Sunday, August 14, 2011

Don't Hide From This Review

I've just played through Hide, a free indie game by a fellow named Andrew Shouldice. It's something of a three-dimensional first-person survival-horror game with a very simple (if not entirely original) premise: survive. Your goal is to find five locations in a dark, snowy wood, reading the signs at each one while avoiding the certain death that stalks you in the night.

It's an interesting, atmospheric game that packs a lot into the experience, despite its limited content and simple premise. It's certainly one of the more engaging, immersing titles I've played in a while, dripping with melancholy, longing, and despair. All in the good sort of way that you'd expect from a survival-horror. So that's a fair bit of praise for it. Continue reading for the rest of my review of Hide.

Hide goes for the bare essentials approach by stripping the game down to its most crucial aspects. When you launch the game, the title "Hide" appears inside of a rectangle, and then the camera zooms out to show the usual WSAD directional keys. The title screen is also your input directions. Then it drops you straight into the game. Once you're in, there are no menus or pause screens, just gameplay. Once you die or complete the game, the program shuts down and sends you back to the desktop. 

The graphics are, obviously, extremely low-definition: a low resolution stretched to a wide aspect ratio. This creates the weird, distorted "blocky" appearance of the images, which themselves almost look two-dimensional until you start moving the camera. The world is rendered in essentially three colors: black, white, and gray, with a sort of static filter over everything. 

The visuals are effective at conjuring mystery and distorting reality because there's essentially no depth perception. You look at something at a distance and can't really tell what it is until you've gotten closer and walked around it. This creates a sense of intrigue: you spot a grotesque-looking smudge on the horizon,  wonder what it is, and watch as it slowly becomes clearer the closer you get to it. 

It's also difficult to gauge your position in the environment, due to the way the ground is rendered---the horizon a mile away looks exactly the same as a square of land two feet in front of you. It tricks you a lot. Consequently, you have to judge your position relative to objects in the environment, using movement and parallax to determine relative proximity between objects.

It can be especially distressing just trying to reach a destination on the horizon. You can't see the ground moving towards you, which creates a sensation of "running in place." You're pretty sure you're walking somewhere but can't actually tell for certain. This uncomfortable anxiety of "Am I actually moving?" is compounded further when you're fleeing from death. 

A full moon over a church, with a tree in the foreground.

This would be obnoxious in most other games, since it makes it tricky just to perceive what's going on in the game, but it really works in this case. It's sufficiently uncanny; things look normal, for the most part, but just weird and distorted enough to sort of get under your skin, to trigger a feeling of uncomfortable dread in your brain. And that's what survival-horror should be doing. 

The audio does a nice job of complimenting the visuals. Standing idly you can hear a faint white noise, establishing a "thickness" to the atmosphere. As you walk, you hear the sounds of your feet crunching in the snow and your breath as you pant and struggle to move in the cold, dark winter. The sound of your breathing, in particular, crescendos the more you move and drowns you in this oppressive state of mortality. You feel tired and vulnerable just walking across a field, all because of the way the sound builds upon itself. 

A chime from a piano string guides you to important locations, something of a stark contrast to the static noise, the sound of your footfalls, and your heavy breathing. As everything builds up you hear a faint tone that becomes louder and clearer the closer you get to it, and the effect of finding locations is surprisingly rewarding just because of this newfound clarity.

I was playing late at night with the lights turned off, and even went so far as to use headphones. The headphones really helped to follow the chimes more effectively, but they also immersed me in the atmosphere even more than with just the speakers. I didn't realize how immersed I was until someone knocked on my bedroom door, and I startled from the sudden break of tension. 

The beginning of the game is kind of a mystical experience. You start out in some woods staring straight up at the sky, the clawed image of the tree tops almost feeling like a cage. A slow siren wails from a distance behind you. You turn around and see a thick line of trees and rocks blocking your path, with search lights scanning the sky above the tree line. You wonder "Where am I? What's going on? How did I get here?" but no answers present themselves, so you start wandering out of the woods. You find a small cabin and read a plaque on the wall that says "Persecution." "What does that mean?" you wonder.

And then things start to happen.

When it comes to the gameplay, I'm hesitant to talk about anything beyond vague descriptions. I want to say so many things about it, but it would spoil the feeling of discovering for yourself what the game is about. The experience is almost completely internalized to how you perceive the game and what you think of it. I could tell you what ran through my mind playing it for the first time and why I found it so captivating, but I'd rather you not know anything and go into it "fresh" like I did. So if you've made it this far, 


Have you played some of the game yet? Because if you haven't, you really shouldn't be reading this. Once you've played for a little while and figured out the basic mechanics, you can continue reading.

So it seems that the sirens and search lights are all in an attempt to find you, and as you find the special locations and read the signs, weird creatures with flashlights spawn and look for you. This immediately begs the question "Why are they searching for me? Am I a criminal, escaped from a prison? Or am I an innocent being persecuted by a corrupt society?" It's never really clear.

This is what I mean by the game being internalized. How would you choose to interpret it?

The five signs read (in order) MURDER, PERSECUTION, TORTURE, STARVATION, and RAPE. Perhaps these are your crimes that you're now paying for? Maybe you've been subjected to these crimes? Or maybe they have some other meaning? Who knows.

But for every sign you read, an "enemy" spawns somewhere nearby. By the time you've read four signs, four enemies are now patrolling the level and limiting where you can go. To make matters worse, after you read a third sign, an aircraft resembling a helicopter comes from the direction of the search lights, shining its own spotlight down on you. It moves a lot faster and has a wider area, making it even more challenging to get the last two signs.

The ultimate effect is a lot of trial and error learning where enemies spawn, and reading the signs in different orders until you can figure out the best possible route to take. This is probably the weakest aspect of the game, because its slow pace makes the trial and error feel extremely tedious, especially when you're not even sure what goal you're striving for. Unless you have some kind of personal motivation, you're probably going to lose interest after dying for the third time. 

A beastly enemy, seen only by the glare of the flashlight closing in.

The sight and sound of the enemies is fairly frightening at first, because you're not exactly sure what they are. Dying for the first time only raises more questions about them. It can be pretty nerve-wracking trying to get away from them while you're out of breath, panting heavily, and watching as the light slowly creeps towards you. But after a few deaths the effect is kind of lost and it becomes more a fear of having to start over.

You walk pretty slowly, which I guess is realistic for being in deep, cold snow, and it certainly adds something to the survival-horror aspect. But it doesn't help your motivation much, because when you die it takes another five minutes of walking very slowly to regain your progress. There is a "sprint" function, but it's not explained very well and took a while for me to consistently use. It has limited uses, though, because once you start breathing heavily you lose the sprint ability, further raising the tension and your vulnerability.

I sometimes wish you moved consistently faster, though, or that the range of sight on the enemies were more forgiving, because it would make the game easier to play and easier to enjoy the atmosphere. Let's face it, the gameplay is simple and not much to write home about, but the atmosphere does a good job of getting under your skin, and the tediousness of the gameplay detracts from the atmosphere after a while. Which is unfortunate.

But once you manage to read all five signs, there's nothing left for you to do but to eventually get caught. You're then treated to a different ending screen, which reads (potential spoiler alert: highlight the text between the quotations):

"You found all the locations. Unfortunately for you, as for many, your flight was in vain. You will be brought to justice, and they will never be.

So for all of your hard work, you're left with that cryptic message. Was it worth it? There's a lot of room for interpretation, but I like how it ends in an anticlimax. I like that in order to "beat the game" you still have to get caught, suggesting that everything is futile and that you ultimately have little control over your own fate. It's dark and depressing--rather befitting of the stifling atmosphere and gameplay, and leads me to draw deeper conclusions from that final text. 

So that's Hide. I hope you enjoyed it, or at least were able to see some of the simple genius employed in it. It's not really all that special, or even that moving of a game, but there's a surprising amount of depth and complexity that can be divined from it (as evident by this long article), which is rather impressive for a game as minimalistic as this. And for that, Mr. Shouldice, I applaud you. 


  1. Great game and I think you put it very well.

  2. Oh, I agree completely! Very nice review! I tried playing the game for a bit, and while I admit the atmosphere can be very intense, you are spot on when noting the fact it becomes overshadowed by the tedious gameplay. I grew bored because the character moves so slowly and couldn't finish it, but Hide's not bad to get the blood pumping.