#Videogame #review #Hellblade @NinjaTheory #horror

Let’s get it out on the table: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the type of game I would’ve wanted Silent Hills to be. Not the exact game, mind you–I’d expect an SH installment to have more endings–but the degree to which Ninja Theory lovingly, carefully dropkicks the player into Senua’s broken mind is nothing short of majestic.

A significant degree of Hellblade’s marketing focused on capturing psychosis correctly (and, of course, the beautiful graphics). It’s great to see a game developer put so much care into the construction of a game’s plot, setting, and characterization that they consulted with psychologists and the mentally ill alike.

This care pays off quite well. Hellblade is full of both subtle moments of psychological tension, and direct freight-train-to-the-face moments of genuine horror, where the player doubts not only reality, but Senua herself.

Most are already aware of this, so I’ll address the most obvious element: the warning in the beginning of the game that repeated failure will result in permadeath, erasing the save file. Some were angered by this announcement, while others were angered by the fact that, apparently, no such system exists. You can die many times, but as far as anyone’s been able to figure out, nothing will permakill you.

That’s actually one of the most genius parts of this game. By terrorizing the player with such a deception, Ninja Theory instills the same existential dread Senua herself feels at all waking moments: that her failure will result in the destruction of Dillion’s soul, and her own being dragged down to Hel, her existence erased by the fact that there’s no one left to mourn or miss her.

Granted the savvy player might realize this very early on, because the warning says ‘failure,’ not death, will result in her destruction, and the black rot that symbolizes this failure grows during plot events, not so much after deaths. It took me roughly four deaths–all at the hands of the God of Illusion–to deconstruct this otherwise brilliant device and remove a significant amount of my own tension from the experience.

Hellblade, as a game, is broken into two parts: combat and puzzle solving. Ninja Theory is known for precise combat, but those who were a fan of their take on the Devil May Cry series will be a little disappointed. While the combat here is rendered well and feels very realistic to Senua’s characterization, those who fell in love with the fluidity of DMC’s action-packed, bass-thumping, mayhem-driven combat system will find Hellblade a bit formulaic and repetitive.

The puzzles are very interesting perspective-based events that fit well into the story, but unfortunately, the long puzzle-solving stretches, limited combat variance, and intensely narrative nature of this game limit the replay value. That first run through, though, is god damn amazing. 

Ultimately, how much value you get out of subsequent playthroughs will depend on whether you want to turn the ‘auto’ combat difficulty to hard, if you have any collectibles to round up, and if you played with headphones on the first time (In the words of Shia LaBeouf: DO IT!).

However, this game’s first run through alone is worth the thirty dollars it currently costs. Between the graphics so beautiful you’ll literally stop playing just to look around, and the heart-stopping moments of Senua’s descent into madness, Hellblade is easily one of the most ambitious and well-executed games I’ve played in my entire life. While I’ll be waiting for a DMC 2 (unpopular opinion, I know), I sincerely hope they get license to make the next Silent Hill. They’d nail it. No doubt at all.

Because we need creative non-fiction

Hello, Friends,

As my publication list suggests, I prefer fiction, but lately I’ve been dabbling in creative non-fiction as well. I never really thought I’d get into this genre, and always told myself the usual rationalizations–I’m not interesting enough, no one knows who I am so why should they read my memoir, I’m better at fiction, etc., etc..

Another reason is because the first time I tried writing about my life, I dredged up memories I really wasn’t ready to deal with. My mood swings worsened, I became irritable, withdrawn, depressed, and angry, and my work suffered tremendously. People were eager to comment on how I’d let them down, but had no apparent interest in why I was acting so strange. It took a while to pull myself together, mostly because I was doing it alone.

I’m stronger now, and able to talk about my past without issue, but the thought of going back to non-fiction still unnerved me. I’m taking a graduate class in the subject, though, so I faced my fear–myself–and have really been enjoying it.

Today, I was sitting at my computer intending to write 500 words and wound up writing 2000, all vignettes, talking about my friendships, my past, and my world in general, when I remembered the golden rule of writing: write because you love to. Not because you want people to love you, or because you want them to be impressed, but because you’ve got a story to tell, and you want to tell it.

Maybe that’s not everyone’s golden rule, but it’s mine (and you’re welcome to share your thoughts below).

I sat here, typing away, at first focusing on the negatives, on bullying, on lost friends, on people who wanted to hurt me, and found myself segueing into nostalgia. I remembered sunsets and long afternoons and people I haven’t spoken to in ages. It was one of the nicest, calmest afternoons/evenings I’ve had in a while.

So, to all you who might be considering writing creative non-fiction but aren’t sure if you should, let me decide for you. You should. Tell your story the way it needs to be told, even if that story just stays in a journal or on your hard drive for the next fifty years. It might hurt, or it might heal. Either way, it’s worth the effort. Psychology tells us now that keeping a journal or reflecting on your life in any way heals old wounds and helps make you a more well-rounded person–and you’ve got nothing to lose by trying something new.

Every day is a day to dig deep and discover who you really are. Every tomorrow is a chance to do yesterday a little better. Take advantage of what little time we have here, my friends. All you have to do is pick up a pen or open a word document, and both the future and past will be yours.

Best wishes,

Kevin

Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House

Hello Travelers,

I know I tweeted that I’d review The Handmaid’s Tale next, but I’ve been swamped with various obligations. Here are my thoughts on The Haunting of Hill House, and I’ll post the other soon enough. Thank you all for your patience with my absenteeism.

Much love,

Kevin

***

Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is arguably her most well-known work of long fiction, and it continues to stand as a foreboding tale that should be included on the shelves of any if not every horror aficionado. A tightly written narrative with an intimate set of characters, this story winds its way from a suburban beginning only to coil around readers, trapping them in the eponymous Hill House, a building with angles intentionally build to confuse and deceive, its rooms twisting labyrinthine through the darkness as doors drift shut of their own accord.

Standing in defiance of modern horror trends that tend to rely on an extreme situation within the first few pages to hook reader interest, this novel specializes in a quiet, lurking disturbance. There are no situations designed to disgust or offend; the macabre elements do not lie in the ghosts that haunt Hill House so much as they lie in the events that haunt the characters. Eleanor Vance in particular seems to exist in sharp contrast to expectations of humanity—in one line she is introduced, and in the next, we are told she hated her now-deceased mother.

The plot itself invokes similar dread, focusing on Dr. John Montague, who calls Vance and Theodora (for whom no last name is given) to the house, not disclosing the fact that the ten other invited applicants declined. Luke Sanderson, nephew to the house’s owner, attends as part of Montague’s contract to examine the place for paranormal experiences. However, it is hinted earlier that such phenomena are not limited to the dead, as Vance is said to have called a rain of stones down on her house as a child while Theodora is shown to have some telepathic power. Throughout the book, she readers Vance’s mind, making the already-fragile woman question who Theodora is and just what awaits them all in such an unsettling place.

Montague does not explain what they’re looking for as he fears nothing will happen and he’ll look foolish, but after they’ve arrived and come to spend time within the warped rooms, the group finds Hill House has its share of paranormal activity. Readers must be patient to reach these scenes, which may be trouble for more youthful readers who are accustomed to reading books with intense situations in the first few pages. The first spectral event does not occur until page ninety-three, when Vance is awoken by a loud banging and her mother calling Eleanor.

When she fully wakes and realizes this is not possible, she flees to Theodora’s room, too afraid to venture into the hallway. They cling to each other and cry out as the banging grows louder, but it stops when Sanderson and Montague return. Theodora makes jokes about the incident, making Vance out to be foolish and excitable.

But what makes this novel unique is not the spirits of the house itself, but the gradual psychological decay of those that come to stay in it. Portrayed in such a way as to be simultaneously entrancing and terrifying, this work establishes Jackson as a skilled writer of the shadows that thrive the human mind, sheltered from all light and prying eyes, to be released only when the psyche cracks. The cycle of this book and the way the ending is, in retrospect, foreshadowed from the first pages is fittingly portrayed by Jackson herself, who uses the same lines to begin and end the story:

“Hill House, not sane, stood against its hill, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Shadows of the Mind, live at @crystallakepup

Hello Travelers,

From time to time, I take a break from my fictional pursuits to type out little essays and non-fiction pieces. Today, a personal favorite of mine–an essay on modern psychological horror–went live at Crystal Lake Publishing’s website. Feel free to check it out and share if you like. I’ll include a lead-in below.

All my best,

Kevin

***

Horror is a very prismatic genre; there are many subgenres, and each is colored by the tastes of the audience. Whether we’re talking realistic, supernatural, steampunk, splatterpunk, or whatever else tickles your fancy, there’s a subset that perhaps sheds much more insight to both character and reader: Psychological Horror.

This oft mentioned but usually ill-defined subgenre deals exclusively with the mind. It is the type of fiction that plays on expectation and rationality, and can often be applied to works that the author(s) don’t necessarily intend to be under this category. Such is the nature of the industry, though. Some say we don’t truly know what genre we write until the critics have finished deciding; Dean Koontz maintains he’s not a horror writer, but many people, myself included, say otherwise.