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Obscure: The Aftermath

(Playlogic; US: 25 Mar 2008)

This is survival horror at its most adequate.


If you are the type that lingers over direct-to-video slasher flicks in the video store, this may be the game for you.


Personally, I have never really understood the appeal of this formulaic genre of films. I had always assumed that pure salaciousness drove its consumption.  Surely, viewers watch these flicks with the hope of seeing bare breasts or an excessively gory execution scene?


For me, the only campy slasher or monster movies that I have ever enjoyed are those that play with the convention of the formula itself, satirizing salaciousness and reveling in it with the self-knowledge that what the viewer wants is a grisly, silly, and simplistically moralistic tale.  Think Scream, or more recently, Planet Terror.


However, Obscure simply is what it is—a B-grade horror experience.  It is nothing more and nothing less.  This may be its greatest weakness or its greatest strength largely depending on the type of media that you enjoy.


The game is chock full of frat boy mentality.  Set at a college in which a genetically altered flower is causing hideous mutations in the campus population, it presumes a fairly straightforward approach to its cultural setting.  Clearly, anyone of college age is only interested in attending a university to get drunk, stoned, and laid.


In this sense, though, the game’s narrative is clearly at least somewhat self aware.  It is explained over the course of the story that mutations caused by the flower are indeed best transmitted through drug use and sexual contact.  Obscure‘s writers nod to the conventions of the genre as a kind of morality play seemingly while laughing a bit in their sleeves.  The potential for satire is there, though, only if the resulting episodes are amusing or clever.  Obscure most often fails on both points.


What does work, though, in terms of its homage to the genre is its multi-player aspect.  While I initially thought that the co-op mode or the more basic single player approach that requires you to control two characters at once was little more than a novelty, and, perhaps, Obscure‘s effort towards at least some innovation within the survival horror genre, this aspect actually seems to be more of a nod to the slasher film more than anything else.


The game constantly forces the player (or players in co-op) to adopt new roles.  The cast of college-age kids is actually fairly large with each serving some archetypal role (the jock, the slut, the bad boy, etc.).  Over the course of the game, a number of these characters get knocked off in cut scenes, cut down one at a time à la the classic slasher picture.


Not only is the tension of the group dying one by one a clear echo of the slasher genre, but it also creates a rather interesting (and, perhaps, legitimately innovative) tension within the survival horror game genre.


Given that part of the tension of survival horror classics like Resident Evil depend on the fact that the player is not only confronted by nightmarish situations but, additionally, is compounded by the fact that ammunition and medical kits are limited within the confines of the game.  Yes, you might be armed with a shotgun, but Resident Evil and survival horror in general forces the player to decide if he or she should hold on to those precious four shells left in your inventory given that something worse than what confronts you now may be lurking around the next corner.


Obscure‘s tendency to eliminate certain characters from time to time in the name of slasher conventions adds an additional twist on such survival concerns.  Should one bother to waste a medical kit to heal up a character that may be dead in a few minutes anyway?  Like the slasher film, the game nudges its audience to likewise consider who will “get it” next, though not simply for the sake of violent aesthetics or the desire to see a detestable character get what they deserve, but for pragmatic and utilitarian reasons.  Why waste scarce resources on the putz that wanders into the clutches of a chainsaw-wielding freak in the next scene?


Such patent cruelty and ambivalence to suffering for the sake of practical survival and the needs of the group may be Obscure‘s best rendering of the sometimes malicious apathy evoked by modern slasher horror.  Interestingly, too, it may also clarify to the player why characters in such films so often betray and desert their friends.  Indeed, desertion and the tension of survival seem only reasonable when you are more directly experiencing these things through simulation rather than via passive voyeurism.


I really admire when any game can make its experience of play mesh well with the story that it is trying to tell.  It adds a layer of authenticity to the experience and also celebrates the difference between games and more passive forms of media like film.  I just wish that the rest of the game and its story could likewise be as smart or interesting as this single innovative element.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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