The Subtle Horror of Little Nightmares

When it comes to horror in videogames there is a general over reliance on shock tactics to get a reaction out of the player. Excessive gore and jump scares are deployed regularly to cajole the player into a visceral reaction to what is happening on the screen. But these tactics can be exploitative and miss the point of what good horror can do, using atmosphere and artistic direction to get under the player's skin. Little Nightmares by Tarsie Studios manages to find that sweet spot of unnerving dread with it's fairytale-freakiness and nuanced approach to delivering horror. Here I take a look how the design of the game helps it stand out from it's piers and unsettles all those who step foot onto this doomed vessel. 

SPOILERS AHEAD

Little Nightmares is essentially split into five chapters, each taking place in one specific area of this haunted ship. Each level revolves around one central enemy, with every element of design being consistent with that logic. There is no better example of this than the kitchen where the monstrous cooks reside. The game uses this innocuous setting and twists it beyond insanity, channeling fairytale-esque vibes. With the plates stacked in impossible towers and the fish heads strewn across every surface, it feels like re-imagining of a lost Brothers Grimm tale. From the design of the kitchen to the cooks themselves this whole area has the unnerving quality of the uncanny about it, like an inadvertently menacing stop-motion animation from a 70's children's TV show. Navigating your way through this area is incredibly tense in no small part down down to the disturbing sound design of the cooks. From the high-pitched panicked squeals they let out when alerted to your presence to their constant animalistic heavy breathing, these glutinous butchers act as bizarre and disturbing foil to your progress. Their grotesque design married with the twist on familiar setting allows the game to get under your skin with resorting to jump scares over-the-top violence. 

The game manages to give each level it's own distinct personality while still simultaneously making it fit together as a cohesive whole. The look of each area is distinct, but the overall feel of the ship has a dream-like logic to it. Like a slowly progressing insanity. In the last couple of levels this is most apparent, where the developers really up the Studio Ghibli vibes. The fat people of the upper deck who are being constantly fed by the cooks from the earlier level continue the central theme of greed and evil. But their appearance is an unexpected and abrupt shock. This whole section, from the design of the rooms to the weird masks to the swine-like ship dwellers feel like watching a sadistic version of Spirited Away. In a good way. This steady evolution of theme not only creates a powerful story motif, with is paralleled by the journey of the player character, but also constantly gives you a feeling of dread. This ramping up of the monstrousness of the world keeps you wanting, and also dreading, to see what is round every corner. 

For a game which is ostensibly about cannibalism, Little Nightmares is surprisingly lean when it comes to gore. Instead of gratuitous death animations, after the child is captured by one of the foul enemies the camera always cuts away before it's bloody fate is realised.  Again this ties into the overarching fairytale aesthetic. The gore is hinted at but never actually seen, often with sound effects of the characters death heard after the screen has gone fully black. While of course gore is a fun and at times essential part of horror, it can often lead to diminishing returns. There is always a perverse joy from seeing your character in games such as Tomb Raider or Dead Space succumb to a brutal death. The game doesn't want you to die, as seen by its often quite frustratingly sparse checkpoint system. This shows a restraint and subtlety that is quite rare in gaming.

It's hard not to compare Little Nightmares with the work of fellow Scandinavian developers Playdead. On the surface their exceptional titles Limbo and last year's Inside both have a lot in common with Little Nightmares. They're all 2D puzzle platformers centring on a sad child trying to escape a bleak world full of dastardly creatures by running right all the time. But there is actually quite which separates Little Nightmares from these titles and makes it more of horror game than it's spiritual siblings.

Little Nightmares focuses much less on the trial-and-death mechanics of Limbo and Inside which ends up creating a much less difficult game. The inclusion of slight depth in your character's movement akin to Super Mario 3D Land and a floaty jumping system means the platforming doesn't demand the same precision as Playdead's games do. Limbo and Inside are much more 'gamey', often giving room-based challenges with puzzles and platforming normally playing a part. Little Nightmares goes for a much more streamlined and simple focus on using the environment to escape your foes. Neither of these approaches are wrong and serve each game well, but they are different. For better or worse, Little Nightmares delivers a more pure horror experience.

In age where both games and films rely too heavily on jump scares it is refreshing to see a game creep you out by getting under your skin. Drawing in influences from various sources it routinely surprises and shocks the player with resorting to shock tactics. It's exceptional level, sound and creature design all comes together in perfectly captured interpretation of a cannibalistic nightmare. 

 

 

Watching Star Wars For The First Time

I have never properly watched a Star Wars film.

This statement is the millennial equivalent of renouncing Christ in the Middle Ages. It's especially sacrilegious on the internet as 90% of all online content is in some way related to Star Wars. Therefore, it's more like claiming there is no God in the Middle Ages whilst in church. At Christmas. Wearing a 'I <3 The Devil' t-shirt. As somebody who is quite involved in so-called 'nerd culture' being an avid video game player and all, not knowing the ins-and-outs of 'Star Wars' is a strange one. So much of modern, online culture is inspired by or directly references the series. And since the reboots have come out nobody will shut up about it.

For whatever reason I didn't watch the films as a child. I didn't really watch many films, I just sat around playing Pokemon Blue on loop. As I got older it became a weird sense of hipster pride for me. Made me seem more edgy. I always refrained from watching them because I believed it could never live up to the hype. My hypothesis is that the reason people love 'Star Wars' so much is mainly due to nostalgia. Me watching them aged 21 would completely bypass that connection that other people have with it. 

But I have decided now is the time to do it and put my theory to the test. Over three days I will watch the original trilogy and record my initial reaction on this blog. Who knows, maybe I will fall in love with the series just like everybody else. Maybe they will fall flat. Either way, with the world on the brink of nuclear evaporation what better time is there to escape to a world of intergalatic incesst and Daddy issues?

A New Hope

Watching A New Hope for the first time is like listening to the original version of a song after only hearing the cover version. Practically every scene has been parodied and every line turned into a meme. It's like listening to the original version of a song after only hearing the cover version. 'A New Hope' is the 'Mad World' by Tears For Fears of the film world.

The first aspect I was pleasantly surprised by was how little dialog there was at the start. It doesn't feel the need to explain everything or patronise the audience. Apart from C3PO's wittering, the opening 15 minutes is practically wordless. The opening also also presents this dirty, battered version of the future rather than the shiny futuristic look that I was expecting. Everything looks slightly broken and pieced together from bits that were just lying around. Whether this is deliberate or just a symptom of the limited special effects of the time I don't know, but it really managed to convey the personality and lifestyle of this planet. I thoroughly enjoyed the opening, as rather than dropping us straight into an action sequence or overloading us with exposition it slowly eases you into the character and tone of this alien galaxy.

The acting isn't great. Most of the characters only have one facial expression, a look of sort of pensive worry. This isn't helped by the editing, which often cuts the scene straight after a line of dialog without pausing for effect, cutting to dialog from another location without an establishing shot. It's particularly strange after the death of Luke's adopted family. The editing and wooden acting makes it looks like he gets over their deaths in a matter of minutes and just flies of the other side of the galaxy. This can be a bit jarring but again it's probably more to do with age than anything else. It may just be my modern taste and expectations of film making, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

I found the film got less interesting as it went on. As most of the second act takes place on the Death Star, the locations didn't have that same battered charm which I enjoyed earlier on. The action scenes in general are also pretty dull by modern standards. The space fight at the climax of the film in particular has not aged well and goes on for way too long. It mainly consists of nameless grunts shouting instructions at each other and then getting blown up.

At it's core, A New Hope tells a very simple story. A bunch of ragtag misfits group up to save a Princess and blow up some evil English people's base. I enjoyed its simple premise but find it weird looking back to see how the levels of fan-obsession came about. I cannot see where the levels of complicated lore and fan theories spawned from on evidence of this film alone.  All in all I enjoyed New Hope. It didn't change my life but it was good fun on the most part. My 'hope' (eh, see what I did there) for the rest of the series is that there is more of the planet-hopping, bar-brawling adventure as opposed to the space-action epic.

Empire Strikes Back

Unlike like its predecessor Empire Strikes Back throws you in at the deep end with the Rebels preparing for battle on Hoth and Luke getting beaten up by a Yeti thing. Credit that the film assumes you have seen the previous film and doesn't feel the need to re-introduce the characters to you. It had trust in the audience and didn't waste any time getting down to it. That's quite impressive for a film ostensibly aimed at kids. It knows what kids want: big monsters, big fights and limbs flying all over the place. Not enough films these days satisfy children's innate bloodlust.

The spaceship battle on Hoth was better than the one at the climax of New Hope. The stop-motion AT-AT's still look impressive and the snowy tundra of Hoth is a more interesting backdrop than the corridors of Lego that was the Death Star. These action sequences still can't compete with the extravagance of modern day blockbusters, but you at least knew what was happening at all times. The machinery has an obvious scale making easy for your brain to compute the levels at which the fights is occurring.

The film then really does slow down. While the on-screen chemistry and the acting is massively improved (probably because George Lucas wasn't on directing duties for this one), there were moments where it dragged. The whole Jedi training in particular was pretty tedious with Yoda intensely annoying me. I know Jar-Jar Binx gets a lot of stick but Yoda is a completely stupid character in his own right and nobody seems to mind. Rose-tinted glasses I tells ya. However the training did at least have a cool pay-off with the dream sequence fight complete Vader's head exploding and turning into Luke's. Again, good violence and some lovely foreshadowing.

The last 30 mins is terrific though. I did start to find myself really caring about the characters. Even though I vaguely knew what would happen, my heart did rentch a tad when Han when got slowly lowered into the carbonite freezer. And obviously I knew about the twist. I didn't exactly spit my drink out when Luke found out about his old man. It is a shame I couldn't experience that reveal properly as child and have my mind completely blown. I had that twist spoiled for me by Toy Story 2.

But overall, my enjoyment of Empire Strikes Back is in complete contrast to 'New Hope'. I preferred this one during its action sections and found the middle a bit of a slog. From my limited knowledge of the series, most people regard this as the 'Star Wars' film. If this really is the high-water mark then to be honest I'm a little disappointed. But still I enjoyed it just as much as the first, just in a different way.

Return Of The Jedi

The final episode of the original trilogy starts off with possibly my favourite 'bit' of all three films. The opening in Jabba's palace is great. The grotesque alien creations are right up my street. While some look better than others, there is much to admire about the imagination in the creature design. As a kind mini-story at the beginning of the film it is a great way of showing off the different skills the main characters have acquired, climaxing with Leia showing her badass side and strangling Jabba with her chains. 

But after this, much like in the previous film, it slows to a snail's pace with some boring exposition with Luke and Yoda. It has taken me a while but I have finally worked out why these bits are so boring. It's because Luke is an incredibly bland character. He has absolutely no personality. While interesting stuff happens to him, he in of himself, is not at all engaging. He's just a bit of a goody-two-shoes who never really displays any human qualities. Han, Leia and even R2-D2 have more about them than the main character. I get that he is meant to be a bit of blank canvas, a cipher for kids to put their own stories into the world, but would it have killed them to give him some sort of edge? During the action scenes and indeed the climax of this film it's fine. But when it's just him and another character it really does hit home how boring he is.

Anyway, Return of the Jedi rounds things off well with some satisfying action scenes which don't get too bombastic and excessive. All the characters play their part in the final assault and we get some nice closure with Vader killing the Emperor and then revealing himself to be an egg at the end. I did enjoy Emperor Palpatine I must say. A proper over-the-top, camp villain the likes of which you don't really see now. Villains nowadays have to be cool. The Emperor is just a mouldy man who spits his words out like a disgusted old thespian. However there was one action scene which has not aged well, that being the section with the hoverbikes in the forest. I couldn't help but think of this scene from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace:

So what are my thoughts at the end of all this? Do I now love Star Wars? The short answer is no. They were perfectly enjoyable films in their own right and considering how old they are they've aged pretty well. The imagination and thought which went into the planet and creature design still holds up. But ultimately I will never love these films the way others do. If I had watched these when I was younger I probably wouldn't be bothered by the rather skeletal plot and two-dimensional characters. But it is hard for me to see why people obsess over these characters so much. For example there is talk of a Boba Fett solo film. Why? He does nothing. His character building starts and ends with his helmet. People have nostalgic memories not only of these films, but the toys and painting their own vision of the world on to it. Me, as a jaded, 21 year old, will simply never get that.

The Melancholy Of 'The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild'

The latest installment in the beloved 'Legend of Zelda' series has already been given rightful praise as not only one of the best games in the series, but possibly one of the greatest gaming worlds ever created. The game takes inspiration from its past whilst updating and re-imagining the franchise in an ambitious and brilliant way. But an often overlooked part of this world design is how it allows for non-linear storytelling and subtle annui that slowly unfurls itself over your many hours of exploring Hyrule. 'Breath Of The Wild' deals with themes of regret, the fading of youth and acceptance of loss, but does so through mechanics and world building rather than through dialog-heavy cutscenes, creating one of the richest and most engaging open worlds in the process.

On a purely aesthetic level 'BOTW' crams as much character and imagination in to every fibre of the game world as possible, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. The way in which Link reacts to the changes in climate is a perfect example of this. Rather than a message popping up in the corner of the screen telling the player the repercussions of this status change, there is a physical manifestation of the effects. From Link shivering in the cold, going light-headed in the desert heat, attracting lightning in a storm or seeing his attire dramatically bursting into flames while ascending Death Mountain. The player is given immediate visceral feedback by the weather effects. It helps create an extra emotional bridge between the player and Link as you panic when you see your fine wooden weaponry catch fire on your back just as Link would. After a few hours with the game you don't even need the text to appear for you to realise you need to change clothes or drink a potion as you have become so in-tune with the visual stimuli the game presents. Even simple things such as fast-travel are made to look visually interesting. Rather than simply throwing the player into a loading screen and spitting them back out at the other side off the map, Link breaks off into blue light before rematerialising at your destination. It's these small details which add more character and immersion into the world than lifelike visuals can ever do.

'BOTW' manages to circumnavigate some of the classic video game tropes which disconnect you from the world. Over the past decade of game design the increasing 'Ubisoft-ification' of open-worlds has increasingly demanded that the map should be filled to the brim with icons denoting 'stuff' for the player to do. You can barely move for new markers or quests popping up. It means that you are not actually invested in the world, you're simply following where the icons are telling you to go. 'BOTW' has just as much 'stuff' to do as those games, it just doesn't tell you. This means you are exploring to satisfy your own curiosity rather than following an in-game checklist. The omission of trophies or achievements also works to this end. Happening across something in the world feels like an unexpected  treat, like you've made a genuine discovery off your own back. You are not just playing a video game, you are going on an adventure. 

So how does it create a sense of melancholy?

Perhaps the most obvious way the game strums on the sadness gland is through the 'Captured Memories' quest. This requires you to hunt down the scene where 12 pictures were taken to help regain Link's memory. These pictures unlock fragments of memory displayed through short cutscenes of Link and Zelda and their plight shortly before Calamity Ganon's victory. The story of the downfall of Hyrule is revealed to you from these 2 characters perspective, showing the increasing panic Zelda feels at not being able to meet the requirements of her destiny, struggling with her faith and being fearful of her inability to defeat Ganon. These cutscenes are fairly short, not brilliantly written and feature some pretty hammy voice acting. But they still leave quite a mark.

Part of the reason for this is because the player's experience of the gameplay is mirroring Link's emotional arc of confronting his past. The player is hunting down fragments of information to help spell out a full picture of what happened to this world. Just as Link is. The effect these snippets of story have on the player is given added weight by the peace and quiet that bookends them. After these sections I always found myself strolling around the world with no particular purpose in mind, letting the cogs in my mind deconstruct them and pair them with my broader experiences of the game. Wandering aimlessly alone through a vast and hostile world not only allows time for the themes of the game to bleed into your subconscious, but also allows for quiet reflection to draw your own conclusions. It doesn't throw you straight back into a jarring fast-paced action section as many games would. Of course you can jump over to the other side of the map and fight a Hinox if you want to, but personally I found these quiet moments vital to the overall tone and sense of wonderment. Returning to the sprawling wilderness with the quiet ambience of surrounding flora and fauna punctuated by the occasional brush of piano seemed to fit the reflective mood. It's a master in subtly and allowing you time to breath in the world and its morose underbelly.

This version of Hyrule is completely unique to the Zelda series. The climbing and gliding mechanics work in tandem to help to gain perspective on your travels. It helps you prioritise and set your own goals whilst whetting your appetite for exploration with the promise of secrets glimmering in the distance. While it borrows certain series staples such as Hyrule Castle, Death Mountain and Zora's Domain, they are all completely re-imagined. This ties it to the theme of restoring memory at the core of games plot. You recognise these places but they have changed. Or at least they don't look the way you remember them. It recalls that strange feeling of coming back to your hometown after a while away. It's reminiscent of the feeling I got from playing 'Gone Home', a game which subverts your expectations and makes your own home feel alien to you. Everything is the same but feels so different due to your new outlook on the world.

This is perfectly captured by the minimalist music that drifts through on your travels. Rather than being big orchestral themes with obvious melodies, they take the form of sparse piano pieces that glide in occasionally as if it is being carried on the wind. It mostly forgoes the classic Zelda tunes except for the occasional tips of the hat working their way into new compositions like clouded recollections. One such example being the Dragon Roost Island theme from 'Wind Waker' being slipped into the middle of the music in Rito Village. It gives you a brief hint of nostalgia without hitting you over the head with obvious throwbacks. It means the game stands on its own feet while also giving you that warm, melancholic pang that nostalgia can do.

'Breath of the Wild' uses its exemplary open-world to get under your skin and exercise emotions in the player that few games even to attempt to. It lets your brain do the work and subtly plays with emotions by addressing very real human feelings of failure, forgotten youth and dealing with nostalgia in unique and non-exploitative way. The detail and thought that has gone it to every small detail in the world makes the whole package feel cohesive and immerses you in this world, allowing for the themes hit home. The marriage of story, world-design and artistic flourishes to the characters conjures a very real image of the human condition inside this incredibly fun and addictive game.

Twitter, Brexit & the Cycle of Despair

If we have learnt one thing over the last 2 years of political upheaval and the worldwide sag into right-wing nationalism it's that Twitter can't be trusted.

It's been 9 months since that fateful day where the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and I for one cannot remember a time before it. Anybody who says they can is lying, like people who claim to be able to remember being in the womb. Since then Brexit has constantly churning away in the back of my mind taking up 10% of my mental energy. I can be having a perfectly fine day, having a walk, eating a nice sandwich, the BAM...I remember Brexit. I curl up into the fetal position and start making wailing noises like a cat that's got it's tail trapped in a door. The security staff at the shopping centre put cones around my body, the police are called.

Twitter has not helped this. For the past 9 months my daily use of Twitter has mainly inflicted worry, depression and anxiety about the future of our pathetic country on me. Speculation about the economy being wrecked, about hard-right policies being legitimised, about jobs being lost, about the NHS crashing. Occasionally some clever people will point out an administrative loophole which may stop it all and mean everything will be fine. But that never materialises and Brexit is pushed through, crushing my fragile and ultimately naive dreams. All of these predictions may be true, but does this speculation actually help anyone?

The fact is, the stupid decision has been made, and citing your reservations about it to people who agree with you on social media doesn't help. It makes everyone who agrees feel more defeated and won't change the mind of anyone who disagrees. We still have 2 more years of this to go while the negotiations take place and it will take longer for the effects to be felt. Nobody knows what Brexit will look like and validating each other's fears of the worst doesn't strengthen those on the left, it depresses us, makes us feel beaten, makes resistance seem futile.

Twitter is like any drug. You feel like you need to get a hit, no matter knowing how miserable it will actually make you feel. Even before Brexit it was cesspit of miserable news around the globe and the occasional funny Vine. Now there are no more Vines but a lot more Brexits. Sometimes it's better not to know, to be ignorant to the tragedies. Knowing these things are happening but that you can't change them is a difficult one for your brain to process. The animal brain inside us isn't built to compute this, we are only built to look after ourselves and our immediate family.

Evolving to a point of having empathy for others is a double-edged sword. Never before have we been as aware of the atrocities happening around the world. In reality, we actually live in the most peaceful times ever with technology advancing to the point where most diseases are treatable. And Britain won't turn into a 3rd world country where we have to fight Mad Max-style through a wasteland for the last dregs of fuel post-Brexit. But because of the internet and social media it feels like we are living in a desperate time which is only going to get worse. Hope is in short supply.

'What's happening?' indeed Twitter.

'What's happening?' indeed Twitter.

There is a popular post on The Student Room, picked up by a couple national papers as a hotbed for 'millennial snowflakes' where young people were talking about Brexit making them feel completely broken and sad. It's something that, at least anecdotally, I can see in a lot of people of my generation, like the older generations are deliberately sabotaging the world for us. But again I believe social media is a large contributing factor to this. Most people on social media are young and a lot of the more active users tend to be depressed. It's one big bubble, but we are all to anxious of the consequences to actually pop it. That's a bad metaphor. Please pretend you didn't read that.

I have battled with my moods my whole life. I am very prone to bouts of depression and anxiety which turn me in on myself, sucking out all my energy and appetite for existence. The day that Brexit was announced was possibly one of the most traumatic in my life and I couldn't muster the energy to work for days (luckily I was unemployed at the time). Twitter can become the schizophrenic voice in your head confirming your anxieties. It doesn't take much for me to be convinced that there is no point in trying. While it doesn't cause me to go into a downward spiral, it certainly facilitates and speeds the process up. Depression is on the rise in our generation due to our sedentary lifestyles and the isolation of the modern working worlds. The people you follow on Twitter and the pages you like on Facebook act not only as a means of solidifying your political beliefs, but also as a means trapping you in a negative state of mind.

And while in theory it should be simple to just break out the habit of using social media, it's not that easy. Once social media is part of your life, cutting it out is like losing a limb. We use our online profiles to define ourselves, to present a version of ourselves to the world that we can't do in the real world. Maybe it's just matter of shutting down all references to politics in my feed, or just following delusional pro-Brexit people and tricking myself into thinking it's all a good thing. I might change my avatar to Pepe the Frog or a picture of myself wearing a Meninist t-shirt. I might even start re-tweeting Piers Morgan saying “I don't always agree with him but he's not afraid to speak his mind”, like that's a noble thing to do. The world's my oyster. Well most of it. Not Europe.

It's going to be a long 2 years. See you on the other side.

 

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Is Already One Of The Greatest Games Of All-Time

So, here we are, weeks away from a new Nintendo console. Nothing gets the tongues of self-appointed market experts wagging quite like one of those. Are Nintendo doomed? Are Nintendo going to make games great again? Are Nintendo going to fix my failing marriage? Eyebrows have of course been raised by the Switch's launch line-up. But for me, people are making a massive oversight. They already have one of the greatest games ever made confirmed for the release window of the system. That game is Mario Kart 8.

Back in 2014 when Mario Kart 8 originally released I blown away with how good the game was. I went into playing with the expectation of it just being another Mario Kart game. Good throw-away multiplayer fun but not much more than that. But after many, and I mean many hours of playing I realised this game was in fact mechanically perfect. The first thing that hits you when playing MK8 is the way it looks. While you will play many games which are technically better looking, with more polygons and all that jazz, few games look quite as...well...nice. The colour that the designers applied liberally across every facet of the MK8 almost strains your eyes at first. You feel like a toddler dizzy on sweets but without having to face consequences of the inevitable sugar crash. In terms of art style it seems like they were influenced by the Wind Waker, borrowing from the cel-shaded, Saturday morning cartoon style. It makes environments pop and emphasises the in-game character's features and over-the-top reactions. This added expression on the character's faces  gave us one the world's greatest memes in the Luigi Death Stare. It's like he knew all along what was about to happen in the world.

The game looked better than it needed to be. Nintendo could have put out something which looked much worse and got away with it. You know, cause it's Mario Kart, not Gran Turismo. It almost makes you want to slow down and take in the view to see these little details they put in. Read every sign, watch the actions of every spectator. But the colours and styles of each circuit actually serves an important function. A lot of the new circuits have very different 'sections' to them, but the colour palette remains the same despite the changing terrain and shifting geography. It remains incredibly consistent with an overriding colour-coded theme tying everything together rather than becoming completely disorientating mess of colour like the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tracks like 'Thwomp Thwomp Ruins' and 'Twisted Mansion' have distinct areas that force you to go underwater or through caves, but the look of each area feels natural and the transitions are seamless. It keeps you grounded in some sort of reality, even if it is a reality where massive lizard-men drive cars up waterfalls. 

But all this would have been irrelevant if Nintendo hadn't nailed the fundamental mechanics of the game. MK8's balancing is spot on, just rationing out items at a rate which does leave the best players feeling victimised but rubber-bands the race enough to keep it interesting. It is arguably the first time that this balance has been found in the series. The most recent home-console outings, Double-Dash and Wii, suffered in this respect. The gimmick of Double-Dash, having two character's in the car, proved more of a distraction than an inciting mechanic and somewhat took away from the simplicity at the heart of the series. The Wii version was far too trigger-happy with the Blue Shells which meant that luck was far too much of a decisive factor. MK8's balance is perfect, but also gives you the option to change the regularity of certain items if you so choose. The 'frantic' mode also giving you the option to play the game like Mario Kart Wii for newcomers and 200cc being added on for the super hardcore.

The 'gimmick' if you will of the game is one which I now can't imagine playing Mario Kart without. The ability to drive up and stick to certain walls and platforms changes not only how the tracks are designed, by how players can approach them. With all arcade racers there are normally specific sections in the circuits where you can take a risky shortcut or play it safe. It offered the player's choice but it was a fairly binary one. While that still does occur in MK8, the game gives you much more option with this new ability. It often gives the choice of staying on the track or using the walls to your advantage. Depending on the amount of cars around you, the items you have and the angle you are driving at, you will make different decisions depending on the situation in the race. For example, if there are lots of cars around you could choose to drive up a wall and deliberately hit into people so you both get a boost, closing down the gap to the cars in front. This adds a level of player agency that makes it feel like there isn't just one correct path, while also allowing you recover from mistakes more easily and rewarding those had adapt and change depending on the events that have unfolded. 

The options the mechanic opens up allows the player feel like there is real progression in the race as they can be spin round and see other parts of the track where they just have or just about to drive through. The constantly shifting paths the player can never settle and can easily lose momentum in the race. Not adjusting your play style to the new surface can be the difference between 1st and 2nd. Nintendo also chose to re-imagine older tracks with this new mechanic in place, and broadly these change improve the tracks and make them more lively. Again, they could have been lazy here and replicated the old circuits verbatim just with a shiny new lick of paint. It's just a shame that they didn't remake the N64 version 'Sherbert Land' which is clearly the best Mario Kart track ever. Come on Nintendo pull your finger out!

The only issue the game had which prevented MK8 from being the perfect Mario Kart was the battle mode. Battle mode seemed like a last minute rush job, like the whole development team had forgotten about it until the week before shipping. Instead of the usual specifically designed maps for this mode we got elongated versions of the race tracks which wrapped around on themselves in a never-ending loop. This fudged the experience, as you often you would just be driving in one direction before having a fraction of a second to hit a driver coming the way. In previous games the map was always designed to attract people into the middle of the circuit to wreak havoc on each other. Mercifully, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is set to change this with newly-designed battle maps which will surely have this purpose in mind, including some returning favourites as well. Personally I'm not even the biggest fan of battle mode but I am glad that Nintendo have seen fit to change it as it was previously the smudge on an otherwise perfect game.

Console launches rarely have any games to write home about. You still playing Killzone: Shadow Fall? When did you last boot up Ryse: Son Of Rome? Did you ever get the knack of Knack? The Switch launch will be no different but it will at least has one of the most complete and mechanically perfect games ever created for it. It's for this reason it is a crying shame that MK8 Deluxe won't be about until month after launch. But, if you are considering buying the Switch and never played Mario Kart 8, you already have the perfect excuse to catch up on this masterpiece.

How Resident Evil 4 Made Horror Games Fun

The general belief in video games is that to create good horror the player must feel weak. They must feel like one enemy encounter could kill them, making every blind corner and winding corridor a nerve-wracking experience. Resident Evil 4 managed to turn that belief on it's head in a way striking a balance between making the player character feel badass, but still creating an oppressive and genuinely scary game. As we prepare for the release of the new title in the series, let's look at how Resident Evil 4 achieved this.

With the original titles in the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises, the defining titles in the survival-horror genre, the emphasis was on avoiding fights wherever possible or even running away as enemies all took a number of bullets to kill and resources were scarce. Even saving the game was limited by in-game items. The controls were also incredibly clunky, even for PS1 standards, meaning that the camera was as much of a threat to player as the zombies themselves. The 'tank' controls in these games never make you feel in full control of the character. They leave a disconnect between the player's physical input and what the character does on screen. These elements combined are an effective way of scaring or panicking the player. Having finite resources means the player is more attentive of the game-world as every stray herb could be the difference between life and death, and every room could hold a secret item that is used to progress later in the game. The controls mean you cannot rely on quick reactions alone to get you out of trouble.

But is this actually fun...

It isn't necessary for games to just be fun per se, but I would certainly argue it is fairly important trait on a personal level if I am going revisit the game and not just give up. Because of the scarce rations and tools and your disposal, the natural instinct when you see an enemy is not kill it but to run away. "Running away" is simply not engaging gameplay mechanic and it is one which has plagued horror games in recent years. Amnesia, Outlast and Alien: Isolation all centre-around you running away and not being able to fight the monsters that terrorise you. These games do make you feel scared, walking around their interlocking worlds with trepidation knowing at any moment you could be ambush and not be able fight back. But despite playing all of these games I haven't completed any of them. I find it hard to look forward to jumping into a game just to run around trying to find an item while being chased by invincible monsters. As a horror film fan, where survival-horror games are lacking, is that they forget that they can be fun as well as scary.

It must be a nightmare putting out those candles.

It must be a nightmare putting out those candles.

So that brings me back to Resident Evil 4. RE4 managed to strike the balance of making you feel afraid and powerful at the same time. The core to this idea is the stop-and-shoot mechanic. While seeming clunky at first, the fact that you stand still while shooting is a masterstroke in making the player feel in control but one mistake away from death. The guns and ammo Leon Kennedy has in his arsenal should mean that, unless you're very wasteful with bullets, you should have enough to dispatch the enemies thrown at you. The question is more how you use what you are given and how you navigate your surroundings. You need to have confidence whenever you go in for a shot, finding the right vantage point and being quick and accurate with your with trigger finger. The real threat to the player is being overwhelmed. If they pick the wrong place or time to start spreading lead, the villagers can be inescapable meaning you might have to frantically leg-it as the hordes approach surround you. This gives players both the panic-inducing “running-away” mechanic and the satisfying shooting mechanic in one go, rather than the two being disparate.

Two early set-pieces establish this to the player. First, is the ambush in the village. Not only is this an amazing setting with great environmental storytelling, with the church and sacrificial burning body, but it also throws the player in at the deep end and forces them to use their surroundings to survive. Despite it being outdoors, the maze of structures and the smog-stricken sky create an incredibly claustrophobic atmosphere. Your job is simply to survive and dispatch as many foes as possible. The shooting is fun on mechanical and visceral level with weight being afforded to your shots, with the staggering animation on the monsters being obvious to signify your shots are being effective. The way the area is laid out means you never feel safe as there are so many directions that they can come from. They are slightly brighter than zombies of the previous games and will work as a team to trap you in. Plus you don't have the luxury of looking 360 degrees when in shooting-mode to fully assess all your angles. This opening is where the game really begins and establishes how you shoot, how you need to navigate the space and the mob-mentality of the Los Illuminados all at once.

If you were wondering what happened to the backing dancers from the musical 'Oliver!'

If you were wondering what happened to the backing dancers from the musical 'Oliver!'

This is mentality is solidified in the player's mind during a later section where the player must retrieve parts of a 'Hexagonal Emblem' scattered throughout a complex with a myriad of stairs, ladders and bridges to unlock a door and to progress. Due to the tight and narrow paths that you can walk on not only is it essential to keep moving, but it's also vital to use the different heights of the area to your advantage. There is no clear space for you to simply pitch up and shoot all the enemies away. You have to keep moving around utilising the little space you have around you. They swarm on you from all around as before but with the added excitement of exploding bombs and even less space to get your shot away. If you don't take them out with a couple of shots they will be on top of you and you will be history. 

RE4 also mixed up the gameplay with specific set-pieces which conveyed slightly different emotions in the player to prevent it from become a slog. The boss fights provided injections of pure action. None more notable than the battle with the sea monster Del Lago while on board a speedboat. This is counter-balanced by the section where you take control of Ashley with the game completely striping you of your weapons. This allows for the tension experienced in the original RE titles to shine through with its heavy emphasis on puzzles and avoiding fights. The Regenerators that appear late in game also leave quite the impression. With their horrible panting noises and bullet-sapping bodies also feel like throwbacks as it probably makes more sense to just run away. It uses these creatures spareingly which makes the impact more meaningful when they do appear. These changes spice up the variety of the game and offer range of horror tropes without ever having to resort to lazy jump-scares. The game slowly drops new challenges and different types of horror throughout its run-though whilst still remaining a cohesive whole. This is very different to spiritual-successor of sorts The Evil Within, which felt like it was trying to cover too many bases and resulted in a rather unfocused second-half. Pacing is absolutely essential in horror, both in games and film. RE4 nails it. 

RE4 warns of the dangers of acupuncture.

RE4 warns of the dangers of acupuncture.

Resident Evil 4 manages to navigate the tricky divide between action and horror, being a game which manages to scare and oppress while still remaining fun. The series went off tracks in the following instalments when they switched out the stop-and-shoot mechanic for a more standard system which took away the tension. I hope more games both AAA and indie learn from how RE4 managed to straddle the divide and create horror that is fun to play as well a psychological torment using simple gameplay tricks.