Alone in the Dark: Dance of death

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1992’s Alone in the Dark. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Naturally, escape from the mansion is not easily achieved by waltzing back through the front door. An interdimensional worm now lives there and will suck me into its maw if I am audacious enough to try to leave.

Everything in this house wants to kill me, but it keeps doing so in such inventive ways that I can’t help but be impressed with the effort. One room has a haunted cigar that will suffocate me with smoke unless I douse it with water. This painting of a frontiersman starts chucking tomahawks at me. His mortal weakness? An old Indian blanket, of course.

Across the hall, his Native American counterpart painting starts firing arrows at me. This is where naughty Hogwarts pictures come to live!

As I talked about before, the monsters in this game are extremely limited in polygons. While this can make them more frightening at times with their movements and whatnot, most often they just come off as ridiculous. I missed out on taking a picture of the ghost in the library, but honestly, it looked like the purple Grimace. Don’t really know what they were going for there.

And why not, one of the rooms has a pirate waiting to slash me in two! Feel bad for this guy, spending years cooped up in a room without any company or his old parrot. Probably dreams of the sea. Oh well. Now you must die. A sword fight between us ensues, and it’s easily the most fun I’ve had in the game so far. Wasn’t too tough, either.

Other than the attic, the ballroom is the one place that I always remembered from playing this back when I was a kid. You can only get the item from behind the ghosts if you put on the right record — Danse Macabre, of course — and then make your way through them to grab it. I’ve always associated that piece of music with this game ever since. Stupid games, teaching me about classical music!

With all of that done, I think I’m finished with the main house! I descend down into the basement, which is substantially larger than I would have thought. I guess if you’re going to build a house, might as well situate it over a font of unspeakable evil? Lovecraft is applauding your decision.

BEHOLD MY CHILDREN: THE WORM THAT WILL END THE WORLD. HIS NAME IS HAROLD.

Once the game hits this underground cavern section, I’m much less interested in what it has to offer. There’s little in the way of story or things to explore; mostly it’s just some weird platforming and action sequences while you try very hard not to die. I never did like it when developers ran out of time toward the end of their game and felt like they had to stretch it out with bland and tedious elements.

You know what would be a great idea to include in a game where your character functions like a drunk, scared baby? Platforming! Yes, let’s jump with a character that can barely walk. This will end well for all involved. I am not joking here when I say that I had to save after every single jump in this room, because falling is way, way too easy.

The books in Alone in the Dark are the primary vehicle to deliver the backstory, but honestly, I’ve been avoiding most of them due to the really atrocious voice acting. All you need know is that a pirate named Ezechiel got involved with Cthulu and stuff and now he’s merged with a tree underground and is perpetuating horrors while trying to possess people who come into the house.

This, by the way, is the worst room in the game. It’s a maze that’s pitch black, and even with your lamp, you can only see a very small part of it. Oh, and if you’ve run out of oil or matches, well then, you might as well start the game over again. Good luck! Fortunately, I had plenty of oil left, so I used the tried-and-true right-hand rule to keep following the right wall of the maze until I found the door out.

So here’s the final tree-boss in all his terrifying glory. I feel a bit bad for him, being stuck in a tree for hundreds of years with only a single monster nearby and the ability to shoot fireballs. Has to be boring. Welp, time to light him on fire!

With the pirate-tree turned into a flaming mini-volcano (?), all that’s left is to make my way out of the house. That takes a bit of time, but at least all of the enemies are now gone. Fresh daylight! Good has triumphed!

And this is where the game really got me all those years ago, because it was such a relief to know that I beat the game and got out of the house. Sunshine is beaming down, the music changes to this cheery little tune, and I flag down a car…

…only to have this cackling skeleton-zombie-thing turn around and FREAK ME THE HECK OUT. I freely admit it: I screamed so loud that my parents upstairs called down, sure that I hurt myself. The skeleton doesn’t do anything other than laugh and then drive you away, but still, that was totally unfair, game. Unfair.

And that’s it, Alone in the Dark finished in two relatively short play sessions! It’s a really quick game if you know what you’re doing, and while the polygons are pretty laughable today, there’s still an effectively creepy vibe that the house and its sounds delivers.

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Secret World: Marquard’s mansion

I can’t believe that I got all the way up to the last mission of this big South African content drop in Secret World Legends and then didn’t actually finish it. It’s been a few weeks since I last logged in, and I felt this unfinished business nagging me. So let’s do it. Let’s tunnel our way into Marquard’s mansion and see what this Morninglight lunatic has been up to.

Our adventures start in a sort of mineshaft underground, which actually makes for an interesting level. It’s very straightforward, but there are plenty of booby traps, a handful of critters, and some roving probes. I felt that the insta-death rebar spikes were a tad unfair.

Oh, and there were a couple of giant spiders. Actually worked against them, since I excel in a narrow environment where the enemy has no room to escape.

The tunnel leads into Marquard’s basement, which turns out to be some sort of horror torture chamber with cells stocked with both humans (mostly Secret Worlders, including one “unknown faction”) and beasts. There’s also a dollhouse and dolls for no good reason. I suspect someone at Funcom keeps slipping these in as Easter eggs.

Notes on the computer mention “living fossils” — dinos? — found deep in the Congo.

I’ll tell you, I was all bees and needles coming up into the mansion proper. I mean, I was finally at the very heart of the Morninglight empire… who knew what I would find? Turns out, a very nice living room with a giant robot standing inexplicably in the middle.

I will say that I felt cheated that I wasn’t allowed to explore the rest of the mansion or really get that much more in the way of story lore here. In short, this is all a delaying tactic.

Marquard isn’t there — but his family is. And let me say that this lady is one of the freakier things that I’ve encountered in the game. The way she talks and the camera keeps pulling up to her, I was actually scooting back in my seat.

The family is the toughest fight. The two kids will kill you instantly if they get too close, so I had to keep them both in sight while attacking her. After a while, they join together to become… THE NUCLEAR FAMILY!

Now this just feels like a farce. Like Funcom had an interesting notion but couldn’t really follow through in a way that would put you in awe of the thing. Instead, it’s a goofy purple dude strutting around the place.

At the end of this fight, Berihun (fedora dude) steals my bee powers for about two seconds before Che shows up and gives them right back. Cue another boss fight which, of course, I win.

Che hands me the phone — and it’s John. Thought that he was dead for some reason? But he’s helping Che to help me, and he tells me that Marquard has indeed gone where every fan of this game has been guessing for ages now: the Congo.

In a pleasant surprise, the Templars actually show up in force to take over the mansion (after I’ve defeated the boss, of course) and Richard pardons me. I still don’t have the option to quit, but he can take that pardon and swallow it along with his posh British accent. I’m in this for the honey now.

LOTRO: Beware the bear butts

One of the things that I hate in MMOs or other games is that feeling of getting bogged down or stuck in an undesirable location or section. You know that feeling? You’ve had this good momentum and then, bam, you’re struggling through a part that isn’t too interesting and you’re not making any traction. You log out in frustration and then find yourself not wanting to log back in for days or weeks after.

LOTRO does this to me every so often. It can have a good flow, but when confusing quest objectives, inhospitable terrain, or frustrating mobs conspire together, they can swamp me. This is where I found myself in Northern Mirkwood.

At first it was great, all pretty trees and peaceful forest, but what I didn’t realize was that there’s this whole region around Elf City that’s in a perpetual night, has a ton of mobs, has a river you can’t cross (at least not through the water), has quest objectives that are scattered all over the place, and the environment has some cliffs and a ton of nighttime fog. It’s not at all enjoyable or engaging to stumble around nearly blind in a forest not even knowing where you’re going, which is why I didn’t want to log in for a while.

But the poisoned foxes needed me, and so I came back. Actually, the best remedy for getting bogged down is to power through it. Log in, devote X amount of time, and just get things one one objective at a time. So that’s what I did recently. One small, silly step at a time, and gradually I started to gain traction once more. Quests started getting finished.

And I was absolutely delighted to find that once I got outside of the Dark Zone, everything got 100% more enjoyable and easier to do. Funny that happening when you can actually see.

Angry tree guys? Evil forest spirits? Not really sure what the Taurogrim are and I’m not going to Google it. I think they look pretty cool though. I don’t even mind this guy trying to rip off my skull, because at least we’re out in the sunlight and I know where I’m going.

The main goal of the night was to run a solo instance in which I was helping a Beorning shapeshifter find one of her traveling companions who had been lost deep in the wood.

Oh! So I should back up to the start of this night and say that I died three times in a row, very quickly. At first I thought I wasn’t paying attention, but no, I was getting *creamed.* Then I noticed I was missing skills. And then my brain — honed by years of actually covering MMO news — remembered that this game had a class balance update and my talent points got reset. So I had that to do as well.

I don’t feel like my blue line Lore-master got better, but rather that she is less effective than before. I certainly struggled hard during this solo instance as the mobs hit me like a truck and I had a hard time keeping them off of me if there was more than one or two.

Puddleglum photobombed this nature shot. Go back and gel your hair a bit more, you weirdo.

Anyway, I died in the middle of the instance (which, again, has just rarely ever happened to me in this game and I’m now taking a long, hard look at my spec to see if it’s to blame), and I didn’t have my free rez available. So I had to be sent back. All the way back. Like halfway across the zone. I think my brain started screaming right then, which was followed by my mouth ten seconds later.

It was a long, stupid ride back.

Fortunately, I did get the instance done, saved the traveler, and was rewarded with… about eight new quests to do more stuff for them. I know the devs love to rack up the quantity of quests, but could there also be good rewards for them too? It’s not as though XP and LI XP is that useful to me right now.

Novel: The end. Also, the beginning.

There came a point in my novel writing last week when not only I knew that I was getting near the end of the book, but it clicked in my head how everything was going to wrap up. Once that happened, I was full steam ahead, surpassing my daily quota of 1,000 words for much more. I wanted to see it done. I wanted to cross that finish line with my arms held high in triumph. Maybe that’s what happens in a marathon when you see the end come in sight — you get that extra burst of speed and power.

Last Wednesday night, my wife shooed me out the door for some peace and quiet to do it justice. So I got dinner, drove to a quiet place near some trees, rolled down the windows, and just wrote. After two hours, I got to write those magical words — “The End” — and took the above picture to mark the occasion.

I won’t lie. I really thought I’d have more of a strong emotional reaction, but instead there was just… deep satisfaction. I wasn’t writing this to get it over and done with, I was writing it because I had a story to tell and it was FUN to write it. Every day over four months (only missing two days in the process), I came to that screen and wondered what would happen next. Sometimes I knew. Sometimes I thought I knew, but the characters went a different way. Sometimes it was silly or sad or clever or dumb. In a way, it was like I was slowly reading this book as I was also writing it.

Compared to my previous novellas, this novel feels more mature. Not in its subject matter, but in the style of its writing. It’s just more complete, more competent, and more something that I would actually like to read if someone else wrote it. I recently went back to re-read one of my NaNoWriMo novellas, and I couldn’t get past the first chapter, it was such a mess.

So what’s this book? What am I ready to share about it?

I wanted to stay quiet about the specifics while I wrote it because I didn’t want any feedback or comments. It was mine and it was fragile and in development. But now I think I can open up to share this much.

The novel is called The Wonderlust Journal, and it takes place in a fantasy world where the land has started to knit itself back together after a previous apocalypse of some sort. The title refers to a widespread quarterly newspaper that serves to connect the people of this world and their stories together. It’s now the most popular publication in the world, and the lead character is a low-level roving reporter who is secretly hunting down a big story in order to make a name for himself (among other things). He’s a bit of a dork but he’s clever and determined, and that makes for a good mix.

There’s very, very little fighting in it. No assassins. One dead dragon. A most unusual marriage. What ended up surprising me is how… normal this fantasy world ended up being. “Normal” in the sense that it wasn’t as high fantasy as I had originally intended, nor as gritty and grimdark as the genre is going these days. It’s got likable people, some weird twists, a rivalry, and a coming-of-age tale of sorts. No matter what, I tried to put at least one new and interesting development or insight into each chapter to keep the filler down.

Since announcing the end of this first draft, I’ve had some people on Twitter and Facebook ask me what I’m doing next. Originally I wrote this to see what it would be. I had no idea if it would just be for me or if I’d try to get it out there. Now that it’s done, I think it might be good enough to share with a wider audience.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done, so my immediate plan was to take a week off from working on this, and then to start the second draft. I really need to go back through this whole book and smooth it out, improve the language and flow, add more dialogue, and most importantly, retcon some characters and other things so that they’d match what I ended up writing. I have about four main characters and I need to work on bringing out each of their personality traits and unique characteristics more.

My goal now is to revise one chapter a day for 35 days (since there are 35 chapters).

Then? I’m going to try to find beta readers. I don’t know what the process is there, but I need some eyes on this to give me feedback, find obvious flaws, and to let me know what they think without trying to butter me up. Once I get that feedback, I’ll go back for a third draft.

That will probably take me to the end of summer or beyond. It’s not a quick thing. If I get it really polished and decent and people tell me if it’s good enough to print, then I’ll start looking for an agent or into self-publishing options. This is all very new to me, obviously, and I want to do it right.

After that… another book. I have a sequel to The Wonderlust Journal in mind, but there’s also a different idea that I’d like to hack out one of these days, so I’m deliberating between those.

Anyway, thank you to everyone for encouragement for a project that you can neither see nor read right now. Worst comes to worst, I’ll just post this sucker somewhere if nobody wants to publish it, and anyone who’s interested can read it.

Fallen Earth: It’s like riding a post-apocalyptic bike

With all of the Fallout hoopla going on as of late — side story, I bumped into a guy at a park wearing a Fallout tee and I was like “cool shirt!” and he was like “hey have you heard of the new game?” and I was like “yeah, we should be best friends forever!” and he was like “i think i hear my wife calling my name…” — I’ve gotten into this weird and unexpected post-apocalyptic gaming vibe this month. Not only am I going through Fallout 4, but I reinstalled Fallen Earth, which you might remember from back when I was an absolute raving mad Fallen Earth fan who wouldn’t shut up about this game.

It wasn’t just Fallout 76, however. I’ve been meaning to revisit this game for a while, but its “barely hanging on” status under GamersFirst’s management was an effective repellent. And then last month, another company acquired GF and all of its games and started to make talk about rebuilding Fallen Earth. It’s actually kind of exciting, especially if you’ve always been rooting for this dark horse of an MMO.

So I figured it was time to go back, if only to say howdy and see if the magic is still there. I rolled up a new character (I don’t even think I know what my old account info is at this point) and jumped right into Sector One.

If you’ve never played (or even heard) of Fallen Earth before, it’s pretty much the closest thing we’ve had to a Fallout MMORPG for a long time now. It came out back in 2008 or so and wasn’t exactly a smash hit — more of a deep sleeper hit. It was messy and a little complicated and not always the best-looking or -animated game, but after I pushed myself to get to learn it, I found that it was a pretty amazing sandbox that let me live out my wasteland scavenger fantasies quite well.

Exploring and fighting and questing is all part of it, to be sure, but what makes Fallen Earth different than most MMOs is that it is highly, highly dependent on gathering and crafting as a core gameplay loop. Yes, this is the modern survival game genre done a while back, but it hit that sweet spot of what most post-apocalyptic gamers were seeking. We wanted to make our way in this harsh land.

Plus, you know me. I don’t really craft that much at all — except when it came to this game. Then, I couldn’t get enough of it. Fallen Earth’s crafting was addicting for three reasons:

  1. You could craft MOST anything in the game without having to specialize
  2. You actually used what you made
  3. You crafted in real-time (whether online or not) no matter where you were in the game

Seeing the crafting timer count down while I was doing other activities always felt satisfying, and I got a rush of that right when I started this character and was told to make bandages and ammo. The memories!

As I said, Fallen Earth can be messy. It’s a big, big world that has all sorts of weird respawn rates and camps of bad guys where the corpses pile up faster than they can dissolve. Sometimes you just get this old school clutter like above, but after a while, it becomes part of the game’s atmosphere. You can’t always pull one mob at a time or spend forever looting bad guys in safety.

It’s been years since I’ve played — about five at least, according to the last time I was blogging about it — so I really thought I would have forgotten everything. But I guess my brain’s long-term storage is still functioning and ticking along, because I had one of those memory cascades during the first half-hour of play. I remembered the sounds, the weird UI, the way to do combat, the crafting, the AP system… pretty much all of it. Just flooded right on back and I was in the swing of things.

And of course, when you play Fallen Earth, you have to stop every once in a while to gaze at the skybox and feel small and insignificant. Moon!

Back when I first started playing Fallen Earth, it took a long time before you were able to make and use guns (I think the default ranged weapon back then was a pathetic crossbow). Now the game dumps a wide selection of weapons in your inventory and lets you start shootouts the second you are able to craft ammo.

If you play, I strongly recommend ranged over melee for two reasons. First, you can do headshots for extra damage and that just rocks. Second, enemy mobs can literally be blown away (or back a few yards) when you deliver the killing shot. It’s a lot of fun.

In my short session, I also stumbled upon the vaults and was reminded of the quirky and limiting inventory system. You have weight and slot restrictions, and if you decide to dump stuff into vaults, you have to know which type you’re using, as some only work across a single sector (a large zone) and not the whole game.

Anyone else playing Fallen Earth or heading back? I saw some interest on Massively OP as of late and figured that I might not be the only one.

Star Trek Online: Storm clouds gather

Let’s face it: Deep Space Nine has seen much, much better days. But in a way, its better day also arrived with the new expansion, Victory is Life. Apparently the developers spent insane amounts of time and effort revamping the interiors to be as show-accurate as possible, which I’ll have to take their word about since I’m still only in Season 2. Hey, it’s HARD watching hour-long shows when you have four kids and always put gaming above TV time.

I do find it funny that the show has this obsession with baseball, as if that would be the sport that would survive to the 24th or 25th century. I mean, I like baseball, but it’s just such a random pick. You’d think that soccer or quidditch would have beat it out in popularity.

I spent some time touring the revamped DS9, which looked just as fine as the old one did (again, to my eyes). Good to know that even in the future, the Papyrus font endures. And is that Comic Sans?

No story here other than this little corridor offered me the chance to take one of my all-time favorite screenshots. LOVE. IT.

Anyway, let’s talk about this mission itself. Cryptic’s been billing this expansion as the closest thing to a Deep Space Nine sequel/movie/reunion that it’s ever going to get, and with 12 voice actors returning, I suppose that’s the truth. It’s been 25 years since the show first went on the air and 30 in-game years, so it’s been a while. Everyone’s older and settled into their new lives, but an old threat brings them back.

That’s how you do a reunion episode, by the way. You’ve got to reunite the band and come up with a reason why all of these people who had previously gone their separate ways would come back for one last ride. In this case, it’s the threat of the Hur’q, yet another faction of weird-looking bad guys that has the Dominion wetting its pants and other races concerned about unchecked aggression.

Really, I just want an expansion about the accordion-playing Klingon. Victory is Music.

I know Cryptic’s artists do the best they can with the models of the actors (aged forward three decades, of course), but some just look better than others. Bashir did not come off as well, with his huuuuuge forehead and weird beard. Odo looks more plasticy than normal, Kira’s got that goofy Bajoran headgear on, and the Ferengi… well, they look just as ugly as on the show. I suppose the artists were rushing through some projects to spend that extra bit of time on Chase Masterson’s model.

“Guys, she looks good enough as it is. Time to move on.”

“One more pass, Scott. I haven’t quite captured the transcendent beauty of her arches.”

“Go home. Your family misses you, man.”

“CHASE IS MY FAMILY NOW!”

Reunion aspect aside, the episode itself was mostly a prologue with your standard ground action and massive space battle. Actually, the space battle WAS really crazy. I kind of just park myself somewhere and fire at will while sending fighters out to swarm the bad guys, and that seems to work.

Alone in the Dark: Knock knock

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1992’s Alone in the Dark. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

I’m 42 years old. I shouldn’t still be scared — or at least intimidated by — a scary video game that I played back in 1992 but I am. I really am. I think it’s because Alone in the Dark was the first real horror game I ever experienced, and while it was pretty cool to go through, it also ended up scarring my psyche.

Similar to how I dealt with my lingering fear of System Shock 2, I figured the best way to get this out of my system (and generate a new retro gaming series) was just to play it. Anyone miss these playthroughs? Probably not, but that’s OK! They entertain me!

I don’t really know much of the video horror games prior to 1992, but I do know that Alone in the Dark marked a big step in the direction of what would become known as the “survival horror” genre. Essentially, this was a style of game where you were put in a frightening situation and made to feel vulnerable by being given a character that wasn’t especially fast, maneuverable, or a good fighter. In short, you were monster bait in the middle of Monster Central.

It was surprisingly effective.

Games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Amnesia all followed in this vein, but Alone in the Dark really pioneered a lot of the design elements. Yes, it has laughably crude and early polygon graphics (which were revolutionary on computers in 1992), but if you can get past it, you know what? Still downright creepy.

Even the introduction, which has my character investigating the suicide of a relative in the attic of his mansion, instantly put me back on edge. The sound design and music gets a lot of credit for this, as does the angles and that shot of a monster’s point-of-view looking out of a window at me as I approached.

Here’s where the fun begins. I start in the attic of this place, so already I’m in the thick of the house and can’t get out. Not easily, that is. To make matters more interesting, two monsters are coming into the room very shortly, so I had to move quickly… well, immediately to block their entrance.

Alone in the Dark functions as an adventure game with light fighting and stealth elements. So while your normal adventure game has you taking your time exploring every pixel of every room, these kinds of games have you doing so frantically, hoping that you won’t be caught and killed by the bad guy.

Wardrobe and chest moved, monsters blocked. Score one for Syp!

Should probably mention how hard it is to do anything in this game. It’s intentional, but moving and performing actions with this character is annoying. She turns and operates like a tank, and you have to go to a separate screen to activate commands and see your health. Fighting is even worse and I don’t want to try to describe it. Just trust me, it’s slow and awkward. It’s almost always better in this game if you can avoid fights.

Jeremy, the guy who killed himself, left his suicide in the attic. Now, what needs to be mentioned is that while the sound design is good, the voice acting is… what’s the term? Hilariously abysmal. I don’t recall there being voice acting in the version that I played back in the day, but man, they should not have added it. This guy reading the letter is so over-the-top, so bizarrely dramatic, that it had me laughing my head off. Seriously, go to 11:20 in this video and listen to this guy’s “acting.” Let me know what you think.

Down one floor and it’s time for room searching and item thieving! Because of the graphical style and limitations, there are no shadows or dark areas, so a bulk of the atmosphere is carried by the sound effects and the environment acting wonky (floors collapsing, doors closing mysteriously).

Oh, and I’m attacked by the POLYGONAL ZOMBIE FROM HELL! Always thought this guy looked like an anthropomorphic frog in a lounge suit, which is slightly less scary. Slightly more scary is the game’s combat system which is so very awkward to use. It took me a while, but I figured out how to win: You have to wait until the zombie starts its attack animation and take one tiny step back, then step forward and kick. Rinse and repeat.

By the way, when I died, the zombie was considerate enough to drag me all the way to an altar in the basement before the Game Over screen flashed.

Monsters abound on the second floor here. One goofy-looking bird thing jumps through a window in a neat POV moment. Then these purple scorpion dudes have to be defeated via mirrors. I think that the fact you can see so little of their details works well with this game, because your imagination fills in the gaps.

Alone in the Dark is very old school in its adventure game roots, which means that there are a LOT of “do one thing wrong and you’ll die instantly.” Like get too near to this ghost sitting in the chair here. She doesn’t like me much.

And yeah, it is weirdly creepy that this ghost lady is just sitting here looking at nothing.

Strange and unsettling angles are another survival horror staple and very much in effect here. And by the way, if you see anything with polygons, chances are it’s going to attack or kill you in some way.

Oh hai, bathtub jellyfish monster!

I actually felt a little bad taking out this haunted suit of armor by chucking a statuette at it. Poor guy was just standing his post, you know?

This is definitely the nicest room I’ve visited yet. Very peaceful and serene. Probably going to kill me ten ways from Sunday. Nearby, the kitchen has a pot of HUMAN REMAINS dun dun dunnn. This place really goes the extra effort to hit all of those horror tropes.

Now that I got the sword from the suit of armor, I’m a terror to the zombies. They can’t even get close before I cut them down. HI-KEEBA!

Remember that human flesh soup I picked up? Well it’s got a really funny use in the dining room. I put it on the table here and all five zombies in the room politely refrain from chowing down on me to sit in their chairs instead. The chairs are all pulled really far back from the table and no one is eating (most likely a restriction of the graphics and spacing here), but it’s still kind of humorous to watch.