Weird Implications of the Horror Genre

I think most of us would agree that many horror movies are just made to be dumb fun and aren’t meant to be taken seriously.  There’s a movie called “Wish Upon” that’s coming out at the end of the week that’s about a magic box that grants people’s wishes.  But there’s a catch.  For every wish the box grants, someone close to the wisher dies!

Yeah…it’s pretty dumb.  But that’s usually the point.  These kind of blockbuster horror movies aren’t really about a story…they’re about spooks and scares and things going “BOO”.

Also gore…there’s a lot of gore these days.

But what if we took these movies more seriously?  It is true that some older horror fiction contained moral lessons or at least satirical observations on modern society.  So what would happen if we took these tales at face value?

Well…

 

Sex is bad

If you’ve never seen the show “Robot Chicken”, all you really need to know is that it’s a skit show involving action figures.  And it’s raunchy…oh so raunchy…

There’s a skit on the show that mashes together “Scooby-Doo” and “Friday the 13th”, with the crew of the Mystery Machine getting brutally murdered one by one by the masked killer Jason Voorhees.  At one point during the skit Velma complains that “the virgin lives the longest in these horror movies”.  And it’s true.  The virgin is the last one alive, particularly in slasher movies.

The excellent 2011 movie “The Cabin in the Woods” references this, stating that for things to work out, the virgin has to be the absolute last one to die, if at all.

But why is this exactly?  How did this become a trope?  Well, as it turns out, horror movies have a weird thing with sex.  Which is that sex is bad.  Very bad.  Unless you’re married.  Which is why in slasher flick movies, the promiscuous cheerleader and the football jock she’s dating are pretty much always the first targets.

The movie “It Follows” literally revolves around a monster curse that is passed on by sleeping with people.  It’s weird, but horror movies apparently grabbed on to this cultural fear of teenagers having sex.  The plot of “It Follows” reads like a paper-thin metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases.

 

You darn kids and yer unprotected sex!

 

It’s like horror movies abide by this strange, Victorian era sense of morality when it comes to sex.  Which brings us to our next topic…

 

Warped Moral Messages

The Sam Raimi movie “Drag Me to Hell” features a female loan officer who refuses an extension to an old lady, who subsequently turns out to be a gypsy or something and puts a curse on the main character which will send her to hell.

Seriously?  I mean, refusing a loan extension is a cruel thing to do, but even the IMDb plot summary points out that she only does it out of misplaced fear for her job:

“Christine Brown is a loans officer at a bank but is worried about her lot in life. She’s in competition with a competent colleague for an assistant manager position and isn’t too sure about her status with a boyfriend. Worried that her boss will think less of her if she shows weakness, she refuses a time extension on a loan to an old woman, Mrs. Ganush, who now faces foreclosure and the loss of her house. In retaliation, the old woman place a curse on her which, she subsequently learns, will result in her being taken to hell in a few days time.”

Given that this movie seems to take place in the modern-day, why not go after the people who caused the housing bubble to burst and created the economic turmoil that likely put the old lady in danger of being foreclosed on?  What about the politicians and the rich people who sat by and let everything fall apart?  I mean, if it’s that easy to curse someone, why not curse the people who deserve it?

But that’s horror movies for you.  They attempt to justify all manner of horrible things through the flimsiest lens possible.  Take, for example, the “Saw” franchise.

If you’ve never seen the movies, the basic premise is that a serial killer kidnaps people and forces them to play elaborate games involving deadly traps.  It’s a franchise that spawned seven different movies and is even spawning another movie later this year, seven years after the last movie came out.  But what bothers me isn’t how many sequels there are, but the motivation behind the killer himself.

In the second movie, Jigsaw tells a former police detective that he attempted to commit suicide after he was diagnosed with cancer.  Evidently, when his attempt failed, he was infused with a new appreciation for life.  And apparently, he was compelled to inspire that appreciation for life in others.

Inspiring an appreciation for life…by physically and psychologically torturing people until they have PTSD and nightmares for the rest of their lives.  And that’s if they survive.

Yep…seems legit.

 

Superstitions are not to be mocked

“There’s a logical explanation for all of this” – Guy who is about to be killed in horrific fashion

A great example of this trope can be seen in “Blair Witch”, the 2016 sequel to “The Blair Witch Project”.  It was…not very good.  Near the beginning of the movie, when the crew is first making their way into the woods, one of the characters makes their thoughts on the legend of the Blair Witch heard and mocks it for all it’s worth.  Then, on the second night, he is chased by some unknown entity and presumably killed.

Just goes to show you kids: don’t mock superstitions.  Because they’ll come true and kill you dead.

And this a common character in horror movies, especially ones involving local legends or folklore.  They’re a skeptic by nature, so they loudly proclaim their disbelief in “silly” superstitions and the like, much to the chagrin of others.

“You actually believe in Bigfoot,” they’ll ask with a mocking chuckle.  “Bigfoot isn’t real.  He’s a myth and a hoax, sustained by people who have nothing better to do with their lives.”

And then Bigfoot will promptly stroll out of the woods, rip the person’s spleen out of their chest, and it so far up their rear end that it pops out their mouth.

Actually, that sounds pretty badass.  I’d pay to see that movie.

 

Archaeology is nothing more than grave robbing

This is a weird one.

I’ve gone on record before about how I enjoy point and click adventure games.  Well I have a couple in mind when it comes to this trope: “Barrow Hill” and its sequel “Barrow Hill: The Dark Path”.

In these games, the central plot revolves around an isolated gas station and motel set near an ancient barrow or burial mound.  In the first game, archaeologist Conrad Morse triggers the horrible events that trap you and other characters in the area because he digs up the mound, taking dirt samples and treasures.  The implication is that he disturbed some kind of ancient spirit by doing so.  And in the second game, which features the spirit of an ancient Wicca witch, goes much the same way.  In the game you find the diary of an archaeologist who dug up the grave of the witch and angered her spirit.

Now, “Dark Path” ends with a message from one of the main characters stating that “there’s a difference between archaeology and grave robbing”.  But the game never makes that distinction.  There’s no point in the game where it points out what would be considered good archaeology.  Because for archaeology to work, things have to be dug up.  But according to the “Barrow Hill” series, that’s a bad thing.

You could argue that it’s more a point about having respect for ancient cultures and tradition, but without any clear indication of how you’re supposed to have respect for these things it comes across as a harsh indictment of the profession itself.  Even if it’s just about not forgetting the past, if we leave it alone eventually nature will erase any trace of these things ever existing.  Even if Conrad Morse hadn’t dug up the barrow in the first “Barrow Hill”, nature would have eventually eroded away the rocks or overgrown the area, which means that people would have forgotten about Barrow Hill anyways.  Think about how many ancient cultures or cities we don’t know about, that we may never know about because nature has long since destroyed any evidence of their passing.

Maybe Indiana Jones could get away with it.  Who knows?

 

I hope you enjoyed reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Contrived Destiny: Prophecies in Storytelling

So lately, I’ve been thinking about prophecies.  And I’m not talking about prophecies as in biblical prophecies or any of that Nostradamus stuff.  That’s a story for another time.  What I’m talking about are prophecies in fiction.  You know what I mean: in a story a prophecy will say this or that, and then the characters end up stressing about the prophecy instead of doing anything about it even though they have adequate time to take care of things and then their laziness actually makes the prophecy come true and MY GOD WHY AREN’T YOU PEOPLE DOING ANYTHING?!

No?  Just me?

When I was younger, I didn’t really have an issue with prophecies when it came to fiction.  To me, it was just a thing, especially in fantasy.  You know, some great evil would return to the world and only the chosen hero or heroes could defeat it, that sort of thing.  But more and more, I’ve come to the realization that prophecies can be really lazy.  And indeed it seems like some stories rely on them heavily, like a sort of crutch.

This is kind of an oblique example, but here goes:

You’ve probably heard of the reboot Star Trek movies directed by J.J. Abrams.  Now, I don’t really have an issue with them.  They’re mindless, action movies that kind of miss the point of what Star Trek was about, but they’re still fun to watch.  However, once I had this particular thing pointed out to me, I couldn’t un-see it.

In the first reboot movie, time is re-written when the villain is sucked through a black hole type thing and ends up in the past.  He attacks a Federation ship and destroys it, which kills Kirk’s father.  Fast-forward into the future, and Kirk is an edgy, dark young man who gets into bar fights and has a problem with authority.  Later on in the movie, he ends up marooned on an ice planet after he pisses off Spock.  Being chased by what might as well be a Yeti, Kirk finds himself in an ice cave.  And there he meets…Old Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy (rest in peace).  Old Spock tells him that in the timeline he comes from, Spock and Kirk are best friends.  Therefore, because of that, they are sort of destined to work together.  With that knowledge, Kirk and Spock inevitably put aside their differences and work together.

But that’s kind of lazy storytelling when you think about it, isn’t it?

Instead of Kirk and Spock naturally becoming friends, they end up as friends because they’re supposed to to be friends.  History has been changed.  Events occurred differently, shaping Kirk and Spock into different people than they would have been originally.  But instead of figuring out a clever way to use Kirk’s brashness and Spock’s logical thinking to save the day, they just force the two together because Old Spock said it was meant to be.

Their characters don’t really develop.  They’re just fated to be together…apparently.

 

Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy)

 

And this is something you can see in a lot of stories with prophecies in them.  Why does the hero become the hero?  Does he work hard?  Is he of admirable character?  Does he train and get stronger over time?  Or does he become the hero because some obscure, ancient writing said he was going to be the hero?

Now, prophecies can be used in interesting ways.  Take the video game “Final Fantasy X” for example.  In the game, there is this giant monster that returns to devastate the world and only a summoner can defeat it.  But to do so, they must sacrifice themselves to summon a being powerful enough to defeat it.  Later on, the main characters come to the realization that this is all a bunch of nonsense, because the monster will just keep coming back over and over again.  It’s at that point where the heroes basically say “screw prophecies” and forge their own path.  In that way, it uses prophecy to expose the flawed nature of the religion that the game’s world is based on.

So you see, you could do that.  Or you could do what “Snow White and the Huntsman” did: kill off Kristen Stewart, only to have her magically come back to life and suddenly be a badass warrior.

Why?  Because prophecy baby!

By insisting that a character be a hero according to prophecy, a writer can get past all sorts of pesky things like character growth, development, training, and so on.  The hero can just have god damn magical powers if they want.  And why not?  It’s a prophecy!  Anything goes!  Even “The Matrix” pulled something like that, although in that case it actually worked because it served to highlight the movie’s theme of rebirth.

 

Wait…Neo is an anagram for “one”? My god it’s ALL COMING TOGETHER!

 

Like I said, prophecy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s just too easy to use as a lazy crutch.  Why bother coming up with experiences for the character to justify their growth into a hero when you can just predestine that from the very beginning?  No one’s going to question it, because it has to be so if the prophecy said it.

The problem with prophecies is that they often become too binding.  They force things to play out in a certain way, whether it fits in line with the prophecy or not.  There are two basic outcomes to a prophecy in fiction:

  1. The prophecy comes true.  Heroes deal with the fallout and try to fix things.
  2. The prophecy doesn’t come true.  Cue preachy message about the future not being written in stone.

As you can see, there’s not a lot of wiggle room between these two outcomes.  At best, prophecies are usually a convenient way to foreshadow a major, future event.

At worst, they’re just lazy writing.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Story Re-Analysis: Returning to the World of “Dark Fall: Lights Out”

Human beings love to look back.  They long for past days, past events…times when they were younger.  But other times, they look back on the past with regret, wishing they could change things…

A little over three years ago I started writing this blog, posting every Wednesday.  And I’m proud to say that I’ve never missed a week.  But there are other things I am not so proud of, things that I wish I could have done better.  The biggest regret I have were the “story analysis” pieces I did.  I think I did around four of them total before I gave up on it entirely.  They were just proving too difficult to write and took more time than I thought they were worth.

And nowhere did I feel this more than the story analysis for a little video game called “Dark Fall: Lights Out”.

It just wasn’t a good post.  It was boring, and it was long (it totaled at almost five thousand words).  I have trouble reading through the entire thing and I was the one who wrote it!  So in the spirit of looking back I decided “what the heck…I’ll give it another shot!”  Here’s to second chances!

And without further ado, I present to you the story of “Dark Fall: Lights Out” once again…

 

The Story

A man tosses back and forth in his sleep.  Ghostly visions of a lighthouse and disembodied voices swirl around in his dreams.  He wakes, brought out of his slumber by a brief knocking at his door.  But when he opens the door, no one is there…

 

Don’t you hate it when ghosts knock on your door? Stupid ghosts…some of us are trying to sleep!

 

Our main character for this journey is Benjamin Parker, a cartographer commissioned to map the coast around the small town of Trewarthan.  In his journal, Parker makes it clear that he doesn’t enjoy the job and considers it a waste of his time.  But it doesn’t take long before he becomes intrigued by a light offshore.  He believes it belongs to a lighthouse, which is strange because the maps show no such lighthouse nearby.

He also talks about a repeating dream he’s been having for a long time, one of a metallic object falling from the sky…

Parker was called to Trewarthan by a man named Robert Demarion.  According to Parker’s journal, while the two are having breakfast one morning, Parker asks Demarion about the lighthouse.  Demarion responds as if he’s ill and exits the cottage, leaving Parker alone.  Parker begins rummaging around, finding a log by Demarion.  The log mentions how Demarion found a cavern underneath the lighthouse out on Fetch Rock island, but when he went to explore it he felt a terrifying presence that forced him to run away.

The book also holds a curious black object he found that can bend but not break, yet can be easily scratched or cut…

 

My oh my, what could this mysterious object be?

 

(Side note: the name “Hadden” refers to a company that was in the first “Dark Fall” game).

Back in the present, Parker ventures outside.  It doesn’t take long before a voice beckons Parker to enter a doorway.  Inside, Parker finds Demarion, who explains that he didn’t tell him about the lighthouse because he didn’t want Parker to be caught up in the town’s superstition.  Demarion also tells him that a passing ship reported that the lighthouse lamp isn’t lit, something the keepers would never allow.  There are three men manning the lighthouse: Oliver Drake, Robert Shaw, and James Woolf, who is the youngest.  Demarion implores Parker to go out to the island and investigate.  Parker agrees and takes a small boat moored on the pier.

(Side note: during the transition to Fetch Rock, we are treated to a partial reading of the poem “Flannan Isle”, based on real life disappearances at a lighthouse.  This event and poem likely inspired the game’s story).

Trewarthan at night.

 

Upon arriving at Fetch Rock, Parker finds that it is indeed dark inside the lighthouse.  Once he gets the interior lights back on, he ventures further up the lighthouse to discover what happened.  Mysterious shadows dart through the corridors, and Parker has a run-in with a ghostly voice that identifies itself as Robert Shaw.  The ghost laments being unable to protect the younger keeper, James, and tells Parker that Drake has gone mad, as if possessed by a demon.

The ghost vanishes and Parker continues exploring.  He finds no signs of anyone, but does discover a unsent letter from Woolf to his beloved.  In it, Woolf describes how Drake had gone mad, moaning to himself in the bowels below the lighthouse.  He tells about how Drake came after them and seemed to transform into a colorful glow.  As he was transfixed by the impossible vision, Woolf heard a name in his mind: Malakai.

He later came to with Shaw in a barricaded room, but Drake came for them again soon after.  James’ last words are that he can see the light under the door…

Continuing upward, Parker makes his way into Drake’s room where he finds the man’s journal.  Drake mentions a dream eerily similar to the one Parker had, right down to the flaming comet of metal.  But in Drake’s, he sees the object falling into a bed of reeds, which reminds him of an etching somewhere in the lighthouse.  Drake complains of a headache one day shortly before the journal descends into maddened gibberish.  Drake starts rambling about a “master” and dotes on Parker as being instrumental to his plans.  He conspires against the other keepers, saying that his master needs them to “feed”.

The journal ends with a creepy “I see you, Parker” scrawled across the page.

 

Cute.

 

In Drake’s desk, Parker finds a drawing showing a path leading to a cavern.  He makes his way down to the ground floor and across the rickety wooden planks.  He enters the cavern, led on by ghostly whispers of “this way” and “over here”.  Upon reaching a caved-in tunnel, lines of color suddenly crawl across the rocks.  When Parker leaves the cave, he notices things are different.

And not just anything…everything.

 

 

The entire island has changed.  Parker enters a small building just a little ways away from the cavern and finds a machine projecting images on to a sheet, a radio, and a mystical, wondrous device full of such magical power that-

 

 

Okay, it’s just a laptop.  But come on!  Imagine how crazy that would be to someone from the beginning of the 20th century.

Anyways, it doesn’t take long before Parker discovers he’s in the year 2004.  Somehow, he was thrown through time almost a hundred years into the future.  The lighthouse is now a tourist attraction, but it appears to have closed down for the day.  And a storm looms on the horizon…

Making his way into the gift shop, Parker finds a plethora of books and music.  One book in particular catches his eye: Horror at Fetch Rock.

 

 

In the book, Parker discovers that after he disappeared off the face of the world along with the three lighthouse keepers, the resulting investigation concluded that Parker must have murdered the keepers.  Demarion covered everything up, denied any involvement with the proceedings, and placed the blame squarely on Parker (although it seems that, over the years, Demarion was suspected of being involved in some way).

Parker also finds letters and a journal written by a woman named Polly White.  It turns out Polly is a ghost hunter who believes the lighthouse is haunted.  She also believes that she is the reincarnation of James Woolf, the youngest lighthouse keeper.

(Side note: Polly White is actually a character from the first “Dark Fall” game.  Fortunately knowledge of the first game’s story is not essential here.)

In the journal, Polly describes how she was led to the lighthouse because of her dreams.  It didn’t take long for her to experience some unexplained activity, such as a chair throwing itself across the room.  Along with her journal is a creepy recording of a hypnotic regression session she went through, which is what led her to believe she is the reincarnation of Woolf.

Continuing through the lighthouse, Parker discovers that history has not been kind to him.  He is portrayed as a troubled soul who likely murdered the keepers in a fit of madness.  There are numerous signs with details about the duties of lighthouse keepers, how a lighthouse operates, and some bronze age relics.  As he makes his way up the stairs, Parker finds that the rooms have been dressed up for the guests, with the crewroom featuring a voice re-enactment of the keepers’ final night.

Suddenly, Parker hears someone dart out of sight farther up the stairs.  A dropped journal entry reveals that Polly saw Parker enter the gift shop and is trying to hide.  Continuing up the stairs, Parker finds that she has locked herself in what used to be Drake’s room, but is now a storage room of some sort.  She slides a piece of paper under the door for him, which leads him back to the little building outside with the laptop.

There he finds the “Radvision” goggles, which let him see ghostly phenomena.  But they also serve another purpose: by using them on certain objects, Parker can travel back to 1912.

 

I see a bad moon a-rising

 

After some sleuthing, Parker finds a section of wall behind the boiler in 1912 that transports him to another time period.  In this time, the lighthouse is no longer standing.  A foundation remains, but most of the structure is now gone.  Parker follows a hole in the wall and climbs down an elevator shaft, finding a futuristic tablet belonging to a man named Gerard Magnus who works for the D.E.O.S. organization.  Continuing through a metallic tunnel, Parker finds another tablet from someone named Maria Ortega, who complains because Magnus has begun acting weird ever since he started working in the elevator shaft.

As Parker makes his way deeper into the facility, things start to fall into place, and a narrative eerily familiar emerges…

 

 

D.E.O.S. stands for Deep Exploration of Space, and is a scientific organization that launches probes to study, you guessed it, cosmic bodies and phenomena.  But things haven’t been well since the disappearance of their most recent probe.  According to the log of one Mitsuyo Taku, someone has been skulking around her room.  She suspects Magnus because, like Ortega, she has noticed him acting weird.

She has also noticed someone on the cameras…someone who seems to glow with an unearthly light…

Taku hatches a plan.  She decides to use one of the crew’s birthday party as a ruse to gather fingerprints.  Everything seems to be going fine, although spirits are down because of the lost probe.  However, Taku writes about a brief confrontation between Magnus and Cobin Hart, the overseer of the probe project and the one blamed for the lost probe.  Hart is lamenting the loss when Magnus starts acting weird, muttering things like “he is calling to me”.  The party eventually breaks up, but soon after Taku returns to her quarters the lights go out and alarms start ringing.  Evidently, soon afterward everyone vanished, just like in 1912.

But more telling is the name of the lost probe: Malakai…the very name James Woolf heard in his mind.

Malakai was apparently the fourth probe D.E.O.S launched and featured an advanced AI system as well as something called Matter Manipulation Software.  This would, according to Hart, theoretically let Malakai generate power from anything it wanted.  The probe was launched into deep space and encountered some type of unknown matter.  When it tried to jump back, the probe vanished without a trace.

So now Parker knows: Malakai is behind all the mysterious events and disappearances.  But where is the probe itself?  The answer lies back in 1912 with Drake’s journal.

In the journal, Drake mentioned that his dream featured a bed of reeds, which reminded him of an etching.  In Drake’s closet, there is a secret compartment Parker was unable to open before.  But now, using clues he got in 2004, Parker solves the code and opens it.  Inside is the etching of reeds, and when Parker looks at it with the googles, he is transported through time yet again.

 

 

Finding himself in an abandoned bronze age village, Parker finds the cavern once again.  Only this time, he is able to continue down the tunnel.  And there, after all this time, lies the object that he’s been seeing in his dreams…Malakai.

 

 

Apparently, when Malakai attempted to jump back to Earth, the resulting incident catapulted the probe back in time to the bronze age.  It’s been lying there the entire time, desperately trying to find a way back home.  But for that to happen, it needed someone to enter the activation code, a code known only to Hart and Malakai itself.  Using clues he’s found throughout the times he’s visited, Parker manages to decipher the activation code and enter it.

Malakai then ascends into the sky before the scene shifts back to the lighthouse.  The lamp is lit once again, the swift beam of light cutting through the gloomy night…

 

Concluding Thoughts

It’s funny.  I still enjoy this game and its story.  But looking back on it, there are some things that could have been fleshed out more.

For instance, the history of Fetch Rock itself.  We know from Demarion at the beginning of the game that the island has a cursed reputation and that the building of the lighthouse was fraught with strange accidents.  But since the Malakai probe would have been there since around prehistoric times, there must have been other weird things going on throughout the island’s history.  Why not flesh it out some more, give it more of a history instead of just saying “hey this place is bad news…take our word for it.”

And for that matter, what about Polly White?  Her only purpose in the game is to feed Parker the location of the Radvision goggles.  And yet, she’s given a whole little bit about being a possible reincarnation of one of the lighthouse keepers.  But it’s never touched on again once you get the goggles.

And what about Malakai itself?  It’s vaguely hinted at that Malakai uses the Matter Manipulation Software to “feed” on people for energy, but why do Drake and Magnus suddenly start glowing?  What is the purpose of that?

I could go on about stuff like this, but I think it comes down to the fact that it is a video game first and foremost.  And to be honest, the atmosphere and exploration were why I was playing the game in the first place, not the story.  But in the end, the story was intriguing.  It just didn’t use its potential enough.  I love the idea of ghostly happenings turning out to be advanced technology that people from earlier times can’t even begin to fathom.  I like the idea of a ghost story with a science-fiction bent to it.  It would make for a fascinating novel.  That way the story could hammer home the technology theme by having Parker be the “man out of time” who encounters these strange devices.

I think the story’s biggest flaw is that it ends up being too complex for its own good.  There’s a lot at play here and it doesn’t all connect in a neat fashion.  Part of that is likely due to the game being very low-budget and indie.  But a lot of it has to do with the fact that a point and click game generally tells its story in a non-linear fashion, whereas I think this game’s story could have benefited from being told in a more structured manner.

In the end, I still love the game.  But I think I enjoyed the idea of the story more than the story itself.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for my next short story.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

The Power of Nostalgia

We all know nostalgia.  It’s that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when thinking of a time or place from the past.  It’s that pleasant tingling you feel when you remember an old book you read, a movie you watched, or a video game you played.  But how much power does nostalgia actually have?

Let’s get political for a second.  This past election cycle, Donald Trump’s campaign phrase was “make america great again.”  This motto clearly resonated with a decent amount of people, because it won him his party’s nomination and eventually he won the presidency.  Clearly, nostalgia played a factor here, but nostalgia for what?  If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the 1950’s.  That’s the obvious answer, because the ’50s were that blissful age of good ol’ fashioned family values and being American.  Well…if you were straight, Christian, male and white that is.  If you were anything else, your experience in the ’50s was a lot less fun.  Because that’s the thing with nostalgia…it can blind you to the problems of the past.  The older generations tend to look at the ’50s as a Utopian era and long for those times again, but that’s largely due to the fact that advertisers have been drilling that image into their heads for decades.

But nostalgia affects us in smaller ways too.  Like say, when it comes to our entertainment habits.

 

realMyst Masterpiece Edition

 

I’ve gone on record before about my fondness the game Myst.  I really love Myst.  Like…really, REALLY love Myst.  I could go on and on about the game.  And apparently I have, if my blog is any indication.

Part of my love for the game, of course, stems from nostalgia.  Myst was one of my first-ever video games, and it was vastly different from other games I played around that time.  Instead of going on an epic quest to save a princess, I was just wandering around an island all by myself trying to uncover its secrets.  It’s a profoundly atmospheric game, an experience all its own.  That uniqueness, combined with my age when I played it, likely led to my nostalgic memories of it.  In fact, I would consider Myst to be one of my favorite video games of all time, largely due to that nostalgia.  But, even so, I acknowledge that the game was not perfect.

Some of the puzzles could be frustratingly obtuse.  And some of them were more tedious to solve than they needed to be.  For example, on the island there were these pedestals with symbols etched onto them: a snake, a leaf, an anchor, and so on.  Once you activate a certain combination of them, the sunken ship by the dock rises out of the water.  But the problem was that, in the original edition of the game, you couldn’t tell which of these pedestals were on or off unless you got close to them and hovered your mouse over the symbol (red for off, green for on).  It doesn’t sound like much, but if you were the type to just click random things to see what they did, it made solving the puzzle a little more tedious once you knew the answer because then you would have to go around and figure out which ones you accidentally turned on.

And then there was the puzzle with the ship you had to drive through the underground maze.  A clue to understanding that puzzle was actually hidden in a different location, something which the game hadn’t done up to that point.  So basically, if you went to that age, to get the clue for that puzzle you would actually have to solve the puzzle to get back to the island so you could get back to the other area to get the clue.

Yeah…it was a thing…

Despite all that, I would say that Myst stands up fairly well for its age.  I mean, at least it doesn’t require you to grab a toothbrush at the beginning of the game or else you can’t beat it at the end (no joke, there was actually a game like that).  Its puzzles had logic behind them.  The difficulty came from figuring out how the mechanics of each puzzle worked.

But like with the 1050’s, nostalgia in video games can blind us as well.  A lot of older gamers tend to lament how “easy” games are now and how they hold your hand too much.  But the thing a lot of them (including myself) often forget is that older games weren’t always the best designed.  Often, there were tricks you would have to learn in order to even complete the game.  And these were often never truly explained to you, because standards in game design weren’t really finalized yet.  The older Zelda games are guilty of this.  I’m not sure how you were supposed to figure out that certain blocks could be moved to unlock doors in the dungeons, but you had to do it.  And that’s an issue with a lot of old-school games…even the good ones.

A similar thing happens with movies.  People love old movies like Casablanca and Citizen Kane, but would they really stand up on their own nowadays if it wasn’t for nostalgia?  Movies back then had a lot of restrictions because of the way technology was.  Cameras were hard to move and sound was hard to capture, which led to a lot of movies featuring little more than people standing around in a room and talking,  Now, that’s not to say that this can’t work (like in The Maltese Falcon), but a lot of old movies are very static.

 

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while nostalgia is a nice, warm thing…it does have its drawbacks.  I’m sure you’ve often heard the phrase “rose-colored glasses” to indicate that someone is blind to the bad side of something.  And that can be the case with nostalgia.  We remember these times, places, games, movies, and so on with pleasant feelings, but we often ignore that they had limitations or bad design choices that wouldn’t make sense in the modern era.

It’s okay to be nostalgic about something.  But like with many things in this world, moderation is key.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Follow me on Twitter over here.

Spotlight: Stories Untold

Dude…this game?  This game dude.  THIS GAME.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been legitimately surprised by a game.  Stories Untold is a game I just stumbled into one day when browsing the Steam store.  It’s actually a very recent game too, as it came out at the end of February this year.  Reading the description on its Steam page doesn’t tell you a whole lot.  But that’s the point.

You see, Stories Untold benefits from you not knowing a lot about it.  It’s a game that revels in its mystery and in messing with the player’s head.  It’s an anthology game of sorts divided into four short “episodes” that you play through, each with their own kind of theme and setting.  For example, the first episode has you playing a fictitious text adventure game called “The House Abandon”, which of course features an empty house that you have to explore (fun fact: The House Abandon was a free game made by the developers before they made Stories Untold).

But the fact that you are playing the game on a computer WITHIN the game should cue you in to the fact that things are not going to be what they seem.

 

 

That’s a big part of the reason why this review is so hard to write, because the game works best when you don’t know what to expect.  So to that end, I’m going to be as spoiler-free as I can.  But I will tell you this: by the end of the first episode I was hooked.  I wanted to play more.  I wanted to see what other spooks and tricks the game had in store.

Stories Untold is classified as a horror game, although some would probably say it’s not that scary.  But that’s fine, because Stories Untold doesn’t rely so much on jumpscares and loud noises to scare you.  It’s a psychological game that gets under your skin as you play.  It creates a kind of tension that gnaws on you, especially after the first episode because you start expecting things to go pear-shaped at any moment.

 

The second episode involves a mysterious laboratory experiment.

 

The episodes all play out in the same fashion (for the most part).  You are put into some kind of setting, rooted in one spot, and you have to figure out what you’re supposed to do.  The first episode is pretty straight forward if you’re even slightly familiar with text adventure games, but the other episodes require you to think a bit more.  This is especially evident in the third episode.  In it, you have to decode a bunch of radio frequencies, which requires you to use a finicky microfilm reader.  The tasks get more and more complex as the episode goes on, and at one part has you translating Morse Code.  I enjoyed the episode, but I can see why it would get tedious for some people.

 

Damn you microfilm…DAMN YOUUUUUU!

 

And that’s how each episode progresses, through different kinds of puzzles.  Unfortunately, this is where Stories Untold sometimes drops the ball.  Occasionally the puzzles are frustratingly obtuse, with no clear indication of how you’re supposed to progress.  This is especially true with the text adventure bits, as the word parser it uses sometimes won’t recognize the phrase you’re using even if it is the right thing to do (i.e. typing “open door with key” won’t work but “use key” will).  I know I ran into a minor roadblock near the beginning of the first episode.  The game was telling me to find a generator around the back of the house, but when I went back there the description didn’t say anything about a generator.  Turns out I had to type in “look around” as a command before I could find it, which took me a few minutes to figure out.

Occasionally frustrating puzzles aside, the presentation in this game is fantastic.  Everything has a retro science-fiction feel to it, from the computer interfaces to the glossy shine everything has over it.  The stories have an old-school sci-fi vibe to them as well, reminding me of anthology shows like The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits.  The story does sometimes get a little trite and cliche (especially in the final episode).  But I’ll say this: while Stories Untold might not always tell the most original story, it certainly tells its story in an original way.

So if you’re interested in unique storytelling and horror, I highly recommend giving this game a look.  It’s one of the more unique video games I’ve come across, and I thoroughly enjoyed playing through it.  It’s not a very long game, clocking in around two to four hours long (I completed it in just under three).  But it’s something that should be experienced.  Sure, you could go read what it’s all about, but that would spoil the magic of the game.  I’m glad I went in not knowing a lot about the game because it blew my mind, especially with the first episode.

If you like stories in video games, give Stories Untold a shot.  You won’t regret it.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

I also have a Twitter account now!  You can follow me here.

Can’t Remember: The Amnesia Trope

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

You wake up in a dark room, lying face down on a cold stone floor.  You groan, your head feeling like it weighs ten times what it should.  Taking stock of your surroundings, you find that you can’t see much in the dim lighting of the candles lining the walls.  There’s a rickety looking wooden table in the middle, and what appears to be an old antique dresser with a mirror on top just across from it.  Pushing yourself up off the floor, you wince.  Your body aches more than it should.  With shaky steps, you make your way over to the mirror.  Even in the dim lighting, you can tell you’ve had better days.  Your eyes look tired and your face is covered in dirt.  Turning around, you spot an old wooden door just outside the reach of the candles’ light.  You walk over and push it open, the door making a loud creaking that echoes into the hallway beyond.  You can tell you’re in some kind of ancient castle.  One of the windows has broken, the wind of the storm rushing in and blowing the worn red curtains all about.  You take a step into the hallway.

Then another.

You blink.

And that’s when it hits you, you don’t remember anything.  Why you’re here, where this is, and even who you are…it’s all missing, as if someone reached inside your head and pulled them out one by one…

 

The amnesia trope is a very common staple in fiction, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  People often malign the trope, saying it’s cheap or lazy.  And while I’ll agree that often the amnesia trope can be a sign of a writer who’s run out of ideas, there’s also a very simple reason the trope exists in the first place.

Because it’s an effective way to set up a mystery or driving goal for a character.

When someone in a television show, movie, video game, or what have you wakes up in a strange location without any recollection of why they’re there or even who they are, our innate curiosity is like “hmm this is interesting…I wonder what’s going on?”  Call it manipulative if you want, but it works.  It immediately draws us in because we can’t help ourselves.  We want to know more, we have to know more.  And amnesiacs in fiction tend to have far more interesting lives than their real-life counterparts.

Take The Bourne Identity for example.  In the beginning of the movie, the crew of a fishing ship fishes Matt Damon’s character out of the water during a harsh storm.  He’s been shot in the back multiple times.  There’s no identification on him aside from a strange device featuring the address of a bank in Zurich.  And it becomes quickly evident that he has combat training, as he manages to ambush one of the crew members and grab him by the throat.  It’s then that we learn that Damon’s character has no memory and has no idea who he is or where he is.  It’s a very effective opening that gives us a clear reason to get invested in the plot.

But the real reason Bourne Identity succeeds at gaining our interest is because they give us key interesting details about the character: the strange laser pointer device pointing to the Zurich bank, the gunshot wounds on his back, and his apparent combat prowess.  It’s not enough to just give a character amnesia.  The amnesia might draw in people initially, but unless they’re given some more details, that interest will wane very quickly.  This is especially true in modern fiction, because people have seen the amnesia trope used so often that a writer will have to do extra work to keep them invested.

While the amnesia trope is very common in thrillers and mysteries, I think more recently it has found a home in video games, particularly those of the horror variety.  Like before, amnesia is a good way to get people interested, but in video games it serves another important purpose.  In a game it’s crucial that the player identifies with the character they are playing as in some way.  Amnesia is a very useful tool in this sense, because it allows the player to jump in at a point where they have about as much information on their situation as the character in the story.  In this way, they are experiencing the mystery right along with the character.  If the main character suddenly got amnesia halfway through the game, it would just create this weird disconnect for the player and they would likely lose interest.

Take Amnesia: The Dark Descent as an example.  Our journey begins as the main character, Daniel, is stumbling through the halls of a castle struggling to maintain his memory.  The scene fades in and out of blackness as he makes his way through the stone corridors.  He recites off details about himself, but by the end of the intro he can barely manage to say his name.  He wakes up later on in the middle of a hallway, with nothing aside from a trail of pinkish fluid to follow.  As we go through the game, we slowly learn more about his predicament and how he ended up in this strange, haunting castle.  Because, like I said, the amnesia trope can be effective as long as a writer handles it with care.

In the end I think the amnesia trope has a bit of a unfair reputation.  Like anything, it can be overused, but just looking at the memory tropes page at TV Tropes shows you just how versatile it can be.  It pays to recognize that everything, even the most cliche of tropes, have their place in fiction.  And yes, that even includes demons, which I have very loudly complained about many times before.  But it’s a tricky balancing process.  You can give a character amnesia, but if you don’t give the character a compelling reason to have amnesia then the effect is lost on people.  I’m of the opinion that originality in stories is a little overrated.  As long as you can put a unique and interesting spin on a story, and do it well, then it really shouldn’t matter if your story is heavily inspired by one thing or another.  EVERYTHING is inspired by one thing or another.  All of fiction can have its roots traced back to the ancient tradition of oral storytelling.  True originality simply doesn’t exist.

A writer needs to be able to make use of all the tools in their toolbox, so to speak.

5 Statements About Video Games I Disagree With

Anybody who’s followed my blog probably knows that I’m a big fan of video games, with them being one of the primary ways I spend my free time.  Now, there’s a lot of different thoughts and ideas floating around out there about video games and how they relate to us.

Here are five of those thoughts that I disagree with.

 

5. Violent games are corrupting our youth

This is something I heard a lot when I was growing up.  Violent video games were desensitizing kids and making them more prone to commit violent acts.  And considering the brutal nature of games like Mortal Kombat (which made a name for itself solely on how gory and violent it was), the idea made a certain kind of sense.  So why do I disagree with it?  Two main reasons:

  1. Television shows and movies have plenty of violence, yet they don’t get nearly as much criticism.
  2. There is no scientific study or literature that conclusively shows that playing violent games leads to a higher chance of committing violent acts.

In regards to the first one, I understand that one of the primary concerns with video games is the interactive nature of it.  Instead of passively watching the main character shoot a few dozen dudes, you are actively participating.  But like I said with point number two, no study has ever proven anything beyond the fact that playing video games may lead to increased aggression.

The other main issue with scientific studies into violent games is that many of them are flawed.  I remember reading about a study that took place while I was in high school (around 2005 or so I believe).  Basically they had two groups of people, one playing Wolfenstein 3D and another playing Myst.  After about an hour or so of playtime, they brought these two groups together and gave them air horns.  What they found was that the group that played Wolfenstein 3D would honk the air horn for longer periods of time than the people who played Myst would.

I think you can already spot some of the flaws here.  This study took place in roughly 2005, which means that at that time, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had already been released the year before.  And even if the study took place before it, there were other Grand Theft Auto games they could have used.  So then, why did they choose two games that were released a decade earlier in the 1990’s?

The other issue is the air horns.  Using an air horn does not translate to intent to commit violent acts.  Now, you can’t take a group of people and hand them guns (because that would be really REALLY bad), but air horns do not strike me as a good metaphor for increased aggression.

And this is the problem with most studies into the subject.  They don’t have a good way of interpreting the effects of games because they usually study subjects in a one-off manner, having them play a game and then seeing how they act immediately after.  It doesn’t take into account other factors that could contribute to this alleged aggression increase.

Besides, the juvenile crime rate in the 1990’s was on the decline, which is the same decade that video games began their rise to prominence.  So there’s no solid evidence to support the idea that violent games cause more real life violence.

 

4. Video games are mindless entertainment

This is another one I heard when I was growing up.  And while it is true for certain games (the Call of Duty franchise comes to mind), there are plenty of games out there that are more than just “mindless”.

Myst is one of the games I had growing up that was anything but mindless.  There were no enemies to fight.  All you had were your wits to solve the many puzzles laid around the island and uncover more of its secrets.  In fact, I remember my brother actually had a notebook journal dedicated to writing down clues for the game.  But Myst is not the only game that serves as a counter to the mindless argument.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game I have yet to play, but one that I want to get around to at some point.  It’s a game about a soldier who goes to a far off country to deal with what seems like a normal mission.  But when he gets there, things start going Apocalypse Now, with the main character’s sanity slowly degrading throughout the story.  The game is supposed to feature some of the most interesting and complex moral choices of any game ever.  For example, there’s one scene where you’re tasked with shooting someone who’s running away.  Now the two choices are clear: shoot him or don’t.  But apparently, there’s a third choice to be made in there.  You can shoot at the person but miss on purpose, making it look like you were fulfilling your orders but allowing the man to live.  And the game doesn’t tell you that this exists.  You just find that out on your own.

There’s also Journey, a game where you play as a nameless, faceless figure wandering a surreal desert landscape.  But it’s more than just that.  Journey is also a bit of a social experiment in that as you wander through the game, occasionally another player will be inserted into your game.  You can’t talk to each other or communicate (aside from gestures I believe), and you can’t identify each other either.  You can only make the decision to work together or ignore each other.

 

Journey

Journey

 

There’s also Papa & Yo, a game about a boy and his monster friend which was an allegory for the creator’s experience with an alcoholic, abusive father.  There’s Neverending Nightmares, a psychological horror game in which the creator drew upon his own personal experiences with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder to replicate a sense of bleakness in the game similar to what he felt in real life.  And there’s Gone Home, a game about a girl returning home and discovering all that has happened with her family in the year she’s been studying abroad.

So no, games are not just mindless entertainment.  They have plenty of potential to talk about complex and difficult subjects.

 

3. Games aren’t stories

This is one I ran into fairly recently, and is what inspired me to write this post.  It comes from a Cracked.com article entitled “4 Things Gamers Think Are Important (But Aren’t)”.  In the article, the writer talks about people who play games have come to expect movie-quality stories from their games.

From the article:

“The reason video games don’t have great stories is that they’re games. Games are different from stories. The first goal of a video game is always to be fun, but somewhere along the line, we decided that the only way to have games be taken seriously is to give them Serious Stories. So we decided to splice in cutscenes — whole chunks of the game in which instead of “playing,” we’re watching a CGI movie. This is the equivalent of playing chess with your friends, but taking five minutes before your turn to explain the motivation of your rook, and the tragic injury in his youth that prevents him from moving diagonally.”

Now, I get what he’s saying here.  Often the gameplay and the story of a video game can feel like they’re in separate worlds.  When the story world appears, control is usually taken away from the player as they watch a small movie within the game.  It creates this disconnect that sometimes hampers the experience of the game overall.  But while the author complains that calling the stories of games “stories” is simplistic, reductive thinking, I would argue that his reasoning is simplistic as well.

It is certainly true that many games with quote unquote “deep stories” tend to have their story sections get in the way of playing the game, but there are plenty of other ways games can tell a story.  For example, when two people who play games talk to each other, you’ll sometimes get these stories that start with “well this one time I was playing (insert game here) and this totally crazy thing happened”.  This is something fundamentally unique to the video game medium.  You don’t read a book and have some totally unexpected thing happen that didn’t happen to anyone else reading the book.  But in a video game, there is the potential to create events and stories that even the people making the game might not see coming.

I talked about a game called Salt in a recent post, and I think that serves as a good example of this.  Salt is all about the player’s journey.  There’s very little overarching story created by the developers (although that could change as it is still in development).  In the post I made a joke about how you could use the game’s journal feature to write a diary of a man going slowly insane.  But isn’t it cool that you are even allowed to do that?  You can literally tell your own story within the game, because it’s all about the things you discover and experience.  And considering that the world is procedurally generated, no two player’s experiences will be exactly the same.  They won’t discover the exact same island as each other (well, until they add multiplayer that is).

In short, games have story possibilities that no other medium has to date.

 

2. PC/Console gaming is superior

Oh boy, haven’t I heard this one more times than I can count.  In much the same way as rival sports teams have fans that will incessantly fight each other  over which team is better, video games have fans of formats that will fight each other over which is superior.

Let me get something out of the way.  For most of my life, I have been a console gamer (meaning that I played on things like the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and so on).  It’s what I grew up with, not to mention the fact that I prefer sitting back with a controller to being hunched over a keyboard and mouse.  Yes, I understand that keyboard and mouse is more precise.  Yes, I understand that PC games have better graphics than console games.  I just don’t care.

Now, I will admit that for the last few years I have used my desktop computer to play games far more often than I have consoles.  I bought an Xbox One a couple of years ago, but I barely use it these days.  There just aren’t enough interesting games coming out for it, not to mention that I can get more games for cheaper prices on my computer.  But in the end, I will always prefer the feel of a controller over the feel of a keyboard and mouse.  It’s just more relaxing to me.

Besides, isn’t personal preference what it all comes down to in the end?  Why are we gamers constantly fighting over this nonsense?  Just play what you want to play and be happy with that.  Arguing over which format is better just sounds pretentious.

And speaking of pretentious…

 

1. Games are/aren’t art

If you ask Google to define art, this is what you get:

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Do you see what the issue with this definition is?  It’s too nebulous.  It doesn’t have a clear definition for what can and can’t be considered art.

And that’s exactly the point.

Look, this might sound funny coming from someone who wants to write books, but I don’t care if video games are art or not.  It doesn’t matter to me.  Because regardless of everything else, I consider games to be a form of expression, art or not.  And besides, hasn’t it always been said that art is in the eye of the beholder?

Do you consider games to be art?  Good for you.

Do you consider games to not be art?  That’s fine too.  In a way, you’re both right.

To me, art has always been a matter of perspective.  The definition from Google talks about how art is appreciated for its beauty and emotional power, but these two things are incredibly subjective.  I can’t hold up a painting and say “this painting has emotional power” because for some people it might not have that power.  To some people it might seem boring or uninspired.  To others, it might even be deemed offensive or insulting.  The fact of the matter is that whenever I look at something I am seeing it through my own eyes, through my own experience.  And while I play Gone Home and see it as a touching, emotional experience, others play the game and see it as boring and stupid.

Trying to nail art down to a concrete, scientific definition ignores one of the fundamentally great things about being human: we are all different in our own unique ways.  We all have our own perspectives, our own experiences.  And we use these things to shape our own unique path through life, our own unique story.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.