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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

How to Please a Goth (Without Using a Choke Chain and Leather Flogger) - Part One

(The following post is in collaboration with Fiona of Scenes From the Cutting Room Floor; check her out some time, she's a'ight)

Good evening, fine readers, apologies for the late post. Seeing as tomorrow is Halloween, the one with all the spooky stuff and such, and my good friend Fiona is one of those weird Goth-types (super-effective against Fairy) I thought it might be a nice idea to amalgamate my ambivalence towards the two and collect them under a more interesting topic: video games.

Nothing brings people together like a healthy dose of asthenopia and passive aggression.
It's always interesting to see how outside parties view our favourite pastime (behind binge eating and masturbation) so I sat down with Fiona and we skimmed through the rich history of video games to find a collection of gaming gems that, through their design choices, gameplay, story or atmosphere, speak not only to our own scaly, pale, cloudy-eyed race, but theirs too.

Heck, we're only one zombie bite apart in the family tree.
This little ode to all things spooky will be split into two posts; the first focussing on the games of old, here meaning anything made before LucasArts ceased to exist, and the second on newer additions to the gaming world. Before we begin, here is a little message from our sponsor:


N’yello, folks! I mean, ‘darkest greetings’ and all that. This is Fiona/Fee/that weirdo with the bats and stuff, author of Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor and arch frenemy of Ben. I'm a 5’5” Glasweigan Medic studying in Dundee, who likes Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rain if you replace pina coladas with skulls and unsuspecting showers with morbid songs about peeing in sweet shops. I blog mainly about gothic lifestyle, fashion and feminist issues (so virtually nothing like this one), and to commemorate the grand auld day that is All Hallow’s Eve (as well as being my favourite day of the year, it was a rainy Halloween that I first met Benjamin here) I thought I would team up with boy blunder and combine our two passions – goth and gaming.

Not like this though.
This was partially as an exercise to educate him on what Goth is (a music based subculture originating in the eighties post punk scene [Ben: blah, blah (Fiona: you cheeky shit!)] featuring dark and melancholic themes, I’ll have you know), which he seems to be woefully confused about, and also because, sadly, I am not a gamer. I've tried, and I have what can only be classified as some kind of motor neurone problem that means my limbs don’t do what I want them to, explains a lot of my dancing and makes gaming fantastically difficult. However, there is a significant crossover between goths and nerds, which means that games which appreciate the dark beauty and moody atmosphere of the gothic mind set can only be appreciated, and are all the more likely to get me in front of a console.

So without further ado, onwards with the post!

Castlevania - NES (1987)


In Ben’s words when he suggested this to me, "game, set, match. Go pack up your things and go home". Other than if someone actually does a Bauhaus inspired game where you have to help Peter Murphy find his clothes (the difficulty level would be insane, considering the singer seems to own so few), the Castlevania series is the spookiest goddamn action-adventure you can get for your consoles. 

Whilst the format varies from game to game, typically you as the gamer have to battle werewolves, vampires and other beasties in your attempt to find and kill Dracula (usually I have a problem with projects that have the name Dracula slapped on without much relevance to the original book, but I’ll make an exception for this). Whilst the original is in true 8-bit format, there has clearly been dedication in it’s attempt to create a classic horror aesthetic, and even in the lesser graphics of the early games it achieves it. The series has a wide variety of different formats, from the platforms of the early games to the action-adventure of the newer ones. With glorious ruined castles, classic horror monsters and sneaky wee references to horror actors such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and others in the credits, it’s everything I could hope for in a game franchise, distilled.


First of all, I have to make a confession. The ROM I downloaded for us to play the original Castlevania (I’m poor - I’ll buy it eventually) turned out to be in Portuguese so I’ve no idea what’s going on, all the boss characters seem to be called Chefe so I assume the game is something to do with satanic medieval kitchen staff.

Whatever's going on, this Ponto guy seems to be full of Vida.

If you're my age or younger and don’t have a fascination with things older than you that look like they were scribbled on the back of a cereal box, play the 2010 reboot Lords of Shadow instead. It’s awesome in its own right with some lovely hack-and-slash combo fighting and even RPG elements what with upgradeable weapons and such. Plus my Japanese man-crush, Hideo “ninety-minute cutscene” Kojima, produced it so, yeah, that. But I’ll focus on the original because that’s what’s in front of me right now.

I’ll be honest, it hasn't aged well. I've rattled through the first two boss fights (on turbo controller settings, granted) in an easy fifteen minutes, so the challenge is only there if you’re not familiar with a platforming game like this already. As this is also featured on Fiona's blog I’ll assume half of you, the readers, are not. I hate to make assumptions, but life is a hell of a lot easier that way.

An artist's conception of the common goth.
As I said, from a gaming stand-point the original iteration of the series has fallen behind a little in their old age, and even compared to other titles of a similar age it doesn't quite stand up. The game doesn't feel quite as empowering as the wonderfully brutal Ninja Gaiden, but there’s still fun to be had whacking suits of armour, giant bats, mummies and a variety of other baddies with your giant chain of justice or whatever its called. Plus, the ageing is both expected and allowed for a game that literally lends half of its name to the genre it gave birth to

Frankly there's no reason not to have a go; if you're literate and have an internet connection you can try a piece of gaming history for free with an emulator and a foreign ROM, like me. So be like your good old uncle Ben and whoop some gothic-themed ass.

Spoiler: The final boss is Dracula.

Or, as my version calls him, Head Chefe.

Fester's Quest - NES (1989)


So I lied about Castlevania. It doesn’t have the Addam’s Family in it, and therefore is imperfect.

What’s more goth than the original creepy kooky family? Fester’s Quest is a less well known Addam’s Family game for the NES console of the eighties, and is one of only five games released under the franchise’s name (apparently the rest aren’t fabulous, so we’ll gloss over them). In it, you play as Uncle Fester, as you attempt to save the local town from alien invasion - the actual setting design isn’t terribly spooky, with lots of hot dog stands and generic paths and fences (though there are rat infested sewers and strange amorphous blobs throughout).

Ben actually ordered this as a surprise when I was struck down with the plague mutation of the flu (by which I mean he played it for an entire weekend whilst I was couch bound and occasionally offered me the controller between bouts of hacking up my lungs), and having played it it’s a lot of fun; it’s a simple game for those who aren’t super-mega-pro-gamers - though infuriating in it’s confusing layout and how it sends you back to the start if you die - and there are lots of tender nods to the sixties TV series that it’s based on (including nooses that summon Lurch to destroy all on-screen enemies, which is a touch of genius). It’s a fairly standard NES game otherwise, and whilst I’m not sure why you would own a NES in the first place if you aren’t Ben, I would froth at the mouth for a dead chicken if it had Morticia's face scribbled on a post-it and stuck to it, so I’ll leave the actual evaluation up to the nerd in the corner.


Now that we've gained a worryingly accurate insight into how to take all of Fiona's money, shall we see if Fester’s Quest is the proverbial dead chicken in our Addam's Family collection (in a good way)? Well, from the opening sequence I can assure you that the game has captured the madness of the TV show.

I. Um. Yeah, that.
This one I actually own, so bye-bye crappy ROMs (except for taking screenshots) and hello jiggling the bloody cartridge for ten minutes before I can get the NES to start up. Now it appears that the supposed notorious difficulty of this game predominantly arises from the complete inability to hit enemies while firing along the X-axis. I can only get any modicum of accuracy when firing my green splurge blunderbuss [citation needed] downwards. On top of that, you start with a measly two bars of health and every time you die, you start right back at the beginning of the game again, meaning you'd better enjoy traipsing more familiar ground than that infuriating sniper rifle fetch quest in Metal Gear Solid.

Overall it’s pretty fun, despite not making one ounce of sense. Don’t ask what the enemies are meant to be and you’ll be able to sleep at night. And the moment I learn why there are hot dog stands all over the place I will die a happy man.

If someone can tell me why I'm fighting giant raspberries, I'll have an aneurism.

The game mixes top down shooter with the collectyness of an RPG and even has some wonderfully migraine-inducing 3D mazes before each of the 5 boss fights. That said, despite it's little quirks, this is very much typical fare, just follow the path and blast the enemies, picking up what they drop to upgrade your weapons, jobs a goodun. I’ll be honest, I don’t really see what's exactly “goth” about this excluding the brand name attached to it, but what the hey; gaming doesn't really lend itself to being specifically for certain subcultures other than angry pre-pubescent children and perverts, so we’ll keep the arbitrary stipulations for the sake of making our hobby less depressingly unwelcoming.

Moving on...

Grim Fandango - PC (1998)


Dear god, this is a beautiful game. Heavily inspired by Film Noir, Art Deco, the Mexican Dia de los Muertos and Aztec imagery and beliefs, this nineties computer game has the gamer play as Manuel "Manny" Calavera, a travel agent-esque Grim Reaper, as he assists souls in crossing the underworld and uncovers conspiracies in the Land of the Dead. As a big fan of puzzle games I’m desperate to have another go at this one beyond a brief snippet before Ben couldn’t bear my fumbling with the keyboard any longer (plus I need something to distract me from studying this year), but, obviously, the attention to detail put into this game is one of its crowning glories.

The humour and the scripting is glorious, and the bright and creepy aesthetics will appeal to Tim Burton fans whilst the mix of different inspirations the designers drew from keeps each of them fresh. Unfortunately, having tried to play this game I ended smashing my head into a wall out of frustration at the confusing means of movement which results in the limitation of only being able to press one key at any one time, but the actual puzzles are fun to solve, and simply looking at the design concepts I can conclude that it’s very well written and a delight to play. 

The only things I have to say about this game other than the above is just wordless whining and wishing I could download myself into the game setting.


She did not just relate Grim Fandango to Burton, oh no she di'n'! *black sass finger snap* 

The glory of Tim Schafer and Lucas Arts shall not be sullied by the inferior likes of him! Maybe I could accept such claims if we were living in a world where Burton stopped making films before Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but alas, some sins can not be forgiven.

Wow. You just keep on digging don't you, Tim?

On the subject of Fiona's comments on this, Grim Fandango is less inspired by Film Noir, and more a love letter to it. From the dark mystery style plot of old to the voice-over narration from the main character, this thing oozes noir; all it’s missing is a cameo from Humphrey Bogart’s ghost (Fiona: You mean this doesn't happen? MY DREAM IS RUINED). Just imagine the puns! “The last time we met was La Belle Au-gore”.

"I stick my neck out for no-boo-dy."
As far as I’m aware, no such thing exists in this game, although the beautiful humour makes up for it in spades. If you’ve ever played another Lucas Arts game, be it The Secret of Monkey Island or my favourite, Day of the Tentacle, you will agree when I say that these games are funnier and better written than pretty much any film, book or toilet stall graffiti. They are a joy to play and Grim is no different, brimming with character, sharp humour and mind bending puzzles that keep you thinking but are never The Longest Journey levels of rubber-ducky-impossible absurdity.

The biggest downfall of the game is frankly it's control scheme, which discards the then done-to-death point and click style of adventure gaming, replacing it with some ludicrously awkward stumbling about using the keyboard. Imagine the controls for Heavy Rain (point your character with one key, then accelerate unceremoniously forward in a perfectly straight line with another) but without the luxury of being able to turn while walking, leading to gameplay akin to driving a remote control car with your thumbs cut off. The whole thing just becomes a farce when you reach levels that refuse to even acknowledge the concept of depth perception and challenge comes mainly from trying to squeeze round various objects while hammering the "look at" button to see what's actually useful.

Tim Schafer, you are a glorious, glorious dickhead.

American McGee's Alice/Alice: Madness Returns - PC (2000/2011)


This is perhaps surprising, but I hate Alice in Wonderland adaptations. Whilst I'm very fond of the original books and Carrol's back catalogue of nonsense poetry, the exhaustive quantity of repetitive ‘updated’ Wonderland based creative projects really irritates me, and with each successive new adaptation the original story at the heart of it loses its charm. 

Nonetheless, I will make an exception for the 2000 PC game American McGee’s Alice, due to it being one of the forerunners of this movement, and one of the best examples of macabre/creepy Wonderlands. In it, you play as an older Alice, who lost her parents in a house fire and is now confined to an asylum, as she proceeds through a darker and warped version of Wonderland to defeat the Red Queen. I will be honest and say that, although the concept is great, the game itself is a little dated. The graphics are from the early days of 3D gaming and thus have some very strange textures and appearances; you can tell it’s also very early in the platform gaming front as well, as there’s a lack of explanation on how to move, attack and what you’re supposed to do - which can be picked up quickly, but it’s disorienting for new or inexperienced gamers. 

i.e. Me.
However, the sequel 2011 game Alice: Madness Returns is a whole other story; with the benefit of time, virtually everything in the game has improved. The graphics are better, the art style has further improved and the story has been explained far better than before, with darker undertones and genuine disturbing creepiness. As a gamer, there’s improvements to the actual game play as well, with a proper tutorial period, collectibles to upgrade your weapons (though if anyone can explain why it’s teeth, I will give you my front two) and better combat, making it a joy to play. For me, this is a successful adaptation of the series, with well thought out designs and attention to detail in every tiny aspect of the game that really makes a difference. And yes, this is the only variant of Alice in Wonderland I would consider dressing up as.


I think I might have to agree with Fiona here. I'm a big fan of gimbling toves and oyster murder but the rather tedious saturation of a large chunk of art in recent years (particularly if said art is made by someone with a tumblr or DeviantArt account) with Wonderland imagery dilutes the source material and detracts from what is one of the most well realised and interesting fictional universes put onto paper. Even the likes of cinema and other video games aren't safe from the icy grip of this trend; do you want to portray a sense of mystery and curiosity whilst also instilling dread and a fear of the unknown? Get a character to talk about discovering the depth of leporid holes by squeezing into them. Want the audience to know a character is important to the protagonist’s journey? More rabbit imagery.

The sunglasses represent all of our lost unbirthdays.
However, the ever so modest American McGee with his game American McGee’s Alice does very well in creating a Wonderland twisted by a tortured mind into something very alien and yet disturbingly familiar. The scripting captures the enigmatic musings of the book’s dialogue perfectly and enjoys poking fun at the player, video games and it’s own inspiration, making for some chuckles amongst the slightly unnerving word play and riddling. That said, Fiona has hit the raven on the writing desk with her critique of the original game. It’s getting a little auld. The game was released in that awkward era of gaming where PCs hadn't quite worked out how to comfortably manoeuvre in a 3D space, making the platforming sections frustratingly difficult (not in a good way) and the combat mechanics squidgy at best.

The silly putty to Street Fighter's adamantium.
Then there’s Alice: Madness Returns, the spiritual-successor-but-really-a-remake of the original, and lordy, is it better! It could just be the jarring change between playing one immediately after the other but this game feels a whole lot more well rounded. With an extremely morbid and disturbing storyline (you’re welcome, children of the night), a more rigid combat mechanic and all of the sharp wit of the original packaged with better visuals, this is obviously the vision McGee had over ten years ago. That said, the voice acting is laughably bad and the game still clings a little to a somewhat outdated game mechanic, but I dare you to complain about any of that as you bounce between mushrooms on a cloud of blue petals, shooting down flying pig snouts with a pepper grinder machine gun.

Go on, see what happens...
That, good friends, is the end of the first leg of our journey into the dark, seedy underbelly of video gaming and I think we've started off pretty well with a geek slightly more aware of what the hell a goth actually is and a goth with a little more insight into a usually impenetrable pastime. If you think we've missed out a game that we absolutely shouldn't have missed out, then keep your opinions to your self and off my immaculate comments section. And wipe your feet next time, there's mud everywhere. Were you raised in a barn?

Tsk, really...

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