Silent Hill 2 & the Impact of Player Expectation

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I’ve recently been playing Silent Hill 2 for my PS2. I’m reminded of why this series was once held in such high regard, especially amongst horror game enthusiasts. Silent Hill 2 is a genuinely scary game; when playing the game I find myself wishing I was playing something else.

I mean that in the best possible way. When exploring the empty prison yard with only my weak flashlight illuminating the area, I desperately wish that I was instead playing an RPG or fighting game, really anything else!

After finishing a recent session, I began wondering why I feel so uncomfortable playing Silent Hill 2. It’s not for direct gameplay related reasons; I have enough healing items and weapons to handle the enemies, I’ve played long enough to get a firm understanding of the controls, I know the general behavior of the game. I realized, however, that I didn’t really trust the game.  

Sure, I’d made steady progress to that point, but I never discounted the game’s ability to throw me a completely unwarned curve ball at any moment.

Why don’t I trust Silent Hill 2?

The immersive quality of Silent Hill 2 plays a hand in this. There is no HUD, no health bars, stamina bars, ammo counters or radar when I’m playing the game. All that information is kept in the menu which the player has to access, so when I’m exploring an area all I see is my player character and the environment. It becomes much easier to forget that I’m playing a game when the “gamey” elements aren’t present.

More than anything though, I think Team Silent, the creators of Silent Hill 2 predicted the habits of the players and designed the game to unnerve them. There are a number of examples I had found:

1. Item availability
It’s standard practice in survival horror games to limit the amount of useful, “consumable” items the player has access to. This refers to things like health kits, ammo and so forth. As a result the players tend to stockpile them for boss encounters or areas with heavy or intrusive enemy placement.

When playing other games, I tend to believe that the game was designed so that as the player I was given access to enough items to progress through the game. Survival horror players realized it was often times easier to run around enemies then waste precious ammo or risk being hurt by attacking them in melee. As a result many games didn’t even give the player access to enough ammo to kill every enemy in the game.

Now, in Silent Hill 2, I tended to run around monsters that I could avoid, saving my ammo for shooting groups of enemies generally in difficult areas to maneuver. The further I progressed the more ammo I accumulated, which resulted in me thinking that the game was prepping me for an upcoming boss battle or something to that degree. No boss battles that required that much ammo came, and my stock pile continued to rise. Despite this I still could not bring myself to use my ammo willy-nilly, there was a constant sense of unease as I still believed the game is giving me ammo for a specific purpose.

A great example of this is after the prison section. The player character enters an elevator and is able to pick up a health item and three different varieties of ammo. The natural instinct of the player is to expect they are about to face a specific difficult encounter, after all they just cleared a location and have been given ample supplies. The elevator continues to move and the player’s tension increases waiting for the obvious and inevitable boss or enemy encounter. It never comes, however. The elevator reaches the bottom and the player character moves to the next area.

This may be a minor detail, but survival horror fans (the ones who games like Silent Hill are designed and marketed to…well used to anyways,) will no doubt be keenly aware of their supplies. Intentionally misleading them is a really subtle way to mess with their expectations and increase their sense of tension. After all, the game wouldn’t just give you 3 boxes of pistol ammo for no reason, right?

2. Map Information
In normal Silent Hill fashion, players get maps early in their exploration of an area to help guide them. However this again is another opportunity to play with a player’s expectations.

Traditionally large open areas act as arenas for enemy or boss encounters. In many areas in Silent Hill, the player is given a map which they can view and immediately see potential “arenas.” The aforementioned prison yard is one such area. There are several connected narrow corridors, with one set of doors leading to a large, seemingly wide-open rectangle. Every other potential wall or door is marked, and this rectangle is completely bare.

I found when I played, that this was the last area I explored. I made a decision to avoid it based on my expectations, so when it finally came time to explore this last area I made sure to save and equip my shotgun. When I entered this obvious boss arena I ran around trying to discover its purpose. There was a puzzle in the center, so I solved it, convinced and prepared an enemy encounter of sorts was inbound.

A loud painful scream was my reward. A-ha! I knew it! I was given back control of the player character and I quickly spun around to discover …nothing. The yard was as empty as before and there was no sign of what made the scream. I walked, not ran back the way I came because I remained convinced that there had to be something else to this. I collected an item and was then back in the previous hallway.

By giving me the map earlier the game was offering me the chance to “prepare” for the area. It gave me a parcel of information and let me generate my own expectations for what I would face. As is often the case in horror, my imagination was my own enemy. I made myself nervous and tense because I was trying to prepare myself for what I thought I would have to endure.

These two gameplay nuances play off the player’s own expectations, causing the player to generate their own personal tension independently of what the game experience actually is. There are many moments when the game “psyches” the player up and then does not deliver any avenue for the player to expel that tension. Moments like these burden the players with their own tension and force them to carry it onwards, and before it fully deflates, a new unnerving situation arises bringing it all back to the player.  

The player’s expectations play a large role in the horror of Silent Hill, and that is one of the reasons why the game is so effective; it’s not trying to scare you directly, it’s trying to make you scare yourself.

Get stoked

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Some of my favorite ads that I see nowadays are the ones made by Dyson, the vacuum cleaner makers, specifically the ones featuring the inventor.

I don’t like these ads because they’re particularly funny, insightful, creative or anything like that. I like them because the inventor is either a convincing actor, or he is genuinely enthused by vacuum cleaner design. Watching these ads makes me actively interested in vacuum design, which is a credit to how good the guy comes across.

After watching these ads I’m driven. I’m not really driven to buy a vacuum cleaner, especially one expensive as these fancy Dysons, but man, I’m driven to find something, no matter how mundane or functional to just get excited by. I see how much the person on my screen cares about vacuum design, and I badly want something that I can passionately explain to people. I wish when someone says they need a vacuum that I could launch into a complicated and insightful tirade about the qualities of various such machines.

I want to be able to see a design blueprint for something like a vacuum handle and go “Yeah, that’s really fucking cool.” I want to be moved to profanity by the minutia of a subject.

Like I said, I have no idea if the man in the ads is the real inventor or an actor, and whether or not he is genuinely concerned about vacuum engineering, but I buy into the ‘act’ either way. More than anything these ads represent to me how much I want to find that something to get stoked by.

I haven’t found it quite yet. At least I don’t think I have, but I look forward to the day that I can speak about something with the same authority and passion as the Dyson guy can.

The Government and the Weight of the People

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There’s an interesting case regarding public health and the government brewing in New York; NYC Mayor Bloomberg recently introduced a soda ban, a law which would not allow places to sell drinks like Coca-Cole and Pepsi in cups larger than 16 ounces.

The law was introduced as a new effort to help reduce the obesity problem in the US. Large cups of soda pack a large amount of calories and sugar and offer very little in the way of nutrition like vitamins, protein or healthy fats.

The law, however, was struck down by a New York State Supreme Court judge, one of the highest authorities in the state. Since it was blocked by the judge there has been a lot of debate about the issue of combating obesity and what the government should and shouldn’t be allowed to do with regards to public health.

Many oppose it because they feel that the government doesn’t have the right to tell them what they cannot eat or drink. They claim that as a free individual they should have the choice to drink more than 16 ounces of soda at a time if they want to.

Others opposed it because they felt it was a random law; soda certainly can lead to increasing weight, but by no means is it the only food product that has this effect. Some argued that it is therefore unfair for soda to be singled out when, for example, a movie theater could still sell a giant bag of popcorn covered in salt and butter without any kind of restriction.

Yet man people were in favor of the law, as it didn’t forbid the sale of soda, just how much could be sold at a single time. They said how people could still consume as much soda as they wanted to, they just had to pay and drink it in 16 ounce or less cups.

Other supporters pointed towards items like cigarettes and alcohol, and the taxes and restrictions that the government places on those due to their harmful effects. They asked if it’s okay to not allow alcohol sales to minors, or put higher taxes on cigarettes, why is it so bad to limit soda to 16 ounces or less?

Both sides have valid points, and it will be interesting to see how this law moves forward, as it could become a guide for future laws aimed at curbing the US’ obesity problem.

I personally am undecided, on one hand I realize how real a threat obesity is to our nation’s health and I do believe that a lot more effort needs to go into lowering the percent of obese people in the country. On the other hand I also strongly believe in a person’s right to choose how they want to live, including things as minor as how much pop they want to drink when they eat.

In any case, I’m glad any time there are attempts made to curb the obesity problem in this country. Obesity is linked to so many health issues, from high blood pressure, to skeletal joint problems, to heart disease, that preventing obesity should be a primary concern for the US. I’m not sure if legislating what people can and cannot purchase is the right way to go about it, but I welcome the discussion of methods to help decrease the amount of obese people in the US. Certainly education should be a cornerstone of any initiative, as it can be an incredibly powerful and relatively inexpensive method to help people improve their lives in the long term.

8 Years After a Billion Or Two

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One of the biggest factors that contributed to my desire and goal of becoming a professional writer are the works of Carl Sagan.  

Now, I first was introduced to Dr. Sagan in 2005, when I was a sophomore in High School in Bellevue, Washington. Unfortunately he had passed away 9 years earlier. Fortunately he continues to live on through his work as an author, a scientist and a public figure. I was introduced to Mr. Sagan’s work through one of his most well-known books, “Billions and Billions.”

I received the book as a gift from one of my cousins, and little did I know at the time what a profound affect it would have on me.

Within the two covers, I found captivating descriptions on a wealth of topics; science and religion, the cosmic and atomic scale, life and death. It was incredible to me how engaging and understandable he made these intimidating subjects sound. “Billions” by no means made me an expert on these subjects, but they did get the wheels spinning within my head, a feat that few books prior had done, save for getting them running so that I could remember them for a test or paper.

That was the real victory of “Billions” and of Carl Sagan’s work as a science ‘popularizer.’ He didn’t make the general public an expert, but he made approachable topics that most people would not seek on their own. Physics, cosmology, philosophy, biology, theology, medicine and so forth are all fascinating subjects, but their barrier to entry can be high. So high, in fact, that many people will largely ignore them. I don’t believe it to be because people are ignorant, but intimidated, people devote their entire lives to studying the aforementioned topics, what chance then does a simple accountant, or file clerk have in understanding something like theoretical astrophysics?

But what about when theoretical astrophysics isn’t about complex equations with more variables than letters in the alphabet? What if theoretical astrophysics was about people sitting on a beach, or someone hitting a golf ball? Suddenly theoretical astrophysics is relatable and suddenly it’s not so scary, and suddenly simple accountants and file clerks can understand it.

This was the epiphany I had after finishing “Billions;” complex ideas could be described to the common person, complex theories are not just the domain of academia and scholars, everyone can understand and as a result everyone can contribute to these discussions. It was then I decided I wanted to write on behalf of complicated ideas; I wanted to be a translator, not for a foreign language, but for the esoteric language meant for the scholars only.

I believe that writing like Sagan carries such a benefit for society, not only for introducing them to new important intellectual pursuits, but empowering them to continue learning; demonstrating to people that you don’t have to be a CERN scientist to understand what’s going on with the Large Hadron Collider or why it’s important and incredibly cool. Science, religion, philosophy and health are not just for people who dedicate year after year in university, they’re for anyone willing to read and listen.

That’s my dream:  to empower people through my words to learn more, to understand more, and maybe, just maybe, ask a bit more, from themselves and others.  

That’s what Carl Sagan did for me, and millions of others.

 

Patient Engagement: The Three “I”s.

Patient engagement. It’s a term that’s been quite popular recently in the medical care community. It refers to the capability and willingness for a patient to be involved in their own medical wellbeing. The method for achieving this engagement is a shade more elusive, but I have my own take on it: The Three “I”s.

The Three “I”s are:

Invited.
Informed.
Involved.

When the Three “I”s are taken together we get: a patient who is invited to actively participate in their healthcare, they are also then informed about relevant information, and then they become actively involved in the discussion and decision-making involved in their health.

Invited. The doctor, as an expert and authority figure, is important in trying to engage patients. As a society we understand that the medical field is an extremely complicated one, and to some it may seem the very height of hubris to try and interact with a doctor on medical topics. After all, a doctor has studied for years to arrive in their position, who are we to question them? However, engagement is not about replacing the doctor, it’s about supplementing one. A doctor who invites their patient to become learned on a subject removes the aforementioned worries of pretentiousness. I believe the invitation is the first step on the way to engagement.

Informed. Pretty straightforward, after a patient is invited their next step is to learn about their health. There are several programs, sites and services which seek to empower patients with easily digestible information that is in-line with the most recent medical research available. As I said above, think of this as a supplement for the patient, the more fundamental knowledge can be gleaned by that patient, thereby allowing both doctor and patient to better maximize their time when they meet.

Involved. Finally the end result from the first steps is an increased level of involvement from the patient’s side. As any teacher can attest to, a discussion is often times more enlightening than a lecture as information is happened upon through practical means and logic, instead of being assumed true by the person being lectured. When a patient is involved there is a sense of empowerment; they are actively interfacing with their doctor and are determining their own treatment with them.

So there they are, the Three “I”s.

The end result is clear, an engaged patient is more knowledgeable about their own conditions, risks and general health. The doctor benefits from having an educated patient who is able to engage on a deeper level; a patient who understands more completely what can and will happen in the future. And of course the benefit from this collaborative take on health management can be widespread; the medical system seems less imposing as a result, collaborative decision making can reduce misdiagnoses and improve overall hospital efficiency. Not to mention the amount of money it can save people by preventative measures; with their newfound knowledge they may better steer themselves away from future risks.

All in all patient engagement is much more than a buzzword, the idea still hasn’t been firmly crystalized, but the promise it holds is vast, an affordable, accessible way to improve the lives of patients everywhere.

Let’s Talk ‘Bout: Mirror’s Edge

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I recently played through Mirror’s Edge, y’know, cause it’s not like it came out nearly 5 years ago or anything. I thought it was an interesting enough game to actually warrant a post, so I’ma talk about it for a little bit now.

One of the more unique titles to be released in recent years, Mirror’s Edge is a first-person action adventure game where the player assumes the role of Faith, a “runner,” basically a kind of underground parkour courier in an authoritarian near-future world.  

It’s not worth thinking too much about the story as it’s half-baked and adds next to nothing to the game. In general the whole premise of the game is never clearly explained, the characters have virtually no characterization, and every plot twist / revelation fails to have any emotional punch or surprise. The story gives just enough reason for Faith, the main character, to go from one level to the next.  

What it lacks in story, it makes up for in style; Mirror’s Edge boasts some of the most impressive visuals this console generation. They’re not hyper realistic a la Crysis, but they’re very appealing due to the crispness of the graphics and intense contrast they utilize in color schemes. The city has a sterile sheen to it; buildings are generally clean white and silver, highlighted with vibrant colors. Say what you will about the oppressive government that runs the city, they keep it clean. There’s nothing really to compare it to in games, if nothing else it’s undeniably unique looking.

The contrast isn’t simply for visual flair, it’s used to draw the player’s eyes to certain objects as a guide to navigate the level. This works well as the game utilizes minimal player aids, there’s no hud, no waypoints, radars, health meters or anything like that. The highlighting effects of what the game refers to as “runner vision,” is a non-intrusive way of guiding the player through each level, as it only highlights certain objects, but does not plan out paths on the ground or around a rooftop.

Running is, after all, the name of the game. Well, not really, but y’know…

The closest way to define Mirror’s Edge gameplay is as a first person speed puzzle action platformer. (Now you can see why I’ll just refer to it as an action/adventure game.) The bulk of the player’s time will spent running, jumping, sliding and climbing around city rooftops like a fearless chimpanzee. The game’s controls are relatively digestible, and after playing around for a little while on the tutorial playground, most players will feel comfortable navigating the dizzying heights of Mirror’s Edge.

The controls aren’t perfect however, they do require a degree of specificity, and there are times where it’s hard to judge exactly how the game will respond to the player’s inputs, especially during frantic moments where the player is being chased and is supposed to input a specific move to overcome an obstacle.

These specific move requirements are one of the downfalls of the free running; there are times where it seems apparent that Faith should make a jump, yet unless she does a specific wall kick jump she’ll just plummet to her death instead. There are only a handful of spots like this in the game, but they do noticeably break the flow, especially when compared to the freedom and playground-like style the game offers in many other running areas.

The running is diverse, sometimes the game presents itself like a puzzle to reach the goal area, other times Faith is on the run from a team of angry swat officers or sometimes she’s tasked with chasing down a fellow runner. In general the running is enjoyable despite some trial-and-error as the player tries to figure out a correct route to escape or catch an enemy.

The combat on the other hand leaves much more to be desired. Faith is an unarmored combatant who must rely on her wits and superior movement capabilities to evade enemies. However, for some reason there are several moments where the game forces the player into a combat situation that Faith cannot run through. These moments are often frustrating bouts of trial-and-error as the player dies repeatedly trying to find an optimum path to close the distance on guards and perform a timed one-button disarm. The very idea is pretty counter intuitive, in order to engage the heavily armed machine gun toting guards, the player should run close to them so they can perform a disarm and get their weapon.  It’s even more baffling when the game’s cutscenes often feature the protagonist slinking in the shadows or out of sight to silently get the drop on someone, yet this never happens in the game. These moments are thankfully infrequent, and can be seen almost as a type of boss encounter. Even so, these encounters offer more frustration than genuine challenge.

Taken as a whole the gameplay in Mirror’s Edge is certainly unique and more often than not very intense and exciting. Unfortunately there are plenty of little annoyances along the way that will break the flow the game seems to live on. Coupled with a very short campaign length (9 levels, which will take first time players between 3-6 hours to complete, and much less for veteran players,) Mirror’s Edge offers a fun but flawed campaign. Besides the campaign there are a variety of speed challenges that test a player’s mastery of the game. Players who enjoy the campaign will certainly get a kick out of these modes as it encourages what the game does best. Mirror’s Edge is at its best when a player has played a level several times and can carve a path through it in record time.  

Beyond that, the sound design is fairly well. The music is ambient and not particularly memorable, save for the title track “Still Alive.” There’s good audio feedback as Faith slides on pavement, grabs metal pipes at the last second, and especially visceral wind gusts that accompanies any player’s unfortunate fall to city streets below.

Overall, Mirror’s Edge is one of the more unique games to be released this console generation. It tries something different, and overall succeeds despite some frustrating pitfalls. Most players will probably find something to enjoy if they play it, especially now that it’s a few years old and very cheap.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for a different kind of first person game from all the modern-military-themed-cover-based-straight-line-frag-this-charlie-tango-shooters, Mirror’s Edge could be just the game for you.

Let’s give it overall a 7.7/10 That sounds just about right.  

Rock on