All posts by Eli Cymet
It’s hard to say exactly when it happened, but Halloween has undisputedly crept up on us to become a big league holiday. The kind where preparations begin over a month in advance, with horror movie marathons, costume discussions, and decorations. With that in mind, it would be a grave mistake to go in ill-prepared, so we’re here to do our part to help ring in the festivities. Here are four spooky games that will have horror-lovers shambling on over to the App Store and coffin’ up their dough.
Perhaps not the most obvious pick at first, The Room makes up for a lack of blood and gore with an ample amount of atmospheric tension. What starts off as Myst-like series of interlocking, symbol-filled puzzles soon emerges as an implied storyline filled with spine-tingling mystery. Much goes unsaid, but plumbing the depths of the unknown backed by eerie music box chimes is a meticulous thrill all its own.
From one nontypical experience to the next, Papa Sangre is a video game with no...video? Tasked with saving the soul of a loved one, players will take a frequently terrifying first-person audio journey through the palace of the titular demon. With an elegant interface and gripping story, Papa Sangre is a truly unique title that speaks to the power of sensory deprivation. The horrifying, horrifying power.
The Walking Dead
For a game filled with zombies, The Walking Dead’s horror derives almost entirely from the heart-breaking failings of humankind. Telltell Games has earned a mausoleum full of critical praise for its serialized interpretation of Robert Kirman’s graphic graphic novel, which uses the point and click adventure genre to force players to make tough, lasting decisions about life, death, and the brainless hereafter. All episodes can be purchased from within the app, so start this gripping tale right now.
As far as mobile horror goes, this one may be an oldie, but it’s most definitely a goodie. One of the best, in fact. Not only is it a faithful translation of Visceral Games’ flagship survival horror series to the small screen, but this version may just be scarier. In a dark room, with headphones in, the game’s brilliant tension between all-out action and edge-of-the-seat inaction is brought to the forefront, all backed by a methodical, shriek-worthy soundtrack. Player beware: Necromorphs may induce device dropping. (iPhone version also available.)
Talking to Terry Cavanagh (pictured, left), the first thing that jumps out at me is how pleasant he is. How soft-spoken and thoughtful he comes across as. Particularly for somebody who tortures people.
An award-winning independent developer from Ireland, Cavanagh has become known for wonderful, mercilessly difficult games like VVVVVV and Super Hexagon. The latter is Cavanagh’s first iOS game; a low-fi arcade gauntlet that challenges players to move left and right to survive an incoming barrage of lines and shapes for as long as possible. It bent our brains in circles and became a surprise cult-hit on the App Store, moving about 72,000 copies since release, according to Cavanagh's last look.
Wonderful. Mercilessly difficult. The two don’t quite go together, do they? Against all odds, however, it seems that driving people mad is what’s driven sales for Super Hexagon. It’s a phenomenon that beckons the question: why is a game that’s so hard so very easy to love? What makes difficulty so satisfying?
“I think it really comes down to a couple of small things,” reflects Cavanagh. “The main one is that it’s fair. It never feels like...” he pauses for a moment. “Put it this way: whenever you mess up in the game, it always feels like it’s your fault, and that’s really, really important.” We’re talking about his game, but Cavanagh’s first guiding principle speaks to a fundamental shift in values within the industry.
Where once it was understood - embraced, even - that quarter-sucking games would be hard-wired for player failure, notions of ‘cheapness’ have taken over. Blistering difficulty can still exist, but with less erratic exceptions and more dependable rules. If dependability is one piece of the difficulty puzzle, it becomes clear in talking more with Cavanagh that simplicity is its interlocking mate.
“With [Super Hexagon], the sort of things that can happen in the game are very simple, very learnable. In a sense, nothing comes out and surprises you.” Almost immediately, he corrects himself. “Well I suppose that’s a lie...waves are decided randomly at the edges of the screen... [but] every pattern in the game is discrete and learnable. That’s a big part of the game; training your muscle memory and getting to know the patterns.” An important distinction, it seems. Nailing down the difference between too hard and just hard enough means understanding that systems can be complex, but that learning them shouldn’t be.
Playing Super Hexagon, it’s easy to see the way that approach informs every layer of the game. Case in point? The score. Far from recycling the bloated arcade method left over from the coin-op era, Cavanagh gives players only one measure of success: time. An ever-present reminder of the true game at work...survival of the fittest.
Soon after the game’s release, it became apparent that this choice just may have been the unexpected ace in the hole. Players would tweet out their latest time, wearing it like a badge of honor. Super Hexagon has no formal social features, no “tools for virality,” but armed with their hard-fought numbers, players began jostling for position in a metagame of milliseconds. I ask Cavanagh if that was part of his plan all along, and while he won’t speculate as to the social impact, I may have just discovered a third rule of difficulty.
“I think you’re dead right about the score being an exact measure of how good you are,” says Cavanagh. “If you’ve lasted for 14.36 seconds, that’s an exact measurement; it tells you a lot of information, which is not like the kind of scores we’re used to seeing. People are used to seeing exaggerated scores, scores that are multiplied by a million. Scores where there are all sorts of measures in place to prevent you from knowing how you’re actually doing. I think having a score that means something makes the score important to players.” Something to strive for. Arguably, difficulty becomes easier to cope with when success isn’t obfuscated by jargon, when players feel like they’re being rewarded for of their work.
Inevitably, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Feeling rewarded. Yet in some ways, that leads me back to square one, wondering what could be so rewarding about frustration. About losing. Pausing again, Cavanagh responds simply.
“I don’t know if I really think of the game as frustrating.” Only then do I realize, I’ve never asked what he does think of the game. So I ask.
“I feel like you’re trying to get into a rhythm with the game; when you’re playing the game really well, it has this sort feedback, and your senses are going off at the right time, and you’re making all the right moves, and everything...just feels right. And the game is about trying to get into that frame of mind.”
And perhaps that’s when something that’s so hard becomes so easy to love: when the pursuit of that feeling is more satisfying than the experience of not always finding it.