Thursday, November 3, 2011

Top Ten Classic Horror Video Games - Honorable Mentions

In the 70s and early 80s, the idea of a game that could be genuinely scary was a bit premature, and the few games that attempted to bring horror to console games were poorly designed, such as adaptations of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or original titles like Haunted House and Frankenstein's Monster (the logic that makes these horror games could easily apply to Pac-Man). Arguably, it wouldn't be until the CD-ROM age, with FMV, realistic graphics, improved sound design and more memory for all that storytelling that games would stand on par with films at delivering a horror experience. There were a few gems along the way that certainly deserve credit for starting the genre that has since exploded into such a large category that a top ten list really does little justice, and I'll present these in order by date, leading into the CD-ROM era.

Maniac Mansion
Release - October 1987
Purchase - Out of Print, NES version at Amazon.com

Maniac Mansion was the start of it all for Lucasfilm Games, now iconic in the adventure gaming market, before their nausea-inducing whoring of the Star Wars franchise (as LucasArts). Maniac Mansion was the first of its kind to bring text-based adventure games to a completely GUI-controlled engine, a standard in the genre today.

While more horror-comedy than straight horror, Maniac Mansion takes its inspiration from the B-horror sub-genre  which is difficult to take seriously anyway. Talking tentacles, blue-skinned scientists and teens with over-the-top personalities are the staple here. The plot involves a missing girl, Sandy Pantz, whose boyfriend believes her to have been kidnapped by the owner of a stereotypical creepy mansion. The owner is Dr. Fred, who is rumored to be stealing human brains for his experiments.

The game has a sense of humor that has become a standard in LucasArts adventure games. Some puzzles are solved in cliche ways, like discovering the key to the mansion under the doormat, while players can perform totally unnecessary actions for the sake of humor, like microwaving a hamster. What gives the game a horror feel is the unusual cast of antagonists, who can appear on any screen at any time in the game, and will imprison the character if they come in contact with them. Still, like the genre it draws from, the game is more fun and humor than horror, and the absurd characters draw more of the audience's focus than the horror elements.

Maniac Mansion doesn't hold up very well today. Its slow, crawling movement and dated point and click interface just beg for an upgrade, which fans have acknowledged. Maniac Mansion was followed by Day of the Tentacle in 1993, by all accounts a superior experience and one of the best adventure games ever made, but more science-fiction themed than its predecessor.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (ドラキュラII 呪いの封印)
Release - August 28, 1987
Purchase - Amazon.com, Virtual Console

When Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was released in 1987, it met with almost unanimous praise. Its open-world system allowed the character to go anywhere from the start of the game, though exploration would be limited by items in the character's inventory similar to the Zelda series. It introduced an RPG-like leveling system, a bartering system, and a morbid story that involves collecting the defeated Dracula's organs in order to resurrect him and defeat him again, ending the curse he placed on Simon and Transylvania for all time. It was weird, novel, and formed the basis upon which Symphony of the Night and its sequels were built.

But like Resident Evil, Simon's Quest has become known as much for its flaws as for its ingenuity, thanks in no small part to a 2004 short produced by James Rolfe. Rolfe entertainingly reviews the game as a character who hates it for ruining the Castlevania trilogy on the NES, treating the video he's making as a PSA to warn people away from the game. While most of his complaints are completely valid, a lot of the game's impossible puzzles came from the fact that its translation was horrible (as were most NES games of the time). For a game that relies so heavily on learning clues from townspeople, this is totally crippling. If you happen to follow a guide and don't mind the day-night transitions, it's not a bad game and offers some fun somewhat-linear gameplay, though whether or not the payoff is worth it is up to you.

In the words of The Nerd, "The ending sucks, too."


Friday the 13th
Release - February 1989
Purchase - Amazon.com

Unlike Simon's Quest, Friday the 13th has universally been called one of the worst games ever made since its release. It's hard to argue against that statement, but Friday the 13th does have quite a few novel elements working in its favor that are often ignored by reviewers boggled by just how bad the mechanics of the game can be.

You play as one of six counselors being stalked by Jason at Camp Crystal Lake, and can switch between counselors at any time by entering the small cabins along the path. The goal of the game is to survive for three days and defeat Jason three times. If all of the counselors and children die, the game ends. During the game, the player will randomly receive a notification that Jason is attacking someone, and the cabin where he is will flash on the map screen. The player can then run to that cabin, or switch to a closer character. Each alarm allows sixty seconds for the player to hunt down Jason before he kills his prey and moves on.

The Jason timer is surprisingly considerate; as long as you respond immediately and keep someone near the lake to defend the children, you'll always get to Jason in time (unless, of course, you get stuck in the woods or cave). Fighting him is a totally different story. Jason attacks with his fists, machete, and axe in a Punch-Out!-style fight, which requires dodging his attacks with a very particular dodge move (holding the D-Pad in the down-right position) which the game never tells you to do. Until you discover this move Jason will wipe you out every time. Once you figure it out, the timing is relatively easy and Jason retreats after eight hits or so. True to character, however, he comes back again and again, and it takes fighting him at least a dozen times to actually kill him. Once.

There are several nods to the series: defeating Jason's mother's disembodied head can give the player her sweater (which will discourage Jason from attacking on the path) as well as a pitchfork weapon. The casting is true to genre, with three male and three female characters. Two of the girls are the best characters in the game, putting Friday the 13th with Super Mario Bros 2 as games where boys will play as female characters given the choice.

Though I've never beaten the game, I personally enjoy the challenge. With today's expectations, a game is only fun if it's possible for just about anyone to beat it, but being able to kill a slasher just ruins the experience. Consider Nightmare on Elm Street, also for the NES, where Freddy Kreuger is an absolute joke. Somehow, Friday the 13th on the NES is still the best game based on a horror slasher franchise. It had the right ideas, and later games like Resident Evil 3 and Clock Tower show that these ideas can translate well to a console.

Alone in the Dark
Release - 1992
Purchase - Good Old Games

Following in the vein of the Japanese-only release Sweet Home comes Alone in the Dark, a creepy 3D-style horror game that bridges the gap between traditional games and the CD-ROM era. Based loosely on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, the plot involves the investigation of a suspicious suicide, and is told mostly through found documents.

Alone in the Dark pioneered the idea of third-person 3D models in prerendered backgrounds, which gave developers the option of placing the camera at key locations to emphasize the horror elements: low-angle, high-angle, framed and corner shots are all fairly common during the course of the game. Unfortunately, this also means control is painfully stiff, requiring a character to stop moving forward, spin anywhere in a 360 degree path, and resume moving forward to change direction. Each time a camera shift takes place, the player has to quickly reorient themselves, and some camera shots make it terribly difficult to tell where your character is going.

Sadly, this control style, paired with how slow everything moves, makes the game borderline unplayable by today's standards. To be fair, the control is a bit typical of a keyboard-based input system: while many PlayStation games kept the 3D model/2D background method, most chose to go with a more fluid "up goes away from the screen, down goes toward it" control model that paired well with the joystick-based controller. One of the games that kept Alone in the Dark's control style was Resident Evil.

Diablo
Release - November 30, 1996
Purchase - Amazon.com

Diablo deserves mention here for its use of demonology and the sheer number of skeletons you'll see, but it's difficult to classify as horror so much as it is dark fantasy, like The Dark Crystal or Legend. It's a near-endless dungeon crawler that has the rare characteristic of changing the layout with every playthrough, making no two experiences alike. Players can choose between the three typical fantasy classes: Fighter, Archer or Magician (Warrior, Rogue and Sorcerer here).

What put Diablo on the map was definitely the multiplayer experience. Up to four players could work together to solve the game's sixteen levels, and this is definitely the best way to play it. Of course, having three people to help you takes a bit away from the potential horror experience, and whether or not horror games should include coop modes continued to be a debate until Resident Evil: Outbreak (バイオハザード アウトブレイク) in 2003.

Grim Fandango
Release - October 30, 1998
Purchase - Amazon.com

Despite a Halloween-timed release date, Grim Fandango is themed after the Mexican Dia de Muertos, a Catholic update of ancient Aztec festivals. Another LucasArts offering, Grim Fandango is frequently cited as one of the best adventure games ever made, and it's a fair reputation: the puzzles are clever, the humor is spot on, and its cultural awareness gave it a unique flavor that few games have bothered to match.

Of course, like Maniac Mansion, Grim Fandango's emphasis on humor keeps it out of most horror game discussions, as well as the plot's emphasis on noir detective stories. It is an incredible game, and it does play around with the idea of the Grim Reaper and what his job might actually be, so it's worth checking out for its bizarre imagery and fun storytelling.

Silent Hill
January 31, 1999
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

For some reason, Silent Hill and Resident Evil are often paired as competitors, but aside from frustrating controls, the two games share very little in common. Silent Hill is a psychological horror/thriller set in the fictional town of its title, with an arguably unreliable narrator and potential supernatural element. We never know how much of what's going on is actually happening, which is much more in line with modern horror films than the B movies Resident Evil seems to borrow from.

Everything about Silent Hill's execution is incredibly atmospheric and moody, and the design goes well with the psychological perspective: locations change entirely at different points of the game, which makes backtracking a little less monotonous. All of the indoor environments are pitch-black, leaving a flashlight as the only source of light. A pocket radio allows the player to know when monsters are nearby, emitting a high-pitched white noise in their presence.

Silent Hill may be considered a classic by some, but for me, it doesn't feel like a classic; it feels like any other modern game. Like Metal Gear Solid and a handful of other PlayStation games, it still plays well next to its big brothers on the PlayStation 2, and had the benefit of coming four years after Resident Evil, toward the end of the PlayStation's life cycle. This one would have been number eleven, had I gone past ten.

System Shock 2
Release - August 11, 1999
Purchase - Amazon.com

I mentioned System Shock in my Half-Life comments, and System Shock 2 improved much upon the precedent set by its predecessor. The concept is virtually identical, with a rogue AI taking over a starship, and trapping the player upon it. A roleplaying system is included, allowing the character to choose a background like hacker or psi user, and puzzles are solved in different ways based on the tools at the player's disposal. Inventory space is limited, giving the game a bit of a survival horror feel.

Of course, the premise allows us a creepy AI, and we hear her everywhere in the form of SHODAN, a returning character from the previous game. She taunts you as you progress, producing an effect both intimidating and encouraging. You'll also be up against zombie-like bioorganisms, so there's that. The sound design is beautiful and immersive, from the sounds of creatures, the distorted voice of SHODAN, to the moody industrial soundtrack.

This game was fairly well-received, but not quite as popular as it should have been. It does have a huge cult following, however, and fans have since put together texture packs and mods to keep the game looking and playing as beautifully as ever. If you have yet to play this masterpiece, put it on your to-game list ASAP - if you can find a copy of it.

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment
Release - June 29, 2000
Purchase - Amazon.com

The Megami Tensei RPG series has a long history in Japan, but the US got its first glimpse with the spinoff title Revelations: Persona in 1997. Persona revolves around a group of teenagers who discover an ability to awaken "personas", facets of their personality with the power to cast magical spells and cause serious damage. The idea is that, when stressed, the character becomes someone else for a brief time in order to fight, and the literal manifestation of a second personality in the form of "Persona" is pretty brilliant.

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was my entry into the series and probably the darkest, as the plot focuses more on the adult characters than other Persona games. The story involves a reporter for a teen magazine, who is investigating a series of murders rumored to be committed if a person calls their own cell phone number and gives the name of the person they want killed. There's a ton of genuinely creepy imagery in this one: the killer, known only as "JOKER", is portrayed wearing a paper grocery bag over his head with a smile painted on it.

The "monsters" in this game are various myth-inspired demons, and the player has the ability to try talking to them before resorting to combat: certain demons are affected by different methods, such as flirting or shouting, and failing to talk them out of fighting will typically give them a head start in combat, or a buff of some kind. Succeeding gets their card, which can be used to avoid future encounters with that particular species. It's a fun system, and mastering it can make the game far easier.

The Persona series didn't really gain mainstream appeal until Persona 3, which introduced the dungeon-crawling to a high school simulation that, while a weird mix, seemed to work exceptionally well. Players could choose when they wanted to explore dungeons, and when they wanted to work on friendships or academia, though there is a sense of a time limit through the game that requires a particular amount of dungeon progress per game month. Of course, Persona 3, while widely regarded as the best in the Persona series, has yet to age enough to be considered a classic.

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I hope you enjoyed reading about these great games, and if you haven't played something on my lists, I'd certainly encourage you to do so, whether it's Halloween, or just another Fall evening with a suitable chill in the air. The horror golden rule remains: play these games in the dark, wear headphones, turn up the volume, lock the door, and prepare to be frightened.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Top Ten Classic Horror Video Games - Part 2


Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen
Release - November 1996
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

"I didn't care if I was in heaven or hell. All I wanted was to kill my assassins."

The Legacy of Kain series came at a time when few games outside of AD&D allowed a character to play as a villain. The "protagonist" of Blood Omen, the vampire Kain, is undoubtedly one of the darkest main characters in video games. A nobleman slaughtered and "gifted" with vampirism, Kain hunts down his assassins and, at the behest of his mysterious benefactor, accepts a quest to assassinate the corrupted Circle of Nine. Their defeat may restore the land, but Kain's only interest is curing his vampirism and returning to some sense of normalcy.

Gameplay follows the familiar Legend of Zelda top-down adventure
format, but taken in a dark direction. Kain acquires various abilities one might expect of a vampire, such as transformations and magic spells, which certain puzzles require to solve. What makes it stand out is certainly the dark atmosphere and the amount of blood that bathes the screen. One of the first images we see in the intro are bodies impaled on stakes, evoking the legend of Vlad Tepes.

This is another game where I feel a lot of credit goes to the sound design. The music is beautifully atmospheric, offering a number of different instruments from vocalization to what sounds like a panflute. This is one of the few PlayStation games that features voice acting, and Simon Templeman's performance as Kain is incredibly memorable for all the right reasons, as he really sells Kain's charisma without sacrificing his dark, selfish nature.

The game's ending allows a choice between sacrificing Kain's vampirism (thus killing himself) to purify the land, or remaining alive and holding onto the curse, dooming the land for eternity. The canon choice is to doom the land. Now that is a badass.


Doom
Release - December 10, 1993
Purchase - Steam, Xbox Live

Finally, a game I don't have to say anything about! But there's still a lot to say about it. id Software's second entry into the 3D first-person-shooter genre is among the most well-known and controversial games ever produced, and most of those reasons fit right in with our horror showcase - gore, monsters, and a chainsaw. "I'm the Lord of the Harvest!"

For its time, Doom had some incredible lighting and sound effects that gave it a seriously haunting atmosphere. Lights flicker or shut off completely, so in many places you can't see what's coming at you until you find a light switch. Occasionally, you'll run into traps which shut off the lights and send dozens of monsters after you. Awesome. Often you'll hear something barking at you from behind before you knew anything was there. These touches are what make a bunch of 2D sprites with glowing eyes legitimately scary.

Keeping your adrenaline going through this experience is one of the most recognizable soundtracks in video games. Composed by Robert "Bobby" Prince, who took "make this soundtrack sound like these artists" a little too literally, the sountrack borrows themes from awesome songs like "Behind the Crooked Cross" by Slayer and Metallica's "The Thing that Should Not Be". Though there's no official list of sources, the Doom Wiki has a whole page about it. Most games in the horror genre rely on creepy, atmospheric music, but Doom's relentless metal is both empowering and intimidating, making the experience a fairly unique one. Because the soundtrack was coded for MIDI, it uses completely different instruments on different machines, so some versions sound better than others. My personal favorite is the SoundBlaster AWE32, though the 3DO comes close and the SNES port is pretty good, too.

I've gone and spoiled the ending!
Of course, you're asking "Is there a story to this masterpiece?" Odds are you'll still be asking that after you've played it. Mixing films like Alien with zombie fare and demonology, the story deals with a space marine (known only as Doomguy out of universe) who is the sole survivor of some kind of accident involving transporters which managed to summon creatures from hell. But the game never stops to tell a story or explain anything, with the exception of brief text between episodes, nor does it have to. Like a solid console game, if the gameplay is engrossing enough, story be damned. There is a lot of outside text about the game, both in the manual and in its sequels, but it doesn't really add anything to the series: by the time Doom 3 came along, Doom's format had already been done with much better stories.

I'd still highly recommend Doom to anyone, and if you've already played it to death or think it looks too dated, check out the Doomsday Engine and high resolution texture packs (dengine.net) to bring new life into the game. Also check out id's other offerings Hexen, Heretic, and Quake.


Parasite Eve
Release - March 29, 1998
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

Despite a few good titles, FMV games left a bad taste in everyone's mouths regarding the whole movie versus game debate. Games are meant to be played; movies are meant to be watched. Parasite Eve was one of the few games to embrace cutscenes as a pervasive means of storytelling while including great levels of depth and gameplay, touting itself as a "cinematic experience". Thanks to some excellent writing, beautiful imagery, solid action-RPG gameplay and a haunting soundtrack by Shimomura Yoko, it manages to pull off the blend we now take for granted.

The story is unique for a number of reasons. It is a sequel to a Japanese novel of the same name written by Sena Hideaki, in which a woman's mitochondria awaken in an attempt to take over their human host cells rather than continue to live in symbiosis with them. Once awakened in her, they try to incite the same awakening in other people. A weird plot to be sure, but the novelty and the scientific "realism" gave it a unique brand of science-fiction horror not unlike Resident Evil. The plot picks up in Manhattan, where a second Eve is awakening. After causing the spontaneous combustion of everyone in an opera house, the new Eve is fascinated by sole survivor Aya Brea, who she believes is also a potential for awakening. The plot explodes the events of the novel, giving Eve the ability to terrorize the entire island of Manhattan, and escalates the absurdity as Eve tries to conceive the Ultimate Being. Aya is a compelling lead, a tough New York cop faced with the existential crisis of becoming a kin of what she's fighting against. In an excellent move, the new location means the characters know as much about the events of the novel as the audience might, particularly in the North American version.

Good God, the imagery in this game. We get to see a lot of the transformation scenes as mitochondria take over their hosts, which are all beautifully horrendous. Monster designs are clever and imaginitive, with some of the best to be seen at the Museum of Natural History (there is a T-Rex fight, which all good games should have). Eve has several transformations as she becomes progressively more powerful, and while I won't ruin the final boss for anyone who hasn't played the game before, the experience will definitely stay with you.

If you've played Brave Fencer Musashi, you'll be glad to know this is one of the majority of Square's games that has no voice acting, and given games like Resident Evil where the horrible voice acting takes too much away from the horror elements, it's a welcome silence. Appropriately, the only voice we hear is Eve's, as she possesses a young opera singer's body. The operatic vocalization pervades the soundtrack whenever Eve is on screen, particularly during battle sequences, and the effect is incredibly eerie. Shimomura's music perfectly complements the tone of the game, and the piano pieces are breathtaking.

Parasite Eve was followed by Parasite Eve II, which took the character and story in a completely new direction that didn't quite catch on as well as the first. Compounded by a more Resident Evil-like control style and overstating Aya Brea's sex appeal, it feels like a totally different game, but still a good bit of fun.


Half-Life
Release - November 19, 1998
Purchase - Steam

Welcome to Black Mesa. Doom spawned sequels, successors, and countless user-generated mods, so much so that the formula was getting predictable and fairly tired. In 1994, Origin Systems released System Shock, which took the familiar first-person interface being used in the Ultima series and introduced it to a Doom-like cyberpunk universe, creating a game that was both first-person action and full of puzzle-based gameplay, with a heavier emphasis on puzzle-solving.

Valve's Half-Life represented a more complete symbiosis of the two ideas. Armed with only an HEV suit, a crowbar and sharp wits, theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman must fight his way out of the Black Mesa Research Facility after an experiment creates an interdimensional portal, allowing an aggressive alien species called the Xen into the facility. While combat is emphasized, advancing often requires solving puzzles, like using scientists to activate retinal scanners and using environmental objects to clear obstacles.

The monster designs are all imaginative, but the one that stands out as the "mascot" is the headcrab, Half-Life's version of the facehugger. With four crab-like legs and a mouth on its underside, it attaches itself to a victim's head, mutating the victim and controlling their body in a zombie-like fashion. Without a host, headcrabs are incredibly small and quick, making them difficult to hit, and often attack in groups. They can leap an incredible distance and use their legs as cutting tools, making them extremely dangerous opponents, not to mention creepy as hell. The chirping noise they make is the stuff of nightmares.

Tracking Freeman's progress is the gray-suited "G-Man", a Kafka-esque character who seems to be manipulating Freeman, though to what end is completely unexplained. The G-Man adds a strong existential element to an already absurd situation, calling into question issues like fate, agency, and religion, as well as the relationship of game developer to player.

Half-Life has several add-ons and fan-created mods which add different perspectives to the experience. In June of 2004, Steam released an updated version of Half-Life using the Source Engine of its sequel, showing this game is worth keeping around.


Resident Evil (バイオハザード)
Release - March 22, 1996
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

Before choosing to include this, I thought: "Don't open that door!" "Zombies in a mansion" is how I once summarized this Capcom classic, and with that attitude in mind, I hated it. Zombies aren't scary, they're just obnoxious. If the game allowed you to kick, half of the enemies would be no problem at all.

It's the other half that make this game worth playing, though. The infamous moment when zombie dogs come crashing through the window is genuinely startling for first-time players, and the dogs are some of the hardest normal enemies in the game (thanks to poor game mechanics, but even so). Of course, this makes us wonder why humans are so crippled by the T-Virus while dogs seem as agile as ever, but I digress. The bosses/obstacles are imaginative, with a zombie plant and the massive beast Tyrant as highlights.

The plot is definitely the strong point of the game. A team of special police investigating a series of cannibalistic murders goes missing, and a backup team is sent to recover them. When they find the scene they are attacked by wild dogs, their pilot abandons them and they're forced to seek refuge in a nearby mansion. They are quickly separated, and investigating the mansion reveals it to be the testing ground of a virus that turns human beings into zombies. As with Parasite Eve, there's a scientific approach to the horror aspect, though the use of viruses makes it a bit more generic.

The real "Evil" or "Biohazard" the title suggests is the Umbrella Corporation, a pharmaceutical conglomerate hoping to branch into bioweaponry for military contracts. When seen in that light, the story is brilliant; the zombies themselves are faceless victims of corporate greed, unchecked business ethics, and nationalistic paranoia, offering real-world commentary and an excuse to have a mansion full of zombies.

Unfortunately, Resident Evil has come to be characterized by its many flaws. The control scheme is horrendous, using the same tank-like system that crippled early 3D exploration games like Alone in the Dark. Characters can only shoot/stab at 45 degree angles, leaving a wide range in front of them they can't hit, and headshots are only possible at extremely close range. Thanks to these and limited ammo, a smart player will generally avoid combat altogether, but the few enemies you have to fight (like the zombie dogs and crows) are a pain in the ass to hit.

The voice acting is legendary for its poor quality. It's as if the director asked the actors to deliver their lines in the same tone they would order at a fast food window. It might fall into the category of "so bad it's good" for some gamers, but for the rest, there's a remake, or you could consider learning Japanese and play the original Biohazard. The localization did not take itself very seriously.


There's a slew of sequels, spinoffs, remakes and films for this series, but I prefer the simplicity of the first few games. The first three feel like a trilogy; the rest feel like milking a franchise.

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I hope you enjoyed this top ten list! Come back soon for a third installment of honorable (and not so honorable) mentions for games that didn't quite make the top ten for one reason or another. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Top Ten Classic Horror Video Games - Part 1

Most horror fans around this time of year plan movie marathons, but for me, it's all video games. Films don't have nearly the same level of immersion that video games do, and you can only be scared so many times by a guy suddenly appearing from behind a corner. To really get into the Halloween spirit, I've compiled a list of the top ten classic horror games, based on my personal playing experience. These will be in no particular order because, well, choosing between them is as difficult as choosing between movie monsters. If you're looking to have your spine tingled this weekend with some good, inexpensive games, here are my recommendations.



Ghosts 'N Goblins (魔界村)
Release - 1985-1986
Purchase - Virtual Console, Capcom Classics Collection

The NES version of Ghosts 'N Goblins has been the subject of many retro game reviews for its sheer, unbridled difficulty. Sir Arthur can only take two hits before dying, and there's no shortage of undead, demons and monsters with no purpose but to stop you. The plot centers around saving Princess Prin Prin from the lair of King Satan, but fighting your way there and slaying the beast only reveals that Arthur was caught in a "trap", either in his mind or a false reality, and the player must complete the game a second time at a higher difficulty in order to beat it. Second quests were fairly common in the early NES days, with Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. and Super Pitfall including them, but this game actually requires a second playthrough for any kind of closure.

The game has a few programming flaws that make the difficulty that much greater. The worst of these is the torch/flame weapon Arthur can acquire. While it seems like an upgrade and does heavy damage, Arthur can only throw three at a time before having to wait for one of them to burn out to throw another. If you aren't precise, you can find yourself standing around defenseless pretty often. Getting this weapon is as good as killing yourself, if not worse; you keep the weapon after you die. Other weapons like the lance allow virtual autofire, so why the flame is so crippling is beyond me.

If you want a game with horror themes, punishing difficulty, and an offbeat sense of humor, Ghosts 'N Goblins is a great experience.


Phantasmagoria
Release - July 31, 1995
Purchase - Good Old Games

Ah, good old FMV games. Most FMV-based games failed to integrate full-motion video with gameplay to create a truly immersive gaming experience: instead we had games like Night Trap, where you simply watch a movie and make choices at preset times in the video. When Sierra got their hands on the technology, however, they created some incredible adventure games, and Phatasmagoria stands out as the creepiest, by far.

The plot involves a young married couple, writer Adrienne Delaney and photographer Don Gordon, who purchase an old mansion previously owned by an eccentric magician. It isn't long before Adrienne begins to have horrific visions, and gradually discovers the magician's possible involvement with demonology. While most of the horror elements are a bit on the cliche, predictable side, the FMV adds a lot to the potential scare factor these scenes have to offer. But what has stuck with me over the years is Don's gradual loss of self-control, culminating in a scene in which he rapes Adrienne. Though the scene is not particularly graphic (a "censor" option is included for the squeamish, though it's pretty pointless) and consent in this scene is a bit questionable, it's definitely a haunting scene and bold as hell. Roberta Williams came off of the King's Quest series looking to make a game that was more mature and adult-oriented, and she didn't screw around.

Sadly, the game hasn't aged well. Many of the visual effects involve incredibly dated CGI that may incite laughter, and the slow pacing of the plot makes it feel a little like a Lifetime miniseries. This game isn't as forgiving as a lot of modern adventure games when it comes to solving puzzles, but it does include a hint system in the form of a skull that talks to you as part of the interface. Still, the horror scenes and the novelty of the game certainly make it a staple for any horror and adventure game fan.

A sequel followed in 1996, subtitled Puzzle of the Flesh, but aside from a fantastic portrayal of an openly homosexual character, it failed to live up to the standards of its predecessor.


The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery
Release - June 30, 1995
Purchase - Good Old Games

Jane Jensen's classic series about a writer turned Schattenjaeger has received consistent critical acclaim at every turn, for all three that it had before its retirement. When Sins of the Fathers hit the scene in 1993, it blew us away with its incredible writing (particularly in character development), haunting imagery and, to be sure, solid performances from stars such as Tim Curry, Mark Hamill, Michael Dorn and, interestingly, Leah Remini. It left itself wide open for a sequel, if not a long-running series, but it was hard to imagine how Jensen could top this horror-adventure masterpiece.

Then I saw the trailer for The Beast Within and my heart stopped. Germany? Werewolves? The potential for success was certainly there, but also the potential for failure: Sins of the Fathers dealt with Voodoo mysticism, which is a fairly uncommon theme in the horror genre, but werewolves come with a world of expectations. Further, the decision to move the game into Phantasmagoria's FMV style meant the loss of the iconic voices we'd come to love in favor of unknown actors.

Thankfully, Jensen manages to do for werewolf lore what Anne Rice did for vampires. Knight investigates the murder of a girl who appears to have been killed by a wolf, though villagers claim it to have been the work of werewolves. Incidentally, a wolf is discovered to have escaped from a nearby zoo, offering an all-too-easy explanation. Through analysis of the crime scene and the local zoo exhibit, Knight discovers it couldn't have been the work of a known species of wolf, and decides to take the werewolf angle seriously. He follows a lead to a local hunt club where, suffice it to say, they know a little something about werewolves.

The GK series doesn't rely on scare tactics to sustain its horror, instead working with Hitchcockian techniques to build and maintain suspense, and that really shines through here. One of my favorite of these techniques is what the soundtrack calls "Wolfcam"; we're familiar with cuts to POV shots of stalkers watching whatever their pray does, but here we see these scenes in an infrared style reminiscent of Predator. This comes to the forefront toward the end of the game, where the player is forced to solve a puzzle in the wolfcam visual mode.


The production quality is stellar for the format, and the acting particularly solid, if campy at times. Dean Erickson is a likable Knight, and Joanne Takahashi establishes a strong Grace Nakamura early on, definitely making her one of the most memorable female leads in the genre (compounded by Remini's performance in the previous game). Peter Lucas's Von Glower is incredibly charismatic and his ambiguous status as a suspect in the story is handled beautifully.

The standout feature of the production to me is the incredible soundtrack by Robert Holmes -- from beautiful, sweeping themes like "Main Theme" and "Grace" to the dark, terrorizing "Chase", Holmes lends an incredible atmosphere to the series that perfectly complements the visuals and writing. The script even called for him to write what could pass as Richard Wagner's "lost opera", and other than Parasite Eve and Final Fantasy VI I don't think I've ever seen such use of opera in a video game. That should change.

It's hard to call The Beast Within the best in the series; many people will do that for me, and it definitely feels like the high point. I prefer the Christian mythology prevalent in Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, however the werewolf angle is played incredibly well here. But if I had to recommend one of the games to someone unfamiliar with the series, this would be it.

As an addendum, any fan of Gabriel Knight should definitely check out the recent release Gray Matter, a spiritual successor to the GK series and developed by Jane Jensen. This game focuses on paranormal activity and features an interesting mix of science fiction and gothic elements.



Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (悪魔城ドラキュラX 月下の夜想曲)
Release - Mar 20, 1997
Purchase - PSN, Xbox Live, Amazon.com

The Castlevania series is without question the most recognizable in the horror sidescroller genre, and rightly so; though it has yet to break into 3D as successfully as other series, its classic titles are still played and beloved by video game fans everywhere. This is another series where it's hard to nail which best represents Castlevania's potential, but the fan favorite is certainly Symphony of the Night. While the Belmonts have been established as a whip-wielding cross-bearing clan, playing as Alucard left a lot of potential for the gameplay, and the developers embraced that by giving the game an RPG-style system with multiple weapon types and magic abilities.

The story is particularly deep in Symphony, and the plots in future games would attempt to match that level of depth with only a few successes. The game takes place five years after Richter Belmont defeated Dracula in Rondo of Blood (血の輪廻). Richter has disappeared, and Alucard (half-blood son of Dracula) has sensed Dracula's return. Alucard ends up working in concert with Richter's sister-in-law, Maria, to investigate Richter's disappearance into Dracula's castle, only to find Richter is trying to resurrect Dracula for the sake of his family name. Alucard quickly realizes Richter is not in control of himself, and the player can either choose to kill Richter or spare him. Killing him ends the game; sparing him reveals he was being manipulated by the dark priest Shaft (not to be confused with John Shaft). In a similar style to Ghosts 'N Goblins, Alucard must fight through the entire castle again, this time upside-down, in order to stop Dracula's resurrection. The upside-down castle leads to some mind-bending gameplay and lots of beautiful imagery.

Unlike the earlier Castlevania sequels, Symphony features an entirely original score by Michiru Yamane, and the result is one of the strongest video game soundtracks in the PlayStation library, spanning several different musical styles that really breathe life into the castle. One of the creepiest songs is by far "Enchanted Banquet", which plays during the battle with Succubus. The operatic vocalizing and chaotic dissonance make it an incredible battle theme and certainly memorable. The voice acting is hammy and overdone, but in a strangely charming way. Dracula's voice carries the charisma of his character fairly well, though Alucard's is a bit off.


If you've already beaten Symphony and are looking for more Castlevania, I'd suggest Aria of Sorrow, Rondo of Blood, Super Castlevania IV or Castlevania III.


Stay tuned for Part 2 for the final five!

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Variation on "The Red Wheelbarrow"

so much depends
upon

a white procelain
toilet

shadowed by solid-seeming
walls

inscribed with meaningless
words

Saturday, July 30, 2011

3DS price slash has little to do with Apple, despite reports

So Nintendo is lowering the price of the 3DS. What bothers me isn't the questionable business decision that went into the price drop, it's in the tendency of some journalists to attribute that drop to smartphone OSs, Apple's in particular. Assuming the people who pay up to $3 (or nothing) for Angry Birds and those who spend $60 on the latest Rockstar game are the same people is ludicrous enough, but phones have long been able to play the kinds of casual games that are flooding the market now: the RAZR could play gems such as Tetris, Bejeweled and Doom RPG, and many more if you happened to live in Japan. Now you just have a prettier screen, greater functionality, and an easier means of getting those games.

Smartphones may be increasing in popularity, but so are portable game consoles. To date, the DS has sold an incredible 140 million units and 840 million games, during which time it was "competing" with the Android (130 million), iOS devices (222 million US, including iPad and iPod Touch), and RIM (55+ million) markets, not to mention the PSP (68 million), showing that game devices continue to sell independent of other mobile device sales rather than in spite of them. Flurry group followed the revenue to show that iOS and Android have gained 15% of the portable gaming market in the past year, but their 2009 figures did not account for tablet PCs, meaning that part of this jump may simply be the introduction of a new device to the market. Part of it may also simply be a temporary trend: the same report shows an inexplicable 4% move from portable games to console games. Any way you slice the pie, Nintendo is thus far still in the lead in the portable gaming market. The theory that $1 games are eclipsing traditional game sales is just that at this point; the only credence it deserves is that cell phones are becoming increasingly popular, reducing the "entrance fee" to a publisher's game library to zero, but if that logic worked then PC gaming would have eclipsed the console market long ago. Instead, console gaming has grown by leaps and bounds.

Few major developers have committed to high-end games on smart phones, both due to cost of production and the lack of traditional distribution models. While it's possible that digital distribution will become the standard, it has yet to come close, and $40 or more for the simple use rights of a title has proven a questionable method to consumers, excepting MMOs, where one can justify the lack of ownership of the game with server maintenance fees and the perpetual generation of new content (though, even now there are issues with physical discs of DC Universe Online becoming coasters). It's worth noting that iPhones and HTC devices commonly feature a touchscreen as the primary input method, which cripples its gaming potential over traditional control pads (the DS and upcoming Vita include both, but most games seem developed for traditional controls). So while the smartphone may infringe on DS Store titles or games like WarioWare, it isn't likely to replace the latest Mario, Dragon Quest or Uncharted.

Unlike many critics who make similar claims to mine, I believe indie developers and the $1 market have been a huge benefit to the video game industry: it has brought more people into the culture of gaming and challenged what it means to be a "gamer" in much the same way "geek" culture has become a fad in our society. Consider it similar to what rhythm games have done for music appreciation, or what YouTube has done for film. The difference between casual and hardcore gamers used to be the difference between console and PC gamers, but as home consoles moved to CD-ROM and 32bit systems, that distinction began to dissolve. Now it's all in how seriously you take gaming. Casual gamers are less willing to shell out a lot of dough and time for the habit, not competing either for trophies or good old school bragging rights like the hardcore do. Then there's the "mid-core" who enjoy story-based games and are willing to invest the time in completing them, but don't get too competitive about it. While the casual now likely make up the majority of those who play video games, video games have become at least as profitable and culturally relevant as the film industry, without the previous social stigma applied to gaming to hold it back. It is thus fair to say that trends in game sales should decline or increase as an industry whole, and that does seem to be true outside of smartphones, leading this writer to believe that the drop in revenue for Nintendo is due in large part to the cost of traditional games in general, with casual gamers purchasing cheap alternatives to expensive titles as the rest of us weather the silent storm. As the holiday season approaches and more of the E3 titles hit the sales floor, sales will almost certainly see an increase, though a more permanent increase will likely require a more stable economic condition conducive to generating disposable income.

Haven't I seen this before... OH WAIT
IT'S DIFFERENT THERE'S A CAT IN IT!
Beyond economic reasons, the lackluster sales of the 3DS are simply because the only "original" title for it that has sold well is Nintendogs+Cats, and Nintendo is aware of this problem. One need not go back very far into the past to realize that game hardware sales are driven by software as much as price point: just take the PlayStation 3. Most people who would buy the 3DS already own a DS and have no reason yet to upgrade (just like most who would buy a PS3 had a PS2). Right now, the 3DS has little more to offer than Super Street Fighter IV and Ocarina of Time, which we needn't stare at a 4" screen to play. Add that to a struggling economy where the majority are forced to weigh essential costs, and naturally you'll have a consumer base skeptical of your marketing and unwilling to shell out the dough for a gimmicky system without solid games. It's difficult to blame third party developers like Sega for pushing their releases back, as making as much as you can while the game is at its highest price point is just good business sense (Star Wars and Lord of the Rings delayed their Blu-ray releases for this very reason). Had Nintendo simply waited until the holiday season when most of their original first party games would be released, surely that $250 price point would have seemed less of an entrance fee and we could chalk up the whole sales problem to a premature launch. It happens. Lowering the cost at this point seems to express a lack of commitment to the hardware, which could discourage more third party developers and allow those who think smartphones are taking over portable gaming the benefit of self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, this wouldn't be Nintendo's first major blunder, as Nate Funaro reminds us by referring to the system as "Virtual Boy 2", though in the Virtual Boy's case the problem is a bit more obvious:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Something for Everyone and No One: Part 2 - Last Action Hero versus Scream

Part Two: McTiernan’s Last Action Hero versus Wes Craven’s Scream

"Hello, Sidney. How are you?"
Let me begin by apologizing for the length of time this entry has taken; when I set out on this project, I thought “Hey, this will be fun,” but the more I dug into the films the more I felt I had to say. This has quickly become a foundation for a book on film, though for now I’ll continue to produce it as a blog series with slightly more commentary and research than the average blog.

So, in opening this discussion, the first thought on your mind might be: “What could these two movies possibly have in common?” One is a family-oriented action film and the other is a very adult-oriented slasher film. Is it really fair to compare them? Let’s analyze the commonalities between these two titles to see why we might want to put them on even ground.

Both films are known for their metatextuality and postmodern analysis of their genres: that is, they acknowledge the clichés of the genre of which they are a part as if to say “This isn’t going to be like anything you’ve seen before.” Both include a main character (Danny and Randy respectively) well-versed in the world of film to openly address the clichés of the genre for the audience’s benefit, which shows the film’s self-awareness and allows anyone not familiar with the genre to see what the film is doing to address those clichés. Both bring this self-awareness to a climax in which a character says something like “This isn’t a movie; this is real life,” which both shows the main character at their most vulnerable moment and draws the audience out from behind the comfort of that invisible fourth wall, promising an element of unpredictability.

Transformers 5, written by no one
(Thank you, Tina Fey)
It is worth addressing here that if there’s one thing that appeals to a mass audience, it is predictability. The pressure to be original lies more in concept than in plot structure: Pixar’s films are so predictable that they probably write themselves by now, but where they succeed is in unique presentation and exceptional dialogue. We’re drawn in by the mythology of a world in which toys have lives we don’t see, and we are compelled to care what happens to Woody and Buzz through their actions and dialogue. Because we like both characters so much, we want to see them get along. We lack a direct relationship with Andy, but seeing him through Woody’s eyes makes us want to see them reunited. The plot is predictable, but the story is crafted so well that the audience feels invested in its development: what happens is what we want to happen. How it happens is the original part.

"But that lady in the beginning said
we'd commit suicide, so..."
Predictable stories give us a sense of control that allows us a brief escape from a world in which we have very little, but this principle can work toward endings we do not wish as well. Shakespeare’s tragedies are so well known for their predictable endings that the popular summary “everybody dies” is not too far off. Yet even knowing how the play ends, and in some cases even being told the ending in the first few minutes of the play, Shakespeare compels an audience to follow characters for two hours who are just going to die anyway. To do this successfully we must be convinced as an audience that there is no better way for the story to end: Romeo and Juliet succeeds because it creates a world where the two lovers cannot live together happily, and so escape (in the form of death) is their only real choice. The bittersweet tragedy ending is often that, though the characters die, those who survive them have learned something from the experience. Romeo ends with a truce, and Hamlet ends with Horatio relaying the story of Hamlet to Fortinbras, who stands to learn from the experience[1]. This predictability again reflects the audience’s need for control in the real world; experiencing tragedy on film or stage allows us to make sense of the tragedy in our personal lives, or in some cases to avoid such tragedy.

"All right, I'll explain my genius
one more time..."
Thus, when the unpredictable happens it is in danger of rejection from the audience. When it occurs at the ending, we have the term deus ex machina to express that breach of believability[2]: in layman’s terms you might call it the “Scooby Doo ending,” where the crime is revealed to have been committed by the person we’re given the least evidence to suspect. If a suspense story is well-written, then the ending would seem unpredictable, but the clues should add up perfectly on a repeat viewing. Some films belabor the point by including an ending montage to help piece things together, as the Saw series is famous for doing, but I tend to find these insulting and self-defeating: one guaranteed way to lower your ticket sales is to take away the incentive for a repeat viewing.

Where both Last Action Hero and Scream excel is in their adherence to predictability despite acknowledging that predictability. What this achieves is to raise the stakes against the audience’s predicting nature: if the rules we’re accustomed to in the fictional world no longer apply, will the outcome remain the same? Both films include scenes in which the characters argue over how the plot will unfold without the comfort of the rules of a fictional world, more directly casting doubt on how they will ultimately end (not to mention making both films delightfully quotable). Both films assume a comforting resolution, but for those rules to apply a greater effort must be made on the part of the characters: the indestructible Jack Slater becomes as human as John McClane to answer the question of what an action hero must be, and Ghostface goes to such extremes to set up a red herring that the eventual reveal still manages to surprise. Thus, these films craft endings which are predictable and comforting, but retain originality in how they get there.

Such intelligence and self-awareness do not come as complete surprises. Both films were helmed by successful directors who have shown a great awareness of the limitation of genre formulas. John McTiernan is best known for Predator and Die Hard, which respectively brought the plot of Alien to a Vietnam-like setting and introduced us to John McClane, an action hero with a rare vulnerability. Wes Craven is a household name for any horror fan; his 1984 offering A Nightmare on Elm Street has stood the test of time as a genre-transcending masterpiece, and remains one of the only teen slasher films I’ve seen where I could truly feel empathy for the main character, let alone the slasher himself. Of course, both filmmakers have had their share of mediocre films, too, but when they get it right, they get it right.

Having established similarities in form, approach, and leadership, let’s dive into the specifics of these films and see what we can learn.

Last Action Hero

To be fair, Last Action Hero is not largely considered a “bad” film; it’s certainly no Plan 9 From Outer Space. Critics often acknowledge what it did right, even if that was only enough to give it a score slightly above mediocre[3]. There isn’t a whole lot of scholarly writing on this film, but what there is often praises the film for its bold experimentation and its parallels to Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, though they’re often equally adept at pointing out its flaws. What the film is undoubtedly is a box office failure. With a budget of $70 million, Last Action Hero only made $50 million in its entire theatrical run in the US, leaving it to recoup from foreign showings as well as VHS and DVD rentals and sales. A lot of suggestions have been made to take weight away from how bad the film might be, such as its competition with the release of Jurassic Park two weeks previous, a film aimed at the very same demographic. Kim Masters and Nancy Griffin’s Hit and Run explains a lot of the production-side issues that went against Last Action Hero, but these facts are more useful to marketers and producers than to writers, and may not explain why Last Action Hero doesn’t hold up as well as other box office flops gone cult, so we’ll try to stick primarily to the elements that were intentional in this film’s creation.

"This is one hell of a time for a joke."
That being said, where do we even start? Perhaps the best place to start is by sitting down and just watching the movie so we can talk about the tone. The very first impression we get is rather dark: a swarm of police officers surrounding a building to the tune of Alice in Chains’s “What the Hell Have I?” A helicopter circles overhead. We then get our first line of the film, spoken by an important-looking officer: “This is one hell of a way to spend Christmas.”  A Die Hard reference delivered intentionally to be amusing to those who get it. So we’re looking at something kind of serious, but with a sense of satire.

The ever amusing elementary school
hostage situation on Christmas
Next we hear a machine gun firing at the squad cars, followed by a man yelling “I’ve got a present for ya.” From the roof of the building drops an automatic rifle, and then the body, presumably already dead, of a SWAT officer. We also get in this shot the name of the building: Lincoln Elementary. This is immediately followed by the important officer yelling “Damn you, Ripper, let the children go!” Here is a good point to stop and think about what we’re seeing. We have a hostage situation in which the hostages are children, the suspect is (presumably) a serial killer, on the roof of an elementary school, and on Christmas? Aside from the fact that this rules out small children as part of the audience, there’s the obvious logic problem: schools are let out for the Christmas week, so unless our villain went rounding up kids to take them to an elementary school, or there was some school play… Well, we know logic is out the window in favor of tongue-in-cheek humor, but is anyone expected to find humor in such a situation?

This film doesn’t quite feel like a comedy, even for an action comedy. If you look at the first five minutes of The Naked Gun by comparison, you see Leslie Nielson take out a room full of terrorist leaders single-handedly with a dim-witted sight-gag in almost every shot. Last Action Hero retains an odd sense of seriousness in its direction, perhaps because McTiernan had not yet made an action comedy and didn’t know what he was doing, or more likely because it intends to be a serious film. At this point the audience doesn’t really know.

Then Schwarzenegger appears on the screen, walking on the roofs of the squad cars in his snakeskin boots to get to the school building, iconic cigar in his mouth. The music by this point has moved from Alice in Chains to Kamen’s original score, which retains a gritty guitar hook to associate with Slater’s appearance. The other officer, who we learn is the caricature of a loud-mouthed, fast-talking chief of police, stereotypically threatens Slater’s job if he tries to go in. Slater responds unflinchingly by tossing his badge to the chief. Then he punches the Lieutenant Governor in the face and kicks a fellow officer in the groin, accompanying the assault with an action movie quip that is surprisingly labored for the situation: “You want to be a farmer? Here’s a couple of “achers”.” So far, the only people our hero has injured are the good guys, and we aren’t five minutes in.

Then we come to the rooftop scene, another place we need to pause for a moment. We finally see the Ripper (Tom Noonan) and learn that he is holding a child hostage, a child who yells out “Dad” so we know that he is Slater’s son; thus, the reason for Slater’s earlier comic defiance is to protect his child. Makes sense, I suppose. We get through the dialogue that these heavyweights have had a feud going for some time, at least since Slater had the Ripper put away ten years ago. The dialogue lacks any kind of humor in favor of an impressive dramatic tension, and the only moment the tension breaks for a potential laugh is in Slater throwing down his weapons. There’s a brief climax, and the film goes out of focus, which unintentionally seems to express what follows.

"Focus!"
At 7:39 we hear a boy’s voice yell “Focus!” We learn that everything up to this point has been a film within a film, and that our “real” main character is a 12-year-old boy named Daniel Madigan. Keeping in mind that we still don’t really know what kind of film we’re watching, we now find ourselves watching a Disney Channel Original Movie about a lonely kid obsessed with film, his saintly single mother, and the quirky old man at the movie theater who befriends him. It may be at this point that we realize we’re actually watching two movies, but we may figure that out at the halfway point instead. One is about a boy’s search for a male role model in a harsh reality, his discovery of a fantasy role model, his discovery of a role model reflecting that fantasy in reality, and a test of faith leading to a belief in himself. The other is about a superhero denied his powers and challenged to fight against his own seeming impotence to discover the true hero inside of him. While these two classic plots mesh together incredibly well, the problem is in the execution. Selling these two as a buddy-cop couple works about as well as Cop and a Half and takes up a majority of the film; coupled with the gags it pushes the runtime to 130 minutes, something many have cited as a reason for the film’s failure.

"Hey Claudius..."
If we wanted to tell Danny’s story, then putting so much pressure on Slater’s world is almost totally unnecessary; as I illustrated above, we know all we need to know about Slater’s world, Slater, and Danny’s relationship to him in the first 8 minutes of the film. If we didn’t get it by then, the Hamlet trailer certainly solidifies it, and that’s a mere 10 minutes in. Slater on the other hand is totally annoyed with Danny until his knowledge of film clichés becomes useful, so why not condense the in-movie portion to just these scenes and keep most of the action in the real world?

"Sorry, just kidding!"
Part of what drives the entire first half of the narrative is Danny trying to convince Slater that he lives in a fictional world; here’s another moment where we have to pull back. Look at the scene in Blade Runner in which Deckard, to make a point to Rachael, begins to describe a memory of hers that he should not know. Rachael finishes telling the story in a shaky voice as her eyes gloss over, and Deckard realizes that his insistence was insensitive, so much so that he tries to retract what he said. Compare this to Danny whining to Slater that because every number starts with “555”, he must be fictional. This is a complete shift of perspective; Danny doesn’t know that he’s threatening the fabric of Slater’s reality, because he’s just a kid. He is oblivious to how his words affect anyone but himself, and he is offended that no one believes him. The audience probably doesn’t consider the gravity of these exchanges either, because we already know Slater is fictional; we’re not invested in his reality, and the film doesn’t give us a chance to be. Slater doesn’t know, and his rejection is totally natural, which begs the question: why spend half of the film trying to convince him merely for comedic effect? We already know that seeing it for himself is the only thing that will tip Slater over the edge. Take out the naïve, self-absorbed child, and you take out the need for this self-assuring banter, but you also take out the charm of the dialogue.

Teens and action films can mix.
Another problem is that we’re expected to believe a 12-year-old is as well-versed in R-rated movies as the writer is. To a point, we can rationalize this; I was 8 when I saw Terminator 2, and I remember still being in elementary school when I wrote Schwarzenegger a fan letter praising his performance in Total Recall. But I can’t shrug the feeling that the film would have worked much better with an older teen in this role. It might have been harder to sell the whole “magic ticket” thing, but at least Danny wouldn’t come off as some whiny, irreverent kid and we wouldn’t have to question his mother’s parenting as much. Is there evidence that this would work? Terminator 2 came just two years earlier, and Furlong was a mere 13 at the time of its release. What a difference a year can make. Not calling your hero a “dumb idiot” helps, too.

"Let's push his son off the building.
Gives you nightmares for the rest of
your life. But you're fictional, so
who cares?"
I would argue that Slater’s story is the far more interesting and better told of the two, and most likely the story McTiernan and screenwriter Shane Black really wanted to tell. I’ve already mentioned McTiernan’s John McClane, and Black is best known for his work on Lethal Weapon, which features a character (Martin Riggs) with such a disturbing history that he is a suicidal wreck. For McTiernan and Black, the human story is as important as the action their characters bring about: their inability to protect those they love translates to an exaggerated aggression that gives these characters a sense of power and purpose. The moment that Slater realizes his life has been made up by screenwriters is one of the most haunting moments in Schwarzenegger’s career, especially knowing all that Slater has gone through[4]. Not only do we know a force equivocal to God is responsible for his heartache, redirecting the anger he feels for recognizable villains and placing it upon a force he cannot possibly fight against (in this world, at least), but we also know that he is now vulnerable, taking away the very means with which he could fight. It’s a powerfully human moment for any action hero, especially the indestructible Schwarzenegger, and it’s told in a surprisingly unique way.

I'm tempted to make my own YouTube account just to show this continuous shot.
The atmosphere of the scene is only enhanced by the late Robert Prosky, whose subtly humorous Nick tries to reassure the hero that there are worse things than being imaginary, like politicians. It’s at this point that the film stops trying to sell itself as comedy and really works on its own dramatic merits: aside from something about “rubber baby buggy bumpers” and an extended red carpet premier scene, the few jokes left feel totally natural, and the rest is taken up with gritty filmmaking. Slater’s boots now dent car roofs, causing him to lose his footing, and a game of chicken gone wrong is shot continuously, leading through a painful buildup to a very real car crash. The best dramatic moments are not Danny telling Slater how the movie world works, but Slater telling Danny how the real world works. All of this should have shown McTiernan’s brilliance as a filmmaker, but these details were probably lost on those who might have missed what the film was trying to do, or who might’ve just been bored by this point.

"I don't want to be no fourth wheel."
With all of that time spent developing the two main leads, how do the villains fare? The first we meet is Anthony Quinn’s Vivaldi, a stereotypical mobster whose only butchering is of English idioms. He develops a pretty impressive ruse, even if it does consist of an extended fart joke, but like Ronald Reagan, his delegation is his weakness.

The genuine article.
Vivaldi’s handiwork is carried out by marksman and strategist Mr. Benedict, who steals the screen as the main villain. However, we know nothing about Benedict or his motivation, even by Disney standards. While Jafar and Ursula have their hidden motives, Benedict’s only known interests are grand larceny and taking out Slater, though we never know why he cares about either other than just having fun being the evil mastermind. This leads to one of the biggest problems of the film’s logic: Benedict’s plot to kill Schwarzenegger in the real world. This would not negate Slater because Slater III and IV were filmed in the past. Benedict might stop future productions of the series, but it can be assumed each is a world in itself and Slater would continue to live in Slater IV. If Benedict had any common sense, he would know this; otherwise, no films would exist with actors who died after their production. If we give Benedict the credit of being a mastermind, then we must assume the whole Ripper plot on Schwarzenegger was bait to bring Slater to the roof of the movie theater where Benedict could ambush him: that’s a lot of assuming, especially when the Ripper gives evidence that Benedict told him to do something completely different. Normally, this would make no difference in a film whose premise is hinged on a magic ticket, but because the third act challenges us to take the film seriously, this lack of thought in the writing takes away from the audience’s ability to do so.

"Mo who?"
Then there’s John Practice, another unfortunate cardboard cutout of an FBI agent secretly working with the enemy. He only really exists in three scenes as part of Slater’s backstory and as a joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice is played by F. Murray Abraham, who played Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, the “guy who killed Mozart.” Danny is aware of this fact (though no kid too impatient to sit through Hamlet would be) and warns Slater of Practice’s eventual betrayal, offering another fun metatextual moment. There’s a weird importance to composers here: Abraham’s relationship to Salieri and Mozart is the subject of several jokes, but then there’s “Tony” Vivaldi and Mr. Benedict (whose name may be a reference to composer Julius Benedict[5]). This name scheme could have lent to the characters, but instead we have to accept that this is just a coincidence because the film never gives us reason to suspect a hidden message in it. It’s unfortunate that a film which is in other ways too smart for its own good shows such a lack of development in its villains. Strangely, the Ripper is the most understandable villain in the film, which contrasts with Charles Dance’s scene-stealing Shakespearean performances.

A sawed-off shotgun at point
blank range can't stop Slater.
Can we really call Last Action Hero an action comedy, as it seems to have been intended to be? As an action film, Last Action Hero spends a lot more time in character development and dialogue than most. Aside from an extended car chase, a brief comic shootout and a rooftop gunfight turned helicopter-versus-crane, there isn’t a whole lot of action to be had. Schwarzenegger-as-Schwarzenegger even comments that the violence was toned down in Slater IV due to pressure from censors. Knowing that the action is in a movie world where the hero can’t die doesn’t add at all to the tension that might be felt in these scenes. We only feel some concern for Danny, as he insists he is a “comedy sidekick” and therefore as immune to harm as Detective Nordberg or Leo Getz. Action in the real world carries much more weight, but is extremely brief as a consequence. Battles are fought with words and wits rather than exhaustive car chases and bullet exchanges, and this works marginally in the film’s favor; as with Die Hard and its brother films, the build-up to the action sequence can be as suspenseful as what actually happens, and McTiernan is fully aware of this. Compared to the first half of the film, however, these scenes might feel somewhat disjointed and rushed to a general audience.

Action 101: No stopping to talk
Overall, the film could have used more action. There is simply no excuse, even in a film with this much dialogue: consider The Terminator, in which everything we know about the plot is told in action. Even the exposition is told to Sarah Connor by Kyle Reese as they race away from the T-800 in a stolen car. There’s a brief repose in the police station, but the film’s tension never really breaks once it picks up. On the other hand, Last Action Hero’s atmosphere is more focused on detective work, probably to allow for the jokes to be told at a leisurely pace, but there just isn’t enough sleuthing to warrant the pacing. Slater even comments that he’s never had to do actual detective work: any time he is at a loss for clues, he can count on the bad guys to show up and kidnap him. The plot is only once pushed forward by an intelligent epiphany; the rest of the time it is by the actions of the villains, who always seem at least one step ahead even in the real world.

As a comedy, it suffers in two ways. The first is the obvious problem endemic to the genre: if the audience isn’t inclined to find something funny, they won’t. When your main character’s psychology is marred by having watched his son pulled from the roof of a building, there are only so many jokes you can make around that. This is taken to a further extreme when we realize that a lot of the in-universe jokes are intended to be written poorly, as though all of the good puns were taken in the first three Slater films. “That was a stretch.”

The second issue is that the comedy interrupts the pacing. One of the most amusing scenes in the film is also one that should have been cut in editing: the Blockbuster scene. This is where you get some of the most quotable Schwarzenegger retorts: “That’s why we have area codes,” and “No, this is California,” as well as the standee featuring Sylvester Stallone in Terminator 2. As a comic scene, it works, but in terms of plot structure, it is distracting and unnecessary. In the preceding scene, Danny is trying to convince Slater that he knows what the villains are doing because he’s seen it on screen. Then, there’s the Blockbuster scene, Danny’s “ten minutes to prove” they’re in a movie. Next, Danny tells Slater that he knows where Vivaldi’s villa is because he’s seen it on screen. So aside from a few jokes, the scene accomplishes nothing to move the story forward: we get a sense of how the fictional world gets around casting issues, but that’s it. Danny fails to cast any doubt in Slater’s mind, and the next scene is where the preceding scene was leading anyway.

Had Last Action Hero abandoned its attempts to appeal to young teens and children, which don’t really match with its overall tone and intelligence anyway, it might have done much better than it did. The superhero-turned-human who rediscovers what it means to be a hero is an extremely successful archetype that works well with a general audience, even when solely geared toward older audiences (X-Men, The Dark Knight). Last Action Hero introduced that plot to a dark parody of action films and could have worked on its own merits. If on the other hand it had softened its tone in favor of Danny’s story, it might have made an okay family film, as was the earlier Schwarzenegger vehicle Kindergarten Cop. In either case, it needed to go with one story or the other, in favor of Slater’s. Trying to fit two main plots, two main characters and four villains into a single film rarely works as it is, especially when you’re actually trying to develop your characters.

In so many words, Last Action Hero tried to be too many things for too many people, and it has thus become relegated to $5 DVD bins for the few cheap action nerds lucky enough to discover it. I’m sure I could write another 10 pages worth of what fans like myself loved about this movie, but it wouldn’t really lend to this discussion. I will give kudos to Schwarzenegger, Black and McTiernan for their willingness to poke fun at their own work.

Scream

Released three years after Last Action Hero, Scream is actually the second postmodern horror film directed by Craven since McTiernan’s film. The first was 1994’s New Nightmare, which revived the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise by placing the story in the “real world” and having Freddy stalk Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played Nancy Thompson in the first film. Heather Langenkamp plays “herself” in the film, blurring the line between film and reality. Coming at the end of a long decade of rehash after rehash of slash and losing its teen audience, New Nightmare was just what it promised to be, but at its core it was still a horror film. Aside from its self-awareness and fourth-wall defiance, there wasn’t enough to push it out of the limitations of its genre.

Ghostface lacks a unique costume or
weapon, allowing total anonymity.
Then Scream came two years later. Unlike New Nightmare and its adult cast, Scream looked like a return to teen slasher roots, but with new gimmicks: the killer now announced himself by mobile phone, and we were led to believe that it was a human killer as opposed to some supernatural figure, something that hadn’t been in a well-known slasher since the original Friday the 13th, Leatherface aside[6]. Unlike the usual silent slasher, Ghostface spoke to most of his victims prior to attacking, but eschewed the campy threats of Freddy Krueger in favor of a suspense-building guessing game in which victims were convinced they had some agency in their survival. Of course, Ghostface does remain silent while he is on screen and his movements are fast and almost totally inaudible, giving him a seeming supernatural element to add to the scare factor of his presence. This is enhanced by the use of a mobile phone, which allows the killer to achieve virtual omnipresence when unseen.

The fact that it is assumed Ghostface is a person rather than an actual ghost makes two major impacts on the story and the audience. The first is that the plot plays out more like a mystery/thriller than a horror film. Part of preempting the killer isn’t a gimmick like “don’t fall asleep”, but rather unraveling the clues and discovering his true identity. This draws the audience in and engages them more than telling them outright who the killer is and just waiting for those predictable “surprise” moments where the killer jumps out[7]. Anyone can be the killer, and a clue can be in any frame. One of my favorite minor details is in the bathroom scene, where we see Ghostface wearing a pair of boots that we see again later, worn by Dewey’s superior, casting suspicion even on such a minor character. Craven enhances this suspenseful tone by making much of the gore in the film off-camera, avoiding the alienation of audience members who might be disturbed or uninterested in it. We’re a long way from Tina Gray writhing on the ceiling in a bloody mess, but the simplified killing scenes work strongly in the film’s favor to appeal to a much larger audience, particularly those who might prefer suspense to horror films.

If the shoe fits...
Of course, a good mystery needs a good motive, but Scream retains its horror by declaring “motives are incidental.” To me, the principal difference between horror and mystery is the supernatural: that is, to maintain its scare factor, horror must retain a sense of the unexplainable. If a horror film is going to continue to scare us past the 90-minute mark, it cannot end tidily; it must destroy the sense of order and balance we rely upon and convince us that there’s nothing separating us from the victims in the film. A slasher’s victims are not chosen by a calculated process, despite the “rules,” but are totally circumstantial or even completely random[8]. Scream uses its postmodern analysis to convince us that motives are meaningless because a serial killer must be a psychopath anyway, and thus any rationalizing is retrospective. Several theories are tossed around throughout the film, such as Sidney doing it for the attention or Gale doing it to sell her book and each theory seems just as valid as any other. While the final reveal does offer a motive worthy of a mystery with a calculated plot, it’s a surprisingly strained motive that turns criminal psychology into the supernatural element needed for a horror film to work.

I blame Oliver Stone.
This was, of course, a very timely issue. It seems needless to say that teenage copycat killers were not a new phenomenon in 1996; just two years prior, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers was released, followed by several teen homicides in which the film was specifically mentioned as part of the motive[9]. By the time Scream 2 came around in 1997, it was assumed that blaming the media was a good enough reason to warrant an insanity plea. It’s difficult to blame those who scapegoat the media: trying to make sense of violent crime is difficult as it is, let alone such crime committed by someone with the assumed innocence that comes with adolescence; surely it must have something to do with the entertainment they’re exposed to. However, this directly contradicts the popularity of such films; it seems common sense to ask: “if films have such an impact on impressionable minds, why aren’t we all serial killers?” In Scream, it is commonly accepted that all of the teens have seen horror films and comment on them openly, so we have to rule out seeing such films as a possible cause. The film further addresses the issue more directly: “Movies don’t create psychos; movies make psychos more creative.” While this does, or should, take away from the temptation to scapegoat the media, it also denies us a means of making sense of horrific acts in the real world. Teen psychopathy continues to be a virtually impenetrable issue well into the new millennium.

The police ignore teens, especially
teens talking about murderous blobs.
The second impact of Ghostface’s identity is the way that it affects the teen to adult relationships. One of the characteristics of the teen horror genre is that the adults rarely believe anything the kids have to say, even if the kids have long figured out who or what the killer is. In fact, the adults may be totally oblivious to any danger at all. This is a trope that goes back at least as far as 1958’s The Blob, and it has even been parodied in films of other genres like The Goonies, in which Chunk is accused of lying to the police because he once pranked them with a phone call referencing Gremlins. Valerie Wee, in her impressive scholarship of Scream and its relation to the slasher genre, follows the notion that the slasher genre arose out of the growing gap between adults and teenagers and the increasing anxieties that came with growing up in American society[10]. Confronted with more mature issues at younger ages, teens are frequently confronted with a loss of innocence, “the sin factor” as Randy calls it. In the real world, teens are told that these acts lead to consequences which are often so exaggerated that it makes the acts themselves taboo, thus, engaging in these acts in a slasher film will always result in a violent death.

All great relationships begin with a
solid right hook.
Without getting too deep into horror theory, what makes Scream unique is that the teenagers have voices that are heard by the adults around them, particularly in the characters of Dwight “Dewey” Riley, the awkward but protective deputy, and Gale Weathers, the anything-for-a-story reporter. Though initially there is an obvious social gap between these characters and their teenage counterparts (Tatum and Sidney respectively), they develop a bond that leads to them putting themselves at risk to protect the teens. This allows an adult audience a window into teenage anxieties and vice versa, blurring the established lines that distinguished a teen horror film from the rest.

Subtle.
Discussing the tone, I don’t even have to give an opening scene analysis on this one, as it establishes its tone clearly[11]: as soon as the title appears flashing white and red, we hear string instruments trilling, a heartbeat, a telephone ringing, a girl screaming, a blade slicing, and a gunshot, all solely in the sound track and all before the twenty second mark. We know we’re about to watch a horror film, and in a genre known for turning a lot of people off, this may be the most helpful twenty seconds in horror.


Is that Drew Barrymore in the
foreground?
Of course, the opening scene warrants a good bit of discussion. While Last Action Hero had its line of random celebrity cameos (Chevy Chase?), Scream was mostly made up of young actors relatively new to the big screen. One of its most established names was Drew Barrymore, a Hollywood legacy known since her role in E.T. and retrospectively for her brilliant choices in film roles. One such choice was her role in Scream: offered the lead as Sidney Prescott, Barrymore chose instead to play Casey Becker, reportedly because it seemed like more fun or simply due to a lack of time to commit. Whether intentional or not, Becker’s death in the opening of the film is an incredible display of this film’s audacity to break with tradition: killing your major star power first negates the casting tropes we’ve come to expect in film, pushing us past our ability to predict what will happen solely based on casting.

"Did you really put her liver in the
mailbox because I heard that they
found her liver in the mailbox..."
Scream uses its postmodern analysis for comedy at times, but in a totally different fashion than Last Action Hero. One of the best scenes here involves the central teen characters sitting outside of the school discussing their questioning. Through the scene, Stu and Randy exchange accusations with increasing irreverence, culminating in a Jerry Lewis impression and a poor liver pun. Tatum insists the killer could have been a girl, referencing Basic Instinct. Grounding the tone of the scene is the presence of Sidney, whose facial expressions and words remind us of the gravity of the situation before we can get too comfortable laughing about it. If we still find it funny, Billy’s there to remind us we’re being insensitive. Later exchanges between Randy and Stu maintain this sense of grounding with an ominous presence: Billy in the movie store and Ghostface in Tatum’s house. The grounding of the tone works well for those who are not inclined to find humor in the situation, but for the desensitized horror fan, the comedic exchanges add a level of enjoyment to the film.

Himbry considers a new career.
Many critics argue that the characters in the film are very three-dimensional, but I’m going to differ slightly here. While Gale, Dewey, and Sidney are exceptional characters who evolve through the film, most of the cast is made up of stock characters summed up by one or two lines of their dialogue. The stroke of genius is that the stock characters Kevin Williamson selected are all very recognizable as three-dimensional characters: that is, we’ve all known someone like them, and can thus project complex personalities onto them. Craven doesn’t need to waste screen time developing these characters because they come with the benefit of already being known to the audience. There’s also a lot to be said about subtlety; though Principal Himbry chastises the youth of the day, we also see him don the ghost mask and boo himself in the mirror, a brief moment that adds a level of interpretation to an otherwise dismissible character.

In Summary

In comparison to Last Action Hero, Scream is not a film bogged down by problems with tone and character development. Williamson and Craven establish tone early, ensure that post-modern elements fit with the overall tone, and manage to work a mystery element into the film to help it appeal to a broader audience. In revising its genre, Scream harkens back to early slasher brilliance and melds it with Hitchcock’s sense of suspense while updating the themes to the sensibilities of a general 1990s audience. Its self-awareness sets a new standard for horror films to follow, a standard which even subsequent Scream sequels would have trouble meeting.

"Hey, come on! Focus!"
Last Action Hero is a jumbled mess of tone that leaves the audience to figure out what they’re supposed to be getting out of every scene from start to finish. The jokes do help the audience to decipher the genre commentary, but part of the issue here is that cliché is celebrated more than challenged: the audience of an action film doesn’t really care about literary realism, they care about action. Like the horror genre, plots, motives, and details like phone numbers are all afterthoughts and are easy to nitpick. Because the clichés only apply in Slater’s world, it fails to make an impact on an audience who knows they’re watching a movie prone to such clichés. The only real difference between this film’s use of cliché and something like Loaded Weapon is the insistence upon pointing out its self-awareness, and using Danny to do this becomes obnoxious over time.  Only one scene in this film involves Danny and Slater using this knowledge to solve a problem; the rest of the time it is being used to destroy Slater’s reality, only to restore it at the resolution of the film. The resolution gives us a message that through fiction we can find a belief in ourselves in a world where our efforts seem inconsequential, but this meaning is probably lost on most, and understandably so in the labyrinth of plot directions this film seems to take. In the simplest terms, what Last Action Hero needed was a writer willing to shout “Focus!”


[1] Fortinbras invades Denmark to avenge his father’s death at the elder Hamlet’s hands.
[2] Literally “God from a machine”, deus ex machina refers to a classical tradition of having gods descend to judge the ending of the story, represented by actors held aloft by cranes.
[4] We know that his wife left him, his son was killed by the Ripper, and he wishes for his daughter to be less of a tomboy, but there’s also an in-joke that so much of his family must have been threatened or killed that only his second cousin is left to be used as leverage by the film’s villains.
[5] Schwarzenegger’s character in Twins is also named Julius Benedict. There is, of course, the theory that Mr. Benedict is a reference to Benedict Arnold and that, like Practice, we can predict his betrayal; Arnold is Schwarzenegger’s first name, so calling the villain “Arnold” might’ve been problematic. Still, there are other classic double-crossers, and more famous composers, so it’s a bit of a stretch either way.
[6] This is debatable, of course, and depends upon whether or not one considers Michael Myers supernatural, considering his designation as “the shape.” Scream may directly reference this revisiting to a human killer in the opening scene, in which Ghostface challenges Casey Becker with questions about Michael Myers and Mrs. Voorhees.
[7] I give A Nightmare on Elm Street credit here, as the transitions from real world to dream world are virtually seamless, especially by the end of the film.
[8] There is typically a relationship to teen actions and their subsequent victimization, as Randy describes, leading to issues of teen morality in the film’s reading. However, this relationship would seem to be completely in the narrative structure and not something of which the killer is consciously aware.
[10] Wee, Valerie. Resurrecting and Updating the Teen Slasher: The Case of "Scream". Journal of Popular Film & Television 34:2 (Summer 2006) p. 50-61.
[11] If you would like such an analysis, Glenn Dunks of Stale Popcorn does an excellent analysis of the entire film, as well as its sequels. http://stalepopcornau.blogspot.com/2010/06/scream-to-scream-scene-by-scene-scream.html