Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Impressions of Blackwell's Asylum

Blackwell's Asylum is a short, free indie stealth-horror game by students of the Danish Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment, and is currently available on Steam as part of a spotlight for the winners of Intel's Level Up 2011 contest. The competition was designed for indie game developers to create game demos, with selected winners receiving a little bit of funding and the potential to develop their demos into full games. I hadn't heard of this at all until the spotlight appeared on the front page of the Steam store. But as a fan of horror games, I decided to give Blackwell's Asylum a shot. And it ultimately disappointed me. 

You play as an inmate of a women's asylum trying to escape the facility by hiding from the patrolling wardens. It starts out very interesting, with a great deal of atmosphere and a unique visual style almost reminiscent of something you'd see in a Tim Burton movie. Everything looks warped and distorted, lending the environments a very uncanny feeling; the sound effects are minimal but do a sufficient job of layering the atmosphere on top of you. As promising as these aesthetics are, however, the gameplay felt kind of boring to me, as I'll explain in the full article.

My main complaint is that navigating the halls of the asylum proves to be rather mundane, boring, and even tedious. Each room and hallway looks almost exactly the same as the last, and it can be confusing just trying to find your way around -- I felt like I was going in circles for much of the game. It's a little monotonous seeing the exact same aesthetics everywhere you go, especially since they're mostly just empty rooms that look quite ordinary, and there are missed opportunities to include more dramatic, disturbing imagery. 

The stealth element is fairly conventional. Wardens patrol around the asylum, reacting to noises you make or doors you leave open, and come sprinting after you if they see you, leaving you a brief amount of time to dash into another room and hide somewhere. You make noise when you move (even more noise when you sprint), so you have to sneak around slowly and quietly, listening for the footsteps of patrolling wardens. Their footsteps also emit visible sound waves, providing an extra visible cue when they're approaching from another room.

Hiding under a table, tunnel-vision active (click to enlarge)

The problem I experienced was that I simply never felt tension from any of this -- perhaps just because it was too easy to avoid detection, or because there was nothing really at stake. These aren't monsters trying to kill you, they're just employees who send you back to your room when you get caught. There's also currently no backstory for your character, no embedded reason to care about her plight, not much context to immerse yourself in the setting, which made much of the experience feel incidental to me. 

One main attempt at injecting tension into the gameplay comes in the form of a mini-game, where you have to press the space bar rhythmically to control your breathing while you're hiding. If you tap out of rhythm, your field of vision shrinks until (presumably) your character panics and gets caught. The rhythm is really simple, so it's not that stressful and didn't contribute very much to the experience. If anything, it annoyed me by feeling a little tacked-on. It might have been more interesting if I had less control over it, or if it were more unpredictable. 

My intrepid escape came to a halt when I bumped into a pretty serious glitch. I opened a door and saw myself moving around in third-person, an experience reminiscent of Portal. "This is bizarre," I thought to myself, but I didn't think much of it because they'd already established that psychotic things are going on, due to your own insanity or the effects of the narcotic drugs administered to you. Earlier, I'd stepped onto a balcony, then turned around and found myself in a completely different room, so I thought maybe this weird thing with the door was supposed to be happening. Imagine my confused surprise when I stepped forward and found myself strolling around the video game ether of unrendered space, outside the level design. 

I've just opened the door to the Twilight Zone (click to enlarge)

In its current state, Blackwell's Asylum lacks a certain degree of punch to make it exceptional. The visual style is really interesting, and a game set in a psych ward offers a lot of promise for psychological horror. The gameplay is competently designed, but it's not especially great. As a demo that serves primarily as a proof of concept, the framework for something compelling is definitely there and could potentially be developed into a worthwhile experience. With more refinement, brainstorming, and development, this could become a great game. 

A few suggestions for what I feel could improve the game: 1) give the main character some kind of interesting backstory and establish some sort of central premise to the gameplay; 2) add more variety to the level design, with more dramatic imagery and psychological content; 3) tweak the mechanics of breathing and hiding to be a little more suspenseful; 4) mix in some other adventure elements to the game, giving the player a little something extra to do besides just wandering hallways and hiding. I feel like these things would make the game a more rounded experience with more meat to sink your teeth into. 

It's also worth mentioning that the overall experience reminded me heavily of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and another free indie game called Hide. All three are first-person stealth-horror games with a goal of hiding from enemies, and they even have similar sound effects when you've been spotted and an enemy is coming for you (that crescendoing, foreboding, screeching static-like noise). Blackwell's Asylum is in the same ballpark as those two, so if you enjoyed either one of those two games, or if you just enjoy stealth-horror in general, then it's definitely worth checking out

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