THIS DREAMING ISLE KICKSTARTER LAUNCHES: NEW STORIES FROM CAMPBELL, HURLEY, VOLK, ASHWORTH, LEBBON AND WHITELEY
The UK is torn, awaiting the outcome of the Brexit negotiations that will define who we are, who our children are. We dream of these islands, and what they will become.
Unsung Stories have gathered writers from across genre and literary fiction for a new anthology of short stories. Whilst we all struggle to understand what it means to live on the British Isles, the land prevails, and preserves secrets and memories older than our ability to remember them. By drawing together leading voices of horror and fantasy, our stories reveal the weird spaces between us.
The anthology will be funded by a Kickstarter campaign which launched on 23 August 2018. Having met the target of £2,500 within the first 12 hours of funding, three stretch goals have also been added to the campaign. At the £5,000 mark, a new story by Alison Littlewood will be added to the anthology; at £7,500, a new story by Robert Shearman; and at £10,000, a new story by Kirsty Logan.
Speaking about the anthology, Dan Coxon, Editor at Unsung Stories, said, “When this anthology first started coming together, the Brexit referendum was still looming in our future. Now, as we struggle to imagine what Britain will look like post-Brexit - after the power struggles and the in-fighting, the failed negotiations and the resignations - that question seems more relevant than ever.
“This Dreaming Isle looks to the past for its inspiration, but it also turns the looking glass towards Britain now, questioning who we are and who we are becoming. While they’re rooted in folk tales and local legends, these stories offer an unsettling, frightening glimpse of the nation we are today.
“Ranging from hauntings to mythical mer-people, it’s an anthology that offers a different definition of what Britain is: a land that is still emerging from the mist.”
This Dreaming Isle will be published by Unsung Stories in late 2018.
Something strange is happening on British shores.
Britain has a long history of folk tales, ghost stories and other uncanny fictions, and these literary ley lines are still shimmering beneath the surface of this green and pleasant land. This strangeness crawls out from the dark places of the British imagination, seeping into our art and culture.
This Dreaming Isle is an anthology of new horror stories and weird fiction with a distinctly British flavour. It collects together fifteen exclusive new stories that draw upon the landscape and history of the British Isles. Some explore the realms of myth and legend, others are firmly rooted in the present, engaging with the country’s forgotten spaces.
This Dreaming Isle reclaims the dark heart of Britain’s literary legacy, featuring original fiction from:
This Dreaming Isle reclaims the dark heart of Britain’s literary legacy, featuring original fiction from:
Ramsey Campbell, multi-award winning author of over 40 novels
Andrew Michael Hurley, author of The Loney and Devil’s Day
Catriona Ward, author of Rawblood and Little Eve
Jenn Ashworth, author of Fell, Cold Light and more
Gareth E. Rees, author of Marshland and The Stone Tide
Tim Lebbon, screenwriter and author of over 35 books including Dusk, The Silence and Relics
Aliya Whiteley, author of The Beauty, The Arrival of Missives and The Loosening Skin (forthcoming from Unsung Stories)
Stephen Volk, screenwriter and author of Whitstable, Monsters in the Heart and more
James Miller, author of UnAmerican Activities, Lost Boys and Sunshine State
Jeannette Ng, author of Under the Pendulum Sun
Richard V. Hirst, co-author of The Night Visitors
Alison Moore, author of The Lighthouse, Missing and more
Gary Budden, author of Hollow Shores
Angela Readman, author of Don’t Try This at Home and The Book of Tides
This Dreaming Isle (ISBN: 9781907389504, RRP £9.99) - An anthology of fourteen literary horror and fantasy short stories.
Details of all other titles published by Unsung Stories can be found at www.unsungstories.co.uk/allbooks
george daniel lea
One would expect nihilism to have a comfortable place in horror fiction, for hopelessness and lack of salvation to be pervasive themes within the genre.
Whilst that's true for certain sub-cultures, it isn't historically or even generally the case:
If anything, horrific subjects are often powerfully conservative, utilised to reinforce enshrined concerns and parameters rather than call them into question. This is arguably due (in part) to the genre's mythological roots: horror fiction all too often plays with themes and subjects that have been pervasive in human mythology and oral tradition since long before the first man-thing set chisel to stone:
Stories of what lurks in the dark, the perils of straying from proscribed paths, of walking the woods alone, of communion with strange and forbidden ideas or concepts...all subjects of stories that were once told by tribal elders around campfires to their young, at the edges of woods that they populated with every imagined fey-thing, changeling, demon and boggart imaginable.
Even some of the most post-modern horror fiction one can find still hasn't moved on a great deal from those original tales in terms of import and emphasis: go onto Amazon right now, conduct a search for “new horror,” and you will find countless permutations of those same old stories reinforcing the same old, innately human tribal concerns and terrors. Contrastingly, those that call those presumptions and enshrined narratives into question will be generally quite rare; that which contradicts or undermines what we know or assume is all too often treated with disdadin and almost superstitious anxiety, in the manner of faithful reacting with conditioned denial to an atheist daring to question their gospels. As such, the horror of transgression, of deviance, is and has never been as powerful, as influential or as enshrined as that which reinforces, which comforts and cosssets.
This might seem a peculiar statement to make of horror fiction, which tends to market itself with reference to its apparent transgressions, but, I would argue, such transgressions have a tendency to be superficial at best: matters of subject intended to shock or repel, rather than deeper import:
Those stories which genuinely shudder us, which disturb us to the degree that we start to question our most beloved assumptions, tend to be few and far between.
Instead, the genre finds itself saturated with familiarity; stories, subjects and mythologies that, regardless of their ostensibly horrific or disturbing natures, have the effect of comforting and reinforcing the reader who is well familiar with their particular species. One might even argue that, for horror, this is an entirely corrosive quality, in that the comforting and familiar can never truly distress or disturb in the manner that horror sustains its significance by.
Arguably the most significant (and certainly the most pervasively recognised) horror writer currently in operation, Stephen King, is a prime example of this, certainly with regards to his earliest fiction, which, despite having a Hitchcockian “behind the picket fences” quality to it, certainly with regards to preconceptions of small town USA, generally tends towards the traditional in terms of structure and emphasis: the good guys generally survive, the bad guys generally do not, the monsters, the vampires, the demons are evil innately, in the manner of Tolkien's orcs, whereas those ranged against them are innately good or at least worthy of some redemption (which they generally achieve in some form or another by story's end). This is not universally true of King's work, nor is it exclusively true of many of the stories that exhibit the quality, but it is a pervasive quality of his earliest writings and is certainly true of those that have become most canonised within culture and horror itself. These tend to be the stories that are endlessly aped by horror writers in general; those that have ensured audiences owing to their general familiarity, their comforting qualities.
King's own back catalogue is an excellent example of the phenomenon in question: those works that are instantly recognisable, that have become synonymous with his name, that have been adapted into films and TV shows and various other mediums, tend to be those with a more conservative, consoling and bizarrely hopeful bent:
IT, The Stand, The Shining etc; all stories that are absolute in terms of their moral divisions, that reinforce the old fairy-tale and folkloric notions that evil and good are certain, identifiable and immediate, and that the former can be defeated by clear exercise of the latter. These are the stories that fans of the man's work tend to gravitate towards and remember most fondly, whilst those that exercise greater degrees of ambiguity or even counter-culture deviance (The Mist, Desperation, Pet Sematary) tend not to be mentioned in the same breaths, and are certainly not treated with equal regard.
This arguably speaks to something fundamental in us as human beings: how often do we opt for the comforting lie over the unpalatable truth? How often do we wallow in familiar delusions and miseries rather than allowing ourselves to experience potential alternatives? Our tastes in media and fiction are dictated by this fundamental drive in exactly the same manner as our life choices: it's no secret that the current state of popular cinema and TV (certainly here in the UK) sustains precisely because of it: both are predominated by familiar banality, whether that takes the form of soap operas that endlessly re-tread the same domestic storylines without ever actually commenting on anything or written-by-committee, edited-by-test-audience super hero films, all of which are basically the same stories when pared down to the bone, and offer little in the way of deviance, commentary or analysis of the ideas and images they play with.
This is because audiences do not enjoy being challenged or questioned: they particularly dislike media that calls into question their assumptions or their relationships with media.
As a sterling example, examine the tsunami of criticism that led to the BBC's burial of Stephen Volk's seminal 1992 Halloween prank, Ghostwatch.
Ostensibly, the news media and those making complaints proclaimed to have been distressed and disturbed by the material. However, as critic Kim Newman has pointed out, this is a mask for their true complaint: in reality, what they reacted to was the fact that Ghostwatch called into question their relationship to the media they routinely consume: it lied to them, and, in doing so, demonstrated just how easy it is for media to fool us, and thereby exposed how neurotic our relationship to our media actually is.
We seek out comfort and conciliation, especially in the face of escalating atrocities in waking life, a news media that is pervaded by inhumanities, abuses, incompetence and cruelty to make anything that horror fiction can record pale in comparison.
This makes nihilism in fiction simultaneously easy to contrive (one simply has to spend an hour watching news broadcasts or reading newspapers to gain a lifetime's worth of material) but also incredibly difficult to market.
Horror, like certain forms of fantasy and science fiction, with which it overlaps and intertwines, is perhaps one of the most fertile grounds for nihilism: stories which expose the morality of fairy tales and the lessons of mythology for the simplifications and outright deceptions they actually are:
At its core, nihilism in fiction is about tearing down established meta-narratives: it's about exposing what culture conditions us to assume as either misguided, misconceived or deliberately contrived: stories that are designed to gull us into not reacting to enshrined and commonplace atrocity or into simply shrugging and assuming that things are as they are and nothing can change them.
In that, the nihilism of fictional universes can provide extremely active commentary and inspiration for more deviant, transgressive creations, whether they be forms of fiction or art or even socio-political movements.
Whilst hardly a new concept at the time of his writing, H.P. Lovecraft is generally regarded as the Ur-Father of nihilism in horror, his body of work arguably unique in that it entirely does away with or undermines the traditional morality and mythological concerns of fiction up until that point:
Lovecraft rejects the -largely Judeo-Christianic- morality of his forebears at the same time as he laments the loss of what he considers their simple certainties:
The universe Lovecraft creates is one of metaphysical nihilism that is not, as the escalating science of his era would have it, godless, but instead consists of mysteries, states of being and operation that humanity can't conceive of or comprehend, that the merest exposure to can drive a human being mad, distort them physically, spiritually and mentally or consign them to states of disgrace that very few writers before or after have decsribed with such lurid, moribund glee.
No ideology, no revelation, no morality or discovery or technology can save humanity in Lovecraft's universe: it is not an activist reality he contrives but one of universal and ineluctable victim-hood: humanity is an unhappy accident at best, the by-product of alien experimentation that was neither intended nor wanted, no wider destiny, no more illustrious fate available to us, other than to either be wiped out by cosmic phenomena we can't even comprehend or to be spiritually and physically consumed by infernal entities that operate in dimensions and states of being utterly beyond our own.
There is a passive element to Lovecraft's nihilism that resonates with the man's own sense of ineluctable decay: a sickly and disturbed individual, he sustained in perpetual anxiety and ill health throughout his life, but also perceived in the world around him an ideological decay, a slow death of old certainties and parameters that he regarded as entirely negative and which informed the fiction he wrote.
Interestingly, his particular form of mythological nihilism is not a call to arms or inspiration for intellectual movement: such things would have been impotent to him, doomed from the outset: he did not intend to halt or suspend the decay he perceived, merely to comment on it.
As such, his characters almost universally operate in the same state of distant victimisation; they are unhappy and coincidental witnesses to the lunatic mysteries and revelations of a reality that is an expression of unfathomable insanity: they have very little agency or say in and of themselves, but are instead swept up and hurtled along by events they have no control over. Ultimately, most meet exceedingly unpleasant ends which are far more inventive than mere death or insanity: many find themselves irrevocably altered by what they have been exposed to, in mind and in body, which speaks to another form or facet of nihilism that Lovecraft obsessed over:
The absolute assertion there is nothing we can do to prevent being, in his own terms, infected and altered by what we experience: whatever delusion of control we have over ourselves, whatever certainties of personality we advertise, they are all subject to transformation owing to external pressures and experience (in the case of Lovecraft, this largely derives from exposure to “forbidden” lore and alien or occult knowledge that is, by its very nature, transformative and corrupting). As such, even our most beloved certainties and preconceptions of self are things we cannot protect or sustain; we will transform, we will transgress or degrade, whether we want to or not, as a by-product of merely living.
This is in stark contrast to the work of writers such as, for example, Clive Barker, who utilises similar notions of reality being in flux, of entities that operate on levels of reality beyond our comprehension, of ideas and knowledge that can and will inevitably transform us, but does so in a manner that is far more celebratory:
Whereas Lovecraft is obsessed with the moribund, with disgrace, with degeneration, Barker utilises similar material and ideas to exult in the decay of tradition, in the loss of our humanity, marketing what Lovecraft would decry as transgression as transcendence.
Whilst Barker expresses through his work as much in the way of lurid and grotesque horror as Lovecraft (arguably even more so), those elements are contrasted by moments of sincere beatification, revelations that would have driven Lovecraft's characters utterly insane instead leading to metamorphosis and even apotheosis.
This becomes ironic, given that the two both explore the same decays and erosions and even often come to similar conclusions as a result, but from markedly different precepts:
Like Lovecraft, Barker has no faith in tradition: for him, the meta-narratives of yore exist to be lampooned and inverted for the post-moden eye, to be reinvented to suit the more ambiguous, arguably more complex condition in which humanity finds itself at the dawning of a new millennium.
As such, Barker's work takes a more intimate, personal perspective on traditional notions such as apocalypse (in all of the classic connotations of that term), exploring how they affect individual states of mind and operation, how they are often far more complex in terms of their import than any over-arching agenda or intention can allow for.
Whereas Lovecraft regarded humanity from a singularly divine perspective, i.e. as a phenomena and curiosity that he examined from the outside, and with no great amount of affection, Barker instead vacillates between that and a far more intimate, involved point of view:
Regard any one of Lovecraft's tales, and you'll rarely find engaging and complex characters: there is little in the way of psychological examination or confession, as his work is far more distant, dry and academic: he records in the manner of a weary historian or journalist, emotionally removed from events, even when writing directly from the perspectives of particular characters. Most of his protagonists are little more than cyphers for the story; they exist to react and record and nothing more. Further, they express their experiences in extremely over-wrought, literary terms, in the manner of the British, Victorian writers Lovecraft so admired and sought to emulate. This has the effect of removing the reader from emotional reality or connection, making the events they describe cold, distant and difficult to get a grasp on: this enhances the sense of events pin-wheeling out of all control or comprehension, of a universe so vast and unknowable, we have no choice but to capitulate and surrender to its cruelties.
Barker, by contrast, presents a far more intimate and connected engagement with similarly abstruse and bizarre phenomena; exposing characters that are psychologically complex, emotionally real and more determined as agents of their own destinies to comsological, metaphysical revelations, to powers and entities and states of being that are far and beyond what they can fully comprehend, but which they engage with on their own terms.
This is peculiarly true in narratives such as The Great and Secret Show, Sacrament, Everville, Weaveworld etc, in which human beings, for good or ill, find themselves elevated to states of abstraction by the forces they encounter or uncover. Whilst those forces are often as ineffable and profound as those encountered within Lovecraft, they are utilised to elevate or transform humanity rather than eliminate or diminish it. Like Lovecraft, Barker utilises his fiction to diminish or undermine traditional narratives, certainly those that are pervasive within folklore or entrenched mythology, but whereas Lovecraft regards his duty as a sad and reluctant one (in the manner of Darwin lamenting his discovery of evolution by natural selection as corrosive to the creation myths he revered), Barker does not.
Rather, Barker regards that corrosion as essential and celebratory; as a liberating effect rather than one of damnation: human beings in Barker's mythologies have the potential to overcome the horror they encounter or even engage with it on such a level that they transcend any condition in which they regard it as such: they connect and engage with forms of nihilism as means of abandoning states that are decaying around them, systems that no longer serve or function and likely never did.
Whereas Lovecraft bemoans his own nihilism in a manner a Catholic stereotypically might their faith, Barker promotes the abandon inherent as something worth seeking, a shamanistic journey in which the old, entrenched and traditional must necessarily be ground down and done away with, to make way for new states of operation.
In between the two we have the likes of Stephen King, whose stories are generally more various and idiosyncratic in terms of their significance and import: at times, he descends into depths of metaphysical and human nihilism that likely would have shuddered even Lovecraft (The Mist, Pet Sematary), whereas in others he demonstrates a desire for redemption and a possibility for salvation that is far more in keeping with traditional narrative tendencies (IT, The Stand, The Shining). Others are even more complex and ambiguous than that, edging towards the Clive Barker extreme of the spectrum:
The seminal Dark Tower series, for example, boasts a mythology that incorporates Lovecraftian nihilism but also Barkerian possibilities of transcendence and metaphysical ascension:
Roland of Gilead's quest across the multiverse that include King's various works in one, cosmos-spanning uber-mythology is one of torment and degradation, of violence and total nihilism (certainly at the beginning of the story), that includes, amongst other horrors: the deaths of children, the collapses of kingdoms, civilisations and entire worlds, disease, famine, apocalpyses, wars, genocides and a metaphysical, elemental evil that seeks the collapse of all creation, that is pure, unrestrained negativity in its most delirious and lunatic form.
Yet, the tale also boasts the kind of human engagement with that metaphysics -not to mention influence upon it- that's entirely redolent of one of Barker's narratives. The Dark Tower incorporates all of the extremes and states that King has toyed with throughout his fiction, in all of their tragedy, their glory, their horror and their hideousness. It's a potent cocktail that often contrasts and contradicts itself in tone and significance, but that demonstrates how the kind of nihilism that Lovecraft wallowed in can sit side by side with the more abstruse and activist form that one finds in Barker's work.
The following series of articles will examine specific works by all of these writers (no to mention many more) with an eye towards the particular forms of nihilism -or otherwise- they express, how its antithesis is never too far removed from the genre, no matter how bleak or despairing it becomes, and how nihilism, even at its most base and indulgent, might be a pathway to its own peculiar form of salvation.
BY JOE X YOUNG
A fun platform game on many levels
I will begin with a confession, I haven’t been able to complete the game for two reasons, first of all is time limitation as it’s fresh out so I’ve only had access to it for a few days and I’m not a professional gamer, so am fitting this in amidst my more regular routine. Secondly, I’ve been dying on it a lot, and I do mean a lot.
Developed by WarSaw games and published by Fat Dog games Dream Alone is a 2D platformer with dark and moody graphics in classic scroller gameplay. I’m an ‘old school gamer’ from before it was known as ‘old school’ and was a regular fixture in the Amusement Arcades during the 80s and early 90s, so I’m no stranger to 2D platformers and would have loved to have played Dream Alone back then as it would have been outstanding in those days. These days not so much, especially as I began playing it with a terrible sense of déjà vu and here’s why:
Back in 2010 or thereabouts there was a game on the Xbox 360 called ‘Limbo’, and so far, although only a couple of levels in, Dream Alone echoes it in many ways. There’s the general dark storyline, the usual deadly traps to evade and nasties to avoid such as giant spiders, menacing contraptions et cetera, but the same could be said of dozens of games were it not for the striking similarity in appearance. Both are black-and-white with an almost Tim Burtonesque nightmarishness to them, both feature a boy with a large head and small body (although Dream Alone’s character is far bigger) who are on a quest. The chiaroscuro graphics and the gameplay are so similar that one could easily be mistaken for the other. I remember seeing Limbo being played, though didn’t indulge at the time, more the pity as I may have been able to give a much better account of the similarities but from what I recall of seeing my friend playing Limbo it’s essentially the same game. Given that Limbo won 90+ awards for excellence of design and gameplay I can totally see why a company would want to do something similar. I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism here, just saying that I haven’t as yet seen enough of Dream Alone to say that it’s all that different.
Having established that it is not unique, it’s a good enough game and although only a few levels in of the 21 available I’m enjoying it and will continue to play it. A definite bonus is that when you die, which if you are like me you will do often, especially if you’re not used to keyboard controls, is that when you are revived you are pretty much at the closest point to where you died. This is fantastic, if I had to restart entire levels I wouldn’t have had time to write this review, but fortunately the game’s been kind to me. It’s actually so much gruesome and deadly fun that I’m thinking I may route out my PC Joystick which has been mothballed for years to make the gaming experience more comfortable.
There’s a story to the game in that our hero must seek out Lady Death and use her powers of Sorcery to end and reverse the effects of a mystery plague which has stricken the town, gradually putting everyone into a coma. To achieve this he has to battle through multiple locations such as a ghost town, the forest and the cemetery as well as crossing over into parallel universe versions of many of the levels in which the dangers and tasks are slightly different as are the things he can interact with. On the way he learns more about his quest and about himself, such as discovering abilities he has which are useful for the various trials he has to complete to fulfil his quest. Can he do it? YOU decide.
Dream Alone is a new release, available as of June 28th on Steam and Nintendo Switch and via Games Republic.
by george daniel lea
Those of us that were obsessive about video games throughout the mid 1990s might recall a short lived but extremely significant period of technological advancement in which new formats, such as compact discs, ushered in an uncomfortable and problematic evolution in the medium:
Always eager to take full advantage of technology, video game companies such as Sega and Phillips capitalised on the new format when it was still very much in its infancy and the means of its utilisation was poorly understood.
Declared as a quantum leap in video gaming, Full Motion Video (or FMV, as it became known) was set to revolutionise what was possible in video games, doing away with the faintly cartoonish, two-dimensional, pixellated sprites we'd come to know and replacing them with cinema-realistic actors and settings.
Hype concerning this new format could not have been higher: video game magazines and TV shows promised the kind of revolution to equal the transition from black and white to colour TV, a zeitgeist-shifting transition that would hoist video games into new and uncharted territories of interactive entertainment.
Then the first titles started to hit shelves.
One of the earliets bug-bears concerning FMV gaming was the entry point price tag: most of the systems that were popularly available at the time ran on cartridges, requiring extremely expensive upgrade systems in order to make use of CD technology (such as Sega's Mega CD system) or a personal computer (extremely rare and horrendously expensive during that era) that happened to have a CD drive (again, a rarity in those days, as most personal computers still favoured floppy disks). This automatically limited the customer base for the format which, combined with the horrendous production costs of even simple games (this long, long before video games could boast budgets to even approach those of the movie industry), meant that sales rarely even broke even with production costs, resulting in the closure of many, many studios that had been established since the earliest days of home video gaming.
Secondly, the games were far from what was advertised:
Owing to the compression inherent to being crammed onto the earliest forms of CD, most FMV titles looked like hot dog shit: grainy, scratchy patches of poorly directed, badly acted live action video interspersed with traditional graphics and limited control systems made for very poor play experiences indeed. As the games were inherently limited in the actions they could perform, most FMV “games” barely qualify as such, consisting of nothing more than what might be considered extended “quick time” events in today's parlance (i.e. little to no player interaction; only rolling video until an instruction or icon flashes up on screen, requiring the player to press the appropriate sequence of buttons to progress).
So, not only were FMV titles costly and unsightly, they were also generally amongst the most abysmal play experiences of the era.
Perhaps worst of all, the generally more “adult” tones and subjects of these games garnered popular media and political attention, in an era when media and culture at large were generally ignorant of video games and their culture. This, perhaps inevitably, led to video games becoming a more prominent scapegoat for culture's ills than ever before, with horror titles in particular getting an extremely negative press.
Titles such as the entirely innocuous -not to mention laughably bad- Night Trap led to the implementation of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) which required video games to come with recommended (but not binding) minimum ages as a sop to misguided cultural concerns and media influenced scapegoating. This, in turn, transformed the culture of video games in significant and profound ways.
FMV died a quick and ignominous death in the video gaming industry, with many platforms and companies going under or failing at the outset owing to its prohibitive costs, generally lamentable sales and poor reception.
However, one or two titles do maintain at least one or two admirable qualities, and have had a sincere influence upon those video games that have come after.
The vast majority, unsurprisingly, are horror titles, which the format saw an efflorescence of, arguably leading to the eventual coalescence of the first Survival Horror titles on the PS 1 (which combined FMV sequences with actual gameplay).
Very early examples (such as those to be found on the Mega CD) combined certain arcade elements with narrative-driven, multiple choice conversations and interactions which led down particular plot paths or altered the course of the game based on what decisions the player makes:
The infamous Ground Zero Texas plays on -at the time- culturally pervasive concerns of alien invasion and abduction, the player taking on the role of an investigative paramilitary task force that arrive in a small Texas town and must uncover the alien conspiracy that has infested it before it is too late.
Gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has ever entered an arcade in their lifetime: a basic shooting gallery in which the player controls an on-screen target as various actors emerge from behind scenery whom they must take out before they get shots off. Interspersing these shooting galleries are instances of puzzle-solving, text-quest style conversations and some fairly interesting unique, “boss” style encounters in which the player must learn the sequence of events in order to make extremely difficult shoots and thereby gain portions of a code which will determine whether or not they're successful at the end of the game.
Whilst the game looks atrocious, boasts terrible loading times, extremely limited and linear gameplay, it is one of the better and more fondly remembered FMV titles from the ill-fated Mega CD, and is still somewhat playable, if you can find a copy.
Most intriguing of all, despite being hokey and absurd in a manner that would make one of the worse episodes of the X-Files seem the height of horror sophistication, it does have a certain atmosphere, a sense of pervasive paranoia as a result of the aliens being able to shape-shift into human form. Some of the later areas of the game -which involve descending into the mine system where the aliens have made their primary nest- are genuinely fraught, with atmospheric sound design and fittingly creepy musical scores.
Beyond that, perhaps one more to watch than to play.
The most significant -and fondly rememebered- titles occur towards the very end of FMV gaming's tenure, in the forms of Phantasmagoria and its radically removed, ambitious but frustrating sequel, A Puzzle of Flesh.
The original title is a ridiculously ambitious attempt to make an entire point and click video game in the FMV format, which proved a monstrously difficult, time-consuming and problematic process for parent company Sierra, the result a far from perfect, hokey bit of horror that attempts to shock with certain elements of its subject rather than provide a satisfying overall experience.
Following the escapades of Adrienne Delaney and her husband, the game boasts some of the most cliché tropes and situations one could imagine in a horror narrative:
Moving into a catoonishly gothic mansion in a remote USA coastal town, the pair experience a number of strange events and occurences, leading to a secret history of murder, black magic and demonic possession, which eventually unravels when Delany's husband finds himself possessed by the house's resident demon and entirely losing his mind.
One of the most hilarious and simultaneously charming elements of the game is its “carnival haunted house” quality: whilst the actors themselves are real rather than being computer-created sprites, the environments they inhabit generally aren't, instead being provided by then-imperfect blue-screen technology. As a result, the actors rarely react or react appropriately to the truly bizarre or ludicrous situations in which they find themselves:
The manor in which the vast majority of the game play occurs is a prime example: rather than being realistically designed or constructed, it instead resembles a more traditional video game environment in terms of its exaggeration, which contrasts jarringly with the actors themselves, who are so banal as to be bland to the eye. Over-wrought, ludicrously gothic, the manor boasts wings and towers and spires and dungeons, cellars and secret passageways, labs and observatories, all of which are decorated with arcane and occult paraphernalia whose cartoonish natures wouldn't be out of place in a ghost-train ride.
Whilst this makes it a fun and interesting place to explore, it also clashes markedly with the realistic natures of the characters, the script taking pains to make them as “normal” as possible.
For all of its problems, the game is a technological marvel for the era; arguably one of the first to successfully integrate blue-screen-projected, digitally created environments with live performances, not to mention a number of cinematic and TV effects the like of which had never been seen in a video game before.
In certain respects, its slightly camp, horror-comic tone helps the game immeasurably; were it too poe-faced or serious concerning its story (REF: A Puzzle of Flesh), the smiles it raises might well translate to sighs and eye-rolls. It is, in terms of its presentation, tone and general nature, an absurd piece of work, but arguably one of the more successful FMV titles in terms of both its technical elements and audience reception:
Whilst problematic to play now, it was fairly revolutionary at the time, with a live-action sprite performing actions at the player's command, some hokey but engaging comic-horror writing, a consistent atmosphere of mystery and intrigue, as well as a decently layered plot to uncover.
One of the elements that certainly drew media attention at the time were the boundaries in subject the game broke:
Whilst beginning to trespass into more adult arenas, video games at the time were still generally considered to be the fare of children, the inclusion of adult subjects such as violence, horror and any form of sexuality almost certain to have the more myopic, conservative elements of culture wringing their hands and sharpening their pitchforks in an apoplexy of contrived furore.
Phantasmagoria didn't so much as tip toe beyond those boundaries as drive a steam roller directly through them:
The game includes, among other elements, several scenes of sexuality, domestic abuse, violence, torture, images of mental anguish and despair and, perhaps the most infamous scene of all: an instance of rape.
Whilst it's arguable that the creators incorporated these elements as a means of deliberately cultivating furore (and thereby gaining the game a significant degree of free press), they are generally far from overt or shocking (nothing compared to what children of any age could find on rolling, 24 hour news shows at the time) and all serve the story in their own ways. One must also consider that, whilst far from being heralded as a classic of video game history, Phantasmagoria's willingness to simply ignore these boundaries of subject and the parameters proscribed upon the medium by individuals and institutions that largely still have very little idea of how it operates is arguably responsible for hurtling video gaming out of the nursery and into general culture.
Unlike many FMV titles, the game is arguably still worthy of a look: whilst fundamentally flawed in many key respects, the game interface is simple and universal enough that it can be picked up and played by anyone who's ever had experience with a “point and click” adventure.
Its sequel, meanwhile, is an appalling mess that should only be experienced so that the player might gape in awe at its utter ludicrousness:
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh is a work of some notoriety, in that, like its predecessor, it boasted a budget that most video games of the era couldn't even imagine and technical elements more redolent of television or cinema than a video game.
However, whereas the previous game managed to make something of a virtue of its (many) flaws, A Puzzle of Flesh is a hot mess that takes itself far too seriously, given how ridiculous it all is, broaches subjects that the creators clearly had no clue about (including psychology, BDSM, sexuality, to name but a few) and consistently tries to be edgy and significant whilst, in reality, coming off as hackneyed, under-wrought, absurd and, in some instances, next to unplayable.
One element fans of the original will notice from the off is that, in terms of tone and setting, the game has shifted gears to the point that it may as well be a totally different franchise:
Whereas the previous game boasted a fairly colourful, “ghost train ride” tone, this game is grim, murky and oppressive.
Having swapped gothic mansions and small towns for the urban settings of a claustrophobic apartment, office space and local restaurant, the game feels much more focused and intent on the story it wants to tell, with the protagonist, Curtis Craig, being fairly well fleshed out from the get go.
The problems start with the gameplay: whereas the FMV sequences are fairly impressive for the format, redolent of a slightly hokey horror TV show, the gameplay is ludicrous:
Like the previous title, it features fairly bog-standard point and click mechanisms, but struggles to maintain any consistency. As a result, what should be simple tasks become obscenely frustrating as the player struggles to find the correct sequence of buttons, items to use and commands to provide, all the while clicking wildly on anything, anything that has the slightest interactivity in hope of finding some clue.
Whereas the previous game utilised its “haunted house” setting to provide over-wrought puzzles, viciously elaborate traps and amusingly silly set pieces, this game's more realistic tone and environment does not suit its medium at all. As a result, the game struggles to prolongue itself by making what should be dull and simple domestic matters tediously over-wrought.
Take, for example, the first puzzle in the game, in which Curtis's wallet is stuck under the living room sofa. It's very clear that Curtis COULD just move the damn sofa and retrieve his wallet. Instead, the player must find Curtis's pet rat, Blob, send her to (bafflingly) retrieve the wallet, then coax her out again with some food found in his bedside cabinet.
Such busy-work nonsense entirely undermines not only the setting, but the atmosphere of the game, making a setting that strives for gritty, psychological horror a la Jacob's Ladder come off more like a bumbling, straight-to-DVD horror comedy.
Then, we have the characters. Oh, lord, the characters! There's barely a demographic out there that isn't represented here by some absurd stereotype, from the psychologically ill guy who is suspected of being a serial killer to the camp-as-Christmas gay-best-friend, it's a who's who of empty, wishy washy horror stereotypes whose ultimate fates are as clear on the blood splatters on the walls of their cubicles as they are gruseomly dispatched one by one.
In terms of its horror, the game has some interesting ideas: calling certain numbers from Curtis's cubicle phone can result in some interestingly distressing moments. The manner in which text on his computer occasionally rearranges itself to form demonic threats and hideous insults varies between being disturbing and incongruously funny.
Most of the characters in the game are powerfully unlikeable, inculding protagonist Curtis Craig, who lacks anything even like a redeeming quality or even basic charm.
The game shoots for near the knuckle, triggering, complex psychological horror but misses that mark by such a profound margin, it tumbles over the precipice into total farce.
If the player can muster enough patience to finish the “click on everything with everything else until something works” puzzles, endure the terrible acting and writing and tolerate Curtis's company for the length of the play time, they are treated to what is perhaps one of the most absurd and unlikely conclusions in any horror story, with what could have been an interesting look into a broken and abused psyche hand waved away as the result of some science fiction, “aliens from dimension X” interference.
The game is everything the original is not: over long, painfully one note, badly written, poorly acted and, ultimately, an entirely frustrating experience, unless you happen to be watching a play through of it on YouTube.
In the concluding part of this small digression into the -not entirely salubrious- history of FMV horror, we'll take a look at two of the more successful instalments: Ripper and Realms of the Haunting.
Until then, ladies and gentlemen.