I, Monster: Five Modern Games that Let You Unleash Your Inner Beast

monster

“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”

 -H.P. Lovecraft

One great thing about video games is it affords anybody the ability to be anything and do anything free from the consequences and hassles of harsh reality. You can be an invincible hero saving the world while romancing sexy aliens, you can enter fighting tournaments to throw fireballs at people and rip them limb from limb when you’re done, you can gamble without losing your life savings, or just chill out and solve some puzzles with no clean up. Whatever you’re into, there’s probably a game about it.

Well, you know what I like? Monsters. It’s been true since I was old enough to watch Universal horror and kaiju flicks on Saturday afternoon matinees and worry my parents by finding every last book about monster folklore in the library and refusing to leave until the let me check it out. I’ve also been obsessed with the idea of being one of those monsters; some misunderstood abomination doomed to hunt and destroy to survive in a world and society made exclusively for humans.

The above quote is from “The Outsider”, a story where a lost and confused protagonist seeks connection only to see every human run away from him before finally happening upon a mirror and realizing he’s the embodiment of human nightmares. I wonder if a monster ever really knows it’s a monster. It’s something I’ve always sought to experience in a video game, but the industry has been shockingly uncooperative when it comes to letting gamers experience life as a creature of darkness. At best, you can be a monster fighting other monsters, but that’s just not the same. Here are five games that are exceptions to the rule and let the player really get in character as a monster facing off with the most dangerous game.

Left 4 Dead

left 4 dead versus

One of the best co-op titles of all time, this zombie apocalypse shooter game really sang for me with its PvP Versus mode, which took the four-player campaign levels and then pitted four players against them controlling the “special infected” alongside the typical runners.

The special infected are mutated with special predatory abilities which, used strategically, give human players fits. For instance smokers have insanely long tongues they can use to snag players and drag them away from the group, boomers can spew bile all over them that immediately attracts a horde of runners, and the tank was just a massive moving wall of death.

Left 4 Dead’s focus on strategy and balance as well as its AI-governed procedural level augmentation made every game a surprise and a challenge, whether you were an infected looking for an opening against well-armed opponents on their guards, or a human just trying to make it to the end of the stage against all odds.

Playing as the monster was a big part of what made it one of my favorite shooter experiences ever. Shooting zombies is always fun, but we can do that any old time. Being the zombie avoiding the bullets and sneaking up on other players to ruin their night by puking on them or slicing them to ribbons while their buddies panic around the corner is so much more satisfying.

Poltergeist: A Pixelated Horror

poltergeist pixelated horror

Another thing I’ve always wanted to do is play as a ghost scaring virtual people. This has been done in the past with Haunting Starring Polterguy for the Sega Genesis, but I had a SNES so boo. Beyond: Two Souls gave us a little taste last gen, but it was far more focused on interactive human drama than on the awesome possibilities of playing as a spirit. Last year, a retro indie title brought the concept back as a charming horror-themed puzzle game so I finally got my ghostly fun fix.

Poltergeist puts the player in the shoes of a spirit with some territorial issues, making it his business to expel any and all residents throughout various eras. Each level is essentially a puzzle where you use your limited allocated abilities to maximum effect and frighten every living thing out of there.

Everything from tossing appliances around to manifesting spectres, demonic possession, chasing people around with summoned hellhounds, and sucking them into alternate dimensions is possible, but the humans can fight back with ghostbusters, priests, mediums, and bosses to neutralize your fear-inducing powers. Finding the solutions is a good time and the 16-bit style makes it both cute and affordable. For right now it’s the best ghost simulator we’ve got.

Gears of War: Judgment

gears of war judgement overrun

Gears is a series defined by massive marines chainsawing and shotgunning through monster guts. In multiplayer, one team gets to play as the Locusts, but since the two sides play exactly the same, it doesn’t make a difference. The third game introduced Beast Mode, which allowed players to play as some of the other creatures from the campaign against human AI bots, but it was shallow and brief.

The post-trilogy prequel game, Judgment, did it several times better with its multiplayer Overrun game, which took a page from L4D and pitted player-controlled humans defending a base against player-controlled monsters attempting to destroy it. The result was a massive bright spot in what was otherwise a disappointing misstep that took the game away from its roots and eliminated the beloved cooperative masterpiece Horde mode.

While humans had different classes to choose from, the real fun was, of course, in playing as the various monsters, with stronger breeds becoming available the more damage you do. Sure, boring old Locusts with guns were available, but wouldn’t you rather be a burrowing corpser spider, an unstoppable berserker, or an acid-spitting serapede? Hell yeah, you would. Or I would anyway. I played a ton of every kind of Gears online ever since the franchise’s inception and I have to say that 90% of my time with Judgment was spent in this one facet of the game’s multiplayer.  Strategizing and cooperating to use your monstrous abilities to take down heavily armed and fortified humans was the only thing that made this game great.  

Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse

stubbs the zombie

I may be stretching the definition of “modern” a little here since this originally came out on the original Xbox, but it’s only been ten years and any excuse to point out how awesome this game is and lament the lack of a sequel or spiritual successor is a good one. Stubbs the Zombie is a game where you play as the titular shambling zombie, and it’s the only proper undead plague simulator I’ve ever played.

The name of the game is eating people’s brains as you go full Romero rampaging through country farmhouses and taking on the American military with the occasional 60’s pop dance-off. Every human you bite rises again as your minion and as you evolve, you gain a variety of helpful abilities like using your internal organs as infectious hand grenades and detaching your hand to skitter behind enemy lines and take control of enemies’ minds.

Needless to say the game is fun as hell. It’s pretty cartoonish and filled with humor (although still somehow controversial), but at the same time it does a great job of letting you experience life as a zombie bent on spreading your plague. The creativity inspired by Stubbs’ abilities and the level designs alone made Rebel Without a Pulse a must for any gamer, and doubly for anyone who’s ever felt a desire to kill all humans.

Evolve

evolve kraken

When Left 4 Dead co-developers Turtle Rock Studios split from Valve and abandoned the franchise after two games in one year, what they came up with next was essentially the ultimate monster versus human simulator. Like the zombie co-op title, the gameplay revolves around a team of players facing off against a player-controlled menace, but this time it’s four against one.

Evolve puts pressure on both teams with human classes relying on each other to stand a chance against the monster’s overwhelming power and the monster usually being forced to flee in early stages of the match to consume enough wildlife to evolve to higher levels while being hunted by a team whose only goal is to track and kill them. It’s a very different experience from…well anything else.

I have to admit that I really loved playing as various classes in this game. Whereas L4D was more of a “go through the motions until I get to be a monster again” experience online after a certain point since every human character was the same, in Evolve it was not only fun to evade and trick puny humans while stuffing my ugly face and circling around to slip past my pursuers, but it was also really fun and rewarding to play as a tracker using different abilities and signs to ferret out and trap the fleeing beast, manage healing, buffs, and debuffs, call in airstrikes, or just fill that oversized freak with lead while evading with your jetpack or active camouflage.

That said, it was still cooler to be the monster at the end of the day. Leveling up your various abilities and devising strategies using them to take the team down one by one or all at once with your beast of choice was as fun as it was challenging. With multiple monsters possessing abilities like flight, teleportation, and projectile attacks as well as heavy durability going for you, it’s hard not to feel like a badass as the hunters scurry from your assault like so many rats. It’s less badass when they successfully cooperate to frustrate and take you down, but still a good time.    

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Five Games that Are Challenging Fallout 4 for Game of the Year Honors

goty

I’ll go ahead and admit this right now: after E3 I pretty much wrote 2015 off as the Year of Fallout 4. I mean, seriously; what was going to compete with THAT? But now that release day is here and we’ve had several more months of gaming to catch up on the year’s best before the November 10 nuke drop, I’ve noticed that this has been one hell of a year.

Even if Fallout 4 lives up to the insane expectations Bethesda created with their E3 presentation to be 2015’s Game of the Year (and reviews indicate that it does), there’s a ton of competition out there. And even pretending AAA blockbusters like Assassins Creed, Call of Duty, and Halo are no longer relevant (and we are), there’s no sure victory.

It’s been a monumentally great year for video games on every platform from massive releases down to the indie sleeper hits. These are just five of the many deathclaws and behemoths in 2015’s gaming Wasteland that could spoil Bethesda’s year-end victory party if their latest post-apocalyptic open world epic makes any missteps.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Painmetal gear solid v snake

Upon release, Konami’s latest masterpiece of tactical insanity collected near-perfect scores almost across the board with game critics and sits at 93 on Metacritic, the highest rated console game of the year. That is going to make it a tough act to beat by itself.

Fans discussed the game as art, analyzing tiny details in search of metaphorical and philosophical meaning in its crazy narrative and critics praised the massive open world freedom and top rate production values that somehow retain the bizarre and personal feel of an indie title thanks to the deft guiding hands of series creator Hideo Kojima.

There was sexism controversy, cries of betrayal from long time fans (due to the game’s relative lack of the film-length cutscenes that have long been a MGS hallmark), and a successful online component to assure that all AAA bases were covered in terms of both gameplay and community discussion. One way or another, if you were a gamer in late 2015 you were bumping up against this game.   

With this being the official swan song of one of the most revered and discussed creators in gaming and the culmination of a long-running and acclaimed series, this game has a sentimental factor and a rabid fanbase going for it as we hurtle towards the end of the year awards. If you ask Konami’s marketing executive, The Phantom Pain is the undisputed Game of the Year and “the most engrossing and stunning game of the year.” But there may be a conflict of interest there so humor me a little and read the rest of the list, ‘kay?

Undertale

undertale game show

This is the little RPG that could. An independent PC release that will hopefully make it to consoles one day, Undertale is that rare game that can come along and change your entire way of thinking. The graphics ain’t much and the music is nostalgia fuel, but if you have a heart beating in your chest, this game will win you over eventually, one way or another. If charm and sheer creativity were the only factors in making a great game, this would be one of the greatest of all time hands down and it’s the only release to score as highly among critics as MGS V this year

It’s a title where the game’s characters occasionally address the player and game elements directly, turn game mechanics to their own advantage, toy relentlessly with the gamer’s expectations, and test them in ways they’ve never been tested by a game before. And arguably more so than any other game, the story really does depend on your actions. That is to say you can play Undertale as a typical RPG where you kill the monsters that bar your path and turn it into the story of an unstoppable genocidal maniac, you can look for non-violent solutions to your problems and have a heartwarming story of friendship, or do a little of each for a different outcome yet.

Even taking the creative mechanics, the mind-melting metafiction, and the groundbreaking philosophical concepts aside, the humor of the game by itself has led to an endless supply of fanart and memes dedicated to the various characters and moments that will permeate your journey depending on your choices. If this game had been released in the 90’s, it’d likely be remembered as one of the greatest RPG’s of all time so as dark horse GOTY candidates go, Undertale is filled with determination.

Tales from the Borderlandstales from borderlands rhys sasha

It’s been three years since Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead aimed for gamers’ heads (and hearts) and laid the competition to rest to garner near-universal Game of the Year awards in 2013. Since then, the indie studio has been the toast of the interactive fiction sub-genre, delivering a constant stream of quality stories immersing us in the worlds of Game of Thrones, Fables, Minecraft, and Borderlands.

That last one I’ve got to admit I wasn’t expecting much from. Borderlands is a great RPG/FPS hybrid with a sick sense of humor, but madcap fun is kind of the whole point and it’s largely considered a co-op title to boot. What’re the odds that adapting it as essentially a sequence of playable cutscenes would be amazing?

Oh, me of little faith. Telltale once again proved their uncanny knack for capturing the tone and essence of any property perfectly and combined all of the best aspects of their previous games into an interactive fiction experience that I would describe as just about perfect. I have literally no complaints or practical ideas about how that story could have been better, and that is a rare, rare thing.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

witcher 3 fiend

This is probably the biggest competitor right now and has remained effortlessly at the head of the pack for most of the year. CD Projekt RED’s dark fantasy action-RPG is one of the most massive and epic RPG’s ever created. If you don’t put a hundred hours into this one, you aren’t trying, and odds are, you’ll enjoy every minute.

While there is no one facet of The Witcher 3 that marks it as the best, it combines the greatest aspects from the best fantasy RPG’s of its time into one glorious experience. It’s got the action combat of Dark Souls, the open world exploration and customization of Elder Scrolls, and the great characters and moral quandary-infused choices of Dragon Age. The parade of free post-launch DLC doesn’t hurt its chances any either.

The conclusion of Geralt of Rivia’s trilogy seldom disappoints and if nothing else, it will give you a hell of a lot to do, a lot of ways to do it, and a great experience getting it done. As gamers what more could we ask for?   

Life is Strangelife is strange tracks

It took most of the year for Dontnod Entertainment to complete the journey they began in January when they released Episode One, but the consensus seems to be it was well worth the wait. Taking pages out of Telltale’s book, Life is Strange is another character-based interactive fiction designed to make you laugh, cry, and love.

The innovation here is a helpful one for the genre. In this game, you can rewind time to a certain extent and make different choices if you so choose. This is excellent because it not only saves the player the trouble of resetting the game if they pick a wrong choice or just to see a different outcome, which is a pretty common occurrence while playing through these kinds of games. The kicker is that your choices have a butterfly effect where the consequences are often not seen until some time later, meaning that what seemed right at the time may have unforeseen consequences down the line.

Life is Strange’s stylish hand-painted art capturing the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, memorable characters, emotional twists and turns, slice of life approach to story, and metaphorical journey into the human psyche have earned it industry accolades and fan devotion alike. It’s crazy to think that publishers demanded the game’s pivotal duo of Max and Chloe be changed to male protagonists, but Dontnod deserves credit for fighting for their characters and delivering the story they wanted to tell.

A great addition to a growing genre that further shows why gaming’s interactive elements can and will see it surpass film and television as the visual story medium of choice. In fact, all of these games kind of do that. 2015 has been a banner year for quality gaming all around. Fallout 4 has got a lot to live up to if it’s going to come out on top of this heap.

The Unbroken Circle: Five Modern Games with Folk Songs as Themes

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Music and gaming have gone hand in hand ever since gaming became an industry. Every kid who grew up in the 80’s likely has a mental library of classic video game theme music that they’ll carry with them until the day they die. You know the ones I’m talking about. But time moves ever onward, games are so much more now than they were, and the catchy jingles that defined yesteryear don’t really cut it anymore.

AAA games are now expected to come with their own amazing scores and soundtracks to match the best film and television have to offer, and most of the time they are up to the task. No more computery melodies of bleeps and bloops to infest our brains, we’ve got full on sweeping orchestral scores and popular music to heighten the moments and propel us to action in modern video games.

Sooner or later, every kind of entertainment has to come full circle and arrive back to the beginning of art as entertainment: folk music. First it made a comeback in popular music in the 60’s protest era and again recently with bands like Mumford and Sons. Movies -particularly indie films- have often used it and acclaimed films like O Brother Where Art Thou were built around it. Then it was modern television with shows like The Walking Dead leaning on the timeless sound for moments of poignant drama, and now finally we come to video games.

In the last generation of gaming, there have been games that have used folk music to incredible dramatic effect, proving once again that anything film and television can do, gaming can do better. Here are five examples of games using a musical style and songs so old nobody even knows where they came from to bring interactive entertainment into the dramatic big leagues while making ancient music new again.

Until Dawn

“Well what is this, that I can’t see?

With ice cold hands taking hold of me

When God is gone and the Devil takes hold

Who’ll have mercy on my soul?”

The opening credit sequence for the this year’s interactive horror story of choice uses a reworked version of the traditional (which is short form for “so old we don’t know who wrote it or when”) ballad “O Death”, which was originally recorded in the 1920’s.

The song a natural fit for acoustic blues, but the way it’s used in Until Dawn is particularly effective and brings it into the modern era nicely. A pulse pounding rhythm escalates throughout the song ha classical vocals and initially sparse orchestral instrumentation swoop in and out. The verses accompanied by various thematic images are interrupted by an introductory cutscene setting the stage for the story before returning to the song for the finale, making the journey ahead feel epic before it even properly begins.

As credit sequences go, you can hardly do better (unless you are Tales from the Borderlands) and the choice of song couldn’t have been more spot on. The sound of a beautiful feminine voice pleading for her life with the grim reaper is a good place to start off after the opening sequence where you see two teenage girls driven to their deaths. And with death seeming to lurk around the corner of every decision you make in the story, the lyrics are incredibly fitting.

The Walking Dead: Season 1

“All that we have known will be an echo

Of days when love was true

Muted voices just beyond

The silent surface of what has gone”

The finale for Telltale Games’ breakthrough hit series based on the unstoppable multimedia franchise that began life (undeath?) as an independent black-and-white comic put the small dev right in among the AAA heavyweights. A video game that can make grown men admit to crying is a video game that gets people’s attention, and even if you resisted the innumerable atrocities and tragedies thrown at you in the first four episodes, if that finale didn’t break you the you were already broken to begin with.

The song, Alela Diane’s “Take Us Back” isn’t an old song, but it sounds like it is. It could have come from literally any period of human history, its themes and melody are so universal and timeless. But in this context the lyrics embody the wistfulness of a ruined world ruled by the dead; a shadow of a time when humanity meant something.

It’s one thing to be born into a world of shit, but to be that first generation living with the memory of a once-thriving society and trying to find the hope to go on…it’s almost overwhelming to try and process what that must feel like. But after hearing “Take Us Back” over the closing credits of this remarkable work of interactive art, I know exactly what it sounds like.

Red Dead Redemption

“Step in front of a runaway train just to feel alive again

Pushing forward through the night, aching just to blow aside

It’s so far, so far away”

The best moment in Rockstar Games’ definitive tale of the death of the Old West isn’t dragging lassoed bandits through town tied to your horse, winning a quickdraw duel, or engaging in epic shootouts. It’s something undefinable that could only truly be experienced in a video game.

“Far Away” by Swedish-born singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez takes the most basic function of an open world game and transforms it into a poignant, meditative moment of moody intangible beauty. If you ever needed an example of how music can utterly transform your perception of a scene, then John Marston’s long ride into Mexico is it.

While you, the player, is pretty much just directing your horse towards your destination the way you’ve done over and over while traveling hither and thither the whole game. During this turning point in the story, you get on your horse to ride into uncharted (by you, at least) territory and this gorgeous fingerpicked guitar is suddenly accompanying your journey as you gallop past the river colored by the gorgeous sunset.

The beautiful scenery and haunting music combine to make the most mundane of open-world gaming chores magical, and the lyrics naturally mirror Marston’s journey as well. There aren’t many lines in the song, but with the recklessness of your hero’s quest to do whatever it takes to leave his past behind, both the player and the character understand on some subconscious level that the past is something you are never free or clear from. The song suggests this as well, painting the story of a man so weary he’s not sure if he’s working towards a true goal anymore or just trying to find a way to finally die. No matter how far he goes or how hard he tries, his dream of a peaceful life is always far away.

The Walking Dead: Season 2

“Little girl, little girl, don’t lie to me

Tell me where did you sleep last night?

In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines

You shiver the whole night through.”

Nothing says success quite like an encore. Telltale didn’t waste much time in expanding their smash hit into a second season, passing the protagonist’s torch to the young girl players spent the first season protecting. And given the glorious feels and universal praise for their use of music at the end of that first season, they decided to expand on that and use songs at the end of each episode.

As with before, the wistfulness of folk music wins the day and provides gamers with a few minutes to reflect on what they’ve just been through emotionally. Most of the tracks are from a band named Anadel with their highlight being “In the Water” closing the first episode with traditional acoustic folk to set the tone. Other episodes feature piano ballads and an instrumental as well, all hauntingly lovely tunes.

But my pick for the standout theme of this soundtrack is Episode 2’s closer “In the Pines”, a traditional piece sung by Janel Drewis, but probably best known as a song Nirvana covered during their legendary MTV Unplugged performance. Given the heroine Clementine’s “little girl lost” story in this season as she looks for stable footing while being tossed  from storm to storm, this song sums up that feeling perfectly.

At this point in the story, she’s been lost in the woods scavenging to survive and comes across a band of survivors living in a cabin. The beautiful, protective tone of Drewis’ performance and slow dirge-like pace of the music encapsulates the tragedy of a young girl with nowhere to go in a harsh and indifferent world.

Video contains Season One spoilers.

BioShock Infinite

“Will the circle be unbroken?

By and by, by and by

There’s a better home awaiting

In the sky, oh, in the sky”

BioShock Infinite should get some kind of lifetime achievement award for its groundbreaking use of music in a video game. Specifically, in taking classic songs and using them in way you never would have expected. Everything from the strains of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” emanating from a mysterious portal to a lone woman singing CCR’s “Fortunate Son” in the style of a traditional slave spiritual as a city in revolt burns around her to a barbershop quartet treating us to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” not only provide musical delight, but build the world of the floating city of Columbia and foreshadow the mind-boggling revelations of the story’s climax.

The masterstroke is the use of the inescapable folk hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, originally written in 1907 and rewritten and popularized in the 30’s by the Carter Family as a funeral song celebrating the infinite nature of life, death, and rebirth while mourning the passing of a loved one. Irrational Games used the original lyrics and turned them on their head for BioShock Infinite in a way that’s so brilliant, it hurts my brain. The scene where your character picks up a guitar on a whim and accompanies his charge Elizabeth as she sings the chorus slowly and sweetly while offering some food to a homeless child gave me goosebumps. One of my favorite moments in what I consider one of the best games ever.

What this scene did in a single bar of music was illustrate the theme of the entire game in a context having nothing to do with the lyrics as they were written originally. As we find out later in the story, the game operates on multiverse space-time physics theory and the story itself on an infinite time loop. And given the setting of a city floating in the sky and the general religious bend of its culture, there you have it: an incredibly complicated sci-fi setting and theme summed up in the chorus of an ancient hymn.

Additional themes implied by the song choice is the “all of this has happened before/all of this will happen again” nature of human politics and of oppression and revolution (think Orwell’s Animal Farm) illustrated as a parable within the game’s story. It’s kind of sad that a lot of people so criminally misunderstood it all. That’s a lot of depth in two lines of songs, though, any way you look at it. The game’s closing credits reprise the song in its entirety on a more festive note, showing the two lead voice actors actually recording it in the studio for a truly wonderful credits sequence celebrating a monumental gaming achievement. A beautiful way to end a beautiful game.

And not only does it sum up the themes of the game, but the theme of this article as well. This age-old form of human expression, its timeless songs, and the universal emotions they represent always find their way back to us and always with something new to add. Whether it’s in popular film, television, radio, or video games, folk music is something that people are always going to relate to on some level. So yes, the circle will, in fact, be unbroken, and as long as there are people around to sing it and hear it, there will be folk songs for every occasion.