Tag: games

Spooky Games

Whoa, I guess I forgot to post to this blog for a month? It’s suddenly October and lots… hasn’t changed. I’m still in quarantine with the family, still obsessed with horror, still plodding along and hoping that our nation/planet doesn’t completely collapse in the next few months. That said, the season has now aligned with my evolving sense of continual dread, and I might as well share that with whomever reads this.

So, this will be the first of several posts this month where I will talk about seasonal things of various kinds. Typically media-oriented, sometimes not, but all spooky/autumnal/horror-ish as that’s what I’m thinking about, like, all the time these days. I’m taking a major cue from Laura Hall’s wonderful 31 Days of Halloween newsletter — this is the sixth year she’s been sending off a seasonal email every day for the 31 days of October. I highly recommend it! Laura’s got great taste and an infectious attitude toward the creepy season, posting pictures, links, and (lately) online Halloweeny events to attend.

So, here’s my pale imitation in my own fashion… I’ll start off talking a bit about games, as, well, games have been on my mind. (When aren’t they?)

I think I mentioned a few posts ago that I’ve recently been obsessed with Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and have in recent weeks blinged out my Arkham game in some fun ways. I’ll have more to say about that, especially since the most recent big box expansion just arrived yesterday: The Innsmouth Conspiracy.

But rather than let this first spooky post be (s)hogg(oth)ed by that one game, I think I’ll start off discussing a variety of things I’ve been playing with the family.

We just received Horrified in the mail yesterday and have already played it a couple of times. I’m a bit surprised to say that it’s already become one of my favorite recent board games! Horrified is a completely collaborative board game themed around players stopping up to six different monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein(‘s monster)/the Bride of Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In other words, the classic Universal Monsters. I’m honestly surprised there haven’t been any other games (that I know of?) that have focused on these iconic horror movies, but I’m glad this one exists.

Horrified was designed by Prospero Hall, a Seattle-based studio who seems to employ a shockingly large number of people and whose design resume seems to be almost entirely media tie-in games with high production values. This game is no exception, clearly, and it wears its inspirations on its sleeve: It feels a bit like a simplified Pandemic mixed with, well, Arkham Horror. And that’s a good thing! It’s got monsters that inexorably hound you and will eventually kill you and/or the random villagers that spawn in the town. Unless, of course, you (playing the nameless Archaeologist, Scientist, Professor, Courier, etc.) team up, collecting weapons and bit characters from the classic Universal Monsters movies, and advance the tasks needed to get rid of them.

The way each monster is dispatched is something I absolutely love about this game. Each monster has its own little minigame you have to complete in order to beat them — each is unique, and uses unique mechanics. The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s is a bit like Candy Land, but in a good way: You expend resources of specific colors to move yourself on a little track toward the Creature’s lair. Dracula requires you to find and destroy (using only red resources) each of his coffins, dispersed across the board, before you can take him on. Wolf Man’s, shown below, makes you expend resources to find a cure for his lycanthropy before you can defeat him. It’s clever and I can see it making each matchup of two or three or four monsters really fresh and fun.

My son and I played the demo matchup (two players versus Dracula and the Creature from the Black Lagoon) and it was pretty fun! Not too difficult on this setting, but still hard to complete completely unscathed. Horrified is just a charming little game — it’s, again, lighter than Pandemic and Arkham Horror: The Card Game by a long shot, but its love for the source material and refined, and its simplified mechanics are really nicely done. It’s a rarity: A thematic, media tie-in board game that I actually enjoy, and I anticipate we’re going to play it every Halloween from here on out (and perhaps more often in the short term, since quarantine appears to be never-ending).

A quick aside: I suspect we are the target audience for Horrified, as we are also fans of these original movies. Every Halloween, we dig out this beautiful Blu-Ray set I picked up a decade ago or so.

Horrified has some great connections to these movies, including a number of secondary characters from them as the villagers, and a bunch of the objects. Prospero Hall seems to have a lot of affection for the Universal Monsters, and included a lot of cute touches, including this amazingly cute bit printed on the back of the game board, which is the first thing you see when you open the box.

This is, of course, the cold open for Frankenstein, which you can see here:

And, incidentally, this is how Mark Gatiss opened his (generally excellent!) first episode of A History of Horror, a documentary series from the early 2010s about a, well, history of horror. The first episode focuses a great deal on the Universal Monsters, while subsequent episodes and the sequel Horror Europa focus on Hammer, 1970s American horror, and the rise of European horror. It’s worth a look, if you haven’t seen it before.

I would love to see Gatiss revive this series someday, focusing perhaps on Japanese and Korean horror, as well as whatever people are calling the movement of recent directors like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. (Edit: I guess people are calling this “elevated horror?” Okay.)

Anyway, back to games: We’ve also been playing a lot of Ghooost! — yep, three Os. It’s a game by Richard Garfield, the brilliant designer of Magic the Gathering, King of Tokyo, the original Netrunner, RoboRally, KeyForge, Artifact, etc. This game ain’t as brilliant or as strategic as any of those other games, but it’s a fun enough way to pass the time. I picked this up years ago, when our oldest was still a baby and I was obsessed with finding out what other more obscure games Garfield had made. Hadn’t really played it until recently, and it’s… not terrible?

Basically, it’s a themely Uno with some special cards and twists, as well as clever naming of piles of cards that should be familiar to anyone who’s played Garfield’s card games. Though it took a few reads of the poorly written instructions to figure it out, it’s pretty simple: You have to put a card number higher than what was just played in the Graveyard, or you can take all the cards in the Graveyard, or take your chances that the top card of the Crypt is going to be a valid card to play. You play cards to the “graveyard” (a location on the fold-out box; a nice touch), draw cards from the “crypt” (a open-gravey looking card holder in the box) and then banish cards to the “discard.” Your goal is to get rid of all of your cards, plus all of the cards in your “mansion,” a reserved deck of cards that serves as a clock to end each round.

Each round is supposed to take only 20 minutes or so per round, but perhaps because I’m primarily playing with an almost-seven-year-old, they’ve taken a lot longer. That’s okay, the kids love it — it’s a game where an almost-seven-year-old and a four-year-old can easily figure out their way, as it’s, well, still basically Uno, and they just need to know what number is great than another. It’s a fun filler game for our family, and beyond how easy it is to pick up, it’s got cute spooky art, plus the kids love the idea that the box becomes the board you play in.

I’ve also been itching to dig out some old horror videogames that I haven’t played for various reasons. Perhaps because of my recent revisitation of Lovecraft, I’ve been drawn to finally check out Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. I’ll be honest — I bought this an egregiously long time ago. I think it was, along with the first Animal Crossing and Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, one of the very first three console videogames I ever bought, way back in the autumn of 2002, though I didn’t play this very far in. (I can’t think of a better three games to encapsulate my early taste in games, either).

During quarantine, we converted a space at the bottom of one of our stairs into both a “play zone” for the kids initially and now it’s also become our eldest’s virtual classroom during the week. But it’s still full of my old games spanning the last two decades, and we just got a little cart to put a projector on, along with the old GameCubes, PS2s, Wiis, and N64. In the process, I found not just Eternal Darkness but the Prima guide I’d picked up from a Half-Price Books in the late 2000s — so, I really have no excuse to not play this, do I?

If you’re unfamiliar, this was the cosmic horror game for the GameCube. Many loved Resident Evil, sure, but this was a generation-spanning, cult-featuring, sanity-tweaking game that attempted to mess with the player in novel ways. Instead of simply mimicking Call of Cthulhu and other games explicitly adapting Lovecraft —where you’d have a decreasing amount of “sanity” level akin to health, mana, or some other simple metric — this game would also genuinely try to mess with the player, breaking the fourth wall. It would tell you that your save file was corrupt when it wasn’t, it might flash “VIDEO 1” repeatedly on the screen, making you wonder if your TV or remote was broken.

I’ll be playing on an old thrifted projector, so that last bit won’t be very effective for me, but I’m looking forward to finally digging into this game this month. And, perhaps, again on the Switch sometime soon, if Nintendo filing a new trademark this summer means what I hope it means.

Finally, speaking of Nintendo, it’s also time for a new update to Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I’ll be honest that we haven’t played the game much in the past few months, having binged enough of it for a while back in April. But the opportunity to grow pumpkins, get new Halloween-themed costumes, and to give candy to island residents? Yeah, we’re down with that.

As you can see in this perhaps-too-dark picture here (also now the header image for this site), I hopped on this morning and redecorated one of my rooms in as spooky of a fashion as I could manage with what I already had. I look forward to further spookifying over the next few weeks with whatever comes my way. I have, sadly, partially dismantled my Victorian/Sherlock Holmes room to make this sparse little creepyhole, but sacrifices had to be made. Someday, I’ll write a longer post on how my summer obsession with Sherlock Holmes led me to spookier territory.

Oh, and one final, final thing: I couldn’t resist trying my best to bring John Carpenter into the lovely world of Animal Crossing. If you were playing Animal Crossing and trying to make it seasonal, what melody would you pick for your town theme?

I mean, can’t you just imagine this guy shopping at Able Sisters?

That’s all for now. More soon — probably in just a few days, when I’ll regale you with stories of how much I just want to watch Vincent Price movies.

Stay spooky, my friends.

Wait For Me

In self-quarantine, I’ve been finding myself trying to catch up on the world of story games/freeform/larps/ttrpgs whatever-people-call-these-games-nowadays. I’ve felt a real need to experience games with created stories that push players toward emotional resonance again — partially because I’ve been teaching an Interactive Storytelling course the last few years and some of the games I use in that are getting long in the tooth, but also because there’s something therapeutic about fiction, writing, and reflection during these kinds of global collapse moments.

So, I Kickstarted Jeeyon Shim and Kevin Kulp’s game Wait For Me, which looked right up my alley. It’s single-player! There’s journaling/writing! Ooh, time travel! It sounded fun and interesting, and I’m now through 5 of the 21 (or 22) days of this experience, and want to reflect a little bit on what it does well, how it’s disappointed in a few ways, and maybe muse a bit on what I think I’m searching for.

Here’s the gist — you’re playing as yourself, unstuck in time for reasons that haven’t been made clear yet and might never be made apparent. You journal your way through this experience, taking a writing prompt for each one of 21 successive days (with a 22nd as an epilogue), and have to address the prompt in a few (as short as 10 as many as 80 so far) words as the prompt gives you. I took an old, empty, faux-Moleskine notebook I picked up for free at a GDC booth about a decade ago and rededicated it to the game.

In the game, you’re writing every day in successive journal entries. You’re emailed a prompt every night around midnight, and then that day you should sit down, consider the prompt and… write. The prompts are ostensibly task-driven: About being unstuck in time, leaving yourself messages. But they’re really about you (the player) revisiting significant moments in your life, focusing on feelings and experiences presumably common to most people playing it (a happy childhood memory, the sad feeling of seeing a grandparent one last time, the fear of living in your first real apartment as an adult). And, you are regularly asked to tell your past self something. Usually this takes the form of advice, but sometimes it’s about taping in ephemera — a grocery receipt, a picture, doodling something significant about the place you’re in. Here’s me and my (disturbingly blurred) daughter, which I taped in for the grandparent prompt.

And one of the most interesting elements of it is that every day has an “optional” prompt wherein you are often asked to explore the fiction of your past self reading the notes and advice you’ve left for yourself through the game. I haven’t really warmed to this yet, perhaps due to the often-painful spots this game has inadvertently prodded me toward writing about, but also because after five days it’s just… confusing. Which version of myself remembers what? Why am I trying to intervene in my own past? Why am I unstuck in time at all? What’s the point of doing this beyond having an excuse to “do journaling,” an activity that I normally wouldn’t do? I’ve spent five days going along with it, but I feel like I’ve missed something important along the way, or the designers assumed a lot of their players.

I’ve never played a solo journaling game like this before, and I do love the concept. The idea that one uses these prompts to skip around in their own life and reflect on the choices they’ve made is a nice approach to making a therapeutic game, and one that for people who journal, might give them additional impetus to turn their journal into something meaningful for them. I’ve also never been a journaler or a diarist — something the game also seems set up to ignore, repeatedly suggesting that my past self had a diary, which I very rarely ever had.

I’m also interested in the ways that the game wants me to mark the journal with clippings and pictures, another thing that is great in theory but perhaps less useful in practice. I’ve been at home for six months, only ever leaving the house to get groceries! I have very little ephemera that I can paste in here — I had to dig out part of a medical bill from last month to satisfy the first prompt’s need for me to paste something in, and then I had to find that recent picture on my phone, print it out, cut it to size, and then paste that into the journal for the next one. These don’t feel like natural parts of journaling to me — but what do I know about journaling?

So far, the game’s dissonances make feel like it is:

  • Built for the “before times” when we might have had lives outside of our homes, picked up ephemera, took pictures outside, did anything other than be inside the house 24/7.
  • Aimed at someone much younger than me, without the same life commitments I currently have. It feels like a game designed for a young woman, perhaps, both in how it presupposes the diary/journal format as an activity someone has already experienced as well as the kinds of points in one’s life that you’re asked to reflect on (not to mention the inspirational messages you’re asked to communicate to your past self, which I find awkward).
  • Designed more for what it’s intended to make you feel rather than how it’s intended to make you feel it. The prompts seem blunt and directly about getting you to write about your emotions; there’s nothing subtle (yet) pushing you to consider yourself in a new light, no mechanics whatsoever other than just answering the prompt (and, if you wish, the optional prompt). I want to feel like the game is alive and doing something; instead, it feels like it’s just a cold, daily prompt.

This may sound odd, but the game is making me feel like an old man — which is, of course, what I am. But I expect there hasn’t been much thought put toward how the game might play with different audiences. Or perhaps the game is telling me it’s “not for people like you” (older folks, people who didn’t have diaries as children, people who aren’t used to writing reflective, inspirational stuff to themselves, etc). I dunno? I hope it’s not that, but I’m not certain that’s the case.

But, hold up, I do like Wait For Me, at least in theory if not practice, and I am going to keep playing for the time being. I want to reflect on one more reason why just a little bit more.

First, when I signed up for this, I was under the impression that it was, well, a game. And it’s clearly not a game in any sense other than the loosest definitions of “game” — at least not yet. Of course, “iS iT rEaLlY a GaMe?!” is the most beaten dead horse of dead horses out there, but it does seems relevant here. Even in freeform or the loosest of larps, I expect to have some kind of choice to make to propel the fiction or potentially propel the fiction. There’s nothing like that here yet, giving me no stakes for continuing to write in this little journal.

My expectations for a story game/freeform thing/whatever this is necessitate that there be (even small, meager!) decisions made by the player. And while I guess I get to decide which memory to journal about, that feels much less like I’m choosing something that interacts with game’s systems and more like I’m just writing atop the game. The game doesn’t care what I’m writing about — I could be making up anything I wanted to, crafting whatever fiction I find entertaining, lying about my past, whatever, and it has no consequence on what the next decisions I make are. That’s a little annoying; perhaps reflective of me and my positionality with games, but I expect there to be some kind of effect for what I am doing here on the fictive world of the game besides just “reflection.” (Otherwise, why not just call this a “journal” rather than a “journaling game”?)

Take, for example, one of the prompts, this one from Day 4. You’ve hopped for the third time, this time into a “place you love more than any other.” No specifics provided, very open-ended — they suggest that it can be “an arena, a lake, a room, a forest,” describing it in emotive terms as something that’s for you, a “happy place” per se. They go on and say that:

[Y]ou go to a secret place that only you might think of. This is a hidey-hole where you could leave paper or items without anyone else finding them. There’s a short note already here in your own adult hand, written by a slightly later version of yourself and still untethered in time. Clearly, you’ll be back to leave yourself this.

The note is simple, and kind, and welcomes you back to this place. Copy this note into your journal so you’ll remember what you’re going to say in a future prompt. You have exactly 20 words to welcome yourself here. If you wish, leave yourself a doodle or sketch that you think will make you happy.

When you have copied down the 20th word of the welcome note, close your eyes and breathe out, knowing that you can return. When you open your eyes you are pulled away to —

And that’s the prompt, ending abruptly as you jump to another time period. It’s cleverly written, putting you in a space that’s uniquely yours. Everyone will have something different to write about, and everyone will, presumably, have a nice moment of reflection on a period in their lives in which they were happy. That’s nice! Mine was, by the way, the living room of my apartment during a snowstorm in winter 2006/2007, when I had to curl up under a blanket by the room’s only source of heat — an old radiator.

(Please forgive my bad radiator drawing skills).

But, there’s no connection between this and anything else I’d done before — leaving a note for myself as a child, visiting a grandparent. It’s just skipping around through moments in one’s life, and there’s no fictive oomph to doing this. I’m just, well, being asked to reflect on my life. And, given that I’m writing about something as vague as my “happy place,” I have zero confidence that it will be referenced or connected back in any way in the future. There’s just too much range for this writing prompt — you can write whatever you want, and I doubt that a future prompt can meaningfully reference “happy places” that range from “sitting next to a radiator in a snowstorm” to “watching Judas Priest at a crowded sports arena” to “a bungee jumping spot on a bridge” to “drinking tea on the veranda with my grandmother” and ever have it make sense. Again, I wonder why I’m writing what I’m writing.

Anyway, I like reflection just fine, I just expected a little bit of fictional distance between what I’d be writing about here and me. It’s useful to get a sense of what journaling is like, I suppose, but during a self-quarantine with the world burning around us, I’m not sure I really needed a game that makes me look at me without at least the thin veil of a character or some kind of mechanics to explore. I’m introspecting just fine, and thinking about the past enough. I have never have much interest in just journaling, I backed this project because I was interested in building some kind of story, and I really do hope it gets there eventually. Fiction has its therapeutic uses, and I wish this game had built off of that rather than pushing you to write inspirational quotes.

The big issue, however, is that Wait For Me feels, at this moment, like it’s a therapeutic exercise couched in the terminology of games without much consideration of my desires or experiences. As such, it feels oddly cold for something that is supposed to be a transformative, reflective experience. Sure, I’m writing about periods in my life that I might not necessarily be interested in writing about (that’s fine and appreciated, that comes with the journaling territory), but when I have no choices about what I do with them, I’m left feeling like all this writing is for naught. I’m not building anything, crafting anything story-wise; my writing doesn’t impact anything I do later (at least not yet). I’m navel-gazing, and not constructing anything other than a set of (so far) disconnected memories. The prompts are mechanisms to get the designers to make me do something, but I have yet to find much here that makes it feel like they cared about what I would want to do with it.

I’m hopeful that it will turn around, and if it does, I’ll be sure to post again, discussing how it changed. Regardless, I’ll keep going for a while at least. And while others may be satisfied with Wait For Me as it stands (and good for them if that’s the case!), maybe I’m just yearning for something that’s more about building a character. This past week, I started my first Blades in the Dark campaign — a game that’s mechanically about as far away from Wait For Me as one can be — and maybe that will scratch my story-building itch, while I just keep writing for Wait For Me as a reflective journaling exercise. As I suspect that is what it’s intended to be.

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