Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I think I may have been converted to horror games. Y'know... things like Dead Space or Silent Hill or the topic of this post, Amnesia: the Dark Descent. (Also the only one which I've played, though Blake grabbed Dead Space for me this Christmas. Huzzah!)

At any rate, nice thing about Amnesia is that it relies less on cat scares and scare chords to achieve its peculiar brand of horror, and more on the specific feeling of vulnerability it instills in you. Because, you see, your character-- an English fellow named Daniel-- has no means of self defense. That means your sole means of not getting killed by the thing stalking you are

1) Running
2) Hiding
3) Barricading doors so you can do more of (1) and (2) while the thing tries to bust through them.

But honestly? Hiding is your only real method of not dying, because the thing is just as fast as you are. Running is just a temporary measure.

Therein lies the trick! Anybody ever read the Cthonically-flavored the Holder series? Something you'll notice as you go through the various Holders is that there's always a point at which the Seeker is forced to rely on luck/fate/destiny to get through. Here's an example:

In any city, in any country, go to any mental institution or halfway house in you can get yourself to. When you reach the front desk, ask to visit someone who calls himself "The Holder of the End". Should a look of child-like fear come over the workers face, you will then be taken to a cell in the building. It will be in a deep hidden section of the building. All you will hear is the sound of someone talking to themselves echo the halls. It is in a language that you will not understand, but your very soul will feel unspeakable fear.

Should the talking stop at any time, stop and quickly say aloud "I'm just passing through, I wish to talk." If you still hear silence, flee. Leave, do not stop for anything, do not go home, don't stay at an inn, just keep moving, sleep where your body drops. You will know in the morning if you've escaped successfully.

And then it goes on from there. See what I mean? No matter how clever or quick-witted or brave you are, there's still a chance your quest will end in failure-- and gruesome, terrifying failure, at that. So it is with Amnesia! It's all about that feeling of helplessness.

Let me give an example. When you barricade a door behind you, a lot of times the room you're stuck in with the thing trying to bust inside is rather cramped. It's all you can do to get behind a couple of crates and hope for the best before it finally kicks in the door. And I gotta tell you, it feels like a really long time (though probably only about 30 seconds) where the monster just shuffles around the room, trying to root out the location you're hiding in. At that point, there's literally nothing you can do to help your survival-- the dice have been cast, and whether you survive the encounter or not depends on how well you chose your hiding spot. The monster could get bored and wander off; it could also find you and kill you.

There's also a difficult decision you're forced into when you're wandering around darkened corridors: if you walk around with your lantern on, then if you run into the thing stalking you it will see you and you'll probably die.

Onnnnn the other hand, if you wander around with it off, your sanity will slowly drain and eventually your legs will give out, leaving you crawling across the floor with your arms. At which point if the thing finds you, you're basically a sitting duck, and you'll probably die.

On a secondary note, I've noticed that in most genres, when game developers try to make a "meaningful" experience, they tend to start emulating movies, with cinema scenes and plot rails and the like. And a lot of times, this makes sense-- game mechanics work extremely badly for most types of social interaction, since when you're talking to somebody there's any number of things you should be able to say. Which causes games to become movies at such times, since movies are good at dialogue.

But one thing games are great at is immersion, and that's something which lets horror games beat horror movies hands down. A list of reasons:

1) You'll identify much more strongly with a protagonist who you're controlling at all times. It's not "Oh no, the monster's going to get the Attractive Female Protagonist", it's "Oh no, the monster's going to get me." The desperation feels real in games because it is real-- you're freaking out that the monster might bust through the door before you can barricade it properly, you're freaking out because it's chasing you and you're trying to push a door that has to be pulled, you're freaking out.

2) You can't look away during particularly intense moments, because that would just cause you to die horribly. Immersion!

3) You know that the possibility of failure and death exists at all times if you aren't constantly vigilant. This is in contrast to horror films, where you know that the main character's probably not gonna die until the 2 hour mark or thereabouts; and furthermore, that this will be true regardess of whether you're paying attention or not. Immersion!

In conclusion: Damn, but Amnesia's a well-constructed game.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Grad Student Horror Stories

So I was playing Audiosurf the other day. Fun times! Now, Audiosurf, when it displays high scores at the end of any given song, also gives you comments people have left about those songs. As luck would have it, the comments for One Night In Bangkok are all disgruntled graduate students. I'll give it this-- it has a higher class of commenter than Youtube does. But anyway, I'm not sure if this is the norm, or if it just happens to be the disgruntled ones who comment, but the section was just filled with complaints like:

"Man, my advisor's a slave-driver! We have to work weekends and everything!"

"You think yours is bad? Mine has started restricting the purchase of safety equipment! I have to work with toxic chemicals wearing half a lab coat because of him! And I think my glovebox is leaking toxic gases, but I'm not sure because I've lost my sense of smell."

"Oh yeah? Well, mine has us work 25-hour days, and makes us use our vacation time for restroom breaks!"

"Oh yeah? Well mine..."

I wonder why I haven't heard more reports like this coming from the UW. I know we've got a graduate student union, which makes me wonder if that's the cause or the result of the UW's lenient attitude. I strongly suspect someplace like Caltech would not tolerate union shenanigans.

Students: Hey professor, hey professor! We're forming a union!
Caltech Professor: OLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL you're all fired.
Students: Nyo~ron ;_;

Not that I haven't heard of ridiculously long hours, mind. Organic synthesis groups from what I've heard seem especially fond of having students work nights and weekends, though I'm not sure why this might be. (This is actually the main reason I didn't want to work with my otherwise-awesome Advanced OChem professor-- I'd like to do synthesis, but I'd also like to have a life, thanks.) That said, the Luscombe and Goldberg groups (which I've applied to be in) seem to be on the saner side of things, with having their students work roughly 40-60 hour weeks. We'll see how it goes!

In other news, dapper pokemon.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Hypochondria

Anyone who knows me knows I have certain... quirks. For example, I am extremely particular about what food I eat, as according to the following diagram.

I have regulated my diet by these standards for many years! But, this is nothing special-- many people have such standards. No, where my true food-madness manifests itself is in standards of hygiene. It's as though a highly sincere yet psychotic nun has barricaded herself in the larder of my brain, and has taken it upon herself to vigorously expel any food items thought "unclean."

"Unclean" items include, but are not limited to:

  • Expired food
  • Food about to expire
  • Milk that has sat outside the carton for more than ten minutes
  • Milk that has been defiled by the touch of cereal
  • Milk that has been defiled in any other fashion
  • Warm food that was once cold
  • Cold food that was once warm
  • Wet food that was once dry
  • Too-brown bananas
  • Food that has sat in strong-smelling environments for long lengths of time.
This has led to certain... difficulties when my friends and I hold beach house parties. Most of my friends have extremely different standards for food cleanliness. They will-- and this is just an example-- place open packages of new and wholesome food next to a casserole which has been stewing in its own grease for two days straight on a countertop smelling of stale beer.

This, you may gather, causes my inner Battle Nun to flip her shit. You may also guess this leads to certain... frictions.

Aaron: Im'ma just throw this casserole and this butter and these muffins away, that cool with you guys?
What? But that's only been there for--
But that was our only food for the weekend!
Branden: NOOOOOO

To all those who think my actions excessive: all I can say is that if I was just a trifle more unstable in the ol' brainpan, I would have purged the kitchen with beautiful, cleansing fire. So y'all should be putting this in perspective!

As Monty Python says....

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Solium Infernum Update!

Well, the plan to do a night a week of SI appears to have failed, for which I will suggest an alternative plan: Everyone submits a turn a day, and if two days go by without a person submitting a turn, he gets turned into an AI. We'll be starting this Friday.