Robophobia and The Last Welder

I’ve been experimenting with scrying recently. Turns out you can do these things without a budget. I just fill the bath with an inch of Cif, straddle it with one leg on either side and stare straight down into the yellow ooze until the fumes cause me to start seeing visions. It usually only takes about half an hour to get to the good stuff, and while I thoroughly recommend it you should be sure to have a friend or spouse to hand in case you pass out and fall in.

Last time I did this I got a crystalline vision of where horror videogames, or at least one of them, needs to go next. Check this monumentally fucked up creature out:

That robot’s called BigDog. It is the pride of the Boston Dynamics robotics design company. Needless to say, it’s also one of the most abnormal and unsettling things ever created by man.

Robots as subjects of horror is obviously nothing new. You’ve got the dedicated murderers of the Terminator universe, the sinister escapees of Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Blowjobs and the million permutations of killer robots to be found in pulp fiction. But watching that video of BigDog, it’s hard to shake the idea that they’ve all been doing it wrong.

When creating scary robots we always seem to focus on the same two ideas- that robots are like, really strong, and that they have one-track robot minds. How is it possible for us to be so unimaginative when the real-life horror of robots is staring us right in the face? These things are so deeply rooted in the uncanny valley that even when we’re making them for real life practical purposes they’re unsettling. Look at these robots showcasing superhuman speed or dexterity! Look at this Chemical Brothers video about robots haunting a member of the public! Look at this ant robot! That last one might not be too scary until you imagine 40 of them repossessing your home, brick by brick, as resistant to your pathetic attacks as basketballs.

I was going to link to Honda’s Asimo robot in that last paragraph, but I just read a YouTube comment pointing out how he runs like he has a boner and now I can’t take him seriously. Nevermind.

Anyway, by and large it’s a perfect fit. The robots we’re building today display the same characteristics that we tend to invent for the weird organic creatures you fight in horror games. Jerky, indecisive movement? No evidence of a mind? Superhuman ability? No eyes? Unable to stop making very strange noises? Check, check, check, check, check.

As modern robotics (or at least unmanned drone technology) becomes more and more practical, we’re going to see more horror games playing up to society’s insecurities about these new, unliving beings we find ourselves hearing more and more about. I just want somebody to get it started already.

In particular I had this robot-centric vision of Dead Space, except it was called The Last Welder. Or maybe Welded Shut, or perhaps simply Weldead. Here’s how it went:

In 25th Century deep space, a man by the name of Isaac Clarke has just lost his job aboard the USG Ishimura. Advances in robot welding technology has made even his incredible welding expertise redundant. Beer in hand, Isaac makes his way aboard the small lifeboat which will sink him into a deep freeze and pilot him home, to Earth.

Isaac awakes as the game begins. He’s not on Earth. He’s back on the USG Ishimura, and something’s gone terribly wrong.

Throughout the game Isaac pieces together what happened. After he left the Ishimura the welding robots performed their tasks with such competence and speed that the engineering staff realised they didn’t need quite so many and planned to shut a couple down. In a tragic confusion of priorities, the welding robots saw this decision as in conflict with their need to complete any and all welding tasks that arrived. As the welding robots began disobeying the crew, the crew became more and more desperate to shut them down, causing the robots to respond more and more drastically.

When Isaac makes his unexplained return he finds the entire crew has been welded… to death! As he searches for a way off the ship he finds the final piece of this puzzle- the maddened, broken welding robots read Isaac’s personnel file, and became so scared that his welding expertise might put them out of a job that they called his lifeboat back to kill him.

The Last Welder keeps Dead Space’s central mechanic of cutting off limbs, but what I don’t want to keep is Dead Space being an action game and generally not being very scary. Here’s how we could fix that.

To break it down, Dead Space wasn’t scary because, like F.E.A.R., the action-based core mechanics (in this case the excellent controls of Resident Evil 4) were so much fun they hobbled the horror. The most horror either game could muster was a spooky atmosphere and the occasional jump scare.

It comes down the basic fact that when your only means of interacting with monsters is shooting them, and doing so is a satisfying and simple process, you have nothing to be a afraid of. Either something’s going to try and hurt you and you’ll be able to shoot it, or you won’t be able to shoot it and it won’t be able to hurt you.

Horror games need to take control away from the player. If you look at the original Resident Evil games or the first few Silent Hills, the controls are terrible. The combat is terrible. The dramatic camera angles make it harder to see what the fuck is going on. As much as these “flaws” were criticised at the time (by imbeciles and perverts) they were all conscious development decisions. In a horror game, when monsters are coming at you there needs to be a sense that you’re not in control of the situation. If you’re in control of the situation, you’re in control of the monsters. If you’re in control of the monsters, what are you afraid of?

The only time Dead Space’s combat provided a glimmer of horror was when you threw an entire clip at a… Necromorph? I had to look that up. When you shot at a Necromorph and missed consecutive times, you sometimes got the distant fear that you’d run out of ammo further down the line. This was scary because not having any ammo was the only way you’d lose control of your situation.

Ultimately it rarely came to anything because Necromorphs always go down with enough firepower and you’ve always got those shops where you can buy ammo, but I want to expand on this idea. Likewise, the most tense moments in Resident Evil 4 were when you were being attacked from multiple sides and had to keep turning back and forth, which poked a hole in the control scheme’s biggest weakness- your limited field of vision and slow turning speed. Since Dead Space uses the same controls, I want to expand on this too.

So, combat in The Last Welder would be about welding. The projectile weaponry you carry will only knock robots back, stagger them, or temporarily disable them. To finish them off you’d need to run up and use your ultra-high temperature welding gun on them to slice off vulnerable bits. Except these short-range welding guns are also what the robots are equipped with.

So, to finish robots off you’d have to run into melee range to use your welding gun, but while you’re focused on your welding you’d be leaving your back and sides open to a welding attack. So, you’ve got a game where trouble with a given fight can absolutely drain all of your ammo (because the robots get back up), and in creating this need to run into groups of enemies you amplify the one scary part of the Resident Evil 4 control scheme- the horror of being surrounded.

The simplest of combat scenarios in The Last Welder might begin with you shooting a robot against a wall, running up to finish it off and then having a second robot lurch out from a side door a couple of feet away. You turn, shoot the new robot, shoot it again, and quickly turn back to start welding the first robot. Except now you’re worrying- that second robot’s going to be getting up and grabbing you any second, and as you’re thinking about where you shot that second robot and what you shot it with you start the slow-but-steady welding minigame to burn off the first robot’s welding arm, which (unlike destroying the tougher core) leaves the robot disarmed, but still able to charge you and bull you over

Are you in control? Are you fuck. And that’s before we introduce robots that have started modifying themselves to travel on ceilings (well out of welding range), carry human weaponry (which serves to knock you and your protective suit around in the same way you knock around the robots), and smaller ant bots which creep up with the tiniest whirring noise to quickly weld one of your boots to the floor, necessitating that you burn yourself free.

Because you don’t want to see the animation that happens when a big, half-ton robot charges you when one of your feet is fused with the ground. Your only option in that situation would be to shoot the would-be chargers, staggering them, and quickly turn to face your boot, praying, praying you can get yourself free before they get back up. You can look back up and check on them, of course- but doing so resets your progress of welding yourself free.

Ah, yes. That’d be some good shit. Back in reality, here’s the freshly leaked trailer for Dead Space 2. It’ll be good, sure, but it still won’t be a horror game.


A 21st Century Review of Harvest Moon

So, couldn’t bring myself to do a properly narcissistic Tim Rogers style post. All that navel gazing! No, not now.

Instead of an ego-‘splode, I present this: a riff off a blog post Tim made years ago. In the spirit of Easter Sunday, it is a twisted tale of dead things being resurrected in the unnatural fashion.


A 21st Century Review of Nintendo Co. Ltd’s Harvest Moon

He stood, in dream-blue dungarees and red baseball cap, in the middle of a perfectly square patch of crops. The patch was one of many such patches he owned, and he was perspiring like a desperate burglar for all of these patches demanded attention, and the sun was very hot. A fatigue like a leaden gas was filling his body.

‘Fucking potatoes,’ said the farmer.

The sky above the farmer was generous, a great soft expanse of vapour and not-at-all. If the sky was a crop, it was surely as ripe as could be and nobody’s for the taking. But the farmer did not look up as he proceeded to the next perfectly square patch of crops. Tomatoes, this time, as green as the vines they grew on.

‘Fucking tomatoes,’ said the farmer.

It was with relief that the farmer upended his watering can and darkened the soil of the last of his plants. The rest of the day stretched and yawned in front of him like a dusty cat.

In truth, he couldn’t stand having to fill the hours of every day. How did others waste time? What was their secret? He thought about it often. Him, stood behind Father Time, a shovel in both hands. Raise it up high- krangg! And that would be it. The end of time.

Jogging back home, the farmer came across a patch of crops he hadn’t yet watered.

‘FUCK,’ he screamed.

Nearby, a young potato plant turned away from the farmer. It was embarrassed, and didn’t know what to do.

*  *  *

The farmer’s wife was standing by the kitchen counter, doing nothing. She watched her husband come in from outside with the kind eyes that you see on wives, sometimes.

‘It’s such a hot day,’ said his wife, happily. ‘I think this is the hottest summer I remember!’

The farmer stopped in the middle of the room, hands on his hips, and looked at his wife. Her luscious feet, her hair, her floury baps. A bead of sweat fell from his nose to spill itself over the floorboards. The woman was making a face at him. It looked like this: ^___^

‘This isn’t right,’ said the farmer with a faraway voice.  ‘I… are you listening? I’ve been here before.’

‘It’s such a hot day,’ replied his wife. ‘I think this is the hottest summer I remember!’

‘No, listen to me,’ said the man. ‘Listen to me. There’s something really wrong here. I don’t feel well at all.’ He made his way to a chair as if he were about to sit, but at the last minute seemed to think better of it.

‘I’m out there, watering the crops, right? Or I’m going into town to buy a hoe, or I’m brushing down a cow. And I think… I’m staying really busy. I’m busy every day, and I’m the busiest person in town. You know I am! So I got to thinking about why I keep so busy. And whenever I think about that I can’t shake this feeling deep inside me that something’s not right.

‘It’s like I’ve been here before. It’s like, every day, I wake up and I’ve already lived that day ten times before. It’s like nothing seems to change. Do you understand? Hey. Remember when we bought ourselves a horse last week? I feel like I’ve already bought ten horses before. Not with you, but with other women, in different houses. I look at the farm outside and I keep thinking of different farms that I’ve never owned. I know I haven’t. But… if I have already been through this before, what’s the point in anything?’

He needed his wife more than anything at that point, because he felt that a single kind word might save him.

There was a knocking at the door.

‘There’s someone at the door!’ Said the wife. The farmer glared at her. He opened the door to reveal Henry, the town’s portly mayor, who looked exactly like every portly mayor any child had ever imagined.

‘Hello!’ Said the mayor. ‘Just thought I’d drop by and remind you that the fishin’ contest is tomorrow!’

‘Yeah, it is,’ said the farmer. He was quieter now, and spoke with a measured tone and all of his pain packed into tightly drawn shoulders. ‘And I’m gonna win it. You know why? Because I win all of your dumb contests. Every one. Because you guys, all of you, are shit.’

‘Hope to see you there!’ said the mayor. ‘Goodbye!’

The farmer turned back to his wife. ‘Well?’ he said. But she said nothing at all.

‘God damn it woman!’ shouted the man. ‘You have to listen to me!’

‘It’s such a hot day!’

‘Shut up! That’s it! That is it!’

*  *  *

And now the puffy white sky was darkened, the mortals having snatched at it with grubby hands.

Water sank greedily into the farmer’s clothes as he came splashing down into the sea. His dusty trousers felt the coldness and withdrew, hugging the man’s ankles in fear. His boots, vigorous and steadfast creatures, sent a last gasp of bubbles to the surface as they were flooded. Sprays of water and sand were being cast upwards with each of the farmer’s strides, the saltwater licking streams of tears from his face.

Under his arm his wife bit and tore at the loop of muscle that held her, but a decade of labour and two decades of disappointment had hardened this vermicular cage and there could be no escape. Under his other arm, their child. Too innocent to fight, the spark inside their baby was at least flaring noisily.

Onwards the man trod, down into the wash.

‘It’s such a hot day!’ howled his wife in protest, the sea splashing at her lowered face. ‘I think this is the–‘ *khakk* ‘hottest summer-‘

But the man wasn’t listening to her anymore, just as he’d eventually stopped listening to her in the last life, and the one before that. This was how it always ended. He remembered now.

‘Gaboo!’ said the baby.

Just a few more steps, the farmer thought to himself, and then the sea would fix the rest. Just as long as he didn’t end up on another fucking farm with the same fucking square fields and the same fucking girls. What would he do then? This cycle was draining him, a secret suction far more terrible than that of pastoral life.

The farmer’s shoe snagged on something then, down in the sand. As reaching down to check would have involved freeing one of his captives he instead opted to kick free, only to find his submerged knee rammed against something too. Aiming to go around the obstacle, he found his shoulder pushed back by something. In blind terror, the farmer found himself faced with an entire invisible wall that stopped him from pushing any deeper than hip-deep into the water.

No- this was how it ended. With a scream he caught visions of himself at rivers, in caves, at the Mineral Town well, sometimes alone and sometimes not but always flattening himself against these unknown walls.

‘Gaboo!’ said the baby.

It was over. He dropped his family, and then the man quit.