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Stephen King, David Lynch, & The Art That Inspired ‘Silent Hill’

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This article contains major spoilers for Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3, The Mist, Carrie, Jacob’s Ladder, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway, as well as some disturbing images and themes.

In the late ’90s, survival horror was a burgeoning trend on home video game consoles. While there’d been numerous forays into horror gaming previously, it was the enormous success of Capcom’s Resident Evil that proved the genre could be commercially viable as well as critically lauded. The advent of the compact disc as the industry standard for storage had allowed developers to be more adventurous in their games, and Resident Evil, in particular, benefited from the boons of the medium. On a cartridge-based system the full motion video cut-scenes and hours of recorded dialogue would never have been an option, and while the dubious quality of the storytelling and voice acting in the game have been the subject of much ridicule in the years subsequent to its release, it was these cinematic qualities that helped Resident Evil stand out against mechanically similar titles like Alone In The Dark.

As is always the case in the wake of an unexpected bestseller, developers around the globe frantically raced to capitalize on the success of Resident Evil and the popularity of the newfangled buzz word, “survival horror.” The point and click adventure series, Clock Tower, was re-imagined as a third person horror game that retained an emphasis on puzzle solving rather than combat, while Squaresoft envisioned an amalgamation of the role playing titles that they were famous for and third person action-horror in 1998’s Parasite Eve. While the roots of most of these games laid firmly in schlocky B-movies and the George Romero zombie flicks of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, when Konami decided to throw their hat into the proverbial survival horror ring with Silent Hill in 1999, they sought inspiration in some altogether less conventional places.

Resident Evil’s FMV intro would never have been possible on a cartridge-based system, which is perhaps the best argument for why the Nintendo 64 was designed as a cartridge-based system.

Relying more on the kind of slow-burning psychological terror famously employed by Japanese horror movies rather than the jump scares and gross-out moments typically found in American exploitation cinema, for all of the similarities that Silent Hill bore to Resident Evil in terms of combat mechanics and control schemes, the two games were tonally a gulf apart. Cheesy one-liners and zombie-dogs leaping through windows helped Resident Evil to successfully replicate the feeling of a straight-to-video popcorn shocker, but it was readily apparent almost immediately upon starting Silent Hill that rather than providing a steady supply of fleeting shocks, the game wanted to deeply unsettle the player over a longer period of time.

Perhaps the most ingenious tool used by the developers of Silent Hill in order to upset players was the static-emitting radio. After the radio is found by protagonist Harry Mason in the opening minutes of the game, it begins to crackle with white noise just as a winged creature bursts through the window and attacks him. After battling the monster in a confined diner and ultimately killing it, Harry realizes that the radio he’d picked up produces feedback whenever there are otherworldly creatures nearby; the louder it gets, the closer they are. In a town like Silent Hill, perpetually blanketed in a thick fog, the radio becomes both an ally and a source of torment to Harry and the player alike; whenever you hear the crackle of the radio you know that you need to be on guard because there could be enemies lurking in the shroud of the fog, but not knowing where the creatures are and whether or not they’ll even attack proved disturbing to many gamers.

While most people who have played or even heard of Silent Hill will be familiar with how the radio works, what’s less common knowledge is that the idea for this now iconic feature, present in most of the games in the series, was not conjured by the director, Keiichiro Toyama, or even the composer, Akira Yamaoka, but was lifted practically wholesale from the Stephen King novella, The Mist. In the story of the novel, a small town in Maine is covered in a thick fog which harbors a gaggle of abhorrent creatures, including a pterosaur-like flying monster of startling similarity to the one Harry fights in the opening minutes of Silent Hill. The creatures, like in Silent Hill, cause radio equipment in their vicinity to produce nothing but harsh static.

The guy looks sad because the tentacle is dragging him to the local cinema to see The Mist.

The similarities Silent Hill bares to The Mist don’t begin and end with a radio and a flying monster. Later in the novel, once it becomes apparent that the killer fog enveloping the town isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, different factions arise among the survivors with conflicting ideas on what the mist is and what should be done. One such group led by a fanatical religious woman believe that the hellish creatures that plague them are indicative of the end-times as per the description of Armageddon within the Holy Bible, and they start to believe that the only way to appease their new demonic overlords is through human sacrifice. Silent Hill, too, features a religious cult, and although the grisly fate of the town is actually a result of the machinations of said cult in the game’s story, the similarities are too stark to overlook.

In the story of Silent Hill, the disciples of the religious cult led by the dreadful Dahlia Gillespie have used her daughter as a vessel to birth the dark god Samael, an act which unfortunately requires a hellish amount of pain and turmoil. Never one to shy away from unimaginable suffering, even when it afflicts those with a familial connection, Dahlia has her own daughter set on fire in an act of sacrifice, and then uses an evil incantation to keep the poor girl alive and in a state of perennial agony under the supervision of the drug-addled nurse, Lisa Garland. The dreams Alessa has in her tormented state are the basis for the nightmarish Otherworld that Harry has to battle through while exploring Silent Hill; the physical manifestation of the harrowing thoughts of a young girl, victim to an unspeakable wrong enacted upon her by her own mother. Another of Stephen King’s works, Carrie, features psychic vengeance at the whim of a teenage girl, bullied by her peers and mistreated by her deeply religious mother.

In the best ending for the original Silent Hill, Dahlia Gillespie is ironically, hilariously, burned alive by her God Samael, mere seconds after seeing her plan to birth him brought to fruition.

The developers of Silent Hill have never been shy about their influences when creating the game, and then later the expanded series, including the allusions and homages to some of the writings of Stephen King. In addition to plot points and characters that seem to pay more than a passing nod to those in stories by the famous horror author, there are numerous references to other Stephen King works within the game. Posters can be seen for the movie adaptations of Pet Semetary and Carrie, while the pinball machine in the café was included as a nod to Children of the Corn. As if these weren’t enough, the street on which Harry awakens after crashing his car at the beginning of Silent Hill is named Bachman Road, which King fans amongst you will likely have realized is in reference to Stephen King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman.

The naming of Bachman Road is just one of many references to influential figures, as in each of the games in the Silent Hill series the various streets and locations that the player visits tend to be named in honor of people who were inspirational to the creative minds on the development team in some way. There’s nods to Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby, Mary Shelley who penned Frankenstein, and Michael Crichton who wrote the dinosaur-thriller, Jurassic Park, among other things. When Harry reaches Midwich Elementary School – itself named after a street in Village of the Damned – he can read a list of the names of the teachers who work at the school, which includes a Ranaldo, a Moore and a Gordon – the names of the three members of experimental rock band, Sonic Youth. There’s even a street named after the astrophysicist and celebrated author, Carl Sagan. Practically everything in Silent Hill is named in tribute to someone or something.

Everywhere in Silent Hill seems to pay homage to someone who inspired the development of the game.

Sonic Youth were one of the most influential rock bands of ’80s. If you’ve not listened to them, check out Daydream Nation.

It’s not just the naming conventions that pay homage to novels, bands or movies, though. Some of the sights and sounds within the town of Silent Hill are themselves either references to, or directly taken from other properties. The aforementioned café that Harry Mason visits at the beginning of the first game is named “5 to 2” in reference to a similar diner in the Oliver Stone directed and Quentin Tarantino penned, Natural Born Killers. There’s a poster advertising an album by the British trip-hop band Portishead, who were undoubtedly an influence for series composer, Akira Yamaoka. Their modest 1994 hit, “Sour Times” in particular seems like it may have inspired the main theme of the first game in the Silent Hill series.

The Metropol Theatre is a direct reference to Dario Argento’s Demons, and there are posters featuring an image of the green-goo spewing monsters that appear in that movie just around the corner. A cinema in the town has some posters, too, for upcoming attractions that look remarkably similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard 2. The sepia photograph of Alessa Gillespie that Harry finds numerous times throughout his twisted journey shows her dressed in practically identical attire to Pamela Franklin in The Legend of Hell House, and down one of the dangerous alleys behind the café, he can see that somebody has scrawled “REDRUM” on a shutter door just like in The Shining – a movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by, once again, Stephen King.

The 5 to 2 café in both Natural Born Killers and Silent Hill.

A newspaper seen in Silent Hill is almost identical to one from The Silence of the Lambs.

Scenes from Dario Argento’s Demons alongside their references in Silent Hill.

A photograph of Alessa Gillespie found by Harry Mason in the original Silent Hill.

Pamela Franklin in The Legend of Hell House.

A horror game liberally borrowing from and paying homage to directors like Dario Argento, or writers like Stephen King isn’t all that surprising, but there are also numerous amusing references within the Silent Hill games that are somewhat less expected. Perhaps most out of left field is Midwich Elementary School in the first game, which is actually quite a faithful recreation of the school from the Arnold Schwarzenegger action-comedy, Kindergarten Cop. Everything from the outward appearance of the school to many of the recognizable features within it are directly lifted from the Arnie classic, leading to some tongue-in-cheek speculation online that the kids from the movie all died terribly, and Silent Hill is actually just a fantastically depressing sequel. Similarly, the characters of Laura and Mary in Silent Hill 2 are wearing outfits that are almost identical to ones worn by Nicholas Cage’s wife and daughter in the ridiculous ’90s action movie, Con Air, while the character of Maria wears an ensemble once worn by Christina Aguilera at an awards show. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Christina Aguilera’s middle name is Maria.

Silent Hill would still be a better Kindergarten Cop 2 than Kindergarten Cop 2.

James Sunderland’s wife looking remarkably similar to Nicholas Cage’s in Con Air.

Christina Aguilera and Maria from Silent Hill 2.

The protagonist of Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland, wears the same jacket that Tim Robbins wears in the 1990 psychological horror movie, Jacob’s Ladder, but there are more numerous, and more deeply ingrained similarities between the two properties beyond a worn military coat. The story of Jacob’s Ladder, ostensibly an abstruse testimony of the psychological collapse of its eponymous lead, ultimately reveals itself to be a fiction created by Jacob’s dying mind as a means to acquiesce to his own death in the Vietnam War. Each game in the Silent Hill series features multiple potential endings for the story, based on criteria that must be fulfilled but are generally hidden from the player. Perhaps the most dejecting potential conclusion to the original game appears to be in reference to Jacob’s Ladder, and sees Harry Mason dead in his car after the crash at the beginning of the game, with the varying grotesqueries he meets on his journey being little more than apparitions, the result of randomly firing synapses in his brain as his life ebbs away.

There are locations in Silent Hill that seem to have been directly inspired by some of the events of Jacob’s Ladder, most notably the hospital – various incarnations of which appear in almost every title to bear the Silent Hill name – and the Subway station from Silent Hill 3. Interestingly, the subway station prison from Jacob’s Ladder was itself inspired by a vivid nightmare experienced by the screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin. Many of the creature designs in the Silent Hill series are, too, similar to those seen in the movie, with the palpitating, paroxysmal movement of monsters like Silent Hill 2’s Pyramid Head and the third game’s Valtiel, the valet of Metatron, being reminiscent of the various monstrosities seen in Jacob’s visions.

Tim Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder, complete with jacket and appalling haircut.

James Sunderland complete with jacket and not-quite-as-appalling haircut.

The visual design of many of the hideous creatures that players will go up against in the various Silent Hill games have been inspired by numerous famous works of art. The bulbous, distended Insane Cancer that attacks Heather was inspired by some of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, while Francis Bacon’s famous triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was used as a starting point for the creatures, Mandarin, Closer and Flesh Lip in Silent Hill 2 and 3. Rembrandt was cited as an influence for much of the design of Silent Hill 2 by the game’s art director, Takayoshi Sato, as was Andrew Wyeth, whose painting “Christina’s World” was also used as inspiration for the outside of Dahlia Gillespie’s home in the first Silent Hill, while the interior of the abode was based on Norman Bate’s home in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Another locale, the squalid strip bar Heaven’s Night where Silent Hill 2‘s Maria works, is almost a brick for brick recreation of a similar establishment in David Lynch’s noir classic, Blue Velvet. In fact, comparisons between Silent Hill and the work of David Lynch are perhaps even more numerous, and of greater thematic significance than even the previously mentioned similarities to the writing of Stephen King, and the many elements the games borrow from Jacob’s Ladder.

The paintings of Francis Bacon served as inspiration for many of the horrors in the early Silent Hill games.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon.

Lost Highway is, in Lynch’s words, “a jealous man’s state of mind who has indeed committed, and then denies, murder, even to himself,” which for fans of the Silent Hill series should sound evocative of the basic narrative outline for Silent Hill 2, in which James Sunderland believes his deceased wife Mary is actually alive, despite having previously killed her himself. When James arrives in Silent Hill, he quickly meets Maria who is aesthetically identical to his dead spouse, but in stark contrast to his wife, displays an overt confidence as demonstrated by her choice of attire and her occupation as a stripper. When Maria is killed over and over again in increasingly brutal fashion by Pyramid Head, it becomes apparent that she is in fact merely a construct of James’ guilt-ridden mind, her extroversion a direct result of James’ repressed sexual desires during the later, illness stricken months of his dead wife’s life. Her murder, regardless of the ethical and moral case in favor of euthanasia in instances of prolonged suffering through illness, haunts James, and Pyramid Head exists as the physical manifestation of his guilt, murdering Maria time and time again in front of his traumatized eyes.

The use of doppelgangers in order to reflect a character’s guilt over the murder of a loved one is a significant thematic device in Lost Highway, but Lynch also uses doppelgangers in some of his other work, most notably his television show, Twin Peaks. In the show, when agent Dale Cooper is attempting to track down the murderer of Laura Palmer – who worked as a prostitute and was confirmed to have had sexual relationships with a number of major characters – her cousin Maddy comes to stay with the Palmer family, displaying practically identical looks (and portrayed by the same actress) but with an almost entirely opposite personality. Maddy is an introverted, reserved brunette to Laura’s confident, tearaway blonde, but ultimately, Maddy meets her end at the hands of the same person who murdered Laura, which is similar to the fates of both Mary and Maria in Silent Hill 2, killed by James and the product of his guilt, respectively.

Laura Palmer and Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks.

Within the lore of Twin Peaks, there is a structure of supreme evil known as the Black Lodge, itself a counterpoint to an opposite construct of pure goodness known as the White Lodge, which bares some similarities with the Otherworld present in each Silent Hill game. In Twin Peaks, the lodges are home to numerous bizarre, backwards speaking entities of various moral persuasions, including helpful characters like the Giant, and nefarious, destructive ones like Bob. These realms exist on a separate plane of existence to the town of Twin Peaks, and can only be reached under specific circumstances. When asked about the Black Lodge, the Native American deputy, Hawk, tells a story from the perspective of his people:

“The legend says that every spirit must pass through there on the way to perfection. There, you will meet your own shadow self. My people call it ‘The Dweller on the Threshold’ … But it is said, if you confront the Black Lodge with imperfect courage, it will utterly annihilate your soul.”

In Silent Hill, the Otherworld is a nightmarish facsimile of the real world that periodically superimposes itself over the tourist town while an air raid siren sounds to trumpet the transformation. Brick and mortar are torn asunder and replaced by bloody, rusty, chain link fences, and the only illumination one can find amidst the perpetual night comes from a flashlight carried by the player. Monsters are numerous once the Otherworld takes over, and danger lurks around every corner. The origin of the Otherworld changes depending on the game, but in Silent Hill and Silent Hill 3, it’s the result of the demonic god buried within Alessa Gillespie’s womb, transforming her nightmares into reality. The Otherworld in Silent Hill 2 is different depending on which character is observing it, with Angela – a victim of sexual abuse – seeing walls covered in pulsating flesh and phallic pistons constantly pumping, while Eddie – who eventually snapped and murdered the bullies who had tormented him for years – sees constant reminders of the people he has killed. Regardless of its nature, there are scant references to Native Americans originally revering the town of Silent Hill as a holy place, perhaps because of its capacity as a portal to the Otherworld.

The Otherworld, as seen in Silent Hill 3, is a vile place.

Another parallel between the Otherworld and the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks is found in its ability to conjure doppelgangers, known in Twin Peaks as tulpas. There are numerous tulpas in Twin Peaks, including one of agent Dale Cooper that he actually meets within the Red Room towards the end of Season 2, and who eventually goes on to replace him in the real world. Similarly, in the original Silent Hill, the nurse Lisa Garland is herself a fabrication, a tulpa of the real Lisa Garland who died before the events of the game, a fact that she remains tragically unaware of for most of the story. Lisa is only encountered by Harry when he’s traversing the Otherworld, and never within the real Silent Hill, existing only as a tribute to the real nurse Garland who was the only person who ever cared for Alessa during her years of torment, but wound up murdered by the very religious fanatics that had employed her to look after the poor girl. When Lisa realises that her true self was killed months ago, and she’s merely the dream of a tortured teenager, she has a psychological breakdown and begins to bleed profusely, not unlike what happens to doppelgangers in Twin Peaks who become aware of their origin.

The red skirts that the girls are wearing (Silent Hill 3) are a nod to the curtains of the Red Room in Twin Peaks.

Like Twin Peaks, and much of the work of David Lynch, little concrete information is ever given about many of the ideas and themes presented in the various Silent Hill games, with the story told in an almost dream-like fashion by a catalog of bizarre characters. Even in the real Silent Hill, many characters appear to be either oblivious to or unfazed by the strange creatures and occurrences within the town, implying that perhaps only the protagonist is experiencing the horror as the player sees it, much like Dale Cooper seeing visions of the Red Room and the Giant that don’t appear to anybody else. This is further insinuated in Silent Hill 3, when Vincent incredulously asks Heather about the creatures she’s been killing: “They look like monsters to you?”

It wasn’t laziness on the part of the developers leaving so many unanswered questions in Silent Hill. The director, Keiichiro Toyama, sought to create a “fear of the unknown” by deliberately not giving the player all of the information, and in some instances actually giving them contradictory versions of events in order to instil confusion, and generate speculation as to the true meaning of much of the story. Keiichiro Toyama wasn’t particularly familiar with the horror genre when he was put at the helm of Silent Hill, and instead used his interest in UFOs and David Lynch movies as inspiration. Eighteen years after the release of the original Silent Hill, there are still numerous fan-sites on the Internet, containing forums in which devotees of the horror series discuss the lore of the games, and offer different interpretations of the themes explored in each of them. One suspects, when it comes to unexplained phenomena, we’ll likely have answers regarding UFOs before we ever get concrete solutions to the secrets buried within David Lynch’s work, or indeed, the impenetrable darkness of Silent Hill.

But while the deeper meaning behind much of what happens in the hellish town of Silent Hill might forever remain a mystery, what inspired the developers at Konami when creating what is widely regarded as one of the greatest series’ of horror games ever made, is often beyond doubt. The creators of the Silent Hill games don’t hide their influences, but rather, they wear them like badges of honour, with part of the fun of each instalment being in spotting the nods and homages to various movies, books, and other art, as well as in seeing how the amalgamation of those influences has been used to create something new, exciting, and utterly horrifying.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Ricky D

    October 3, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    It is rare that I find myself wanting to replay a game after reading an article but this post is brilliant and now all I want to do is drop every other game and play the Silent Hill series.

    • John Cal McCormick

      October 4, 2017 at 3:28 am

      Thanks a bunch.

      Having dabbled with the second and third games recently I can tell you that they play quite awkwardly in 2017 (as you’d probably expect) but that the stories and the themes still hold up very well. The first three games are very strong, in that regard.

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‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ Review: Moon’s Haunted but Still Shines

‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ returns to a familiar destination but Bungie is reworking Destiny with each expansion and Shadowkeep is no exception.

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Destiny 2 Shadowkeep Review

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep may be a return to a familiar destination, the Moon, but Bungie continues the trend of reworking Destiny with each new expansion, and Shadowkeep is no exception. Replete with a reworked season pass system, progression systems, customization options, sandbox re-tuning and quest interface, Shadowkeep is both a welcome iteration and extension of the existing Destiny 2 experience offering more RPG-esque player agency than Destiny has ever seen before. While the game is still haunted by some overly familiar issues, Shadowkeep is a welcome expansion and a promising start to the third year of Destiny 2.

Old Haunting Grounds

The Moon isn’t the only familiar face in Shadowkeep. Keeping with tradition, Eris Morn has returned from a long absence for another dark, lunar expansion (the first being D1′s The Dark Below when the character was first introduced) as she investigates a disturbance deep within the Moon. Quite literally haunted by the past, Eris has called upon the Guardians to assist her in finding the source of the phantoms plaguing the Moon and vanquishing “Nightmare” versions of familiar visages from the past.

All is not entirely as old players might remember. An immense hive structure, the Scarlet Keep, now overshadows previously unexplored territory on the Lunar surface. New Lost Sectors hide in the depths of the Moon, and new secrets a la the Dreadnaught or the Dreaming City lie waiting to be discovered by inquisitive players. And at the very center of the expansion an ancient, unknown threat lies in wait, an ominous foreshadowing of the trials ahead.

While the expansion does a decent job ensuring the familiar haunts don’t feel overly recycled, it’s hard to say Shadowkeep makes the most of the Moon. The campaign opens on such a high note as players storm the moon in an unexpectedly matchmade sequence before individual Fireteams independently uncover an unanticipated twist that absolutely shatters expectation. Unfortunately, the narrative quickly devolves into uninteresting fetch quests that fail to live up to the intrigue of the initial mission nor live up to the narrative heights of some of the most memorable missions the Moon previously housed including fan favorites The Sword of Crota and Lost to Light to name a few. That’s tough company to keep, and Shadowkeep fails to measure up.

Similarly, a bit of that intrigue is reintroduced in Shadowkeep‘s final mission, but, like the campaign as a whole, it’s over before the player knows it and fails to live up to the precedent set by previous, lengthier campaign conclusions. More mileage is gotten out of the narrative and destination in the post-game in the way of a new weapon farming system, a new activity known as Nightmare hunts that play like mini Strikes, and a Strike proper, but that does little to alleviate the disappointment of an overly terse campaign that reads like a teaser for what’s to come over a distinct, fleshed-out story.

A New Era, a New Season

Part of that is presumably courtesy of a shift in Bungie’s approach to content releases. While the previous expansion, Forsaken, similarly opted for procedurally released content over the course of the season, Bungie has doubled down on that strategy with Shadowkeep ensuring there’s something new to be experienced each week that players sign in. While certain activities have alway arrived post-launch including raids, dungeons, and exotic weapon pursuits, Shadowkeep and its “Season of the Undying” has seen new PvE and PvP activities launched after the expansion’s initial drop, adding to an already lengthy list of Destiny to-dos.

Central to the season is the new PvE, matchmade activity, the Vex Offensive, which pits six players against waves of Vex combatants paired and features some minor puzzle elements, all for the sake of earning a series of weapons exclusive to the mode. While the Black Garden locale of the mode is certainly eye-catching, the Offensive, with its recycled mechanics and familiar enemies, doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond that. It might pale in comparison to activities introduced in past seasons (like Warmind‘s Escalation Protocol, or last season’s Menagerie), but is intentionally terse, intended to match this new seasonal philosophy, and will be removed from the game after Season of the Undying (though the exclusive arsenal will still be available in the loot pool obtainable through undisclosed means). Like the Vex themselves, the Vex Offensive might not seem like much independently, but collectively is a piece of a greater whole challenging and rewarding players for participating within the specific season.

Bungie is further defining each season with the inclusion of a seasonal artifact and a season pass system. The artifact, again only available for the season, offers players an avenue for additional, limitless Power gains while also offering unlockable gameplay mods encouraging players to utilize specific classes and builds. The Oppressive Darkness mod, for example, debuffs enemies hit by void grenades, encouraging players to construct discipline-oriented, void builds. Another mod, Thunder Coil, increases the power of arc melee attacks by fifty percent, giving all new life to the Hunter’s Arcstrider subclass. Meanwhile, the season pass operates similar to that of Fortnite or any number of games and replaces the previous cosmetic only level up system of Destiny 2‘s past. From the season’s outset, any and all experience goes toward unlocking rewards from the pass including new armor, armor ornaments, exclusive weapons and exotics, and engrams. The experience requirement for each level is static, meaning progress is fair and steady throughout and never feels throttled. Both seasonal systems are fantastic new additions that reward players for playing the game while making experience gains more purposeful than any other time in Destiny‘s endgame.

New Duds to Boot

Shadowkeep also marks the debut of Armor 2.0, a new system that allows players more agency in character customization than ever before. Whereas armor previously rolled with random perks and a roll of only three stats (Mobility, Recovery, and Resilience), Armor 2.0 comes with no perks and six stats as Destiny 1‘s Intellect, Discipline, and Strength (determining the charge rates of player’s super, grenade, and melee abilities) make their triumphant return. Instead, Armor 2.0 has slots for modifiers so players can pick and choose whatever perks they want just as long as they’ve unlocked those mods. Mods are acquired from most activities, while enhanced mods (better versions of certain traditional mods) are exclusive to some of the game’s more challenging content. While the grind for mods seems excessive in the face of the rest of the game’s grind, it’s a one-time affair, some of the best mods are unlocked via the seasonal artifact, and the payoff is astounding, providing customization like never before.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Axe to Grind

Speaking to the grind, Destiny has often struggled and failed to find the perfect balance of meaningful power climb and tedious grinds recycling the same old activities. Luckily, at the outset of the climb towards max power, Shadowkeep strikes a much better balance centered on beloved ritual and new and or seasonal activities. Power drops now operate on a clearly labeled, tiered system, incentivizing players to prioritize new or challenging activities for maximum gains. Ritual activities (Strikes, Crucible, and Gambit), though tier one, retain their relevance by offering multiple weekly powerful drops for match completions, vendor bounties completed, and rank progression. Previous, otherwise irrelevant avenues towards power have been retired, but this is a welcome reduction and there is no shortage of powerful drops in the climb to max power. That isn’t to say that the grind couldn’t be shorter ensuring more players can participate in endgame activities when they first arrive, but progression generally feels smoother than any time in Destiny‘s past.

Conversely, content flow might overwhelm casual and even dedicated players as there’s simply too much to do and grind for players tight on time. Bungie now considers Destiny and MMO with proper RPG mechanics, and, in terms of time commitment, that really shows with Shadowkeep. On a certain week, a player might have an accomplished week in-game after sinking only three to five hours into the game. Other weeks the game seems to demand closer to the ten to twenty-hour range. One week, for example, saw the release of the new dungeon, a new Crucible game mode, an exotic quest, a new public event, and the start of the Festival of the Lost, a limited time, Halloween event. That’s simply too much, feels like poor pacing, and favors streamers, Destiny content creators, and hardcore players for whom Destiny is their exclusive hobby, a burgeoning theme with Season of the Undying. While it’s certainly exciting that there’s always something to do in D2, it doesn’t seem true to the game’s roots as a hybrid, a shooter with MMO elements, that could be taken at a more casual pace but still offered an engaging endgame for the dedicated audience. Now, there’s only an endgame with no end in sight.

A Better Destiny Awaits

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for players who want to pay a minimal price for seemingly unending content, and in that regard, Shadowkeep is a steal. A sensational new raid (minus some finicky new mechanics), a foreboding dungeon, an immense new arsenal to grind for, and a better tuned PvP and PvE sandbox in which to enjoy them mean Shadowkeep will keep Guardians’ attention the whole season long and is an excellent proof of concept for the seasonal structure going forward. If Bungie can keep this pace up, year three of Destiny 2 could easily be the best year in franchise history. As a general caution though, Destiny 2 now clearly caters to the hardcore, requires MMO levels of commitment, and is best enjoyed with a regular group; casual, time-restricted, and solo players beware. It might not be the best single expansion release in franchise history (that’s still a toss-up between The Taken King and Forsaken), but, beginning with Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, the third year of D2 is the closest the tumultuous title has ever come to Bungie’s ambitious vision for the shared-world shooter and the game fans have been waiting for these past five years.

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What Are Some of the Switch’s Best Indie Devs Making?

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The Nintendo Switch has quickly become the preferred platform for some of the most talented indie studios in the industry. Its pick-up-and-play form factor and Nintendo’s concerted effort to court smaller developers this generation (complete with indie-specific Directs) has resulted in a library that’s positively flourished.

Despite the eShop falling victim to some of the discoverability and shovelware issues that long plagued Steam, there have been some real standouts over the years. Since video games take quite a while to produce, there’s often speculation as to what some of the premier developers have been working on. Let’s take a look at four of the most recognized indie studios on the platform and have some fun trying to figure out what they might be up to.


Sidebar Games

It’s hard to believe that 2017’s Golf Story was Sidebar Games’ first project as a studio. The two-man team from down under balanced a delightful dose of Australian-tinged humor with clear callbacks to the Mario sports games of old to deliver one of the best Switch exclusives in 2017, bar none.

Unlike the other studios on this list, Sidebar has been extremely silent on development progress; we can only glean bits and pieces from the few interviews they’ve done. We know the game has been in development for roughly two years and that Sidebar was still in active development as of March 2019 when they put out the call for a pixel artist for their next project. There’s also a fair chance that the new game will either be Switch-exclusive or target Switch first, seeing as how Golf Story is still one of the Switch’s top 10 best-selling indie games to date as of Spring 2019. If exclusivity worked so well the first time, why not try it again?

What Can We Expect?

Whatever Sidebar is working on, it’s almost guaranteed to be single-player and story-focused. One half of the dev team, Andrew, has gone on record multiple times saying that he’s “very partial to story modes.” This also players into one of their strengths; though there was a great time to be had with Golf Story’s golf, it was all elevated by the game’s ridiculous-yet-lovable characters and wacky situational humor.

Since the team has already deconfirmed a sequel as their next project, there’s really not much to go on. While I’d personally love them to tackle something Mario Tennis-inspired next, there’s a good chance they’ll avoid sports altogether. As long as the wit found in Golf Story is alive and well, though, their core audience is sure to be interested.


Fabraz

Despite being incredibly simple from a visual standpoint, the deceivingly charming Slime-San is still one of the best platformers to come out in recent memory. The game’s striking three-color art style isn’t just unique, but it’s also ingrained into the platforming mechanics in inventive ways. Beyond having a look all its own and a stiff challenge for players who wanted it, however, Fabraz went the extra mile to build a fun cast of characters and even a hub world to explore outside of the main game. It was a pleasant surprise from a relatively unknown developer at the time.

Fabraz has been anything but complacent since Slime-san’s launch. The studio released two free content expansions, ported the game to other consoles, and even got into the publishing business. No matter their other ventures, however, the team has made sure to tease their next project every so often since the start of 2019.

What Can We Expect?

Fabraz speculated that their new game was already roughly 60% complete at the start of October. Since it only began production in December of 2018, it’s safe to assume that the next game will be relatively small in scope. It’s also likely that Fabraz’s next outing won’t be “Slime-san 2,” since the original game received such heavy content additions months after release (including an expansion literally titled “Sheeple’s Sequel.” The team certainly knows how to make magic from very limited resources, so it’ll be interesting to see what they can do with a bit more of a budget, a new art style, and tons more experience.


Game Atelier/FDG Entertainment

It feels like Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom came out of nowhere. The team at FDG Entertainment had published indie darling Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King just the year prior and the console port of Oceanhorn before that, but there wasn’t much talk about FDG’s capabilities as a developer. As it turns out, however, Game Atelier’s choice to bring them on as a co-developer was the best thing that could’ve possibly happened to Monster Boy. Five long years of development later and fans were treated to one of the best platformers in recent memory.

Though it launched on all consoles, Monster Boy famously sold eight times more on Switch than PS4 and Xbox One combined, reminiscent of the sales of Blossom Tales on Switch. Needless to say, FDG’s next title will be targeted squarely as the Nintendo community. But what could that next project be?

What Can We Expect?

A Monster Boy sequel. FDG recently celebrated their collaboration with Game Atelier on Twitter and announced that they’re collaborating once more. The commercial and critical success of Monster Boy can only lead one to believe they’re hard at work on a follow-up together. Thankfully, with such a solid base to work off of now, this one shouldn’t take nearly as long to release.


Chucklefish

Chucklefish has garnered a great deal of respect in the indie community as both a developer (Starbound, WarGroove) and frequent publisher (Stardew Valley, Timespinner, the upcoming Eastward, and others). Their eagerness to bring so many of their top-notch titles to Switch has made them one of–if not the–most lauded indie studios on the platform. If it’s coming from Chucklefish, there’s a good chance it’ll be of the highest quality.

What Can We Expect?

Witchbrook! Chucklefish announced the game way back in 2017 and instantly had both Harry Potter and Little Witch Academia fans foaming at the mouth. It’s a magical school simulation/RPG where players will attend class, learn spells, make friends, date, and work towards graduation. The company’s CEO and lead designer, Finn, has been incredibly open about the game’s development from the beginning. In fact, he made the ever-changing Witchbrook design document public in August of 2019 to give some insight into the game design and planning process.

Since there’s already so much we know about where the game’s going, this is going to be used as more of a “Hopes for Witchbrook” section. To keep it short, let’s focus on two of the game’s most make-or-break elements: dating and world-building.

Dating

One of the things many RPGs struggle with is making dating feel meaningful after the relationship starts. People love romancing in Stardew Valley, but the experience itself is really rather shallow; bring characters their favorite items, talk to them daily, experience a few touching cutscenes and voila! All that’s left is to put a ring on it and have a baby.

My hope is that in Witchbrook, the real fun starts after the relationship begins. Being able to have lunch together, go to festivals, celebrate anniversaries, plan outings, and even introduce them to the player’s in-game friends would go a long way in making the relationship feel more than a ribbon to be crossed.

World-Building

When someone asks the seminal question “What fictional world would you love to live in?” the world of Harry Potter almost always tops to list (right next to Pokémon, that is). It isn’t just because of magic itself or the emotional ties people have to the cast, but more so because of the immense amounts of personality and lore J.K. Rowling infused into the world. From the dark history of Hogwarts to the vast array of magical beasts to the establishment of Quidditch, there is a whole movie and video game series that has been created based on mere slices of the Harry Potter universe.

Naturally, it’d be silly to expect Chucklefish to achieve as much depth in an indie project as one of the most successful authors of all time did over the course of seven books, but there’s still plenty of potential. Since the game will primarily take place at the school, exploring why the school was created and how it’s changed over the years could be quite interesting. Then there’s how different populations of the world at large feel about magic, how various magical species play a part, the favorite magic-imbued pastimes of students in the world of Witchbrook, and so on. The key will be to infuse magic into every element of the world (and gameplay) as naturally as possible. And after reading through the extensive design doc, I’ve no doubt Chucklefish will be able to pull it off.


The indie scene on the Switch is thriving more than ever. New talented developers are making the platform their home every day, and those who’ve already proved themselves are hard at work on their next premium experience. The next wave of releases from these studios can’t come soon enough.

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‘Death Stranding’: And Now for Something Completely Different

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Death Stranding Slow Connectivity

Video gaming as a medium has often been perceived as little more than a toy. Even with Nintendo pushing the NES as a part of the home and more than just a toy– a strategy they’d adopt again for the Wii– there are still many who see games as toys, rather than an expression of an art form. It makes perfect sense, though. If there’s one thing modern video game culture has pushed front and center this past decade, it’s instant satisfaction. As big-budget games embrace homogeneity, the medium’s priorities have shifted from capitalizing on its inherent interactivity to making sure gamers are never bored with their $60 toy. Reggie Fils-Aime famously said “If it’s not fun, why bother?” for a reason, but when every big-budget game is paced the same, structured the same, and plays the same, where’s the fun to be found? 

About Death Stranding…

It’s far too early to even assume what kind of impact Death Stranding will have on the medium & industry (if any), but as one of the last big budgets games to release in 2019, Hideo Kojima’s first crack at the “strand game genre” is a nice note to cap the decade off on– one that serves as an almost necessary palette cleanser as the medium heads into the 2020s. Death Stranding offers audiences a chance to breathe, to look at themselves in the mirror, and to reconnect. Not just with the world and others, but with a medium built on interactivity. 

Hideo Kojima is often criticized for his cutscene ratio, to the point where it’s not unusual to see critics suggest he just make a film, but the fact of the matter is that most games do need a story. Not just that, video games have the potential to present a story better than any other medium. Readers and viewers can place themselves in the shoes of their protagonists, but a game makes the player become the protagonist. How we control our characters, how we play, how we interact with a virtual world– all this is a reflection of ourselves, one that only the gaming medium can offer. 

Not that it often does, at least not meaningfully. Modern developers are afraid to lose consumer interest, and the increasing shift towards the “games as a service” model has ensured that gameplay loops are simple to pick up, simple to get into, and simple to stay into. Games are something to be played with– toys. And there’s immense value in that. Video games can be a fantastic way to reduce stress & clear one’s thoughts regardless of how they’re designed, but such an approach means that the average gamer is going to be accustomed to gameplay loops that are structurally derivative of one another. 

On the flip side, there are the games that prioritize narrative too much, or simply devalue their own gameplay with extraneous content. From Hideo Kojima’s own gameography, this is a mistake he clearly made with Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Even from this decade, it can be argued that what little importance Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain placed on the story ended up hurting it in the long run because it distracted from the core gameplay loop. There’s a reason so many developers follow similar game structures and build off similar foundations: they’re reliable, they get the job done, and it does result in great games. Both The Last of Us and God of War (2018) are clear examples of how mechanically homogenous & predictable games have gradually become this past decade, but they’re still great games.

Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time.

Death Stranding is most comparable to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and perhaps The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but really only on the most surface of levels. Death Stranding has AAA backing, but it has the creativity and ingenuity of a modern indie. While AAA developers have lined up for uniformity, the indie half of the medium has arguably never been better. Those who grew up alongside video games are now developing their own, calling back to and even evolving forgotten genres. All the while, AAA games only move closer to the Disneyfication of movie production– hit all the key demographics, make it “accessible” for everyone, and make sure there are no real ideals or beliefs. No need to upset potential consumers, right? 

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Death Stranding was backed by Sony and developed by a massive development team, but Hideo Kojima’s direction is far more in-line with the modern indie scene than that of his AAA cohorts. Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time. It’s slow to start, slow to pick up, and even the core gameplay loop is slow. It takes hours before players get their first vehicle, and even longer before they finally get a weapon. Death Stranding saves its actual core gameplay loop for so late in the experience that it’s not unreasonable to suggest the game sees an entire genre shift halfway through. But that’s missing the point. Death Stranding’s “genre shift” is only going to feel so for those who don’t want to engage with the first half’s crawl– those who just want to play with a toy. 

Of course, just wanting something simple and immediately engaging to play is fair enough. For working adults with limited time to play a game, in particular, but not every game is going to resonate with everyone, even if a game like Death Stranding is designed for anyone. Death Stranding seems inaccessible & foreign in a generation where every big genre release plays like the last, but between a myriad of difficulty options and an online system designed to make the player’s life easier– one that works & works well– Death Stranding takes the medium’s interactivity to its next logical step: connectivity. Real connectivity, though. A connection that goes beyond playing against or with someone for a few minutes. 

In Death Stranding, players can leave a tangible mark on, and in, the world. Players can build structures for others, share with others, and just do something as simple as “liking” others. Those opening hours are incredibly valuable as– without the means to kill or fight back– players are forced to interact with the game world on a deeper level beyond combat. Death Stranding takes its time developing its gameplay loop, drip-feeding weapons, and concepts. Even the online component opens itself slowly, forcing players to understand what it means to be alone before they can forge real connections– with the world, others, or themselves. 

This is what Hideo Kojima understands better than the majority of modern AAA developers: games can connect a feeling directly to the player. Death Stranding’s best moments (as any should be) stem from gameplay. Kojima’s storytelling is engaging as ever, but it exists to bolster the gameplay– as does the slow pacing, as does the aggressive enemy AI, as does locking out weapons for hours on end– everything in Death Stranding is ultimately in service of connecting players to Sam in a way that feels genuinely meaningful. Through Sam, audiences can observe an America that’s in ruins, but one that society is rebuilding.

As Sam reconnects America, opportunities arise to finish bridges for others, leave supplies in remote areas, or just warn of dangers ahead. It’s very Dark Souls-esque in nature, but with a gameplay loop that minimizes traditional action, Death Stranding is the rare AAA game that’s bold enough to embrace the medium and everything it represents, for better or worse. A video game interacts with an audience in a way that books and film can’t. Controlling an avatar is an intimate act and reflects us better than most might realize. Death Stranding recognizes this fact, turns its back on modern gaming mainstays, and attempts to reconnect the medium together. 

Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity. 

AAA gaming and the indie scene shouldn’t be divided. A gameplay loop doesn’t need instant satisfaction to be engaging. Story and gameplay shouldn’t feel disconnected. Standard online multiplayer can be more rewarding when PvP elements are tossed to the wayside or even just outright ignored. Death Stranding resembles the average AAA title in many respects, but it allows itself to be eclectic, off-putting, & sincerely unfiltered– in regards to politics, human nature, video games themselves. Only time will tell if “strand games” will take off, but keep in mind that the stealth genre didn’t exist when the hit “action” game Metal Gear released for the MSX2 in 1987. As Death Stranding makes abundantly clear, everything changes with time. 

The 2010s have not been a bad decade for the medium, far from it. The past ten years have seen truly legendary consoles and games come out of the woodwork, but it’s impossible to deny the shift that occurred (and had been occurring) in AAA game development– one that’s driven the medium far away from meaningful interactivity, where flavor of the month games long to be played for all eternity, like Toy Story-esque monstrosities given form. Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity. 

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