What defines a game? That’s a question I rarely ask myself because I’m a hopeless addict. Who needs video games? That’s what I tell myself everyday as I evade screaming gunshots in pursuit of that sketchy salesmen, hoping to get my fix. I’m not talking about partially-used medical needles or off-brand cold and congestion relief medicine either, but rather, video games and the world they help me escape to. The truth is, at the end of a long day, I need my drugs. While others may claim to be a product of their environment and develop an immunity to the haze of crap that surrounds them, I’m fully aware that an immunity to stab wounds has yet to be discovered, and I’m trapped escaping habits with, well, other habits. Honestly, I blame David Jones. Had it not been for his drug and gang simulation I wouldn’t be in a position where boredom can drive me to: A) murder people, or B) explore an interactive realm of fun and possibilities.
You see, I may be a product of someones environment, but definitely not my own. If I were a product of my own environment I’d either be a prostitute or a very well dressed man responsible for securing a prostitutes payment. Was there ever a better reason to turn to video games? Maybe, but I don’t rely on air-drops of rice and flour, so whatevs. Of course, I could blame society for my need of a constant stream of entertainment, but I’m not a 16 year old girl on Facebook, and rational thought should apply to my process.
It began in 1997 with the release of Grand Theft Auto. My young self was oblivious to the world of drugs, gangs, theft, danger; I was naive, shying from the streets, and not just because I was 10. I slipped the disc in to my PlayStation and from a top-down view eradicated my boredom, replacing it with an addiction; one that I would spend the next 15 years combating with title after title of interactive media. At one point I was inserting games like suppositories, since time was of the essence and I couldn’t possibly complete them all. I now refer to those days as the dark ages, since my basement dwelling and consumption of microwaved meals contributed to the blotchy blots of disgusting that formed around my everywhere. My introduction to this world was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me, but I’m glad to exist in a time where it’s acceptable to walk in to Starbucks with a cape and order a “cauldron of caffeinated substance” with an awful Scottish accent.
This week we discuss the definition of games and escapism with Rob Seres, veteran programmer with an impressive list of titles under his belt, and co-creator of Shades of Sanity, “a psychological horror game that is a 3D “Spiritual Successor” to Sanitarium.”
[Hardcore Gamer] As a developer, how would you define a game?
[Rob Seres] This is a great question since it’s so basic it throws me for a loop. A game is a way to relax and be entertained, and a chance to exercise your physical, mental, and emotional abilities. What sets a game apart from a movie or a book is the interactiveness. The first adventure game I ever played was called “Adventure” on the Atari, and your character was simply a yellow block, but everything still came to life. Technology has advanced so much since then that certain games are becoming closer to movies, where you start to lose your interactivity. So allow me to pull a Colbert and introduce the term “Gaminess.” “Gaminess” is how interactive your game is, since if it loses all interactivity it becomes a nice real time movie. Games that tell a story have the difficult task of maintaining the story while at the same time keeping their gaminess intact.
In your description of how schizophrenia is portrayed in the game, you mention that “innocent scenes could also be feeding a deeper delusion.” Is this struggle with sanity one of the primary aspects of the game, and how is it handled?
The struggle with Joe’s symptoms and how it affects your choices is a primary theme in both story and gameplay. For the story element, it becomes one of the primary antagonists, man versus self, in gameplay, it brings some startling choices. For example, you come across a bottle of pills that says “poison,” but it’s supposed to be your medication. Do you take it? Not taking it can bring even more illusions, but taking it may kill you. To keep the player from having to make random choices they’ll be clues to help them with their “risk versus reward” options. And of course the “death” setting can be turned off if you just want to relax and explore.
As a horror title, how do you keep Shades of Sanity from feeling like other horror games?
I think what sets Shades apart is the treatment of the protagonist and his condition. You’re fighting yourself as well as external factors. In most horror games, a monster is attacking you because it’s hungry and you’re meat. In this game, you may be attacked because you’re considered the monster. It’s easy to be afraid of a tentacle creeping towards you, this game aims to make you afraid of the phone ringing.
Do you believe that this form of exploration, both environmental and psychological is a healthy form of escapism?
I think the difference between healthy and unhealthy is what you take out of the experience. If the result is a constant battering of your senses due to your choices, you’ll be left with a defeated feeling. But if you get to see positive change from your involvement, you’ll come away feeling victorious despite opposition. Though games are seen as a diversion, the theme of this game ties greatly to a reality we face. A person diagnosed with cancer will get sympathy and support, but a person with schizophrenia will often face isolation and fear, despite the fact that he’s 14 times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime than to commit one himself. I think putting a player in Joe’s shoes may cause people to get a more sympathetic view of an illness that affects millions of people.
Do you feel that a first person perspective in games helps with immersion, and did you base your choice on such a thought?
I think it definitely does. You get the benefit of positional sound and a limited view, as opposed to controlling someone remotely like a puppet. A third person view gets the ability to see what’s behind you, and to me it feels somewhat like a cheat. Clive Barker’s “Undying” had a great scene where you come to a mirror, and a ghost appears in it. I turned around and expected to fight it, but found that it was not a reflection and it was actually coming out of the mirror. You couldn’t do that from a third person view.
How would you define the unsettling experience to a horror game novice, and would you consider Shades of Sanity a safe starting point?
At the risk of sounding pretentious I would say “think of The Shining, but you get to play Jack Nicholson.” Of course the goal isn’t to axe people up, but the imagery you’ll see will make you question what’s a real threat and what’s not. I think the option to put the difficulty settings low would make it a nice safe starting point for those not used to games like these. Though it’s hard to gauge how scary a game is to people. It’s like humor, it’s very subjective.
How would you sell Shades of Sanity to a player mostly interested in high-production shooters and massive, open world titles?
I would say that this offers a different experience than they’re used to. In adrenaline soaked action you go into a fight or flight, and this one is more “flight.” It’s a different type of thrill than mowing down Zombies with an automatic shotgun. Their experience in shooters would make them best suited for the action setting, and it offers controls that they’re well used to. They’d also want to turn the action setting to “hard” and see how long they can survive in a place that can bring unpleasant surprises.
Things are looking good for the horror genre this year, and Shades of Sanity seems to be stirring the pot even further. For more information about the game and the team behind it, check out the official Shades of Sanity website. You can also find information about the game and its development process, as well as claim your pledge rewards on their Kickstarter page.