Video games have a lot of potential for horror that I don’t think we’re tapping into. I’m not just talking about transparent crap like marketing games with zombies as “survival horror” so much as obvious avenues of game design that just don’t get tapped. And part of that is preying upon the sorts of horror that don’t exist outside of video games.
Unlike most forms of horror, video games have a requirement for audience participation. You don’t watch games, you play them. There are certain tricks that implies which just can’t be pulled off when you have an entire audience sitting and watching. There are ways to make games feel more horrifying that really lean on the fact that these are games, that players are playing them, that you can hit a sense of powerlessness for the players at a more primal level. There’s stuff that’s scary without requiring big claws or teeth or any combination thereof.
So let’s talk scary, and let’s see how games can really screw with the heads of players with some simple (and kind of horrible) tricks.
The road to the Tower of Babil is a long one. Part of that is because it is not, strictly speaking, a road; it’s a layer of solid rock over rivers of magma. Another part of that is that it is not a tourist destination. Much as I like the idea of dwarven groups riding little dwarven tour buses back and forth, sending postcards that read “LALI-HO FROM THE TOWER OF BABIL,” that’s not what happens.
I keep getting my hopes up, but it’s time to face fact.
After a fairly long trek, the dwarven tanks are finally visible, opening fire on the tower as a distraction tactic. That’s enough distraction for the group to slip in on the bottom floor, rushing toward the obviously advanced facility suspended over a river of lava. The casual presence of technology feels a bit disconnected, but it’s also an interesting echo of the endgame portions of Final Fantasy I, a world far bigger than the pseudo-medieval setting that has seemed fairly stable up until now.
I love zombie fiction. I absolutely hate most video games that feature zombies. And there’s a good reason for that, largely stemming from the fact that the two bear only the slightest connection to one another.
Let it not be said that you do not have your options for zombie games if you want them. The Walking Dead has been doing quite well for itself. DayZ is out in early testing that only asks you to, you know, purchase it before you can test it. (That seems backwards to me, but that’s a different article.) Dead Rising is a thing, State of Decay is a thing, Left 4 Dead is a thing, and hell, Plants vs. Zombies is out there. That’s not even counting the numerous games which feature zombies as a sideline – arguably the Husks of Mass Effect are close cousins.
But I don’t really like zombie games all that much, and even the games that I’m listing don’t seem to really like zombies all that much. Which is why I’m listing this as a hard project, because it turns out that making a zombie game is a very different prospect from writing zombie horror, and the two don’t go together nicely.
I may be alone in this regard, and by “may be” I mean “certainly appear to be,” but I am entirely done with the current waves of misguided affection for the arcade games and early 16-bit games that I had in my youth.
This is not to say that the indie love affair with old-school games is an inherent hindrance any more than the triple-A fascination with fabric simulation is an inherent hindrance; it’s more that both tend to produce a lot of stuff that starts with a bedrock of nostalgia and never quite gets around to assembling compelling gameplay to support it. Instead, there are games – which you can probably guess include today’s offering – which are perfectly serviceable homages without adding much on besides.
Fortunately for Tobe’s Vertical Adventure, the game is more aiming at a feel than a particular game or style, which covers a multitude of sins. It’s not a bad game, either, but it certainly feels like the homage cam first and the actual gameplay showed up late to the party without appropriate clothing. So it manages all right, but it never quite manages to pass that threshold of being good enough that there’s no reason to care about visuals.