Connect with us

Games

How Gaming’s Scariest Level Still Holds Up

Published

on

Horrific. Terrifying. One of the scariest levels ever made. “Robbing the Cradle” has quite the reputation. 12 years after its debut in Thief: Deadly Shadows, it’s still held up as one of the most disturbing experiences in gaming history.

What’s more surprising is, until the Cradle, Deadly Shadows only hints at the horror beneath its surface. This is not Dead Space or Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The Thief series is firmly rooted in the stealth genre. You are Garrett, the master thief, rarely seen and never caught.

Little by little, you find yourself dragged into a cat-and-mouse game involving red herrings, prophecies, murder, and a mythical serial killer who skins orphans in her spare time. The descent into horror is casual enough to go unnoticed – until the Cradle.

Building up to a Nightmare

Shalebridge Cradle

Home sweet home.

“The Shalebridge Cradle. It used to be an insane asylum, and before that, it was an orphanage. One night a fire started, no one knows how, and after that they left the place abandoned. If there’s a way to cram more misery into one building’s history, I can’t think of it.”

-Excerpt from the “Robbing the Cradle” Mission Introduction

Eight levels. That’s how long it takes to get to the Cradle. And by the time you get there, the game is almost over. Armed to the teeth and lulled into a false sense of security, you waltz around the Cradle’s exterior, pausing to stare up at the facade, a fogged-out dreamscape of stone meeting sky. Unfriendly, sure, but nothing too intimidating. Finding the entrance boarded-up, you walk to a fountain, flies buzzing and an odd scream in the distance. Eventually you stumble upon a bulkhead door and let yourself in.

To nothing. And no one.

Expecting figures in the darkness, you find pipes and rails and the drip-drip-drip of dirty water. The first note you find is nothing special. Something about doctors and patients. Running down corridors in search of a fuse box, the background music starts to intrude. No particular sound can be picked out. It’s more a stew of children cast as high-pitched dogs, barking and wailing. But round every corridor, up every ladder, children are nowhere to be seen. It’s as though the walls have soaked in their screams.

For half the level, you build the story of the Cradle yourself through notes left on shelves and tables. Turns out the place was an orphanage and a lunatic asylum. At the same time. Music ramps up the tension, but no monster assails you from the shadows. Wasn’t the darkness usually where you were hiding?

A Drunken Miasma of Sound

Knock, knock.

This isn’t a joke – it’s the mild tapping that becomes a pounding banging around fifteen minutes into the level.

This is the Cradle in a nutshell. Beats of terror are carefully inserted between long periods of silence. So you get a couple of minutes reading about experimental heat therapy, some light looting, and all the while a strange knocking is getting louder, bidding you to come closer. If the tendency of the horror genre is to whack you over the head with jump scares, Deadly Shadows lets its terror percolate.

Jordan Thomas, the developer behind the Cradle, summed up the experience in a fantastic two-part series on terror by Thomas McMullan: “The first half of Robbing the Cradle is a little exotic for a Thief mission in that there are no AI enemies to hunt you. You are just being hunted by sounds. You’re hunted by what you imagine coming after you – the more the environment can suggest than state, the more spare cycles you have to mentally scare yourself. People would imagine whatever they found to be the most menacing.”

The Cradle has players constantly expecting something to happen. And it’s not just about the inevitable march toward the boogeymen, either. Lives of patients spill out through diaries and once-beloved belongings. Get close to a tiny crib full of ashes – the keepsake of a mother gone mad – and a baby cries out. It’s this wonderful sprinkling of macabre sounds that guts you. Pain lives here, present tense. Unfortunately, pain doesn’t live alone.

Lighting a Haunted House

Flickering Lights

I’ll show myself out.

Apparently you see your first Puppet as a silhouette, a shadow running across your screen. I was crouched down breathing into a paper bag, so I missed that quick meet-and-greet.

What I remember instead are lights flickering. The former inmates, you see, are announced this way. In parts of the level with many wall-mounted lamps, they make a frantic show of warning. Run, run, as fast as you can. Or just blind the creepos into oblivion with Flash Bombs, whatever.

After waging a war against light the entire game, it suddenly becomes your friend in the Cradle.

For a while.

When you go into the Cradle’s memory later on, getting caught in one of the deliberately well-lit spaces is a big no-no, forcing you to repeat content. Up until “Robbing the Cradle”, players can get caught a hundred times. Arrows are plentiful compared to previous Thief games. Mines and healing potions, too. Developers shape the player’s expectations only to shatter them. After spending all of Deadly Shadows getting comfortable, the penultimate level takes what you thought about this little ol’ stealth game and beats you to death with it.

Scares That Leave Scars

Little has been said so far about Garrett, the game’s hero, but it’s worth exploring.

Garrett Poised to Backstab

I wonder how much Dogecoin is trading for right now.

Garrett is a thief who, in the first two games, could wield a sword. He could go toe-to-toe with the AI and live to see the day, although that was down to a combination of the AI being slow to react to blows by today’s standard and their tendency to get stuck running on the same spot. (I’m replaying Thief: The Dark Project right now – the AI gets stuck more than a rusty gate flapping in the wind.)

In Deadly Shadows, the sword is replaced with a dagger. It fits a thief better and backstabs like a dream.

The replacement also says, albeit implicitly, that Garrett is really not supposed to go toe-to-toe anymore. He is a fragile hero, capable of being killed in a few hits. This was always the case in the Thief series, and it still holds true in Deadly Shadows.

The Cradle exploits the player’s knowledge of Garrett’s fragility. Unlike, say, in F.E.A.R., we know our hero is not a gun-toting superhuman. The Puppets are fast and brutal. They don’t stay down even if you stab them in the back. Garrett being weak increases our fear because, after playing through eight levels, we are Garrett. And since first-person emotion is stronger than third – even though the latter is a perspective we can choose in Shadows – we experience fear deeply in the Cradle. Our fear. Not fear for Garrett’s life, but fear for our own.

Something’s also off about Garrett the whole level.

He’s scared in the intro. He doesn’t talk much. The Puppets wheeze and hiss, and Garrett, He of the Sarcastic Jokes, can’t find anything funny to say.

The level’s mastermind, Jordan Thomas, had this to add: “Traditional stealth designers will say the AI should verbalize as much as possible and let the AI build a map of what they will do in response to what the player has done, so that you’re constantly improvising a kind of jazz with the game world. What [the Cradle] had to do was go in the other direction, where you had to observe and listen to sub-verbal barks. The end result is that you imagine so much more intelligence and menace.”

And so the Cradle replaces dialogue with primeval burbling. If Garrett is quiet, it’s because he’s heard enough.

Note to interested parties: The headings, “A Drunken Miasma of Sound” and “Scares That Leave Scars”, come from the wonderful ten-page spread Kieron Gillen did on the Cradle for the March 2005 issue of PC Gamer. Read it if you’re a fan of the level – it is stellar.

Luke is a student-for-life finishing his master’s thesis any day now. Definitely probably. He loves sleeping, eating, and drinking in that order. Luke lives in Sweden but was born in England. Thanks to Brexit, he will probably be deported later this year.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Advertisement

Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

Published

on

Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

Continue Reading

Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Published

on

Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

“[Earthnight is] an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

Continue Reading

Games

Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Death Stranding’

What makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year is how it has managed to divide gamers and critics alike.

Published

on

Death Stranding

2019 has been a banner year for gaming. With some excellent original properties making their debuts and a ton of great sequels, there’s been something for everyone and a lot of it. Still, with all of these amazing games to play, only one of them stands out as the most important game of 2019, and that’s Death Stranding.

Now, please note, I said “most important” and not “best”. Death Stranding is far from a perfect game. As my own review pointed out, Death Stranding has a lot of problems, and some of them are so egregious that they could be described as anti-fun. However, what makes the game stand out from its peers is the sheer scale and awe-inspiring hubris of its creation.

For the first (and possibly last) time, Hideo Kojima has been given a total carte blanche of creative freedom and financial resources to make whatever game he wanted. With Sony footing the bill, Death Stranding is maybe the most Kojima game ever made. Unfortunately, like some prog rockers and experimental filmmakers, Kojima could have well done with some reigning in this time around.

Death Stranding

Still, what makes Death Stranding stand out so much from the competition is that it really is almost nothing like anything you’ve ever played. The game is basically a delivery sim where you must cross an apocalyptic wasteland of America and battle a bunch of ghosts along the way. What caused America to fall, and where these ghosts came from, is still relatively unclear even after all of the overwrought explanations that punctuate the end of the game.

Of course, Death Stranding isn’t so much concerned with why and how these events came to be as it is with the experience of living in, and dealing with, them. This is the one game you’ll play this year that will balance out self-serious moral and religious philosophy with chucking literal piss bombs at ghosts and chugging Monster energy drinks.

Yes, Death Stranding has all of the classic Kojima staples. From egregious product placement to a never-ending stream of increasingly tragic backstories, all the hits are here.

Death Stranding

However, what makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year isn’t so much its utter weirdness as a AAA title but how it has divided gamers and critics alike. While some have slathered it with never-ending praise and perfect scores, others have labeled it “a very lumpy game” or “damaged goods“.

Few games, especially in the AAA space, are able to elicit such divergent responses from their audience. Fewer still are peppered with major actors like Norman Reedus and Lea Seydoux in painstakingly rendered motion capture. For these reasons and more, Death Stranding will be debated in critical circles for years to come, and if that’s not the mark of a game that stands out, then nothing is.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending