Preview: The Town of Light

After months of staying away from crowdfunding platforms, I recently became a backer for the Kickstarter campaign for Ghost Theory. The thing that attracted me to this horror-adventure was the fact that players will have the opportunity to investigate real-world haunted locations: the Dreadlocks Ltd team have been in talks with owners of private properties and convinced many of them to let them recreate their house and story, making the game that much more authentic. (If you’re interested in finding out more, take a look at our interview with CEO and Co-Founder Michal Červenka.)

Perhaps it’s for the same reason that my interest was piqued when we received a press release from Stefano Petrullo of Renaissance PR about the upcoming The Town of Light by LKA. While not based on a true story, this first-person psychological adventure is set in a place which actually existed and has been meticulously reconstructed in digital format for the title. Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a now-abandoned psychiatric hospital in Italy, was home to more than 6,000 patients and was famous for its use of electroshock therapy before being closed in 1978 when a law condemning harsh treatment in such establishments was passed.

Dilapidated mental asylums are nothing new for video games and we’re all used to creeping through dark corridors while hiding from supernatural threats. However, jump scares aren’t on the agenda here; The Town of Light shows that the most terrifying monsters aren’t those lurking in the shadows but those buried within our own minds. A big thank you to Stefano and the LKA team for providing a preview code for the beta and giving us the opportunity to play this intriguing game.

On 12 March 1938, sixteen-year-old Renèe was taken away and locked up after the police headquarters wrote that she was ‘a danger to herself and a cause of public scandal’. But what really happened back then in the disturbing rooms of the Volterra Psychiatric Asylum? Players explore the crumbling building and interact with the environment in the present day, while reliving the history of the protagonist through her confused viewpoint. As the Steam page for The Town of Light advises:

The only horror you will find in this game is the truth: a blow to the solar plexus, much more intense than any supernatural presence.

Comparisons to ‘walking simulators’ such as Dear Esther are bound to be made but there’s more to LKA’s project. The title begins in the grounds of Volterra on a hazy afternoon with sunlight streaming through the trees, dust-motes reflected on the screen and swallows darting up above. The visual style is reminiscent of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or the more recent Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture here. The developers have added a nice touch by allowing the player to actually use the swings, slide and roundabout in the rusty playground – although it’s a little jarring when you look down and can’t see your legs!

After checking the perimeter, I managed to find a way into the asylum by means of an unlocked side door. Immediately upon entering the atmosphere changed to something more akin to Homesick: loneliness and isolation seeps out of the peeling walls, and evidence of the establishment’s previous inhabitants such as doctors’ notes and dusty garments are found within the shadows. Medical books hiding grotesque drawings and diagrams have been left within broken drawers and cupboards while rusted wheelchairs litter the hallways.

Renèe remarks that we need to turn on the power when flicking a light switch has no effect, and that the main switch can be found near the ‘calm women ward’. Consulting a faded map on a wall reveals that the ‘Tranquil ward’ is just around the corner so I head in that direction with my torch and find just what I need. Completing this task allows me turn on a projector in a nearby room to view photographs of Volterra before its closure; these appear to be real images, an excellent way of reminding the player that this shocking tale is grounded in reality.

The Town of Light, video game, Volterra, asylum, hospital, abandoned, exterior, building, trees

The protagonist then tells us that the only thing she remembers clearly about her past is her doll, Charlotte, and we need to find her because she’s alone in the dark. I make my way up to the first floor and locate the cracked toy lying on a decaying bed before Renèe is subjected to a disturbing flashback presented in the style of 2D sepia drawings. The developers themselves have said that we’re witnessing the storyline through her ‘confused viewpoint’, so could it be that her memories have become blurred during the years since her internment in 1938?

While these images aren’t overly graphic, it should be noted that the game contains strong content and some of the information revealed to the player is disturbing. The material provided to us by Stefano states:

The Town of Light aims to tell a story inspired [by] real facts, some of them we are aware [will] create discomfort in people, especially in the realm of the game medium which is not [usually] used to tackle those aspects… This is the reason we have decided to inform players at the very beginning of the game that the story we are telling contains discomforting elements, elements we have not decided to put in for the sake of it but that are part of what unfortunately really happened in some instances.

It could be very easy to become lost within the building but fortunately the developers have provided a hint system of sorts: pushing the ‘back’ button on the controller reveals the protagonist’s inner monologue and this can be used in conjunction with the maps to determine the next destination. During my exploration of Volterra I come across a number of crumbling rooms featuring what could so easily be torture implements, including a large electrical unit and a table where electroshock therapy must have taken place. It’s another stark reminder that this place actually exists – and was once the home of a very young science, where experimentation into cures led to horrific therapies.

It’s hard not to feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, particularly when Renèe experiences a hallucination. Doors on either side are slammed shut by invisible hands as I walk down a shadowy corridor, at the end of which the horizon flips to create an extremely disorientating sensation. After a flashback showing her arrival at the asylum, being completely stripped and tied to a bed for days, I awake in what appears to be the protagonist’s old room with a locked exit. She reveals that it can only be unlocked from the outside; but after searching the environment for a way out, I turn back to the door to now find it standing open…

I head back into the hallway, darker this time and mist swirling under the fluorescent light-bulbs overhead, and turn on the torch to help prevent the creeps from setting back in. The next flashback I face is even more disturbing than the last and I’m grateful I only have to experience it through the sepia drawings rather than in first-person. It’s at this point that the fear of the supernatural and monsters lurking in the shadows fades away: the real demons are those within Renèe’s mind, and unfortunately they’re not so easy to escape.

The way she talks about herself in third-person when she finds a letter that triggers a memory makes it clear she has attempted to distance herself from traumatic memories over the past decades. She remembers a doctor who tried to help her and ‘wrote things down’ so I head to his clinic to see if I can find anything further about the protagonist’s past. A medical record on the desk causes an extreme amount of discomfort for Renèe and she tells us that we mustn’t read it; but presented with several choices, I decide to press on. I need to find out what happened to her.

LKA has revealed the story will develop in different ways depending on the choices you make. But it isn’t that easy, as you’ll need to sort fact from false memory and make decisions when faced with contradictory evidence. Creative Director Luca Dalcó said in an interview with the Metro:

One of the key methods for portraying symptoms of mental illness in the game is that you’ll see something that suggests a particular situation and at the beginning it seems very clear. But going through the game you start to realise that they’re not so straightforward and so you begin to question your own mind and the reality around you. That is a common problem for someone in Renèe’s situation.

The Town of Light, video game, Volterra, asylum, hospital, abandoned, dark, shadows, corridor, crumbling, graffiti

At the end of this scene, I’m left with the task of finding ‘Amara’ along with the full medical record. It’s here that Stefano asked us to stop recording the gameplay video above but there are so many questions left unanswered. What caused the protagonist to be admitted to Volterra back in 1938? What happened to her there in its terrifying rooms? Why is she now, all these years later (and presumably in her nineties if the dates match up), alone and wandering the corridors of an abandoned asylum? I dread to consider the reason but I won’t be able to stop myself from finding out.

There has been an increase in the number of narrative-driven titles on the market recently and they’re proof that video games can be more than just blood and violence. The medium is unique in that it can put the player in the shoes of someone entirely different from themselves and give an insight into what life is like. The Town of Light is highly ambitious in its aim to show how it would feel to be a person beset by mental illness and depression – but with several honours under its belt already, including the award for Excellence in Story & Story Telling at the Paris Game Connection 2014, it’s clearly going about it in the right way.

LKA’s project is due to be released on PC, Mac and Linux on 26 February 2016 and you’ll receive an 11% discount on the standard $19.99 price if you pre-order before this date. If you’re interested in finding out more about the title or Renèe’s story, head over to the official website where you can read her diary and view further screenshots.

Interview: Ghost Theory

Late last week we received an email from Michal Červenka, CEO and Co-Founder of Dreadlocks Ltd, announcing their new Kickstarter campaign for Ghost Theory. Pitched as ‘a single-player horror adventure game focusing on stealth and exploration’, it will see players using a range of ghost-hunting gadgets and abilities to reveal the truth behind hauntings – while evading the wrath of resident evils.

The thing that attracted me to this project is the fact that you’ll be investigating real-world haunted locations: the Dreadlocks team been in talks with owners of private properties and convinced many of them to let them recreate their house and story, making Ghost Theory authentic. In addition, the developer has said that there will be much more gameplay than in your average horror title and fear will be handled intelligently. As stated in a recent update: “We want you to feel unsafe, oppressed, threatened at all times. The more you progress through any given level, and the more secrets about the place and its history you uncover, the more the resident ghosts will notice you, and try to scare you away.”

We first met the team at last year’s Rezzed event when we interviewed Lead Designer Axel Droxler about previous game Dex (the video can be found at the end of this article). I decided to become a backer for Ghost Theory after watching the promotional video below – and Phil was even persuaded to do the same after I mentioned the project to him, as he loves a good ghost story. A big thank you to Michal and Producer Stefan Durmek for taking the time out of their schedules to answer our questions.

Can you tell us about the Dreadlocks team, and what made you decide to start making Ghost Theory?

Michal and Stefan: “Since 2011, Dreadlocks has released two games. The first is called Rune Legend, which is a mobile puzzle game for Windows Phone. It‘s revenue covered the whole development before the game was even released, thanks to a couple of game competitions that it has won. The second game is cyberpunk-RPG Dex for PC, Mac and Linux. It is going to be released soon for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U and PS Vita. Dex was funded via Kickstarter and so with Ghost Theory we’d like for same magic to happen.

“Our team has gradually evolved and grown a lot. We are currently 15 developers plus externs. Among the most important people is definitely our producer Stefan Durmek, original game designer of Disney Mobile and winner of the Disney Inventor Award, who has worked on projects such as ARMA and ARMA 2, Star Wars: Assault Team and the popular Pirates of the Caribbean: Master of the Seas. Another key member is our Lead Designer Axel Droxler, original Lead Designer on the game series Divinity. Andrej Sinkević was the audio designer of DayZ and Charles Anthony is an award-winning music composer that left his trail in games like Space Engineers and Medieval Engineers, and movies like Mario Warfare or Modern War Gear Solid.”

Are any of the team gamers themselves? If so, do they have any preferred genres or favourite titles?

Michal and Stefan: “Oh yeah, we’re all gamers. Most game devs are, or at least used to be passionate gamers, right? We always seek that passion in those who want to join us, because it guarantees some level of self-motivation for making a great game.

“The team have a various taste when it comes to their favourite games and genres. But here’s what we play or just love: Metal Gear, Silent Hill, XCOM, Dead Space, Mass Effect, World of Warcraft, StarCraft, DOOM, Fallout, Quest for Glory, SpellForce and FIFA. It’s also worth mentioning that two girls from our studio are passionate cosplayers.”

As mentioned above, your previous game Dex also started life as a Kickstarter campaign. What did the process teach you and are you doing anything differently this time?

Michal and Stefan: “The campaign for Dex was very successful because we gathered over 200% of the required budget. We received another 100% from OUYA, the console that was growing at the time. We didn’t need this financing for the development itself – we would finish Dex without it – but we used it for building our community. So eventual failure of the campaign would had only have an impact on the size of Dex.

“The campaign for Ghost Theory is different, because we need to finance the actual development. In other words without successful Kickstarter there will be no Ghost Theory.

“The biggest problem with Dex was that, to this date, it wasn’t noticed by any of the biggest gaming sites. With Ghost Theory, the situation is much better because the game’s concept is viral. As for the campaign itself, trends have changed since Dex and so we’re trying to reflect that. For example, we’ve created community achievements.”

Ghost Theory’s plot centres around Barbara, who has the gift of clairvoyance as the result of a paranormal encounter when she was younger. Are you able to tell us a little more about the character and her current position?

Michal and Stefan: “Barbara’s parents died in a car accident when she was just a baby and so she was raised by her grandma. But something crucial and terrible happens to both of them when Barbara is 11 years old. I won’t say what, because I don’t wanna spoil the game’s playable Prologue that we’re aiming to release for free. However, Barbara loses her only living relative and so she is transferred to an orphanage

“There, at the age of her 16, she discovers her clairvoyance and starts to play with fire. That leads to a series of bummers that scare the hell out of the orphanage’s staff and rumours starts to spread.

“At the time, Professor William Frost is a researcher of para-psychology at a nearby city university. For years his research failed to deliver a result that the university would consider valuable and now the council wants to cut the funding and cancel the research. A few days left until the cruel deadline, the Professor hears a story about strange things occurring in nearby orphanage and he decides to go there and ask around.”

You’ve been doing research on real-world haunted locations and some of these will feature within the game. Why have you decided to go down this route rather than creating fictional places, and how will the locations be tied together?

Michal and Stefan: “Since we found a vision for this game, which is ‘serious ghost-hunting’, we know that authenticity is a key. It is the pure essence of what makes this concept interesting. That’s why real locations and real gadgets was an obvious choice.

“The locations will be tied together by the research of ghost phenomena, hence the game title. Apart from that Barbara have her own personal reason to push the research forward – but I don’t want to spoil the story here.”

What has been the scariest location you’ve visited so far? Did you experience any ghost sightings?

Michal and Stefan: “We’re in touch with owners of those haunted sites, but most of these grounds are abroad. To visit and capture them for the game we need some budget to cover the travel cost.

“In case of the Kickstarter video we have visited a castle called Houska here in the Czech Republic. We had the whole castle for ourselves to capture for reference. The atmosphere of this place is dark and heavy, especially in the chapel where (as legend says) there is a gateway to hell under the floor. But we haven’t seen any ghosts.”

The Kickstarter campaign page advises that ‘freedom of exploration’ is one of the foundations on which the game is being built. The horror genre usually makes use of a linear path in order to manage the scares; has an ‘open world’ therefore made it difficult to control the atmosphere?

Michal and Stefan: “While corridor horror games offer a one-time experience, the concept of a sandbox makes it easy to make it different every time you play. There are a number of game mechanics that fit this concept of a sandbox and still allow the game designers to control the atmosphere. Some interactions make the evil in the place angry, some help you to progress. You need to find the right ones through observation and investigation. So based on the order of things you do in the game, different things can happen. We also want our ghosts to be a bit unpredictable in their behaviour, which will contribute to replayability.”

We’re sure we’d want to close our eyes in many of the locations Barbara will surely find herself in – so the close-your-eyes mechanic makes perfect sense. Can you explain how this will be incorporated into the gameplay?

Michal and Stefan: “You can close your eyes to avoid aggressive hauntings that are deadly. You can of course just close them whenever you feel anxious, but there is another mechanic that makes it interesting: clairvoyance.

“Clairvoyance allows you to temporarily see another version of reality. It is something you will need to use to find clues in order to solve the case. To use clairvoyance you must close your eyes, wait for charge and re-open them. It can also cause very aggressive hauntings.”

You’ve been experimenting with actors captured with a stereoscopic 3D camera, to make the action as believable as possible. How are the results looking so far?

Michal and Stefan: “Some of the results are really good, especially close ups. It’s a new virtual reality (VR) experience. Some experimental scenes didn’t work for various disappointing reasons and some of these scenes needs to be captured again using a different camera setting or technique, so there is still hope we make them work. So far so good. This stereoscopic recording is still an experiment for us.”

There is going to be no visible interface: for example, in order to use your holy water to cleanse a cursed item you’ll need to look down at your belt, see how many vials you have and then grab one. This is going to work extremely well when it comes to VR implementation but will non-VR players have a comparable experience?

Michal and Stefan: “We’re far from that answer. It’s true VR makes it more natural to look down at your belt every time you need to grab something. We are aware that non-VR gamers could be majority of Ghost Theory players and so we want to be careful and offer the best experience possible.”

Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s thinking of making an indie game?

Michal and Stefan: “If you’re someone who’s thinking of making an indie game: try to think a bit less and do a bit more.”

Once again, thank you to Michal, Stefan and the rest of the Dreadlocks team for answering our questions. The Kickstarter campaign has so far received 6% of the £100,000 target (at the time of writing) and with three weeks left to go before the deadline on 20 February 2016, we’re hopeful that it will meet its goal. Take a look at the official website for more information and be sure to give Ghost Theory a thumbs-up on Steam Greenlight.

Interview: Ryan Cooper (STASIS)

Adventure-horror STASIS is the work of brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff, also known as The Brotherhood, and was in development for around five years before its release at the end of August 2015.

I first heard about the title after receiving a press release in connection with its Kickstarter campaign and decided to become a backer myself as soon as I’d watched the promotional video. Many other gamers obviously had a similar reaction as the project ended up raising a total of $132,523 from 4,298 people – almost a third more than the original $100,000 target.

We published our review of the game last month as part of our Halloween special, giving it a worthy ‘Buy it now!’ award. A lot of recent releases in the horror genre have resorted to overdone gore, with puzzles of blood and close-ups of gruesome death scenes, or so many jump-scares that they become expected after the first thirty minutes. The Brotherhood’s project tries to buck that trend – and it does an awesome job, all the more impressive when you consider that it has been created by such a small team.

In our review round-up, we said that that STASIS is an incredibly atmospheric title and attributed this in part to the audio. We also highlighted that voice-actor Ryan Cooper puts in a decent performance as John Maracheck, considering how many unimaginable things the protagonist is put through! Ryan got in touch with us to thank us for the review so we took the opportunity to ask him more about the project and some of his other work.

Can you tell us about your background and how you got into voice-acting?

Ryan: “My day-job is in architecture and I voice-act of an evening and weekends. It’s not full-time but it’s more than a mere hobby. Mods were where I began as I gathered the skills and equipment needed to break into the indie game market. It’s been gradual, and I am reluctant to call myself an established actor yet. Staying abreast of the latest developments in indie games is a part-time job in itself.”

Are you a gamer yourself? If so, do you have any favourite titles or genres?

Ryan: “I always get excited when a Bethesda game comes around. They have this unique ability to grip me for months like a vice and then dump me just as quickly. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite genre of game as such, but anything that balances innovative gameplay with good story-telling will be near the top of my list. Since the advent of platforms like Kickstarter and Steam Early Access, it’s remarkable how Indie developers have been able to inject bold new ideas into the games industry. Some of the more memorable titles of recent years have come from the grass roots.”

Have you played STASIS? What did you think of it?

Ryan: “I was an early-bug tester and a beta Kickstarter backer, so I played it a couple of times before release. For a one-man development, STASIS is a minor miracle really, and serves as inspiration to other small teams. It has been spoken about in the same breath as peers like SOMA, which had several team members with years of experience between them. The game has a timeless quality and won’t really age in years to come. Chris should be very proud of what he has achieved.”

What was it like working with The Brotherhood?

Ryan: “It was always an open-door working relationship with the Bischoff brothers. Chris trusted me enough to get on with my performance, which was liberating. I drip-fed him the lines so he could implement them on his schedule, and this became an organic way of building the voice work into the game. If I were compelled to revisit takes, he was more than happy to receive them.”

How does John Maracheck compare to your previous roles?

Ryan: “It’s funny. I looked back at my previous work the other day and John is the only character who actually converses with other characters. Being mostly narrators, the others address the player directly. So, the action / reaction dynamic of John’s dialogue is what sets him aside from my other roles.

“I wanted to impart a rawness, a genuineness to John and be satisfied I’d done all I could to make him sound like a real person in an unreal situation. If I had screwed up in making John relatable, I don’t think I could have forgiven myself. There was only $130K+ behind the game and thousands of expectant backers.”

Some of the scenes within STASIS are particularly harrowing. We have to ask: how did you feel when presented with ‘that’ surgery scene? What was it like to record?

Ryan: “It was the toughest scene for me because it was so hard to imagine. A character sobbing over all manner of upsetting revelations is achievable because the actor can draw on their own upsetting experiences and the tears are real. But performing open spinal surgery on yourself while you are still awake? Has that ever actually happened?

“To prepare, I studied a similar scene in the movie Prometheus, albeit the character’s motivation is different. Shaw is desperate to remove her foreign-body from a position of religious and motherly disgust. Her reaction is natural, and therefore the horror lies more in the revelation of the creature than in her slicing herself open. John’s foreign-body is not causing him any immediate consternation, besides blocking the path to his daughter. The decision is on him – and thus the player, to push the button knowing full well what’s coming.

“I pictured Rebecca [John’s daughter] as I was screaming, as that is the only way John could get through it without passing out. This is however a scene I would have recorded differently if I had the time again. It’s a bit tamer and more inward than I would have liked at points; I should have just gone hell for leather until I blew my voice box. The sequence itself though is wonderfully realised in its sheer body horror and becomes one of the game’s most memorable scenes.”

Do you have any techniques for getting into character before a recording?

Ryan: The best technique to get into character is to understand the character. If the client provides a full script, read it, re-read it and reflect on who it is you are playing. If you go into the session happy that your recording space meets your needs, you can concentrate on inhabiting your character. Ensure at the very least the space behind you is well padded to reduce reflections back into the mike (assuming it’s a Cardioid). Even a couple of heavy quilts will help. I made an expensive collapsible coffin for myself out of wood and acoustic foam and the quality difference between that and my earlier recordings is scary. Make sure your computer does not have a jet engine for a fan. Use a laptop if possible.

“My preferred approach at this point is to be practical, step up to the microphone and just accept the first take or ten will probably suck while I build momentum. I guess that’s how novelists get past writer’s block, by spewing out any old rubbish until they have their ‘eureka’ moment.”

Of all of your performances, which has been the most challenging so far?

Ryan: “Jonah in The Old City: Leviathan. Getting into the head space of someone who has spent too much time alone, but has a keen philosophical mind and forms these unique insights into the meaning of life. He comes from a very different place to the average person and therein lay the challenge of making him relatable.

“I put Jonah into terms I could understand, as an actor of sorts. More specifically, someone whose life has become an act, who created Leviathan to avoid the pain of the unknown. Maybe we all create our own personal Leviathan as we get older. Jonah’s life views become his lines, rehearsed to the point of banality, the theatrical pauses more deliberate with the years. Only when he is exposed to the uncertain does the child in him break out. Jonah manages to rekindle a deep ember of childlike curiosity that helps him get off his ass and leave his self-imposed prison.”

Which performance are you most proud of?

Ryan: “Tough call. Probably Maracheck, because I was afforded a wide range of emotions in a somewhat traditional role. There is a familiarity in his character type, but few characters suffer as he does. It was the role that left me the most exhausted and ultimately satisfied. I am also pleased to have been a part of Kholat starring Sean Bean, though I lament not being able to meet him. One does not simply meet him, I suppose.”

What’s your favourite vocal performance from someone else in a video game?

Ryan: “Certainly Troy Baker as Joel in The Last of Us. Grounded, nuanced and utterly believable. You know this guy would stove your face in with a house brick to protect his loved ones. If that performance had been up on the big screen, critics would have raved over it.”

Which existing character would be your dream role?

Ryan: “Batman. My favourite character in all of pop culture growing up and to this day. There is a complexity and contradiction to the character that makes him durable and open to interpretation. He does not represent an incontrovertible ideal. One day he’s a hero, the next a fascist vigilante, the next a rich kid who can’t grow up. He is deeply flawed, perhaps creating more problems than he solves by using fear and violence instead of his wealth and influence. There is a constant tension between two opposites in him.”

What’s your opinion of the voice-acting / motion-capture debate?

Ryan: “Some of the criticism has surprised me. It got to the point where people were questioning the validity of voice-acting altogether. Several Twitter comments read something like, ‘What does voice-acting convey that text boxes can’t?’ While I am not deluded enough to think games are not predominantly about the gameplay, the story and the visual-audio quality are crucial in immersing the player in a different world. You cannot seriously suggest The Last of Us would be an equally affecting experience if it had text boxes instead of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. Not every game can tell its story through its environment like Journey.

“Detractors of #PerformanceMatters call the voice-actors whinging, irrelevant prima donnas because the game developers, the most important part of game development, are paid even less. It is a straw man argument. Of course the devs are the most important part of game development, but for whatever reason they have not unionised, or they too would be in a position to rectify their poor pay and working conditions, and we’d all be in full support. The truth is the multi-billion dollar industry that is gaming does not pay its professionals, including voice-actors and developers, remotely well enough for what they bring. Those profits more than likely go into the pockets of people who do not deserve it.

“It is something of a catch-22. A talented young actor who is equally expressive in body and voice would have to be a fool to enter a career in voice-acting because it pays so poorly compared to screen acting, despite games making twice the revenue. This disparity reflects in the standard of acting at the top of the games industry. It just isn’t quite as good as it should be, and rarely am I wowed by a voice-actor’s performance. The Last of Us redefined what I thought was possible for video game acting, but I have not played a game like it before or since.”

Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s thinking of becoming a voice-actor?

Ryan: “After the last answer, you would think the best advice might be: don’t! However, I am in it because I enjoy it. There is a real thrill when a game where you’ve voiced for is released and heck, maybe even praised by some. The best advice in life is do whatever makes you happy. If that is voice-acting, you will find your way. If you are a part-timer like me who has to dispatch a résumé hundreds of times on the off-chance someone may need an actor, be prepared to handle disappointment. Of the inquiries I make, maybe 10% respond. Of that 10%, 75% say ‘thanks, but no thanks’. You have to be lucky to catch them at the perfect time of their development cycle. Or you could spend money putting yourself onto voice-acting websites like Voice123 and hope your samples speak louder than your competitors’.

“You must have a steady source of income to supplement your endeavours because building your reputation from nothing is slow. You’d think Troy Baker sprang up from nowhere in recent years, but he has been voice-acting since the nineties. I have been acting for two years, and have two character credits and a handful of narrations. At least with a day job, I can pursue attractive roles that will inspire me and might enhance my reputation. Your demo reel can start to sound decent after a while, and that is what gets your foot in the door.”

If a STASIS sequel were to happen, would you return for it?

Ryan: “Absolutely! I loved working on the game and with the Bischoffs. I doubt Chris is done telling stories from that universe, though I am unsure how a direct sequel to the story told in STASIS would work without undermining the themes established during the game. Maybe with this game as proof of his abilities and with more capital behind him, Chris could open things up in scope. A story set during the Eugenics War would be neat.”

A big thank you to Ryan for his time, and to The Brotherhood for making an amazing game! If you haven’t yet tried it we highly recommend that you check it out. Keep an eye out for the upcoming downloadable content (DLC) – if it’s anything like STASIS, there are plenty more scary nights ahead of us.

Review: STASIS

Title overview

  • STASIS by The Brotherhood
  • Published by Daedalic Entertainment
  • Released in August 2015
  • PEGI rating of 18
  • Adventure, horror genre
  • Available on Mac and PC
  • More information can be found on the official website

  • Initial impressions

    Adventure-horror STASIS is the work of brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff, also known as The Brotherhood, and was in development for around five years before its release at the end of August 2015. During an interview with Chris back in November 2013 he told us:

    [The game] came about as a side-project in late 2010, as an artistic distraction to keep me occupied during a December break. It naturally expanded as I grew more involved and fell in love with the world! Since then, not much time has passed where I haven’t worked on it on an almost daily basis.

    I first heard about the title after receiving a press release in connection with its Kickstarter campaign, and I decided to become a backer myself as soon as I’d watched the promotional video. Many other gamers obviously had a similar reaction as the project ended up raising a total of $132,523 from 4,298 people – almost a third more than the original $100,000 target. The game has gone on to receive positive reviews from critics and players alike, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it’s the baby of such a small team.

    I’d like to refer to a section of our full disclaimer statement here: ‘From time to time, members of the team may choose to back projects on crowdfunding platforms… This is done using their own funds; their decision to back a campaign is a personal one and doesn’t reflect the views of the team as a whole. However, we may choose to review a video game that was obtained through such methods and will always reveal this within an article if it’s the case.’

    Plot

    Players step into the shoes of John Maracheck, a space-tourist who’s abruptly awoken from deep sleep within a stasis pod on the seemingly-deserted Groomlake. Broken machinery, bloodstains on the floor and distant wails are evidence that something terrible has happened here. John quickly finds himself thrown into a terrifying nightmare: where is everybody? What has happened to his wife and daughter? And what dubious research has the shady Cayne Corporation been carrying out aboard the re-purposed mining ship? Our protagonist is in tremendous pain and time is running out, as the Groomlake plunges further into the swirling blue methane clouds around Neptune.

    Personal digital assistants (PDAs) are found scattered across the ship, usually on abandoned desks or – more gruesomely – on the bodies of poor victims. Log entries and emails held on the devices share details on the individuals’ daily activities as well as larger, catastrophic events in the Groomlake’s history. It’s a perfect way of drip-feeding the story to the player and creates a wonderful atmosphere of despair and lost humanity but, despite being very well written, the PDA messages just can’t compare to the huge vessel itself. I found myself torn between wanting to read them to find out more about what was going on and getting back to the game itself so I could explore the sinister Groomlake further.

    Minor spoiler ahead – please move on to the next section if you wish to avoid!

    Overall I enjoyed STASIS’ plotline, with inspiration from sources such as Alien and Event Horizon being very evident. But there are an awful lot of elements contained within it: horribly-mutated clones; a mysterious fungus spreading throughout the vessel; a giant insect queen; log files referring to ‘The Twins’; and several others. Despite searching for as many PDAs as possible I’m still not entirely sure how they all fit together and there are a number of subjects which are left unexplained. However, the developer has revealed that upcoming downloadable content (DLC) will further illuminate the events aboard the Groomlake, so hopefully some of the loose ends will be tied up in the near future.

    Gameplay

    In the whole STASIS plays as a traditional point-and-click adventure, featuring both inventory and puzzles. The former is located in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen and isn’t particularly large so it feels less like you’re carrying around a bunch of random objects until you find a use for them. On the downside, you’re unable to examine items once they’re in your inventory; and you won’t receive constructive feedback about why particular solutions fail as John will say something like ‘I can try to make it fit but it will only end up breaking’ – even when it doesn’t make sense for the object in question.

    On the positive side though, pixel-hunting is limited: (most) inanimate items within the environment are highlighted by vivid descriptions at the bottom of the screen, while those you can interact with or pick up are indicated by a hand icon to show that action can be taken. However, this isn’t always the case and a couple of objects caught me out. At one point within the game, I was completely stuck on a puzzle and felt as if something was missing; but after clicking on the environment by accident, I came across a new item which enabled me to push forward.

    Speaking of the environment, some of the PDAs found around the Groomlake are vital when it comes to working out solutions for the puzzles. The now-deceased crew may have left important information about how security systems work in their personal data logs, or clues might have been left on notes or diagrams stuck to the devices themselves. A number of other players have complained that most of STASIS’ challenges are obtuse but I think a lot of this comes down to how observant you are. Pay attention to what you’re reading, and you’ll usually be able to figure out how to proceed – and putting the hints together yourself provides a great sense of achievement.

    The number of interactive items in the environment and objects within the inventory decreases towards the end of the game thus making it somewhat simpler, so there’s some slightly uneven pacing in terms of challenge. The final puzzle is straightforward as there’s really only one solution and the show-down you were hoping to have with your nemesis never really materialises. But one thing that doesn’t let up is the dark, foreboding atmosphere: it’s enough to make you overlook these minor negatives and want to see John’s perilous journey through to its emotional climax.

    As for my favourite puzzle: play STASIS for yourself and I’ll bet you arrive at the same answer. I don’t want to give too much away so I apologise if what follows is a little vague. You’ll need to find the solution within a set amount of time or John faces dire consequences, and the answer lies somewhere within the environment. The problem is that the situation you’re presented with is so shocking that your eyes are drawn to it and it’s hard to look anywhere else! It’s gory but not overly gratuitous –well-handled in terms of both timing and how it fits in with the title’s storyline – but it’s some pretty-messed-up-stuff that will stick with you.

    Unlike the majority of adventure games, the title contains a number of inventive ways in which you can die and this is in part due to the way the puzzles are structured. For example, you may have figured out that you need to combine a lighter with a gas-leak in order to blow your way through a wall; but do this in an incorrect order and you’ll get caught-up in a fiery explosion. If you find yourself in a death scene, STASIS will reload and put you back at the point just before the event. The only problem is that sometimes this is before a lengthy cut-scene or dialogue that can’t be skipped and after you’ve seen it once, you don’t particularly want to have to sit through it again before getting back to the action.

    In a paragraph above I used the words ‘foreboding’ and ‘perilous’, and the title does a marvellous job at setting an ominous tone. It never seems to amount to much however: death scenes are triggered by the player themselves; breathing in the spores from the mysterious fungus doesn’t seem to do you any harm; and walking past mutated research subjects poses no threat. The feeling of tension therefore gradually dissipates over time but this is when the title pulls you back in. Just when you think you’re safe, a security hologram will come rushing at you or a dead body will fall from the ceiling – resulting in a nice little jump scare every once in a while. Such situations are used to good effect and the game doesn’t rely on them for its tone.

    Visuals and audio

    When I first played the demo, STASIS reminded me very much of Sanitarium in terms of its visuals. I mentioned this to Chris during our interview and he told us:

    Simply, I like the isometric point-of-view. Fallout, Diablo, Commandos – these are games that shaped me as a young artist. To be able to create and then explore my own world from that point of view… it’s a dream come true.

    He went on to explain that an isometric layout has a way of making you feel small, and it does a great job of ramping up the atmosphere here; the world around you feels so much larger than your character, and who knows what’s lurking in the darkness.

    The vivid item descriptions mentioned in the section above do a great job at bringing the world to life and some of it is so horrific, it’s probably a blessing it can’t be seen close up from the player’s birds’-eye-view. It leaves plenty to the imagination and that’s kind of worse! The flickering lights from broken machinery; shadows hiding god-knows-what in their darkness; blood-splatters across the floor and up the walls; all the small details add up to create a menacing environment which leaves the hair standing on the back of your neck.

    The Groomlake is a particularly gloomy environment, fitting when you consider that the run-down vessel has been abandoned in space, but this does have the unfortunate effect of making John quite hard to spot when a new scene loads. In addition, the protagonist’s path-finding seems to be a little off in certain places; instead of taking the quickest route to the point clicked he’ll head the long way around. These small issues didn’t do anything to dampen my enjoyment of the game but they do have a tendency to break the player’s immersion slightly.

    The audio is another of STASIS’ high-points, with a brilliant score by Mark Morgan that combines magnificently with sound-effects. In our interview with Chris, he said:

    I got a message from [Mark] on Twitter, saying how much he enjoyed what he had seen. It was an incredible surprise and an honour… When he offered to score the game, I almost fell off my chair! The games he has worked on have been such an intricate part of my artistic life and in many cases their fingerprints can be felt on STASIS.

    The title is never entirely quiet and the sounds contained within pull the player into its world. From creaks from nearby machinery, to the squelch of something grotesque underfoot, to distant wails of terror echoing throughout the ship; it all adds to the atmosphere and makes for a wonderfully-immersive environment. And when you hear the children talking through the walls, asking why they’ve been forsaken… you’re bound to feel a shiver down your spine.

    Considering how many unimaginable things the protagonist is put through, voice-actor Ryan Cooper puts in a decent performance as John Maracheck (take a look at our interview with him here). Especially heart-breaking are the strangled cries as he comes across one horrific sight after another, each more terrible than the next. There’s a slight disconnect however between the character’s behaviour and what’s happening onscreen. At one particular point during the game, a revelation is discovered through a PDA entry that’s absolutely horrendous; but because this plot-point isn’t told through the main storyline, John’s behaviour doesn’t accurately mirror that horror.

    Replay and innovation

    In a Steam Discussion thread on STASIS, the developer revealed that ‘every PDA entry and event was planned for the last five years’. Chris also stated that ‘if you play [the game] again with the ending mind you will pick up many more subtle hints’, so there’s some incentive there to have a second playthrough to discover all the log files and piece together the entire story. Players also receive a Steam achievement for each death scene they uncover so there’s no harm in walking into that vat filled with grey goop or giving the insect queen a little stroke.

    With regard to how innovative this release is, it’s a little hard to give a definitive answer. We’ve seen isometric video games before; inspiration from movies such as Alien and Event Horizon is obvious; and the science-fiction and horror genres are often combined. But what STASIS does well is atmosphere. Rather than resorting to the usual gore and jump-scares, the former is rarely shown directly onscreen and the latter are used infrequently so when they do arrive, players get a real shock. The developers have decided to leave a lot to the imagination and that makes it all the more frightening.

    Final thoughts

    STASIS has garnered a lot of attention since being released at the end of August. It was chosen as a finalist for MomoCon 2015 and has received plenty of positive critiques, with branches of both IGN and Eurogamer giving it an eight out of ten. Alec Meer from Rock Paper Shotgun said that ‘[the title] punches so far above its weight that I almost can’t believe it exists’; and at the time of writing, the game holds a ‘very positive’ rating on Steam from almost 300 reviews.

    If you like your adventure games sprinkled with a bit of horror and plenty of dark atmosphere, then yes. A lot of recent releases in the horror genre have resorted to overdone gore, with puzzles of blood and close-ups of gruesome death scenes, or so many jump-scares that they become expected after the first thirty minutes. The Brotherhood’s project tries to buck that trend – and it does an awesome job, all the more impressive when you consider that it has been created by such a small team.

    I’m very much looking forward to the DLC and to seeing what the developers come up with next. If it’s anything like STASIS, there are plenty more scary nights ahead.

    Review round-up

  • We played the game on PC
  • I backed the game on Kickstarter in November 2013
  • Detailed visuals and an awesome soundtrack
  • An incredibly atmospheric title
  • A little uneven in terms of challenge
  • Easy ending
  • Grade: buy it now

  • Horror: the best and worst of video games

    Last month I came across a short thought-provoking article written by Tyler Oldfield on The Young Beards website, entitled The Horror Genre Is The Best Genre. In this he briefly reflects on his love of the genus and gives an interesting account of his initial experience with Outlast. His first encounter was probably similar to that of many other gamers:

    I had to pause the game to take a break to calm down. I resided to the kitchen to get a bottle of water and just process exactly what just happened. After about 15 minutes of contemplating whether I should continue, I decided to go forward with the hurdle.

    Before I get any further into this article, I’ll make a confession: I’m absolutely terrible when it comes to playing this kind of game. I’ve participated in Halloween specials with the rest of the team and friends, and more-often-than-not it’s me who ends up screaming first. I panic during action-horrors and frequently find myself becoming a zombies’ lunch; I’d much rather stay hidden in cupboards in survival-horrors; and even horror-adventures usually send me diving for the sofa and making a grab for the nearest cushion. I’ve even been known to get creeped-out when entering dark rooms in the Greenbriars’ house in Gone Home and whilst dealing with Atrus’s sons in Myst.

    But like Tyler and many others out there, the horror genre seems to have a magnetic quality that keeps pulling me back. I know such titles will scare me senseless and leave me imagining all sorts of monsters once the lights go out (what can I say, I have an overactive imagination) but I want to experience them anyway. So why do we put ourselves through this torture? Pondering on this question and The Young Beard’s article led me to an interesting observation: out of the many genres available to us, it’s horror that showcases the best and worst of video games simultaneously.

    Horror: the best of gaming

    In order to properly explain why the horror genre contains the best of gaming experiences, I’ll need to include a bit of science in the next few paragraphs. On 28 May 2015 a paper was published online called Nothing to Fear? An Analysis of College Students’ Fear Experiences With Video Games. Working with Assistant Professor Nicole Martins at Indiana University, PhD student Teresa Lynch surveyed 269 participants in 2013 about their experience with popular titles such as Resident Evil and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

    One of the findings of this experiment was that player perceptions of interactivity were crucial to producing fright responses. You could therefore say that video games are more effective at producing a scream than any other form of media: they transport the audience to an interactive world teeming with danger, in which they’re not just passive viewers but (un)willing participants. Through keyboard presses and controller movements the player interfaces with the title and this illusion of agency encourages them to feel as if they’re actually a part of that world. Unlike films, where you’re watching horrible things happen to other people, games are more about horrible things happening to a digital extension of yourself.

    In addition, Lynch’s survey showed that close to half of the students surveyed – over forty-four percent – said that they enjoyed being scared. In an article about her research for ScienceDaily she said:

    That answers one part of the question of why do people continue to expose themselves to these aversive stimuli, why do they continue to expose themselves to these things that they know are going to cause an unpleasant emotional experience. It’s because to some degree, in some way, they’re getting pleasure out of it.

    Martins continued:

    They like the feeling of being scared. Maybe the enjoyment comes from the fact that you’re getting this rush, knowing that no harm is really going to come to you.

    Part of this enjoyment can be explained by an evolutionary perspective. As described in a paper entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death, Almost: An Evolutionary Approach to Horror Media by Mathias Clasen at Aarhus University:

    Humans are drawn to situations that give them experience with danger in a safe context. In dangerous dynamic environments, organisms need to learn effective coping strategies to survive… Horror gives its consumers experience with high levels of negative emotion, and it can serve as a medium for vicarious experience with dangerous situations.

    The other part is that we actually get a kick out of being scared. When we become frightened, our sympathetic nervous system takes over and we ready for ‘fight or flight’; an adrenaline rush readies our minds and bodies to react to perceived threats with greater strength and speed than they would do normally and it gives us a natural high. We stop what we’re doing and focus purely on self-preservation, and horror games take advantage of this by scaring players senseless and then providing momentary respite. I mentioned Gone Home earlier and even this title makes use of the tactic: you’re forced to enter creepy hallways and dark rooms unsure of what you’ll encounter, and then experience sweet relief when a flick of the light-switch reveals there’s nothing to be afraid of.

    To pick up on a point from Clasen’s paper:

    Most of us can probably agree that in the real world, there are no drooling monsters, no rotting zombies, no bloodthirsty vampires, and no moaning ghosts… People in modern societies have little reason to fear being attacked by big terrestrial predators or dangerous reptiles, let alone supernatural monsters. Why, then, do they flock to be scared and thrilled by imaginary monsters in fiction and interactive entertainment?

    On one hand Clasen has already answered his own question: they’re ‘imaginary monsters’, and as such video games give us the opportunity to experience situations we’d never encounter in real life. And on the other, visual quality may have something to do with it. Lynch’s research found that perceived realism is important in producing fright responses and that graphic realism is more significant than how likely something is to occur in reality. Even though zombies don’t actually exist (or do they?), a realistic representation of a rotting corpse onscreen is likely to send us cowering in fear; and with each new technological advancement comes a wave of better, more convincing, more disgusting graphics.

    So there you have it: interactivity, safe experiences, adrenaline rushes and awesome visuals make for amazing experiences. Video games provide developers with a medium where there’s so much freedom and creativity, perhaps more so than any other art form. As written by Tyler:

    The flexibility given to the creators are [sic] infinite… It isn’t necessarily the gameplay that draws you in but the environment itself and the story surrounded by tormented souls within the narrative arc that creates an outstanding horror scenario.

    A great explanation as to why the horror genus showcases the best of gaming.

    Horror: the worst of video games

    But the horror genre also showcases the worst of gaming. The use of gore in video games has often sparked criticism, from furious parents, outraged politicians, gaming journalists and even developers themselves. The problem is that we love overdoing it: walking through puddles of blood, listening to screams of pain and agony, or zooming in on a particularly gruesome death scene. With technological advancements comes graphical leaps that can ramp up the scare-factor as described above, but this in turn can lead to the reprisal of the tired argument that ‘video games incite violence’. Critics are distracted by the gore and don’t see the quality of the narrative, creativity or development of the title behind it: the blood needs to be washed away so an excellent title can be revealed.

    But on the flipside, an increase in visual quality can actually lead to a decrease in narrative standards in some instances. In an article on Citizen Game, Josh Russell said:

    There is now an arms race to see which developer can make the prettiest-looking game environments and character models by using the very best technology. When these elements in a video game improve, it leaves no room for the true plot and character quality.

    The upsurge in graphical quality that has arrived with the latest generation of consoles and modern PCs could mean that some writers let the visuals – rather than a well-thought-out storyline and script – to do the talking.

    As stated by Keith Stuart in an article for The Guardian:

    The term ‘horror game’ has become something of a misnomer, a generic term applied to any title that serves up lashings of viscera, or the odd ghost or monster… Mostly, horror games are merely blood-soaked adventures or shooters, which borrow the clothes of successful horror movies without ever occupying the body of terror within… The problem is, robbed of any kind of psychological depth, these horror mechanisms become empty sideshow tricks within games that are merely gruesome pantomimes.

    With this generalisation of the horror genre has come an influx of sub-par titles, which in turn has caused an over-saturated market. Just take a look at the ‘Horror’ tag on Steam right now: at the time of writing there are 432 entries listed under this category for sale, and that doesn’t include the additional 110 admissions currently listed on Steam Greenlight. While there are gems among within these lists, many receive mixed or negative reviews due to bad gameplay, poor development or just plain offensiveness; and some don’t even necessarily fit within the categorisation (Her Story, really?). While I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush, it could be said there are developers out there who are willing to jump on the horror-bandwagon just to make a bit of money.

    My own personal grievance revolves around zombies: there are currently 242 titles listed on Steam under the ‘Zombies’ tag and 282 entries appear when you type the same word into Steam Greenlight. The poor creatures seem to have become the cliché of the gaming world, fodder for uncreative developers who are content to produce unoriginal and uninspiring titles (ok, I’m playing it up a little for effect). And YouTubers: if you scream at events within video games which aren’t scary because you think it’ll bring in an audience, I doubt you’re taking your medium and viewers seriously.

    So there you have the other side of the argument: the overuse of gore, a decrease in narrative standards and over-saturated market makes for poor experiences. As written by Josh:

    To a horror novel, narrative and character development are the sole most important things to bring the reader in. For modern video games this has been removed, instead preferring shock and awe tactics to keep attention on the screen… Fear within the survival-horror genre has not been lost to history; more depressingly, it is being completely overlooked and covered up in technology.


    Horror: the gem of video games

    Despite all of its issues, it’s hard to deny that the horror genre isn’t one of the gems of video gaming. We all have memories we love to share: being attacked by what looked like a lifeless alien in Dead Space; getting tracked down by Slender Man in the woods; or cowering in a cupboard in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. And don’t forget the classics – many gamers of the same generation as myself are likely to remember how hard their heart pounded when the dogs crashed through the windows in Resident Evil.

    But it’s not just older games which frighten us to bits. The recent Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise has done particularly well and attracted thousands of fans all over the world, being praised for its originality and quality of jump-scares. Don’t forget Monstrum by the guys from Team Junkfish, a survival-horror set on an abandoned cargo ship; at an EGX event we witnessed a player taking off the headphones and stepping away from the PC, because he ‘just couldn’t take it’. And then there’s Until Dawn, which currently seems to be taking the world by storm.

    There’s just something about the horror genre that keeps pulling us back – the hairs standing up on our necks, the rush of adrenaline and blood through our veins, the feeling that something is there watching us in the dark. I’ll close this article using by quoting Tyler:

    The build-up, the subtle hints of something frightening about to occur, then finally the climax of the horror shows its ugly face and leaves you quivering in fear. This genre is the best genre in a video game.

    Chasing memories: nostalgia’s effect on video games

    The majority of my friends are male and when we get together, video games tend to feature in some way or another. It might be a few rounds of Street Fighter at Meltdown London after work; a console title in somebody’s living room on a Friday night; upcoming releases and new indie projects at expos; or conversations on Twitch that generally descend into amiable insults.

    We accept that the ‘gamer’ tag could be applied to us and while we don’t agree with or support the stereotype, it’s one we’re happy to be labelled with.

    But there’s a friend in our group – let’s call him ‘Keith’ – who stands out because he could easily be the epitome of the word. He’s one of those people who always complains about never having any money yet always seem to have enough cash to buy a couple of new releases a each month. Every time I log onto Steam I can see him playing something and I’ve known him to stay up days at a stretch, living off of a diet of nothing but caffeine and crisps just to complete his latest purchase in one sitting. He’s a human-encyclopaedia when it comes to video-game-trivia and he’s usually rallying the rest of us into a multiplayer.

    Everyone in our crowd has their quirks, those little eccentricities which make them who they are. But there’s a certain habit Keith displays that makes me want to pull my hair out and stamp my feet: the never-ending flow of criticism he piles upon modern games. He regularly posts reviews and comments against his Steam profile and is often the first to start a discussion; and every time a current title is the subject, you can pretty much guarantee his overall opinion will be negative.

    For example, he recently sent a tweet asking for opinions on memorable soundtracks from video games. When several followers replied citing retro titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Tomb Raider, he then asked whether we could name a current game with memorable music. Although a few were provided none of them were good enough for Keith; and this is typical of his conversations, usually designed to prove that new releases just don’t cut it on multiple fronts.

    Chasing memories

    This is the result of looking back on the past through rose-tinted glasses (or a rose-tinted Oculus Rift display) that make benchmarks from our childhood appear warm and golden. The word ‘nostalgia’ is derived from the Greek terms meaning ‘returning’ and ‘suffering’; and in a May 2006 article for the Journal of Personality and Psychology, researcher Tim Wildschut and his colleagues noted that the ordeal of Odysseus is a good illustration of the emotion as it was originally conceived. This Greek hero suffered a massive bout of nostalgia when he longed to go back to the way things were. He ached to return home to his wife Penelope (along with all of his favourite 16-bit video games) so much that he even turned down offers from sexy sorceresses to do so.

    Wildschut’s investigations found that when asked to describe nostalgic memories, most people recalled social contexts and good relationships with others. We tend to star in our memories but usually have a supporting cast; so you might just reminisce about playing Streets of Rage or Sonic the Hedgehog 2 but the chances are you’re actually thinking about bonding with friends or loved-ones over a game. The most nostalgic memories for gamers probably revolve around a time we shared our hobby with others, made new friends through gaming or enjoyed a great co-op experience – events which made us feel good about ourselves and those around us.

    Assistant professor Clay Routledge has conducted extensive research in the area of video game nostalgia and believes that the impetus behind it is the need to reconnect with the past and recall former happiness. In a Eurogamer article back in September 2012, he said:

    I think retro gaming actually has little to do with the specific games one is nostalgic for. Instead, I believe that games serve as a cue or reminder of experiences we had in our youth that were truly fulfilling for us. For example, I have very fond memories of playing The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. on the NES. These are legitimately good and important games in the history of gaming, but I think what makes them so special for me personally is the broader context of plating these games.

    Keith’s favourite titles are those from The Legend of Zelda franchise and everything he now picks is weighed up against them. He rates Nintendo highly, has owned every console and handheld they’ve ever produced, promotes the majority (if not all) or their releases and refers to them as the ‘last great video game company’. This is because the developer reminds him of a time before the realities of life crept in: when gaming was an exciting experience he shared with his parents and siblings, and he had the freedom to play all day as a child.

    Every generation thinks that current releases – whether that’s video games or any other form of media – aren’t as good as those from their younger years. How many times have you heard your parents complain that today’s music is terrible when compared to songs produced by the stars of their day? Today’s releases become tomorrow’s classics and someone will look back on them with the same sense of nostalgia in the future. The problem is that it’s an itch you’re never going to be able to completely scratch; regardless of how much you long for the past like Odysseus, you’re never likely to fashion the same experience and end up chasing memories.

    ‘Innovative’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘new’

    Keith’s biggest issue with current video games is what he calls their ‘lack of innovation’. Most of his arguments stem from the opinion that today’s releases don’t do anything new; they simply recycle old gameplay styles and mechanics used in previous titles and to him, this is a sign of laziness on the developers’ part. But there are two holes in this point of view. Firstly, the classics were innovative because they were originals released during a period when PCs and consoles first began to appear in homes. Video games were new and every early release was a cause for excitement. How can you be anything but ground-breaking when you’re the start of your kind?

    Secondly, to innovate doesn’t necessarily coming up with something completely new. It actually means to ‘make changes to something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products’ according to the Oxford dictionary – so you can be innovative by creating an improvement on an old concept. For example, nobody can deny that the invention of the verb wheel in the adventure game was pioneering. But the designers took the words previously displayed at the bottom of the screen and placed them into a different visual layout; they took an existing mechanic and made it better.

    When summing up with an overall opinion, Keith tends to veer towards the negative side because he doesn’t see the game in question as innovative when compared to something like The Legend of Zelda. He allows nostalgia for this series to influence what should be a critical study of an entirely separate video game, which should be judged on its own merits and compared to others in order to arrive at a complete picture. He’s letting his memories and that rose-tinted Oculus Rift spoil his enjoyment of something new.

    And on top of that, those memories may not even be entirely accurate. The fact we seem to engage in nostalgia about games to make ourselves feel better suggests we may be unconsciously biased towards remembering things that make us happy and against thinking about the recollections that don’t. Was waiting for a Commodore 64 tape to noisily load, drawing maps on scraps of graph paper whilst working through a text adventure, or arguing with a sibling over who got to be Mario really that much fun? As humans we have a remarkable tendency to fool ourselves. We require less information to confirm beliefs when they’re consistent with our desired state of mind, and research like that mentioned above has shown we’re predisposed to remember more of the good things in life.

    Working with nostalgia

    Regardless of whether you’re prone to nostalgia or believe a certain video game isn’t innovative, if you enjoy playing it then it’s still a great game – and that’s despite what a review score of journalists’ opinion may lead you to believe. Both the gaming industry and community is leaps and bounds ahead of where it used to be; the range of what we play has grown enormously along with the ambition behind it. With technological advancement comes the ability to tell new stories, pioneer new types of gameplay and give players new ways to interact with both games and each other. Let’s face it: it’s a marvellous time to be a gamer.

    So by all means remember those good times past, but don’t let those rose-tinted glasses hold you back from new experiences and make you miss out on all the gaming world has to offer. Who knows, that release you bought yesterday could just end up being your new favourite video game.