Virginia is a neat game. It uses the visual language of cinema, specifically the “cut”, to tell an ambitious story about corruption, identity, and the politics of power. Yet it’s these very cinematic tricks that also handicap the game, limiting the ways in which it can express itself. Rather than work within those limitations to tell its story, Virginia shows us as much as it can within its allotted time, and then cops out with an exposition dump that tries to connect what we’ve already seen to its grander ideas of corruption, identity, and power politics. It’s a flawed game, but fascinatingly flawed.
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The Cube Escape games are series of free puzzle games on iOS and Android. I downloaded them all at the same time (because, free), but after getting through the first one, I wanted to delete the rest immediately. Instead, I played a few more of the games, just to see if the puzzle design might improve. After all, maybe that first game was awkward and bad because it was actually someone’s first game. Turns out, they don’t get better, and I kind of hate them all. Yet I kept playing. Eventually I broke down… and played the rest with a walkthrough open beside me. I wasn’t going to try and solve these shitty puzzles on my own. I was just going to get through the games as fast as possible. Because even though I kind of hated them, I was also hooked on them.
Last week, I wrote that Amnesia: The Dark Descent undercut its psychological horror by tying that horror to game mechanics. If we assume this to be true, then the obvious solution would be to make a game without those mechanics. Don’t tie the horror to any kind of system that can be exploited by the player, thus ensuring the horror stays above any possible gamification. In that case, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs should be the perfect sequel, as it does exactly that. Developed by The Chinese Room (the makers of Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture), A Machine for Pigs removes most of the survival mechanics that made The Dark Descent famous in favor of a game more focused on narrative and theme. I appreciate the new direction, and I think it’s a step in the right direction for evoking and maintaining horror. However, it’s also a risky direction since it puts all the weight of success on the story. The entire game will be judged on the success of that one facet, and unfortunately in this case, the story can’t support the weight of its own themes.
What begins as a fascinating mixture of Lovecraftian horror and economic anxiety eventually grows too big for its own good. The story oversteps its bounds in search of its themes, and then, just to fully shoot itself in the foot, puts the blame for all of its horror at the feet of one man. What was once a Lovecraftian nightmare is reduced to a madman’s plot for revenge.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is still a good horror game. Playing it for the first time six years after its initial release, it does feel a little dated, and it certainly doesn’t live up to it’s reputation as a horror masterpiece. However, it still largely succeeds in what it sets out to do. Even by today’s standards it’s an ambitious game, evoking psychological horror through a Lovecraftian story and mechanics of insanity, while also evoking physical horror through the threat of otherworldly monsters and limited survival resources. It wants to make you fear for your life and fear for your soul. It succeeds on both fronts, but ironically those success actually undermine the game as a whole.
The Cat Lady was an excellent horror game that explored depression and suicide in a way that was nuanced, thoughtful, and scary. It used its supernatural violence to evoke suicidal thoughts in players (“It’s no big deal if I’m just going to be resurrected anyways”), while at the same time arguing against suicide as a means of coping or revenge. The climax had us playing as a woman who had already successfully killed herself, trying to talk a friend out of doing the same thing. The game argued for the importance of life, even as it wallowed in the darker sides of living, showing off a world full of pain, sadness, suffering, loss, grotesque people, and inexplicable violence. Life is full of evil, and we can’t handle it by ourselves. However, The Cat Lady seems to say that we can help each other through it.
I bring up the The Cat Lady for multiple reasons. For one, it’s kind of a spin off of Downfall. The latter game was the first one from developer Harvester Games, but the former was their first one on Steam. This year, Downfall was remade and released on Steam as well. It stars Joe and Ivy Davis, who live in the same apartment complex as Susan Ashworth of The Cat Lady.