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Joining 'The Flock'

The Flock is this back-and-forth effort by a group of people to become the light bearer. While you hold the light, those you shine it on must freeze or die.

It was the second time playing The Flock when everything clicked, and I reveled in the joy of its asymmetry. When I first come crawling out of some access tunnel in what the developers of the game, Vogelsap, call a competitive multiplayer thriller game, I knew only to move towards a beacon of light. A hideous alien creature, I am able to leap across the level and clamber up rocks and overhangs. I'm quick to pick up the basics of movement, and I'm first to reach the light.

Suddenly I am holding what looks like a huge flashlight with a strange meter. I turn around and the light freezes on an enemy, one of the creatures I just inhabited. Then another one comes from behind. Clever girl.

Initially the horror elements of the game stand out more than anything else. Carrying the torch is a creepy task. Enemies you catch from the corner of your eye skitter into the shadows and out of view. If I do catch sight of one, they freeze in place like a Weeping Angel from Doctor Who, only pretending to be a statute until I turn my back. And turn my back I must. The flashlight is powered by movement and will shut off if I don’t keep moving.

The Flock is this back-and-forth effort by a group of people to become the light bearer. While you hold the light, those you shine on it must freeze or die. It’s like playing a game of freeze tag and flashlight tag combined. Whoever holds onto the light the longest at the end of the round wins.

Playing as a monster again, it’s easier to pursue the light bearer. I calculate my path to avoid my fellow creatures of darkness, lest their movement draw the attention of our prey. In fact, it’s quick to figure out how to exploit your allies. When the light freezes my temporary ally, I make my move and pounce.

The little one is not as helpless as it seems.

The second time taking on the role of the light bearer, everything clicks and the beautiful asymmetry, something I adore, shines through. Like the best games of its ilk, the asymmetry of The Flock forces me to think like my opponent, while playing my own sort of game. I spot a monster climbing the rocks behind me. I could stop and keep them at bay, but that would sap my precious light resource, so I keep on moving. I rush forward, memorizing my surroundings to get a better sense of where I, as a creature, would lurk before an attack. That’s when I realize, they’re not hunting me. I’m hunting them.

In a way, I decide where my opponents move. I can funnel them towards choke points, show them my back, and wait until the skittering grows louder. That’s when I turn, hit them with a burst of light, and watch them crumble into dust. This is why sound design is so crucial for The Flock. The creatures hunt by following the light. The light beater hunts by listening and plotting.

This is where the richness of The Flock seems to bloom. When the game releases later this year, skilled players will be playing a complex game of prediction and counterplay, feigning advances, ignoring gut instinct and stalling attacks, and out maneuvering their opponents with precision. I'm excited to watch how the game plays out in far more capable hands.

There is a simple depth in The Flock afforded by its asymmetry. Like Left 4 Dead before it, skilled play demands a firm grasp of your opponents capabilities, how each of you move through the environment, and how each responds as a result of the information they receive during the game.

Perhaps most interestingly, there is potential that the asymmetry weaves its way into a larger narrative as well. The creators have made the decision to create a single capstone event before shutting the game down completely. During its initial run, players will deplete a single shared global stock of lives. When the number lowers to an as-of-yet undisclosed amount, a vaguely described "event" will take place, changing the world (and I hope the gameplay) of The Flock. When this phase ends, the game is over. No more light, no more darkness, no more flock.

When that time comes, I hope we find ourselves missing it.

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