussed in his original analysis of the game:
 
Its symbolism. 
​Rarely, for a game of its type, The Binding of Isaac has incredible metaphorical depth and resonance: at the game's opening, the player is treated to an intro animation that sets out the story, but also establishes the central tension between its art style and subject matter: whilst the style is cutesy, almost like a child's drawings, the subject matter ranges between the bleakly hilarious to the utterly disturbing.
 
As the intro cartoon makes overt, this is a game that touches on some rather thorny subjects, child abuse not least amongst them: His Father (mysteriously) absent, Isaac lives alone with his Mother, who is a religious fanatic, obsessed with televangelism and Christian broadcasting. Hearing what she believes to be the voice of God commanding her to “prepare” her son, she strips him naked, takes away all of his toys and books and “worldly” possessions and leaves him shivering in his room. But God, dissatisfied with this state of affairs, speaks to her again, commanding her to “purify” him of all wickedness. Brandishing as butcher's knife, she makes for her son's room, but Isaac hears her coming, escaping through a concealed trap door in his room, tumbling down, down into the basement.
 
And this is where the game begins. From this point, there is very little in the way of overt story-telling (none at all, in point of fact): everything, everything, everything is conveyed through visual symbolism: every enemy encountered, every item picked up, is symbolic of some aspect of Isaac's state of mind, leaving the player in some doubt as to how much he is experiencing is literally true and how much is the distorted creation of an imagination on the brink of fraying under parental abuse and sheer terror.
 
Almost all of the enemies bear some distorted or disfigured resemblance to Isaac himself, from almost-clones of the boy with bleeding, gouged out eyes, to others that are bloated beyond all measure and often conjoined to nascent versions of themselves...the metaphorical implications of this are various and horrific: on the one hand, you could interpret such enemies as perhaps Isaac's previous siblings, discarded into the cellar by their Mother and Father for being so hideous. Or perhaps they are projections of the boy himself; fragments of his psyche that assault him from within and require putting down. Or maybe they are reflections of the various abuses he has suffered, how he now sees himself. 
​Other enemies reflect certain boyish fears and obsessions; flies, spiders, worms...living dollops of excrement that speed across the screen, spawning smaller versions of themselves as they go. Such Freudian imagery abounds: as well as the overtly phallic entities such as “Chub” and the numerous worm-like enemies, there are also items and enemies that refer to morbid neuroses, such as “Mom's Bra,” an item which, when activated, causes an image of Isac's ogre-like Mother to flash across the screen, all enemies momentarily freezing in place as though paralysed with fear. More grotesque still is “Mom's Pad,” which causes enemies to flee in disgust. Certain enemies are symbolically vaginal or refer to menstruation, others redolent of common birth defects or deformities. Items euphemistically (or directly) refer to incontinence, disease or (contrastingly) to popular internet memes or popular fiction.
 
Bosses are invariably inventive in both their grotesquery and character, each of them encapsulating some consistent element of the game's themes and subjects and emphasising it to the Nth degree: from “Monstro's” hair-lip and characteristics that are more than a little redolent of mental disability to “Peep” and his splattering incontinence, each of the bosses, like their smaller kin, reflect some preoccupation, concern or neurosis of childhood; so universal as to be immediately recognisable, and make them immediately disturbing, despite their overtly simplistic and child-like design. Later encounters become deeper and darker; reflections of Isaac's own peculiar form of psychological and physical abuse: angels and demons and undead monstrosities; distorted reflections of the “sin” he has been conditioned to perceive in himself (each of the Seven Deadly Sins manifests as mini-bosses throughout the levels, as do the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse).
 
All of this conveyed in a distorted, cutesy style the source and nature of which becomes apparent if you take a step back from the game and look at how it's presented: everything, everything is a child's drawing, from the most grotesque horrors to the silliest absurdities: this is a the world of an abused child's sub-conscious, perhaps near death or in some strange limbo between it and life, maybe not yet even born; dreaming of the life it will live and the horrors it will face (all equally plausible, given the imagery the game presents). 
​The apparent end of the game in early play-throughs (but that fast becomes little more than a mid-way marker as more is unlocked and the game extends) sees Isaac finally facing his Mother; a grotesque ogre that is never seen in its entirety, but as a protruding collection of body parts (eyes, grasping hands, a descending, callused foot), defeating the very face of his own fears.
 
But her apparent death is only the beginning: after, Isaac descends into his Mother's womb, where he finds not only infesting entities such as parasitic worms et al, but also partial abortions, ectopic siblings...ultimately an encounter with his Mother's own vile heart, which, in later encounters, transforms into an immense foetus.
 
The symbolism of this is simultaneously rife with potential interpretations and entirely ambiguous: perhaps this represents Isaac's own suicidal tendencies; a despair so profound that he seeks to return to his own source and abort himself before he can be born. Or perhaps the “womb” levels are literally the diseased carcass of his fallen Mother, the enemies and the final foetus enemy (“It Grows”) that he encounters another like himself, that will only know suffering when it comes to wake.
 
From here, the player has a choice of two unlockable levels, each one representing a different aspect of his Mother's religious fanaticism:
 
Either a descent into Sheol, the first layer of Hell, in Talmudic mythology, or an ascent to The Cathedral; a Heavenly plain that is nonetheless lethal and filled to the brim with monstrosity. The former culminates in a battle with Satan himself; arguably the manifestation of fears conditioned into him by his Mother, representing his desire to be rid of his own temptation and spiritual filth (a state manifested in the character Azazel; a demonic form of Isaac that the player can utilise after meeting certain parameters). The latter, meanwhile, is most curious: coming to the final chamber of the Cathedral, Isaac is faced by none other than...himself. Or rather, an angelic version of himself; a weeping, trembling form that, after being pummelled to a particular point of health, sprouts wings and becomes angelic. This entity does not “die” as other enemies do if defeated; it ascends to some higher plain, leaving Isaac to crawl into a vast and archaic trunk that drops from the ceiling...
 
Did I mention that Isaac's principle form of attack comes from tears?; The character literally weeps his enemies to death, except for in the case of a few items or power-ups that transform his tears into bursts of blood, explosive gouts of vomit or streams of urine. 
​At its core, The Binding of Isaac is a metaphorical road-map of childhood and adolescent concerns, neuroses and obsessions; it symbolically refers to or explores near universal experiences; traumas that are part and parcel of growing, the death of childhood, the murder or abandonment of notions of innocence...
 
It's entirely feasible to write an entire dissertation or thesis on the symbolism of The Binding of Isaac; analysing the work as an example of visually and symbolically told mythology and video game narrative. I've barely scratched the surface here, and even this analysis is subject to profound question: the game is effectively a giant Rorschach ink-blot test: every player will have different interpretations of the experience; will inevitably express varying and idiosyncratic interpretations of its symbolism.
 
It therefore only remains to say: go and play it; uncover or create your own “truth,” but be wary: the roads to both Heaven and Hell are long, and fraught with familiar dangers...
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<![CDATA[Thirteen for Halloween: Chakan the Forever Man.]]>Sun, 23 Oct 2016 09:24:00 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/13-for-halloween/thirteen-for-halloween-chakan-the-forever-man
Thirteen for Halloween:  Chakkan the Forever Man. 
Don't play this game. I'm not kidding; if you value patience, sanity or whatever system you happen to find it on, do not play this game. 
Not because any apparent horror or disturbia in its subject matter (though there' s plenty of that), but because it's one of the most frustrating experiences you are likely to have. For those who had copies of this game back in the days of its original release (the Sega Megadrive era) and made any kind of headway with it, I salute you from the depths of my black and seeping heart, I truly do: this game is a nightmare of bad controls, pin-point accurate jumps, blind leaps, instant death traps and practically every sin platform video games of the era ever committed. 
So...why are we still talking about it?...
Well...like many games of the era, it does have some redeeming features, most of which are encapsulated in its presentation: the game is uniquely stylish for its era and given the systems on which it manifested (Sega Megadrive and Gamegear); another example of a work whose ambition, perhaps, was thwarted by the technological limitations of the era; were Chakkan to be rebooted now as something akin to Darksouls, Bloodborn et al, its moody, nihilistic action-horror stylings would likely make it an instant hit. 


As it stands, the game is a thing of maddening beauty; a fantastic central concept, involving and engaging anti-hero protagonist (again, unusual for the era), great atmosphere, aesthetics etc...but impossible, impossible to play. My own experience derives from watching long-plays of the game on YouTube, which is perhaps the best way to experience it: 


As the eponymous Forever man, the player is an immortal swordsman who, after defeating Death himself in a duel, claimed immortality as his prize. However, what Death provided is far from what the swordsman envisaged: obliged to stalk the world (and myriad others) as a deathless assassin, his charge is to eliminate all forms of evil from existence before he can claim rest. 
Reduced to a walking corpse over the centuries, Chakkan only desires one thing: to finally fulfil his bargain and be allowed to die. 
This is a peculiarly complex and ambiguous tension for video game protagonists of the era, especially within this genre: for the most part, player characters had about as much depth and background as a “Mister Man” character, and often not even that. Chakkan is a step apart in this regard; he does not fight out of some macho, Contra style militarism or for revenge; he is weary of fighting: all he wants is to die at last, to have some peace from the endless, grinding conflict. 
From the first instance, the game has a broody, threatening atmosphere, the title screen lurid and atmospheric; lightning flashing down on a mountaintop, The Forever Man perched at its peak, swords drawn, eyes aglow in his cadaverous face, drums pounding out a funeral beat in the background. 
The structure of the game is also highly unusual; upon starting, the player finds themselves in a
The structure of the game is also highly unusual; upon starting, the player finds themselves in a surreal hub-world; a series of shattered stairways and cloisters that look to have been torn from some shattered temple, tumbling endlessly against a backdrop of scrolling stars and space. 
On every walkway, eldritch portals lead to each of the game's worlds; play areas designed around a particular back-story and aesthetic, each with its own perils, monsters and a final boss who is the object of Chakkan's hunt. Before each quest begins, the player is treated to the image of an elaborate hour glass, its sands running as text scrolls across the screen, providing oblique back story on the realm beyond and the evils that preside over them. These are some of the more interesting elements of the game, as they lend depth to the mythology and make the monsters Chakkan faces more than just video game enemies to be dispatched. Each of the realms is atmospheric and aesthetically well presented, the pain priestess Elkenrod's cathedral a place of fire pits and torture chambers, of summoned demons and mutilated victims, whilst the subterranean, H.R. Giger inspired pits of the Spider Queen and her brood maintain a more organic, Alien-like environment, various vermin such as giant spiders and half-spider, half-human hybrids scuttling over every surface. Atmosphere and aesthetics are certainly the main order of the day, here, as the areas are also so poorly designed in terms of structure and player practicality, most are unlikely to see a great deal of them before quitting out of sheer fury. 

Within each realm, Chakkan can acquire different weapons that allow for progress through certain environmental barriers, puzzles etc as well as making certain enemies easier to defeat. The grappling hook, for example, allows Chakkan to swing from certain elements of the background, reaching higher areas or saving himself from instant death pits. The hammer, meanwhile, allows him to smash his way through barriers or knock down blockades. Each area is also littered with various potions, which Chakkan can collect and combine to produce certain effects. This is an interesting function within the game, as there is no means of determining what combination of potion will produce what effect; it's a matter of trial and error, which might have been more effective were it not for the fact that certain areas require certain effects in order to progress. If you don't have the right potions, or used them up previously, then too bad: back to the beginning you go. 

After defeating the first four guardians and conquering the initial levels, Death himself informs Chakkan that he has only succeeded in defeating the evils on the terrestrial plain; that he must now travel to the elemental plains and conquer an entirely new set of levels with a new series of guardians. 

This is the point at which the game becomes practically impossible: levels such as the Fire Drake's Hellish domain are so perilous that practically every step comes with the threat of instant death. The fact that you have to take numerous leaps of faith (often into rivers of flowing lava) means that the effort is one of trial and error, inching forward until you've managed to map out every inch of the levels in your mind. 
Should you somehow conquer all four of the elemental plains (*cough* save states), you will be treated to a prolonged and extremely nihilistic ending sequence in which Death points Chakkan's eyes to the stars streaming overhead, and informs him that his quest only ends when he has eliminated all evil; each of the stars he can see has its own worlds, each with their own plains and evils to conquer. His quest is never ending, and he will never know peace. 

After the final credits have rolled, the player will be “treated” to a final boss, of sorts: a grotesque, clearly H.R. Giger inspired monstrosity that is impossible to defeat without some sort of cheat in place. 

What is clear is that the designers never believed that any player would reach this far, as, should you happen to defeat this entity, there is nothing: only the hour glass, endlessly streaming the sands of time; no text, no credits; the only means of escaping the screen turning off the console and restarting the game. 

The nihilism of this ending is extremely unusual amongst video games of the era; a likely product of the designers lack of belief that anyone would actually see it. 

Chakkan is not a good game, by technical standards: it is frustrating, oblique, poorly designed and not fun to play. It is, however, an interesting aesthetic experience and an excellent example of how, very often, excellent ideas, aesthetic design and atmosphere are not enough to sustain interest when it comes to video games, and of how the technological limitations of the era often defeated true vision and artistic flare. 

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<![CDATA[ Thirteen For Halloween:   Weird Dreams ]]>Sat, 22 Oct 2016 08:44:47 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/13-for-halloween/-thirteen-for-halloween-weird-dreams
Strangeness and absurdity weren't exactly in short supply during the days of the Commodore Amiga; back then, video games were a fledgling medium, meaning that the established templates and codifications hadn't yet crystallised, resulting in wild and bizarre experiments, games that belonged to no particular category or genre, but existed in and of themselves. For the most part, such experiments were largely half successful or outright failures, the technological limitations of the era not lending themselves to the weight of vision or inspiration that designers, writers and programmers wished to express.
 
However, amongst the dross and confusion, certain titles stood out and stand out still, rendered distinct by their strangeness, their intrigue; their will to push the bounds of imagery, subject and gaming mechanics beyond the proscribed and established.
 
Weird Dreams is definitely an example of that and then some. Like many games in this series, it is an exploration of the sub-conscious; a descent into one man's slumbering mind as he goes under the knife for a life-saving operation. The game opens in the operating theatre, just before he goes under, a series of masked and extremely sinister surgeons gathered round about, before a mask is placed over his face...
Then a descent; an Alice in Wonderland tumble into an abyss of chaos. The player lands in a bizarre situation typical of the game: inside a giant cotton candy machine, in which they must gather as much cotton candy as possible to adhere themselves to the stick by which they might escape. Meanwhile, a heart monitor keeps track of the player character's pulse. If it rises beyond a particular pitch, he is in danger of dying on the operating table, and thus losing the game.
 
Beyond the cotton candy machine, the player emerges into a strange, dilapidated circus, harassed by a nightmarish giant wasp that they must distract with globs of cotton candy or fend off with a stick. Clutched in its legs, a glowing orb, that the player must trick it into setting down, so that they might claim it. These orbs are essential to the completion of the game, but are very easily missed; if the player doesn't manage to claim it before the wasp chases them into a nearby tent, then they never will, and they will reach the end of the game without the means of finishing it. This is fairly typical of games of the era; they are oblique, bizarre and require a great deal of intuition and imagination on the player's part. Do not expect instructions or tutorials; you must discern what must be done through trial and error, and many, many, many failed attempts.
 
​ 
The wasp and the orb, not to mention the circus in which they occur, are also typical of the game's aesthetic and imagery: like Harlequin, American McGee's Alice and myriad others, everything here has a dreaming symbolism; the wasp an almost inescapable, nightmare horror emphasised by how slow the player character moves across the playing area, the playing area itself a twisted echo of childhood; of innocence corrupted. In that, the game attempts to overcome its own graphical and technological limitations; a generally successful experiment, if only because, as its title suggests, almost everything it contains is so damn weird.
 
​Escaping the wasp, the player finds themselves in a sort of hub-world; a hall of mirrors, each mirror a portal to a different playing area; a different segment of the player's dreaming psyche. One leads to a suspiciously pleasant garden area, a bed of roses blooming, sun shining, while a rendition of “An English Country Garden” plays in the background. Lingering too long in this apparent Eden, however, results in a demonic lawnmower roaring from one side of the screen, chewing the player character to ribbons. Approaching the rose bed with undue haste, however, results in the flowers sprouting mouths and teeth which gnaw on the player as they pass. The trick is to move speedily but stealthily, to beat back the gnawing roses with discarded branches.
 
Again, the game demonstrates how subversive it is to expectation; how it presents the player with seeming peace and innocence then transforms it into a Jungian nightmare. Images of peace, of beauty; all things redolent of childhood, become monstrous, here.
 
 
The next screen is arguably the climax of that theme; a lawn area in which a little girl is playing with a football. Beckoning, she asks you to join in the game. However, as you play, throwing the ball back and forth between you, the ball starts to sprout a tooth-lined maw, which will devour you if you fail to catch it promptly. Meanwhile, the girl begins to brandish an immense butcher's knife behind her back, skipping closer and closer with every passing heartbeat. If you allow her too close, she stabs the player character in the heart, ending the game. The only way out of the situation is to throw the ball so that she doesn't catch it, at which point it will devour her instead.
 
This is perhaps one of the most subtly sinister scenes in the game; one in which a child becomes a murderer and a child's toy becomes a predatory monster. Again, the imagery is fairly nightmarish, and extremely distressing to audiences of the era, who were generally unused to such fare in their video games. 
Returning to the hall of mirrors reveals another distressing element; one of the mirrors pulsing, as though something is attempting to press through from the other side. A quick escape through one of the alternative portals may bring the player to a darkened hallway of flickering lights, various doors and swarms of fluttering bats. Attempts to pass through the doors result in emergence into either the same corridor or back into the hall of mirrors. Sometimes, grotesque sets of teeth chomp down, biting the player character. Avoidance of the bats brings the player to a fully lit corridor in which perhaps the most bizarre monstrosity in the game waits: an immense, animated roast chicken, clucking and squawking as though still alive, its front end ripped wide into a kind of maw, immense teeth gnashing there. The play must swing over the absurdity using the lamps overhead, before it greedily devours them.
 
Alternatively, the player may emerge walking a giant keyboard that is playing a sinister tune, a jester-like phantasm in the background echoing the performance on its own piano grin. The player must leap as the keys rise or slide away, passing huge ballet dancers that can kick you back across the screen and a slumbering electric eel that can shock you into a heart attack or, if you are stealthy, become an essential weapon.
 
The order in which the player attempts these tasks is generally up to them, but there are certain items from particular areas that are essential to completing puzzles in others. For example, if you attempt the quick-sand strewn desert area without acquiring the ball, you will be sucked down into the sands (the ball eats a pathway through for the player before graphically bursting apart). Similarly, if you reach the final encounter of the game (a great brain rising from the desert sands, with a central eye that opens and closes, an electron-like system of smaller brains swirling around it) without acquiring all of the orbs, the game is unbeatable and death certain. This can be incredibly frustrating, as there is no save function, requiring the player to go through the entire game again if they die.
 
A flawed gem, like many in this series: Weird Dreams control system is sluggish and horrendous, requiring pin-point accurate timing, especially during sections that require jumping or platforming shenanigans. It is also obscenely difficult, especially if you've never played an Amiga title before; the likelihood of success is slim to nil.
 
Even if you manage to succeed, and wake from your nightmare, there is another waiting in the operating theatre...
 
A game that sustains on imagery and atmosphere alone; that will certainly fray the nerves of many a present day player, but which, contextually, stands as a fascinating experiment. 
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<![CDATA[Thirteen for Halloween:   Undertale]]>Fri, 21 Oct 2016 06:25:26 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/13-for-halloween/thirteen-for-halloween-undertale
​What? What the Hell is this doing here? Undertale? In a horror article?
 
Absolutely. I'm fairly certain those of you with even a passing interest in video games will have heard of this title by now; an independent piece of work that took the market by storm a year or so ago, Undertale is a cultural phenomenon, spawning vast swathes of art, comics, spin-offs, musical renditions and more. A love letter to and parody of RPG (Role Playing Game) titles of yore, the game essentially takes every standard of role-playing titles; every accepted or accrued cultural norm, and inverts them. In standard RPGs, you encounter a monster, you kill it; you gain experience (or “EXP”), you level up, get stronger, kill bigger and badder monsters.
 

Here, you can do that, but the game will punish you for it. It calls into question the automatic assumption of violence within such games and the player's blithe engagement therewith; rather than killing everything you encounter, you instead have the option of engaging with them, talking them down, which is often more difficult and dangerous and less immediately rewarding (your character will remain weak and enfeebled if you take this path, the internet dubbed “pacifist run”), but will also result in a fuller and richer playing experience, many monsters even becoming your friends by the end of the game, and will also provider access to the most comprehensive ending. Alternatively, you could perform the “genocide” run; murdering everything you encounter, which results in an entirely different ending and many, many different encounters (not to mention revelations concerning the game's mythology).
 
But...Undertale, in a series of horror articles? What the Hell..?
 
Yes. Whilst ostensibly cute and fairly passive in terms of its design, depending on the path you take, Undertale slowly reveals a deep and abiding horror at its heart, that acts as a commentary on the wider, unspoken horror of RPG ​​conventions: 
​As the first monster you encounter in the game (Flowey the Flower) demonstrates, this world is ruthless: a matter of “...kill or be killed.” There is some truth to that, depending on how you choose to approach it: if you take Flowey's lesson to heart, and slaughter everything before it can slaughter you, you will find vast, empty segments of the game, without characters or music, those that have fled leaving behind small notes and missives concerning the approaching horror. This factor escalates as you encounter named characters, who you may be familiar with from previous runs: Papyrus the Skeleton, one of the most amiable and pleasant characters in the game, who attempts to make friends with you even as you slaughter him, Undyne, whose rises from her own death as a more powerful version of herself, in order to defend her world and friends, before dispersing. Others: Toriel, Napstablook...characters that are strangely endearing when you encounter them in pacifist or less violent runs, making you reluctant to actually kill them, even knowing that they are only game sprites. Their deaths have incredible weight and meaning, making the player feel extremely uncomfortable, especially when it comes to the more innocent or unwitting of the cast.
 
Worse: as you follow this course, you will find your character increasingly acting without your input, especially when the choice is between violence and non-violence: at points, the character will begin acting of their own accord, especially towards the end of the game. It will even eventually rename itself; calling itself Chara; a reference to a character in the game's back mythology, that you will only learn about on the “pacifist run;” a child who fell into the underworld and who, ultimately, died, as a result of its own actions. The significance of this is unclear; whether it is Chara's spirit possessing the player character, aroused by the violence you choose to practice, but the outcome is inevitable: Chara ultimately takes control, not only of the character, but of the game, breaking the fourth wall and shutting the game down in the player's face in a fairly horrific fashion, after a grotesque and disturbing physical transformation. 
​This is part of what makes Undertale simultaneously cute, funny but also often disturbing and frightening: whatever path you choose, the game eventually reveals its own mythology, which is a commentary on the mechanics and nature of video games themselves: after becoming Chara, at the very end of the genocide run, you encounter Sans; a character who has been consistent throughout the game, an who acts as a kind of judge; weighing your actions up to that point and determining whether or not you may pass unmolested. Here, Sans reveals that the “EXP” from your kills stands for “Execution Points” and that the levels or “LV” you obtained as a result stands for “Level of Violence.” Depending on how you've performed, Sans will either let you proceed to the final encounter with Asgore or he will attack you (especially if you happened to kill his brother, Papyrus). Sans is essentially Undertale encapsulated: he is funny, charming, oddly cute in design, but also incongruously disturbing at times: early on in the game, if you happen to have expressed violence during its previous segments, he will engage you, talk to you: inform you that “...if you carry on along this path, you're gonna have a bad time.” At which point, the pin points of light in his eye sockets go out, leaving them dark and strangely glaring. This contrast between a cute, doofy character (who constantly cracks terrible skeleton-based puns) and a suggestion of threat is a prime example of how the underlying horror of Undertale manifests: it is rarely overt or superficial, rather it engenders a sense of discomfort, self reflection, often even guilt on behalf of the player; an emotion that is sorely misrepresented in most horror media (notable exceptions include BioShock: Infinite, which provides similar commentary on the automatic and assumed violence the player engages in). 
​ 
If you do find yourself in conflict with Sans, then his earlier warning of having a “... bad time” becomes manifest: Sans, in contrast to what the game informs the player (“The easiest enemy; only has 1 hit point and can only do 1 hit point of damage”) is THE most difficult encounter in the game; a gruelling endurance trial in which the player character is expected to die over and over and over, getting used to his various attack patterns before delivering the killing blow. This encounter is effectively the culmination of Undertale's fourth wall breaking meta-mythology; the game does not necessarily lie to the player, but it does deceive them more subtly: Sans is indeed, technically, the easiest enemy, in that it only takes one hit points worth of damage to kill him, and he can indeed only do one hit point in return per attack. What the game neglects to inform you of is that he is so impossibly fast, he can dodge every attack you throw at him and that he can launch THOUSANDS of individual attacks (each doing only one hit point of damage, as informed) per turn.
 
This is an excellent example of the discomfort and disturbance Undertale elicits in the player, in that it deliberately calls into question the relationship player and game have: in the same vein as other works such as Stephen Volk's Ghostwatch, which undermined TV viewer's relationship to their media so profoundly, the resultant backlash caused it to be buried away from public consumption for a decade or more, Undertale upsets the assumed relationship between game and player; between player and player character. The game deceives rather than instructing, subverts rather than assisting. It also comments upon its own mechanics (and those of RPGs in general) by making them part of its mythology: you are expected to die and die a great many times while fighting Sans, using the “save” and “reload” feature to return. Sans is one of the few characters in the game aware of this feature, and will comment on it, his dialogue changing to reflect your status with each new encounter. Distressingly, it becomes apparent via multiple play-throughs of the game that Sans and Chara are some of the only characters in the game (along with the aforementioned “Flowey”) who have this capacity, and that Sans is very much aware of what you as the player have been doing in other saves and play-throughs of the game (this is another factor that the game subverts, which can be quite disturbing, especially if you are unaware of it: the game does not allow you to simply start a new save and wipe away your mistakes; it remembers what you have done on previous or alternative saves and it will comment on them, not to mention the alternative actions you take).
 
This plays into a far deeper, darker mythology that does not become readily apparent: there is something about the doofy, dumpy Sans that is remarkably sinister, when you delve deeper into the game: he knows who and what you are when he first encounters you, as he has seen numerous versions of you pass through the same state before, all following different paths, all manifesting different moral choices. He and Chara both have this capacity, but whereas Sans seems to use it benignly, Chara does not, using it as an excuse to wreak havoc and be utterly amoral without fear of permanent consequence.
 
As for Flowey the Flower...again, a character that is far, far more than he initially seems: presented in most playthroughs as the principle villain of Undertale, Flowery usually manifests at the end of the game in which he kills Asgore, king of the monsters, and absorbs the souls of not only every monster you have encountered (friend or foe), but also those of the other children that have perished here before you. What he becomes is truly, graphically horrific; the monster that is in stark contrast to all others in the game (barring one or two notable examples): A disturbing amalgam of plant, flesh and technology, which, once again, makes reference to the game's mechanics and makes them part of a wider mythology by perpetually killing and “reloading” you so that he can kill you again. This degree of sadistic darkness is emphasised by much the game's previous cutesy style, and is a commentary upon the hideousness of living in a world ruled by video game conventions; that you can “die” multiple times in myriad hideous ways, reloaded and reloaded and reloaded by some unseen, God-like hand (i.e. the player).
 
It's only if you play through the pacifist run that you come to understand who and what Flowey truly is: a revelation that is as tragic as it is moving, and which ties up the in-game narrative mythology beautifully: it transpires that Flowey is the soul of the murdered child of the king and queen of the monsters (Asgore and Toriel), who was killed by human beings when he attempted to carry the body of Chara back to their village. He died in a bed of golden flowers, where his body crumbled to dust (as all monsters do in the game). As Flowey, he does not recall being Asriel Dreemur, but the player's actions remind him, his absorption of the various souls (both human and monster) allowing him to transform into a demonic, adult form of himself that has power over the entire underworld, able to reshape or destroy it at his will. The “fight” with Asriel is both epic and tragic, the entity still ultimately a lost and murdered child; not the monster he has become, a fact that the player must remind him of through their actions, rather than attempt to slay him outright (which is impossible anyway). 
 
Undertale is a game rife with secrets, with references; with fourth wall breaking meta-commentary, disturbing deceptions, often frightening or unsettling imagery, and characters that are bizarrely lovable, even at their most absurd or vile. It is a game that needs to be played and experienced by the individual to truly understand, as almost everyone will have their own, idiosyncratic experience.
 
What I have described here is barely the tip of the iceberg, especially in terms of the horrors and revelations that await. For example, what might the player find behind the mysteriously sealed door near the waterfalls? What still lurks within the depths of Doctor Alphys's sealed off lab? Who is Gaster?
 
Many, many mysteries, each of which is a joy to explore, let alone solve. A rare work that lives up to its hype and then some, and that evokes so many emotions in such depth and profusion, it's all but impossible to express in words. 
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<![CDATA[   Thirteen for Halloween :  Harlequin ]]>Thu, 20 Oct 2016 07:01:48 GMThttp://gingernutsofhorror.com/13-for-halloween/-thirteen-for-halloween-harlequin
 
By now, you may be noticing a certain pattern to the video games that appeal to me; alongside the more standard “survival horror” pieces (that are typically works of external horror; characters being thrown into some strange or horrific situation, having to survive and fight their ways to safety) are those that serve as threshings of the sub-conscious; internal worlds and dream-scapes somehow becoming manifest or imposing themselves on waking reality.
 
This is a favoured trope of mine in all forms of fiction; one that I often explore through my own work; an obsession that arguably began with this video game; the first of such I ever played, back in the days of my very first system, the much beloved Commodore Amiga:
 

Harlequin is one of those peculiar titles whose vision and ambition far exceeds the technological limitation of its era. Were it made today, it would likely take a very similar form to American McGee's Alice series of games, which are, in many respects, its spiritual successors.
 
Not necessarily a horror game in and of itself (hailing from an era when horror titles were as rare as hen's teeth on the video game market), Harlequin is the peculiar tale of a Peter Pan like figure, who lives in a world of his own fantasies throughout his childhood (the beautifully named clock-tower, Chimerica). However, as Harlequin ages, as his interests become less those of a boy and those of a man, he sets out from his childhood home to wander the “real” world, finally growing into a man.
 
However, in his absence, Chimerica's heart is broken. Corruption and decay seep into his dreaming world, and the reality he has almost forgotten calls out to him in dreams, begging him to return and heal it once again.
 
​Upon returning to Chimerica, the eponymous Harlequin finds its gates and doorways barred, its lands dust-strewn and decaying, and evidence of a strange darkness spreading throughout; his childhood haunts and playgrounds now infested with strange and threatening creatures, places where he used to laugh and play now dangerous and crumbling, Chimerica dying around him, until he can find and mend the pieces of its broken heart.
 
Like many games of its era, the story set out in the rule book has little impact on gameplay as such; the game itself is a fairly inventive, interesting platformer, strangely structured for its era; not the standard, left-to-right, level-to-level endurance trial many manifest, but an almost free roaming adventure, with many routes and pathways through Chimerica's twisting environments, depending on how you choose to progress. The basic purpose of the game is to find various switches scattered throughout the levels which open doorways or activate phenomena that allow passage to other stages (switching a particular lever in the “Dream Mile” segment, for example, opens up a previously absent doorway in a previous stage that leads deeper into Chimerica's bowels; a particularly fraught transitional area known as “The Throat of the Machine”). 
​ 
What sets the game apart, barring its unusual structure, is its incredibly surreal and unique design, each and every stage designed to capture some element of Harlequin's childhood psyche, but subtly altered and twisted, rendering it simultaneously cute and disturbing.
 
For example, the aforementioned “Dream Mile” is an immense desert of sand-strewn plains, blowing winds and pyramidal temples, great hour-glasses measuring out the sands of time, whilst stinging scorpions, venomous plants and dart-blowing tribesmen attempt to halt Harlequin in his quest. Elsewhere, a kite that appears at the very height of Chimerica's clock tower, but can only be reached by swinging on its hands, provides passage to a cloud-realm that changes every time Harlequin passes through, whose design is that of a jig-saw puzzle, and whose enemies are some of the most surreal in the game. Within the darkness of Chimerica's inner workings, Harlequin encounters living nuts and bolts, strange machines, great worms infesting the cogs and gears of the clock. Deeper in Chimerica's labyrinth, he discovers a realm of shattered and flickering TVs, each one providing access to different realms that represent TV programmes he used to enjoy as a child. Deeper still, he traverses realms redolent of Heaven and Hell, sewer systems and a transit system comprised of a labyrinth of drinking straws in an ocean of pink soda. 
 
It's weird. Bizarrely, beautifully weird; a step up from similar games of the era for its presentation alone, not to mention the psychological factors at play in its aesthetics. 
It's also extremely, extremely hard; a fantastically long game, without the benefit of a save function, that could take hours on end to beat (which I never did, by the by). Hardly unusual for games of the era, but certainly something that might put present day gamers off.
 
In terms of flaws, the game also suffers from simple technological limitation not being the equal of its ambition: it is clear from the box art and the blurb in the rule book that this game was intended to be something highly artistic and far, far darker than it ultimately became: very little in the game matches the strangeness and surreal imagery rendered in the box art or promised by the game's title screen, which is a shame, but fairly standard for most titles of the era; in order to get the most out of them, gamers were obliged to fill in the gaps between sprites and pixels with their own imaginations; a factor that arguably resulted in a greater degree of immersion and atmosphere than if everything is presented in photo-realistic detail and sharpness. 
​ 
Like many titles on the Amiga, the game can be occasionally frustrating in terms of its controls and the sheer amount of things happening on the screen at any one time (one particular area known as “The Bomb Run” is insane); Harlequin himself is fairly sluggish and difficult to control, and the placement of enemies, pitfalls, traps etc can be confounding. Also, as is the case with the vast majority of games from this era, it ends on something of a damp squib; there is no grand restoration of Chimerica, no purging of the darkness in its bowels; just a fairly odd ending sequence and the obligatory congratulations screen.
 
That said, it was a title I returned to again and again as a child, drawn by its sheer strangeness; the surrealism of its aesthetics, its absurdity and the promise of deeper symbolism in its shattered heart. 
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