Halloween Releases

Steam’s Halloween Sale has plenty of discounted games.. spooky, creepy, scary and eerie.. perfect for Halloween!

Painkiller: Hell & Damnation was released for the PC last night, including exclusive Halloween DLC consisting of a unique Halloween map, themed enemies, decorations, rewards and even an exclusive achievement.

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Dear Esther – First Trailer

Dear Esther is the reimagining of an interactive ghost-story by the same name, originally created using the Source engine and released as a mod for Half Life 2, by Dan Pinchbeck and The Chinese Room, a development research project at the University of Portsmouth, UK.

With an overhaul of the graphics and level design from Robert Briscoe, a professional game artist, the project became so much more than a simple mod, and then with the support of Valve the team were granted a license to turn Dear Esther into a completely independent release.  The Indie Fund have also helped by providing investment funding for the project.

The first trailer for the game shows off some of the beautiful environments on the island:

Dear Esther is planned for release on Steam on the 14th Feb 2012.

Nestlings

Quite a few weeks back, somebody recommended I try Nestlings, a mod for Half Life 2 by Lewis Denby.  This is available on ModDB, and requires Half Life 2: Episode 2.

Rather than a game, this was described as “an experiment in story and mood”.
You start off facing an old, abandoned-looking house, completely surrounded by darkness.  Oh, what to do?

There’s a note pinned to the wall by the door which sets the scene – someone conducting some kind of research out here, all alone.. and imploring ‘Annabelle’ to turn around and run away.  Creepy.

There are more notes scattered in the rooms of the house, pages from a diary with details of research into the Nestlings, some kind of supernatural creatures from out in the forest.  I was expecting these Nestlings to jump out at me as I started to explore the rooms, but I made it upstairs without incident..

Through the ground floor, I managed to find the diary pages in the right order, but upstairs I turned left to start at one end, rather than opening the door directly in front of me.  This meant I came across the last note first; this page had a key attached which would unlock the attic.

I checked out the other rooms before heading up the ladder, as I really didn’t want to miss anything.. but after that there was only the attic left..

I think one of these bodies has to be the researcher, as the diary pages all foreshadow him being at the “peak of the house”, but I think that the second is Annabelle.  I think she would have come looking for the researcher and either died of the illness mentioned in her note, or met the same fate as he did.

After reading Annabelle’s note, the attic door slid shut and the lighting changed; after the lack of anything jumping out on me previously, this actually made me scream! 🙂

The abandoned house and rather abstract story reminded me of Dear Esther, another experimental story-mod I played a while back.
Looking at the developer’s blog, it seems Dear Esther has had a few updates over the past few months with some amazing looking graphical tweaks too!  He also mentions another, final, level is in the works, which I’m sure will be well worth checking out when the time comes.

Korsakovia

An experimental mod about madness and the end of the world, designed to mess with your mind..

The main character, Christopher, is a psychiatric patient suffering from Korsakoff’s syndrome.  He believes that the world has ended.
Dr Grayson is the consultant neurologist at the hospital where he was brought in after an apparent failed suicide attempt..

So, what is the end of the world like?

After an initial wander around a deserted and rather grim hospital, I encounter black clouds which come screaming towards me, while unarmed, I look for a way out.  As they hit, the cracking sound and the flash of bright light feels like I’m being hit myself.

Posters with disfigured, burned hands, commandments to get rid of the eyes.. which is exactly what Christopher has done..

Damage is indicated by cracks in the corners of the screen.  The television is a recurring theme throughout the experience.

The sounds: static hissing, beeping, and heavy breathing.. creepy sounds rising in pitch and volume added to the feeling of dread.. especially during the unarmed sections, in which the only way of saving yourself is to run.

Doors opening by themselves after I was unable to open them and had stepped away..

Blood smears and burned bodies litter the various corridors and broken rooms, mounds of debris spinning like a whirlwind in another room, as well as crackling electricity, sometimes purely visual, and other times an impassable barrier.

Through all this, the script between doctor and patient triggers as you progress through the levels, an explanation of what Christopher has done to himself and why, and what he is (you are) seeing in this world.

In each section, you are unarmed until you find the crowbar, the only weapon you’ll get, and then only after you’ve been through some places you’d have really liked to have it.  Once you have the crowbar, you can kill the black clouds as they attack.  The ones you can see, at least.. there are a few bugs in this game, one of which is the airborne version of these enemies becoming invisible.

Levels are designed to confuse; in the warehouse section there were so many crates it looked as though the escape would be by climbing.  In reality, only one crate was needed, and that was to place under a broken ladder in order to reach it.

Progressing through the game, things become weirder as you leave the hospital and warehouse areas for the tenements.  Collapsed floors, fires, and burned bodies abound..

Floating pieces of concrete making a path to a door floating in the darkness..

As time passes, Dr Grayson starts to integrate herself into the delusion, starting with dreams of the warehouse, dreams of being dropped from a great height into water..

Levels become even more uncomfortable.  I’m in a warehouse again, but the floor is at an angle, and controls don’t work the usual way; trying to turn results in the view tilting and even climbing onto crates to avoid the black smoke enemies becomes a challenge.

I can see why people find Korsakovia unpleasant to play.  Screeching static and whistling noises are at times painfully loud, and tilted views encourage motion sickness; the calm voices talking about removing and eating eyes, and the posters with burned fingers and more, all add up to a disturbing experience – which is exactly what The Chinese Room were after.

If you want to see for yourself, the mod can be downloaded here.  Requires Half Life 2: Episode 2.

Mods

For a long time, I wanted to create my own games.  Lacking the skills of a game developer, and to some extent the time and patience to figure it all out, I turned my attention to map making and level design, as the really hard work has already been done.  There are also plenty of tutorials around the web, taking even more of the pain out of it.  So far, I’ve not devoted the time required to create anything I’d want to show beyond my closest friends though..

Others though, have the time and patience (and the skill!), and there are some great works out there.  I’ve been recommended a few HL2 mods over the last week or so: Awakening, MINERVA: Metastasis, and Dear Esther – and the latest in the list, Korsakovia, is downloading now.

Awakening was described to me as a good game with awful voice acting.  You play as Adrian Shepard, from Opposing Forces, somewhere between Half Life and Half Life 2 in the timeline.
It starts off with a rather long trailer – Combine troops attacking some kind of facility – which pans around the fighting then inside the base, and eventually comes to rest where you wake up from stasis..  Simple enough game – shoot them all!  It’s quite a short game too – I completed it in about an hour.  The level design was great, and battles seemed to be well balanced, although I found myself seriously low on ammo for quite some time..  but yeah.. the voice acting was somewhat amusing.. 🙂

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MINERVA: Metastasis really stuck in my mind as the best of the three mods, although all three were quite different from each other.
You begin the game strapped to the underside of a stolen Combine helicopter, being shipped into an island to spy for Minerva.  She communicates with you only via radio messages which appear as text – no dodgy voice acting here, although the language is strangely poetic and could put some off.   Exploring the island, and finding out exactly what the Combine are up to, requires plenty of shooting and some puzzle solving.

The map design here is very open, and although there’s really only one way to go to further the story, you’ll return to the same places a few times during exploration.   I was also quite impressed with the quality of the graphics – at least on a par with the official game itself.

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Dear Esther is a strange sort of interactive ghost story, rather than a game.  Had I come across this myself, without recommendation, I might not have paid it much attention – especially as it started off so slowly, and you’re confined to a very slow walk – but that wouldn’t have done it justice.

The game begins with a portion of a letter being read out, to “Esther”, as you look on a deserted building.  Exploring the island triggers other portions of letters, or rambling thoughts, which only seem to become more rambling, more confused as you get deeper into the island, and markings on the walls only add to the atmosphere.

I discussed this with a friend afterwards, comparing notes on our understanding of what happened – an accident on a motorway, drink driving, the loss of a loved one, self-imposed isolation.. mixed with long lost shepherds, stolen bibles, monks and syphillis – all ramblings of a man delirious with a broken leg who somehow feels he deserves his fate..

Having looked around the internet for this one, I find that parts of the script are actually randomised, so if someone else were to play through this, they might have a slightly different interpretation.  Dear Esther made me feel rather sad, stirring up memories of my own, but that doesn’t stop me from admiring it.

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I also mentioned I was downloading Korsakovia..
This is another mod from The Chinese Room, the team who created Dear Esther.  This game – experience? – is not meant to be enjoyable.. the whole intent was to explore what happens when you push boundaries and subvert what people expect from a game – with flashing lights, disturbing sounds, and the oh-so-creepy tagline:

The paramedics report that they were unable to find his eyes. We think he may have eaten them.