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Hellblade is a Horror Game

Hellblade is a Horror Game

I played Hellblade again this past Tuesday and it was a wild experience. I reached the dead tree with the sword, and got all 4 shards last session. I had to do one larger area with four smaller levels placed throughout. I ended my session once I entered Hell.

Going into my first shard level, I was expecting levels around the same length as Valravn and Surt. They ended up being much much shorter than I expected; however, their intensity was very different. I appreciated the even blend of very dangerous levels, and puzzle levels. While none of the shard levels had actual combat, there were two that used horror elements to create a tense ~20 minute session. But there was one shard level that was my favorite.

The Burial Mound

My shard journey began with the burial mound. You begin outside of the burial mound, looking down a pitch black hallway that leads inside. The voices emphasize that you will need the light, and as you step inside you hear a menacing growl. Throughout the level, you hear a mixture of the voices, Dillion’s voice, and a monstrous growl. This blend of audio queues makes the experience very tense. Through the whole level I was convinced that Senua was being led to her doom by a creature that could mimic voices (like Dillions’ –her lover). I’m already someone who is afraid of dark doorways, so when it’s a pitch black hallway that winds and has dead ends, and you believe there is a monster inside, it builds up strong tension that holds for majority of the experience.

I swore at times the hallways were getting rearranged. Areas of the hallways where it forked into different directions looked identical to ones I had seen earlier in the maze; this combined with the lack of light made it a convincing illusion that I was walking in circles. There were braziers where you could light the surrounding area, which provided some relief from tension. The light felt like a safe place to be amidst the dark maze. Another neat mechanic was the removal of running in that level. You could only walk–whereas in the other levels you could also run. This was definitely intentional, because it made the player feel more vulnerable. Not being able to quickly exit a room made me feel more on edge, because I still thought there was a monster wandering in the maze with me.

The level ends once you reach the source of the sound, and you earn an achievement called ‘Facing your Fears’. I definitely felt like I was facing some of mine during that level, which made me feel accomplished afterwards. But I found it odd that there was no final evil–no monster– at the source of the noise. Senua just follows the noise and then wakes up back in the parent-level by the tree. I think the burial mound shard level is a great example of elements of horror that successfully frighten the player by using the player’s imagination to build tension.

The final shard level I did had darkness as an element as well, with everything being dark–making Senua (the player) rely on their other senses to navigate the level and avoid monsters. It was an intense level that felt very very reminiscent of horror games such as Outlast. I thought it was another strong level of stress that I’m glad I didn’t play right after the burial mound level, because that would have been too much stress back to back.

Overall, I enjoyed the shard levels! I just hadn’t expected them to be the way they were. Hellblade is definitely a dark game but the levels always felt a little more action-oriented than horror. But the burial mound and sensory shard levels proved to me that you can balance both in an effective way. Based on the amount of runes I have left I believe I’ll be able to finish the game in the next session, but I may need 2 more sessions depending on how long the levels are.

Surt’s Puzzles hurt

Surt’s Puzzles hurt

I beat Surt, god of fire, last night during my twitch stream. The overall level felt much shorter than Valravn’s level. The challenges with the door and the fire alters weren’t difficult and the combat felt on par with my campaign progress. Enemy’s now have shields and would come at me two or three at a time as the game pushed me to learn more advanced methods of combat. I enjoyed that challenge; but it did feel like during that learning process, the frustrating elements of combat (delayed block animation leading to an unsuccessful block, or not being able to change targets as swift as I wanted to). These negatives did not damper my overall experience last night though. Only one thing did. And that were Surt’s Rune Puzzles.

In Surt’s level, you would encounter blocked areas of the map by a door with runes drawn on it. In order to open these doors and advance, you had to find object(s) in the nearby area that resembled these rune shapes. This sounds simple, but let me elaborate. The objects that could count as a rune were literally any collection of items or terrain in the environment . A stick, the glowing embers in the grass, the woodwork on a roof, some trees in a forest. ANY of these could be the hidden rune. And you could only find these runes if you happened to look at them from the right direction, in the just-right position so everything lines up enough to register correctly. It’s a clever puzzle design–don’t get me wrong– but I felt more way more frustrated trying to find some semblance of the runes hidden in the environment. I feel like Valravn’s illusions were easier, and still clever enough, to navigate effectively. Valravn’s illusion puzzles felt like you were walking down a winding path with the occasional fallen tree to climb or low branch to duck underneath. Surt’s rune puzzles felt like a series of brick walls you had to find a way to climb over with no tool kit. Without my gaming experience, I probably would have given up on the game for the night or looked up the location of the runes online. Thankfully, I had the thought to go back to my basic gamer knowledge in order to finish the level.

By gamer skills I’m referring to the awareness of design elements that are intentionally placed in such a way as to guide the player to where they need to be in order to advance. Without this practice of design, players will wander game environments aimlessly with no direction, and ultimately have a terrible experience for the average player. In Surt’s level, I payed attention to locations in the environment hat I was able to access. I would take note of things that were climbable or that took me to a different area of the map. The watch tower right before the boss fight is a good example. It’s located at the end of a small path to the right of one of the gates. At first glance, it blends in with the other watch towers in the area. But upon further inspection you notice the path and you take it; then you see the ladder. Senua can climb the ladder up to the top. Once at the top there is a small bridge that overlooks the rooftops. The game detects you’re near the rune so it moves the correct rune towards the center of the screen for easier comparison. These are all hints that I was able to use to my advantage (albeit a small advantage). Without considering the placement of the UI and environment, it probably would have taken me much much longer to find all three runes in order to advance.

After finishing all of the puzzles and reaching the boss, everything changed. What was originally a quiet, dull level turned into an epic flaming battle to the death with a fire giant with an enormous longsword! The music in the background for this fight was epic! Nordic chanting and deep drums, reminiscent of a Viking song. A giant who could light himself on fire, and would plunge his longsword into the ground to gain more power. It was amazing…

but then it ended. It ended very soon after.

Surt’s level felt very brief, and while the boss fight itself was the most entertaining part, it didn’t feel like as much of a payoff as Valravn’s death was. Valravn’s level felt more balanced and had a great build-up of tension as you got closer to his lair. Surt’s level had more “brick wall” puzzles that disrupted the pacing of gameplay, and didn’t end up leading up to the boss fight in a very successful way. These are just my personal opinions from my experience playing the game so far, but I definitely felt more intimidated by, invested in, and a part of, Valravn’s level than Surt’s. I’m hoping that future levels will continue to surprise and entertain me, but I hope that they don’t start to fall flat as the game continues. Next Monday, I’ll enter Helheim and continue the journey!

Starting Senua’s Journey

Starting Senua’s Journey

I’ve finally been able to start Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and I will say it well exceeded my expectations. I was worried I would have found the game to be too much of a hack n slash or to just not be the type of game I would enjoy playing at the present, but I was happily proven wrong. This game is beautiful! And in the first two hours of gameplay that I did one Thursday night (9/9), I already have many thoughts and appreciations about the game.

I knew this game would be a cinematic experience so I streamed it on my twitch channel for my viewers. (Link to a recording of the stream is here) Everyone enjoyed the experience and it was nice to hear different people’s interpretations of features that we were given hints towards but haven’t seen yet.

First Impressions

The first thing that surprised me, was how detailed the game is. Hellblade is an indie studio, which often suggests that the game does not have as large a development team, resources, or budgets as AAA studios like Riot or Blizzard. This game is simply beautiful. The studio’s use of the Unreal Engine was breathtaking. The sound design was an element that I also really loved. I felt like the recording of audios for the environments was high quality. I played with headphones on, as recommended, and often found myself questioning if the atmospheric noise I was hearing was the game or outside my window. Visually/ Auditorially, the game is amazing. But as all gamers understand, just because a game looks pretty does not mean it’s a quality game when it gets down to the nuts and bolts.

The Combat

I had spoken to my professor about the game since he’s already been playing it through, and he mentioned the combat is very straightforward. I definitely felt a little lost when it came to combat at first because the game doesn’t give a tutorial or key prompts at all. Everything that is a key-binding is something you either figure out as you go, or you look at the options menu to find out. While I did like the lack of prompts and how it encouraged the player to explore the game themselves, adding to the sense of tension or confusion the main character felt, to a certain extent it felt a little too confusing to get a grasp on without pausing and checking the settings. It cost me death to finally pause and look at the combat bindings to find out I can switch targets. The frame count for animations like blocking and dodging got a little frustrating at times as well, but I chalk that up to my playing style. I’m not used to playing games like Hellblade with more patient combat. Once I got the hang of the combat, however, I did start to feel like a badass! The combos and variations you can make with Senua but using light, heavy blows, jumping, and melee makes the fighting feel fun regardless of the waves.

The pseudo permadeath feature is super interesting to me as well and is something that my viewers and I discussed when we first got introduced to it. The creativity of adding the Norse lore (Hela’s mark of darkness that seeks Senua’s soul in her head) with a traditional ‘lives’ game mechanic was impressive and helped keep the player immersed in the world. I also think immersion was the developers’ reasoning behind no HUD, health bar, or key prompts–which I appreciate. The fact that I can get a game over and have to start over is hardcore and really drives up the stakes for the player to mirror Senua’s stakes. If she dies, you have to start over. And with how challenging the game can get, and the fact that it will get more difficult as you go on makes the risk of getting a ‘game over’ higher. I find it fascinating. Part of my wants to experience a game over to see what happens, but I also want to try and get as far as I can without losing my progress.

The Story

The writing and plot are very very well executed in my opinion. The writing team went with an interesting way of filling the player in on Senua’s backstory and the events that led her to her quest for Helheim, but I feel they did a good job of using the voices in Senua’s head to provide the exposition necessary. I also feel like this game does a great deal of respect to the Norse mythos and represents it in a way I haven’t seen before. For my first session, I made it to Helheim’s gate and defeated one of the gatekeepers– the god of illusions (Valravn). I had never heard of Valravn before and it was super interesting to see the way he was represented and how his lore was shared with Senua and the player. The runes you can interact with give a lot of Norse mythology information that I did not know. For example, Odin’s origins. I also liked the touch that it was Druth sharing this knowledge as he was a Norse convert like Senua.

Valravn

Valravn, the god of illusions, was the first boss fight I had (per my audience’s request). I knew nothing about this god from Norse mythology and I thought it was really cool how he was depicted. He was fearsome and mysterious, much how a mortal would feel towards a god. There were times where it really did feel like he wanted you to find him, only so he could ambush and eat you. One gameplay feature I thought was super cool was the illusion gateways throughout the level. The entire level, Senua’s trying to see through Valravn’s illusions to get to his lair for the boss fight–solving puzzles and fighting mobs along the way. I have never before seen a feature that changes the terrain of the map so flawlessly and seamlessly than in this game. Looking through the portal, you can see slight differences that actually drastically change the paths Senua can take in space. Some open hidden passageways, form bridges, remove blockades; the list goes on. But what made me most interested was how seamlessly that change could happen. Without even passing through the gate you can view the change by strafing across the edge of the gate. There were times where I’d be strafing across the entrance of a gate before I noticed the path is changed. It was incredibly impressive.

I also liked the constant sense of tension as you navigated Valravn’s forest because I genuinely did not know when he was going to appear and attack me. While solving puzzles and finding my way across I felt like I was on borrowed time–which isn’t a feeling that I normally have in games with this format. Usually, I felt at ease solving puzzles to get to the next area until it was time for the boss fight. But Hellblade kept me in a constant state of tension from the opening scene. And I loved it. I love horror games that create tension so for a game that isn’t a traditional horror game but was able to keep me on edge without making me bored, I enjoyed it.

Current Plan

My plan is to play the game on twitch again on Tuesday night (9/14) for a couple of hours. My goal is to defeat the second gatekeeper, the god of fire (Surt), and enter Helheim. I’m not sure what awaits behind Helheim’s doors but we’ll hopefully find out Tuesday!

9/1/21

9/1/21

This is my first post for gaming journal#1. After going over the list of games, I’ve decided to play Hellblade. I chose this game because I know close to nothing about it and from what I did see (art, screenshots) it looks interesting! I’ve always liked Viking themed media, and this game not only has that but it looks stunning. Luckily I had a gaming desktop computer now so I can enjoy games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I’m assuming this game’s going to be primarily story-driven–which I’m okay with. I’ve played many story games like Life is Strange, and Detroit Become: Human. And those are were great experiences that used the strengths of video-games as a medium to tell powerful stories with the player. I just hope that the combat isn’t going to lose my interest. Games like Alice: Madness Returns are good story driven games with decent combat. But sometimes the simple hack ‘n slash can grow stale. I’m hoping that this won’t be the case with Hellblade.

I do have a bad feeling the game won’t end on a note I’d be happy with, based off the title, but we’ll see! My plan is to at least play this game once a week for a few hours a session in order to ensure I finish the game by the time the journals are due. I think I won’t have any trouble reaching the deadline though. I’ll probably start playing it next week, after labor day weekend.

Creativity Module: Reflection Summary

Creativity Module: Reflection Summary

This module was very interesting to do. I chose the gaming module–which ended up being what I expected: making games. I love playing games so I wanted to attempt creating a small game. Since the modules spanned a duration of 2 weeks, and since they took place on our own time, I didn’t have much free time between class, work, rowing, and other homework assignments to truly invest in my project.

My game idea was to create a telephone game using colors and a line of birds. The birds would each alter the message and the player would have to remember what the original message was and repeat it. Then, after the player was successful more birds would join the line of birds and make each level more difficult. In the end, my product did not represent this idea.

What took me the longest was finding software to start using. I tried using Construct 2 but I felt like the interface was difficult to grasp on my own. After trying other software and not finding any easy ones to learn, I returned to software I used in high school called Scratch. It’s an easy software to make browser games within the site. The code is written by dragging different blocks into a workspace to build a program. Coding Sprites and events are super easy. The only real drawback I had with Scratch was taking my method of coding and translating it into the Scratch coding language. I have experience coding in Java and some Python, so I understand the principles of coding. Scratch feels like learning a new language to me, and I find it much more difficult. I don’t know if having more or less coding experience is good for learning Scratch because I found Scratch confusing in terminology when I first learned to code, and now I find Scratch frustrating in creativity. Scratch has a load of creative potential for users, yet I often found myself struggling to find and format the coding blocks to fit my needs.

Because of my struggle with Scratch and the short time limit, my final product did not end up being like my original idea. Instead of a fully-fledged game, I ended up with a prototype for a mechanic. I learned from the readings that prototypes are part of the building process of a game (it’s not all made in one go) and that each prototype is playtested and receives feedback for the developer to use to better improve a mechanic or the game as a whole. My prototype focuses on recognizing the correct order of colors, receiving the player’s input, and telling them if they are correct or not. It took me way longer than I first thought it would to write this algorithm, so I have yet to add a way for it to reset or repeat the pattern but the game is “playable” in a sense. The player can copy the bird’s pattern and receive feedback if they were correct or not. It’s by no means a game, but it’s a game prototype. This is a game idea I’ve had written down for a long time so I’m definitely going to further expand and develop this project into something more fully formed in the future.

Despite the setbacks and lack of a game as a product, I really enjoyed learning more about the game making process through reading the articles and resources available on the module’s webpage. I learned why games take such a long window of time to develop the concept, polish the UI and mechanics, and ensure a quality player experience. I will definitely continue working on this project and hopefully, turn into a product for my portfolio or a hobby. This was the only time I’ve ever been able to receive guided instruction on making a game so I was super excited to do this module, and I’m very happy with the knowledge and experience I’ve gained from participating in it.

The link to my game can be found here, feel free to check it out and leave a comment on some feedback on my progress so far!

Creativity Module: Update

Creativity Module: Update

The deadline for the first module of DGST101 is coming up and I’m low-key panicking, to be honest. I’ve finally settled on a platform called Scratch which is a 2-D -easy-to-learn, browser software used to make games and other interactive experiences. I know a lot of kids learn to code using it, and I’ve personally used it in high school when making computer games in my programming class.

My game idea is a Pattern-matching game mixed with the game Telephone. The primary objective for the user is to match their response with the original pattern. My spin on it is that as the pattern progresses down the line that the people who said something might move around or the pattern will shift in an unconventional way (such as changing hues or switching to a filtered tone).

This concept will be a challenge to incorporate into Scratch because I haven’t learned how to create randomness and assign variables that can be overwritten in Scratch. I can code it fine, being a comp sci major, but getting it to work on a more code-restricted software like Scratch is proving difficult. The project is due in 3 days, so over the course of the weekend, I’ll be really putting my nose to the grindstone. As of right now, I currently have the UI of the game as well as some beginning interactions set up.

Looking back on my progress I think finding a platform that I could quickly test my central mechanic may have been a better idea upfront versus trying to make my game look nice. I’ve noticed that all (if not most) of the game-making software that the module offers focus on creating the interface first and then adding events. I don’t know if that’s the proper way to go about making games or not. I’m used to coding the central or base mechanics and building up from there, eventually translating it into a visible medium, so I’m not familiar with the process that goes into making a proper video game. I also feel like 2 weeks to create an original game, especially for someone who is not familar with game making or code, will struggle to create a finished or acceptable product by the deadline. Even games that can be play-tested in 10 to 15 minutes take a while to conceptualize, prototype, and polish.

The main thing I’ve had to do for this module is to accept that my final product won’t be my finished version. It won’t be exactly how I want it to be. I keep reminding myself it’s only a prototype of a concept that I can revise and edit later on in my personal time.

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