Maybe I’ve been worn down into a jaded, dead-eyed psychopath after years of playing horror games – maybe Penumbra, Amnesia and Soma frayed my nerves to such an extent that I am now incapable of feeling shock or dread in a virtual environment – but the Agony demo looks like a load of jam to me. Really peculiar jam, perhaps, with lots of strange bits and fruity chunks, but jam nevertheless. And its saggy-boobed toothed-vagina-head demons didn’t really frighten me in the slightest.
But then maybe Agony’s art direction, while incredibly impressive in its execution, is rather confused as to what it’s trying to achieve. Is it trying to shock me? Repulse me? If so, why did it go to such great lengths to implement such beautiful GPU-stressing visual effects? Looking at a realistically glistening wall of writhing meat, I’m more likely to marvel at the lighting effects than feel repulsed by the notion of a wall of writhing meat, because I know it’s not a wall of writhing meat. It’s an animated prefab designed by a very talented 3D modeller and decorated with all the trimmings of the Unreal Engine 4. Less is more, as they say, especially where the imagination is concerned – this is why the monstrous denizens of the Silent Hill franchise were always so effective; you never quite knew what you were looking at, and thus your imagination ran wild.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is; Agony does not do subtle. In fact, it does not do subtle with such enthusiasm for not being subtle that I found myself actually laughing when I encountered a crazy inhabitant of this hell-dimension building a wall out of babies and large rocks. The game seemed to be trying so hard to shock me that it felt more like an episode of South Park, or Al Murray’s fantastic “hell in different accents” sketch. And then I turned a corner, looked out across a fleshy chamber lined with bones, and thought, “Ooh, isn’t that lighting pretty?”
And it is exceptionally pretty in motion, in a meaty, glistening sort of way. Before I criticise anything in Agony, let’s get that right out of the way – as a UE4 tech demo, it’s beautiful.
THIS IS ALPHA, BUT STILL…
To be fair, let’s get one thing straight – the sample of Agony I encountered is the one you’ve all probably seen on youtube at this point; a short demo designed to give people a taste of the product for Kickstarter purposes. As such, pretty much everything is likely to change and/or improve over the course of development. Nevertheless, I shall savagely highlight the various problems with its current design, that we may later compare the final product and see how many of these issues they addressed.
Firstly, let’s look at the core gameplay:
When the game starts, the player is a lost soul in hell. You have no weapons, no defences – if a demon catches you, you’re subjected to a neck-snapping death sequence. At which point your soul is ejected from your temporary host and you float around the environment in pursuit of another. It is implied by the game that at some point you may possess the demons, possibly unlocking new and more violent mode of play, but at the start you’re very much caught in Amnesia-land – no weapons, hiding from everything.
The first flaw may be found here. As you can see, the entire world is a rippling, writhing mass of fleshy bits and bony bits. The level of visual noise is intense, and the range of colours is minimal (largely red, with bits of yellow and streaks of purple). Amid this chaotic realm, you have to find places to hide. In Amnesia, you could readily identify hiding places – wardrobes, behind doors, under tables, in the shadows. There was a certain fundamental physical logic that didn’t need to be explained; if you wanted to hide, you’d look for the kind of hiding spot you would look for in the real world.
But here in fleshy-jam-hell? There are no logical hiding places. The saggy-boobed toothed-vagina-head demons appear to be blind, so hiding in the shadows probably doesn’t work (I found it hard to test this, given that alpha-demo eccentricities resulted in rather strange AI at times, including demons running away from me for no reason). There are no wardrobes, no tables to hide under.
There are, instead, little fleshy alcoves scattered throughout the level – little shelters formed of corpses, each one identical, and these appear to be the only places you can hide. And you hide in them not by physically ducking into them, but by pressing use. In other words, you’re not only reliant on the level designer having placed a suitable hiding node within reach, you’re also reliant on actually spotting a mound of flesh in a mound of flesh, surrounded by mounds of flesh. There’s “needles in haystacks”, then there’s “needles in boxes of other needles”.
Just look at it. Can you figure out, at a glance, what the hell is going on or where you might seek shelter in a moment of blind panic?
Which brings us to the second issue – death. Because you’re in hell, you can’t die, because you’re in hell and you’re already dead. Except… wait, you can die. Because if you’re ejected from a host by virtue of its neck having been snapped by a saggy-boobed toothed-vagina-head demon, you have a time limit in your spirit-form. If you can’t find a new host before that timer runs out, you er… die. Properly. Game over screen. In which case, you load to a checkpoint.
Amnesia played with this half-death system and it annoyed me back then. Maybe I’m easily annoyed, but it seemed to rather defeat the entire purpose of the mechanic (to keep players immersed rather than just feeding them a game over screen when they die). Death is about consequence – players are generally most immersed when they feel like their actions and failures have consequence. A game over screen is a harsh consequence; it did not screw with the immersion. But temporarily depriving players of consequence, then applying the consequence anyway?
I’d say, stick with one or the other. Either the player can never die because they’re trapped in hell with no release, in which case a developer should emphasise the suffering of the player’s host body so the player feels genuinely bad about damaging it (as Messiah did, with the player’s victims capable of crawling around on broken legs begging to be killed)… or give us a straight up “You Died” screen. Get on with it. Let us acknowledge the consequence of our failure, swear loudly, and try again.
Incidentally, while in your ghostly host-seeking state, the entire game world turns monochrome… which is supposed to highlight potential hosts (they glow) but in reality just makes an already chaotic environment even harder to navigate. More than once, while testing the various ways I could die, I found myself wishing the game would just kill me outright instead of forcing me to linger and float around feeling lost and bewildered with a control scheme and visual style that was suddenly at odds with regular gameplay.
WHY GUARDS TALK SO MUCH
There has been a lot of ridicule over the years where bad guard voice overs in stealth games are concerned. For example, the age-old Thief scenario of the player fucking things up spectacularly, making a hell of a noise, panic-murdering someone… only to have a guard reset into his idle state and blame the whole thing on rats moments later.
The thing is, enemy feedback is essential in a good stealth game. The player needs to know if they’ve been seen, or if the enemy is suspicious. The player needs to have some sense of their direct causal relationship with the enemy. In a seething, writhing, wailing, moaning hell dimension, it’s already rather difficult to isolate the sounds and behaviours of one monstrous entity from another, and the aforementioned saggy-boobed tooth-vagina-head demons tend to be rather vague in their responses – oh, they’ll sound pretty angry if they spot (hear?) you, but until this detection state is reached, their suspicious-stomping sounds too much like their patrol-stomping. In one situation, I found myself cowering in a designated hidey-hole while a demon stomped around on top of me failing to detect me, yet apparently suspicious because I wasn’t pressing the “hold breath” key. I still have no idea if it’s actually possible for demons to kill you while you’re in the hidey-holes… which is another uncertainty that can damage the stealth experience.
It is genuinely beautiful at times. But Agony is at its most beautiful, most striking when it establishes some firmer architecture. At one point in the demo, you find yourself at the bottom of a fleshy gorge, afforded a fleeting glimpse at the surface of this hell dimension. You find that it has a rocky crust.
This one moment of contrast and clarity – that you can see the dazzling sky, and the strata of rock and flesh – reinforces the feeling of place. Suddenly, you know you’re underground. And while the intent behind the game’s art style is to give the player a sense of the violent, chaotic nature of hell… in order for the player to feel truly immersed in the experience, they have to create a mental map of their environment; not just the immediate layout of the level, but the geography of the world they’re in. There needs to be a sense that there is more to this world than the corridor you’re standing in. That is, after all, the purpose of the skybox – to conceal the limits of a virtual world. It’s why the opening to Half-Life was so impressive; why the opening to the original Doom was so impressive. It’s why fantasy stories always have maps.
There is some fantastic architecture on display here, but far too often the demo level descends into raw, anonymous chaos… and the thing about true chaos and visual noise? Players switch off. When the brain is looking for recognisable structure and pattern, and finds none, it dismisses what it’s seeing. That’s when players start walking in circles, growing increasingly frustrated.
Now the Agony demo isn’t long, and so you’re never afforded that much time to get lost, but this is definitely something to look out for in the full release – an entire game of chaotic jammy hellscapes needs some absolutely solid level design to prevent player frustration or boredom. What we’ll need to see from the developers is, perhaps, different regions of hell with different architectural styles; a sense of progression through this world. If, at the end, we’re still staring at messy fleshy bits? That could be a problem.
ONE TO WATCH
So should we get excited about Agony? Quietly, I’d say. The short sample of Agony currently on offer is a very impressive tech demo, but is limited enough that it really could go in a variety of directions. At a guess, given all the references to the female form and a “red goddess”, I would assume the story will involve a protagonist who… I don’t know, murdered his wife, or lost a child or some such, but the demo gives very few clues (dialogue is conspicuously absent from NPCs, who instead deliver placeholder text). The gameplay could evolve into something Messiah-esque, with possession-based puzzles, or it could just jump on the Amnesia/Outlast bandwagon and chug along in its current stealthy form.
In terms of its shock appeal… I pray the game doesn’t rely too heavily on being shocking and repulsive. Because shock only works once – the immediate, visceral response. After this, the audience becomes desensitized with each subsequent encounter. And while many might find this hellish setting initially shocking or disgusting, fewer, I suspect, will find it genuinely frightening. Because genuine fear requires subtlety and pacing, and at the moment? Agony is like someone waving meat in your face while screaming.
On track to be successfully crowd-funded via Kickstarter, Agony is currently under development by Madmind Studio and is due for release Q2, 2017 on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Preview PC code was kindly supplied by publisher PlayWay.