Party Hard is a rare kind of a game: a genuine dark comedy. Usually comedy in games is absurd in nature—think Monkey Island, Sam and Max, Stanley Parable, or Saints Row The Third—because the mechanics of any game are already absurd when taken at face value, so it’s a natural fit. What game mechanics represent are often pretty dark when taken at face value—casual murder, theft, and trespassing, to mention a few—and comedy helps undercut that darkness so that we don’t dwell on it. Be honest, did you even remember that the earth was destroyed at the end of Saints Row IV, or did you just remember that elaborate dance scene?
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Puzzles and horror make a curious pair. This pairing has a real history in video games. When one thinks of “old school survival-horror,” one often thinks of an environment with lots of locked doors, hidden keys, and esoteric riddles. But why was it so often this way? Was this a mutually beneficial relationship, one in which the stress of the horror made the puzzles more exciting and in which the methodology of the puzzles forced us to stay rational amidst the horror? Or were the convoluted puzzles included simply to pad out the game to a more marketable length?
Horror is hard. You can never really be scared by the same thing twice, not in the same way. After that first time, you’re prepared for it. That preparation may be conscious—a knowledge of clichés and tropes that help you predict the future—or it may be unconscious—a subtle feeling of familiarity that turns something once terrifying into something merely scary—but either way the knowledge of a scare subtracts from its effectiveness. Combine that fact with the sheer number of horror related movies, games, books, and whatnot released in any given year… and horror becomes very hard.
But horror is a cakewalk compared to its little brother: The less scary, more abstract, tonally trickier sub-genre of the spooky story.
The Music Machine, by one-man-developer David Szymanski, does not go where you think it’s going. It sets up an interesting premise, then veers off in a completely unexpected direction. Usually that’s a bad thing, but in this case, it’s a very good thing. It goes from interesting to fascinating, and establishes a world that I desperately want to dig into more deeply.
The generally agreed upon distinction between horror and terror is that terror comes first. Terror is that uncomfortable feeling of anticipation when you know something bad is about to happen. Horror is the shock and disgust that comes from encountering the bad thing.
Stasis certainly looks like a point-and-click horror game, especially with its judicious use of gore and other horrifying imagery, but these images aren’t just there to shock us. They’re also there to terrorize us, to build that dreaded anticipation of something bad being just around the corner. The greatest trick that Stasis pulls on the player is making us think we’re in danger. We’re constantly waiting for the proverbial “monsters” to appear, the ones that have destroyed this science lab, that seem to stalk us through the corridors, but it keeps putting off this encounter to show us their handiwork instead. As a result, all those scenes of horror become representative of something even worse, something terrifying.