This week, Zero Punctuation takes on indies Five Nights at Freddys and This War of Mine.
So it continues to be Catch-Ups month rather than Phew-Coast-Is-Clear season (whenever everything that pussied out of a harrowing Christmas release nervously returns to the water’s edge with freshly re-inflated floaties) and this week, it’s time for a spot of indie horror, and we’ll start with something that rivals Smash Bros. for most frequently requested, albeit by far savvier correspondents who know that the hungry shark is best tempted with meat, not pink wafer biscuits.
Five Days a Stra- I mean, Five Nights at Freddy’s has the distinction of being one of the few completely unique concepts to debut last year, and achieves with nothing but a strategic arrangement of still images and pre-rendered animations worthy of a mid-90’s CD-ROM game, what something like The Evil Within can’t manage with the finest graphics technology absurdly inflated budgets can buy: it freaked my fucking balls off. Maybe that’s thanks to my long-standing fear of people in mascot costumes, but honestly, all of the characters could have been replaced with smiling photos of George Hamilton and the effect would have been much the same.
The premise is, you are the night shift security guy at a Chuck-E-Cheese style traditional birthing ground for childhood trauma, where the animatronic characters have sung “Happy Birthday” one too many times and now have an alarming habit of roaming around at night looking for something to kill, in defense of which, you have the most illogical security system since the biscuit proximity alarm, consisting of two security doors that require power to remain closed rather than say, gravity or strategic use of a filing cabinet barricade. You are tasked to watch the security cameras and strategically lock the doors when something is drawing close, lest you suffer death by jump-scare.
It’s a remarkable recreation of the kind of logic one encounters in a nightmare; paralyzed by this encroaching horror that only you seem to recognize as such but can’t escape from, and in many ways, that’s why I don’t like it. Oh, dropped a critic bomb there! It does its job too well. I can’t play it for more than a few minutes at a time without getting too agitated and having to stop. Yeah, look at this giant pussy over here, better pull my hat down before my clitoris starts showing. But the thing about jump-scares is that in horror, they’re something I more grudgingly tolerate than want. Silent Hill 2, as I’m fond of saying, has almost none at all. They’re to horror what the fart joke is to comedy. They’re like jerking off on a roller coaster; all anticipation followed by a brief high and then a long shameful comedown (no pun intended) after the person sitting in front of you realizes what just coated the back of their neck.
I hate being jump-startled; I don’t seek it out as entertainment. If I suspect that jump-scares are lying in wait as I prowl around the corridors of Dead Space or Amnesia, I want to know that I can respond by opening fire, or legging it in the opposite direction going, “Mnehheneeehheher!” You know, something proactive! Not just sitting in one place waiting for the jump-scare to happen! For someone who’s pretty anxious by default, the tension is more than I can bear (again, no pun intended). I joked about Sonic Boom being more 'endurance test' than game, but that seems to be the sole intention of Six Days, Seven Nights; an endurance test not to be played for fun, but recorded for you to scream all over for the benefit of your YouTube followers.
So while I can’t deny the effectiveness of FNaF, if I wanted to be that tense, I’d phone up Detective Harrison and make another futile attempt to confess before the voices take over again, and I don’t want to be that tense, ‘cause I don’t find it fun. How can I recommend a game if I can only play it for three minutes before reflexively slamming ‘escape’ because the pink thing moved again? That’s not what I’d call ‘engaged’. Although I like how the escape key immediately shuts the game down. I wish every tense situation had one of those. “Congratulations, Janice! When’s the baby due?”
“Erm, I’m not pregnant, I just put on some weight.”
“…” -ABORT- *FWOOOOSH!*
But let’s move on to the second game I wanted to bring up, because it’s a better example of the kind of thing I mean when I talk about horror. Less “nervously waiting for something to jump out like I drank too much coffee before using the Whack-A-Mole Machine” and more “the horror of the human condition”: This War of Mine.
Phew, I’m not tense anymore… now I’m just miserable. Hooray!
You control a small group of refugees in a city devastated by war, but all the actual warring is going on offscreen in some no doubt terribly exciting first-person shooter, while your task is to keep your head down and find enough food and supplies to keep the abandoned building you called “bagsies” on halfway live-in-able, live-in-able, livinabull, LIVINABULL, LIVINABULL, LIVINABULL, LIVINABULL, LI- sorry.
During the day, you craft tools and weapons and extract whatever nutrients you can from sucking on the washing-up towel, and at night one of your number goes out scavenging for more resources. It’s easy at first to scrape up the useful contents of a bombed out sweet shop, but the lootable areas are finite and sooner or later you need to graduate from robbing the dead to robbing the very much alive and hoping to stay that way. There’s kind of a watershed moment when you’re robbing an old man’s house and you can’t avoid being spotted, but then he just stands there whining at you as you pinch all his shit. It is rather sad, although lessened when my refugee then came home with the ‘sad’ status effect. I still hate when a game tries to tell me how I’m feeling.
-BEEP BOOP SAD EVENT DETECTED-
This is where things unravel a bit. The game makes an admirable effort to give each refugee a voice and backstory but in practice, the tiny characters in their arcade-y 2D environments are all kinda interchangeable; they all whine constantly, they’re all equally good at building transistor radios and none of their mums ever showed them how to pack shopping properly, so their entire inventory space is filled after searching a single pile of garbage, important construction materials having smaller stacks than a diabetics visit to the pancake house. I got complacent after a while and my scavenger was shot dead while stealing from the rebels, but I didn’t care. My two survivors dutifully threw their head-levers to the ‘sad’ setting, but I was like, “Oh stop whining, more washing up towels to go around!”
I like This War of Mine’s natural gameplay escalation, but if you want a game that really captures the struggle to maintain humanity in an extreme situation, I’d recommend Papers Please first. This is more like someone got Lars Von Trier to remake Little Computer People.
- The horror the horror: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- It’s so hard being a giant pussy because I can’t watch porn without weeping
- Still holding out for that Papers Please iPad port