Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Afterfall Insanity (PC, 2011, Poland): Strolling Through The Apocalypse
December 18, 2011, 8:21 pm
Filed under: Afterfall Insanity (PC, Poland)

AFTERFALL1

[NOTE: Although this article is several years old now, I just wanted to drop a quick mention here (which will probably be outdated soon as I update this post). As of early 2015, this is one of those games no longer available on Steam or GOG. (At present it is still listed for sale at Gamersgate though.) The reason for its semi-disappearance has something to do with the fact that the license for the Unreal Engine the devs used had lapsed during production…or whatever. This means that the game being sold wasn’t actually theirs to sell? So, it was all promptly yanked. Unfortunately, also pulled was a semi-sequel (a planned three-part episodic thing) which was in Steam Early Access titled “Afterfall: Reconquest.” Ah, so it goes in the world of gaming.] 

Right as I was playing “Afterfall: Insanity,” two readers of this blog (Mark and Mark, respectively) replied to another post regarding the “F.E.A.R.” franchise, and we got into a mini-discussion of “atmosphere” (writ large) in games. I want to extend that conversation right now as I ponder my experience with this Polish-made “Dead Space” wannabe (a facile comparison I will complicate further in a moment).

I think most of us know when a game nails its atmosphere, which can come in a variety of flavors—it might be a dark, scary atmosphere; or it may be a tense, gritty atmosphere; or it may be a clinical, ordered sci-fi atmosphere; or it may be a humorous and lighthearted atmosphere. Just because of my penchant for darker games, usually when I talk about atmosphere, I’m thinking of the thick-as-pea-soup scary variety.

AFTERFALL2I could Google the phrase “atmosphere in videogames” and probably find many discussions on the issue from people in the know, but I sometimes enjoy approaching these ideas from a naïve stance. So in willfully ignoring the existing conversation, it’s safe to say the issue of atmosphere in games is a tricky, ephemeral notion surrounded by a multitude of questions: What exactly is happening when a game successfully delivers an atmospheric experience? What constitutes atmosphere? What are its parts? Is there some magical coalescence of elements—sound, visuals, story, gameplay mechanics—that creates an atmosphere? If so, in what parts? Are some elements more important than others, or do these disparate elements equally contribute to our vague definition of atmosphere?

And we can’t forget the player’s role in all of this either. In the academic discipline of literature, “Reader-Response Theory” conjectures that a text doesn’t really exist in isolation of a person who experiences that text, who recreates that text by reading it and having an intellectual and/or emotional response to it. In other words, speaking of literature in isolation of an audience doesn’t provide us with the entire picture. Of course, the same goes for videogames. It is unlikely that atmosphere in a game can exist separate from a player’s experience of that game. But then, how can we know when one game has successfully developed (and successfully transmits) its atmosphere, while another may not? At the same time, I imagine most gamers would blanch at the suggestion that “good atmosphere” in a game is a completely relative matter. There’s got to be some general benchmark, right? Certainly, we’ve all played games whose atmosphere is so compelling that we have quickly suspended our disbelief (in some cases even forgetting we are holding a controller or using a mouse and keyboard) while helplessly falling into the world created for us, not to be seen again for weeks. And we’ve unfortunately had the opposite experience with games that are devoid of any kind of atmosphere whatsoever. And, of course, not every game requires an atmosphere to engross us, and not every gamer cares about this issue either. To complicate matters further, we’ve probably played games that have tried very hard to create an atmosphere and the developers ALMOST succeed, but not quite—though we might have difficulty articulating exactly why. Or, they succeed for a short while, only to screw up some tiny element and the whole atmosphere magically vanishes into thin air—and we become very unhappy gamers, indeed. Atmosphere is slippery, even fragile…it may even be impossible to pin down in any precise way.

AFTERFALL3I raise these issues because they directly relate to my experience of “Afterfall: Insanity,” but let me get to that in a second after I discuss the game in more general terms first.

The history and material reality of this game is neat. Previous to 2008, this was a fan-made project being developed by gamers addicted to RPGs like “Fallout” and “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” The apocalyptic theme of the game makes this clear. The project was picked up and professionalized by Nicolas Entertainment Group in 2008 and developed by Intoxicate using the Unreal 3 engine. Originally titled “Bourgeoisie: Pearl of the Wastelands” (what an interesting mouthful) or “Rascal,” the game was intended to be primarily an RPG, like those influencing it. However, that focus changed about a year and half later when it was transformed into a third-person shooter (probably to the serious dismay of its original fans). The game is considered to be an independent title, and the developers have been keen on using the term “The Afterfall Universe,” implying that more games using the same assets and storyline will be forthcoming. Pretty much as soon as this title was released, representatives from Intoxicate said they were hard at work on the next installment. (The narrative in this game leaves numerous plot threads completely loose, which also points to the promise of another “Afterfall” title.)

AFTERFALL4The story creating this universe is far from unique. But to apocalypse lovers (like me) hackneyed is perfectly fine. The game begins 20 years after World War III in 2032. A rather big row happened between Nazi Germany, The United States, and the Soviet Union, and somewhere someone developed a Fusion Bomb which accidentally exploded (on Day Zero, as they call it), wrecking the planet. In Poland the “Afterfall” project was set into motion, allowing chosen survivors to exist by entombing themselves in massive vaults. One such vault is called “Glory,” and it is the focus of our story. But it’s been years since the doors were sealed, and the vault has generally declined in cleanliness, and the good-nature of folks has long subsided. The story begins when vault psychiatrist Mr. Tokaj, a pencil-pushing therapist whose specialty is diagnosing and treating “confinement syndrome” (super cool), is asked to “go down below” by his overbearing commanding officer because some of the inhabitants have been “acting strangely” and to make an assessment. What he finds is that something much worse has occurred in the massive, serpentine vault. There are spikey-spined, slathering, demonlike monsters (which are mutated humans) lurking about in the darkness. Tokaj uncovers what he thinks is a conspiracy: Has the commander released toxins through the ventilation system in the lower levels to get rid of everyone for some megalomaniacal reason and is framing him for it? Later on (after everyone in the vault has died), Mr. Tokaj, who barely remembers the city outside the vault, makes his way up a massive elevator shaft and into the remains of the world outside to chase after the commander, which is where the Fallout-3-Style-Apocalypse images come into full play and are surprisingly effective. There are several narrative twists and turns (many of them interesting but generally ineffective), and ultimately Albert’s goal is to find out whether or not rumors are true about the existence of another vault whose name is “The Fist.” Perhaps he can seek help there? In addition, his gal pal Karolina has escaped the vault, and she may or may not have been kidnapped by the commander. While beyond clichéd, at least the story GOES somewhere—it is clear the developers are trying to convey a journey by shifting to multiple locations that grow in epic proportions (we leave the confined shelter behind and slowly enter newer, bigger, unknown territory in the outside world).  This journey is complemented by transformation of the protagonist as well—halfway through the game, he ditches his shelter uniform for the tattered garb of the wasteland, grows facial hair, acquires various wounds on his arms through scuffles, gets dirty. It’s all kind of obvious, and none of it is especially unique, but it works and is thoughtful.

AFTERFALL5Speaking of Albert, allow me to gush about some of this game’s clear assets. (Promptly following that, I’m going to kick this game in the groin rather liberally, just so you know.) I like the main character, though he may not be completely fleshed out—it is nice to play a regular guy who has to rise to the occasion, even an intellectual who has never in his life had to pick up a fireman’s axe and defend himself or his beliefs. Another interesting facet to Albert: Because he is the vault’s counselor, you’d expect a kind and caring individual who has to transform himself into an unlikely killing machine. But Albert is actually sort of a jerk—not to the point where you don’t like him, but he falls into name-calling very quickly in the game, using nicknames like “idiots” and “assholes” to describe some of his vault-mates. Albert’s crankiness continues throughout the game as his situation worsens. Personally, I liked that about him. In fact, in the opening minutes of the game, we see Albert falling asleep in the middle of a counseling session, as his patient rambles on unknowingly for a while and Albert dozes, wishing he were somewhere else. He feels bad about it later and admits this to his girlfriend Karolina…but he doesn’t seem to be particularly distraught. All of this is a genuine attempt at creating a nuanced character—something you don’t too often see in these eastern European sci-fi/horror games that are usually much too busy just trying to make the tech work convincingly. Physically too, Albert and his ilk are miles away from Gears of War here…these are not characters with biceps the size of steroidal weather balloons. I mean I like Marcus Fenix and his gang a whole lot, but seeing regularly proportioned folks duke it out can be equally satisfying.

AFTERFALL6Another feather in this little game’s cap is its attempts at injecting some variety into the standard third-person-shooter gameplay (and, frankly, variety other than on-rails shooting, which seems to be the default “Hey, let’s break up the monotony” tactic for lots of developers).  There is a clever little sequence where you must stand in an unsecured maintenance room (the door to your back is closed, but any lunatic or monster could enter at any time), and use a control panel to pilot a small repair bot through air-ducts and various concrete channels to restore electricity to a door you need to pass through. None of this is revolutionary, but it struck me as an exceedingly well done sequence. When remotely driving the small bot (about the size and shape of a shoebox), the game puts you in third-person perspective hovering above the bot—which means you are completely out of touch with your actual surroundings in the room. Driving the little bot is a breeze, and you must traverse a few environmental hazards (a whirring fan blade, an electrified section of air-duct which will promptly put your bot out of commission). Although engrossed in your task, you are of course suddenly ripped back into the room where you are standing as you get attacked from behind by a lunatic who has entered the maintenance room. Time to finish him off and get back to the bot…though you’ll be paranoid about getting attacked again for the rest of the short sequence. Nice.

Yet another sequence much later in the game (after leaving the vault) has you running towards the camera (so you can’t see where you are going) with post-apocalyptic cannibalistic banshees on your tail, and although you still need to steer yourself (down the avenue you can’t see),  you are able to reach over your shoulder and wildly shoot at your pursuers with a machine gun while in motion—in fact, you have to, or else you get hit too many times and go down…game over. I can’t say I’ve been put into this precarious position before in a game, and so I give it a thumbs-up for the newness factor, if nothing else. (Frankly the short sequence is very sloppily done, but it earns a grade of A+ for variety’s sake.)

AFTERFALL7Now onto the biggest asset of the game: The environments on display here are…astonishing, really. If there’s one element the developers nailed—and I mean on the bullseye—it’s the many, varied, complex, sci-fi playspaces. Big, claustrophobic, industrial, apocalyptic…you name it. In the vault itself, there are once-white-now-dingy living areas where little cleaning bots go about their futile tasks. There are countless hallways crammed with ductwork, terminals, frayed wires, leaking pipes, missing panels, electronic circuitry, escalators out of commission. There are large, filthy pumping rooms; aging laboratories full of well-rendered scientific equipment; massive, dark container warehouses; a decidedly unsterile medical suite; a noisy bar; bedrooms, offices, workrooms. There is the marble-like grand hallway leading to the colonel’s office, which is clad in red velvet and gold. There’s the massive underground railway system that is in general disrepair. Some of my favorite environments in the vault are ones that appear much bigger than they actually are: At one point you happen across the gigantic, 2-story-tall outer door to the installation itself that has been carved out of the rock, and Albert pauses at a distance to wonder what horror lies beyond it in the post-nuclear world outside. At another point, you enter an area that has a massive, suspended, multi-level walkway/roadway covered with glass canopies and peppered with natural foliage, perhaps connected to the hydroponics section of the vault. Outside of the vault, you encounter a world that has been left for dead—burnt out, decrepit apartment buildings; destroyed roadways, sidewalks turned to dust, decimated high-rises, piles of rusting automobiles; a roofless shopping mall; a destroyed grocery store and gas station; a damaged cathedral surrounded by the hastily pitched tents of (now long-dead) worshippers; a “fabricated” sheet-metal shantytown (which I won’t expand on since it would spoil a major plot point); a gargantuan manufacturing plant; the fuselage of an airplane resting on the third story of an apartment building…all the right stuff for an apocalypse lover like me. And some of it is surprisingly and appropriately large in scale. I’ve gotten used to many of these eastern-European games having a grand-scale idea behind them (such as the apocalypse or traipsing about the universe), but then that grand scale is betrayed when the game crams you into tiny room after tiny room. Even though it is ultimately as linear as they come (and has its share of claustrophobic spaces), “Afterfall: Insanity” is one of the first eastern Euro games that makes the leap into real big-ness, as far as I am concerned, at least visually. It is clear the environmental artists here went for the gusto in their design, and put the Unreal 3 engine to damn good use.

Just to put into perspective how well all of this worked for me, I need to do some crappy comparisons, most of which probably aren’t fair, but it’s my blog and I can say what I want, so there. When I think of the sheer variety of environments in “Afterfall” (and yes, there are miles and miles of cookie-cutter corridors, I agree), in comparison to something like “Dead Space, ” our little Polish game wins hands down. “Dead Space 2” improved upon the small-scale-repeating-hallway syndrome of the first game, but even thinking about “The Sprawl” in the Dead Space sequel, I would still say the environments in the “Glory” shelter  feel more cohesive, more connected, better built. Of course, thematically, any of the recent first-person “Fallout” games come to mind as well. And while the maps in “Afterfall” are not wide-open sandbox affairs, if I were to compare all the combined interiors of “Fallout 3” or “Fallout: New Vegas” with our little Polish game, “Afterfall,” in my mind, wins once again. I just think the game’s locations are that carefully drawn.

AFTERFALL8There are also a number of subtleties in the game I wish to mention. Whether these were intentional or not, I appreciated them. For example, you will often come across what is clearly a large and lovingly crafted “setpiece-envinroment” (let’s say a destroyed city block or two), which you assume would be crawling with enemies and will be the scene of some terrific fight as you progress. But as you advance into the map, you may find only one or two opponents you need to dispatch…but that’s it. The environment exists mostly as a means to allow the player to soak in the nightmare. This, to me, felt more realistic than being attacked by waves of enemies suddenly. Also, as a gamer well versed in how games typically work, this broke my expectations…in a good way. Additionally, there are a few small, but intriguing, moments built into the script. For example, when Albert finally emerges on the surface (after having lived for decades underground), what he sees before him is NOT the nuclear winter he and other scientists were expecting, but instead a bright and sunny nuclear summer. “The professor is turning in his grave,” says Albert when recalling a now-dead colleague’s firm belief in the nuclear winter theory. And then, as he marvels at the utter destruction of the bleached-white dead city outside the vault, he declares in a bewildering tone: “But the air is so…fresh. Why?” Though all of this is inconsequential as the plot develops, it adds a kind of richness to the story that makes it rise above the standard fare. Lastly, this is a game that deserves some exploration. Although you are not rewarded in any way for exploring (there are rarely hidden prizes awaiting you at a dead end, and clearly nothing like trophies or achievements), by looking over this or that ledge, or following a path in the wrong direction for a short while, you get to see some of the extra artwork in the environment that gives the game such flair. For example, in the final chapter of the game, there is a complex (and rather realistic) backdrop of a large nuclear reactor site that you can gaze down upon—but it would be easy to play the game and never even see it. Oh, one last “invisible” mentionable: The controls were butter-smooth. I played it with my 360 controller connected to my PC via the Wireless Receiver for Windows. When I connected it, all of the on-screen prompts changed to gamepad controls instead of keyboard/mouse controls. Movement, shooting…all of it worked without a hitch. I imagine the game would play exceedingly well with mouse and keyboard too. The game also never stuttered, froze, or crashed. Mechanically, it was seamless and behaved like a million-dollar game.

AFTERFALL9I opened this post by discussing the issue of atmosphere in games, and now it’s time to begrudgingly return to that theme. Given what I consider to be the nuanced backstory, real-world characters for a change, the thoughtfully constructed and varied environments, and some clever gameplay, there is one major issue in “Afterfall: Insanity.” Mark, a reader of this blog who finished the game before I did, put it very succinctly in his reply to my original post regarding the demo version of the game (which I’m replacing with this post, of course): He said that “Afterfall: Insanity” simply fails to scare. In a horror game, that would be the kiss of death, but I have to agree with Mark, as much as it hurts my heart to do so. This game just ain’t scary, folks, and that seriously sucks. To me, this is a failure of atmosphere, and it has me really bugged. My obsessive-compulsive nature forces me to spend the remainder of this post trying (probably in vain) to wrestle this issue to the ground.

My theory goes thusly: There is no single major flaw in the game that utterly wrecks whatever atmosphere it tries to build. Instead, through a series of shortcomings (which accrue over time), the game unknowingly pulls you out of immersion at every possible moment, it seems. In other words, this game seriously (but unintentionally) sabotages its own atmosphere. (And before I embark on the following rant, I hope there’s no need for me to prove how absolutely forgiving I am of half-baked videogames, to a fault…just look at the dreck I play and enjoy!)

Consider the following evidence: As if I couldn’t help myself, when starting the game the first irritant I noticed immediately was the bad voice acting of those around me. I’m used to this for sure in non-Western games, but here it seriously bugged me for some reason. My colleagues hanging around the vault did not feel like actual people; the banter was not natural, and phrases were repeated much too often. (One girl keeps saying to her partner on the corner “I have to go,” yet she never departs and simply repeats it every time you walk by). Then there’s the typical non-native English speaking problem of over-enunciating everything: “I (pause) AM (pause) READ-ING (pause) FROM (pause) A (pause) SCRIPT.” Next, some of the character animations are just bad—they are jerky, over-gesticulated, and some of the arm movements seem alien as if the arms are too long and they bend improperly. The facial animation tech here feels last-gen (and it probably is). Next is something I noticed when I played the demo, and it is still a problem in the game, of course:  The cutscenes are generally weak and problematic—some of the shorter ones are fine, but a few of the longer ones suffer from the fact that whomever is constructing them needs to take a class in film editing or composition, or something. We get odd angles on characters, poor intercutting between folks who are speaking, we get irrelevant camera shots that don’t focus properly on the action, and generally confusing perspectives and P.O.V.’s. Add to this the jerky (and sometimes improbable) character animations, and the mix doesn’t sit well.

AFTERFALL10Back to the issue of the game not being scary: The reality is I never felt as though I was seriously in danger. The “monsters”inside the vault (which are humans who have mutated by being exposed to some chemical through the vault’s ventilation system) just don’t seem monstrous enough; their frontal attacks don’t instill much fear, and they don’t look especially terrifying. The “monsters” outside the vault (about 3 varieties of humans who have mutated due to the fusion bomb, I presume, one of which explodes when shot and another which is a ghost, for all intents and purposes) are perhaps a little more interesting…but that doesn’t make them more terrifying. Even worse, taking down these enemies is not particularly difficult. Albert has a variety of really dull firearms (pistol, shotty, rifle) or really dull melee weapons he can use (yes, there’s great variety in the melee weapons [axe, exhaust pipe, saw blade, homemade mace, table leg, etc.], but none of them are actually any different). The truth is that any weapon will do the killing job equally. None of it matters because killing these opponents is generally a breeze. Here’s a real telling aspect: I played the game on “normal” (which is my default if I am going to be writing about it)…and over the course of the 8-hour game, I died three times (including two boss fights). This is a far, far cry from watching poor Isaac in “Dead Space” come to his grisly end (time and again) because of my missteps. Poor, decapitated dude. Isaac should take survival lessons from Albert Tokaj, since he is apparently invincible. Confession time: Even when I was kind of playing poorly on purpose just to try and artificially induce some tension and at least get close to dying (of course, having to do this is never a good sign), I would survive intact…and trust me I am not that great a “twitch” gamer. So, I take credit for nothing here. I guess I am grateful the game never stalled due to any steep learning curves…but what of tension (especially in a horror game)?

But to be honest, I don’t think I’ve yet identified the biggest scare-killer here. For me what seriously wrecked any spine-tingling immersion is the lackluster sound design. Yup, it seems strange to say so, but I think this is what primarily sucked all the atmosphere out of “Afterfall: Insanity” for me. When I think of contemporary franchises that are drenched in atmosphere (F.E.A.R., Fatal Frame, Dead Space, among many others) all of them are equally drenched in remarkable, startling sound design. Again, I bring “Dead Space” to the fore. If you haven’t played that game with headphones on, be ready to change your underwear about every 30 minutes or so. The sound is eerie, surprising, sickening—all at the same time. It is both in-your-face and incredibly subtle—all at the same time. I know a thing or two about sound-making (I’ve had 2 CDs published and distributed by independent record labels over the years, both of which are widely available on the net and in brick-and-mortar stores—with a few tracks making their way onto television [HBO’s “The Sopranos”] and film [Billy Kent’s “The OH in Ohio” among others—if you’re interested, search for “The Joy Project” on Amazon or Rhapsody or iTunes, or whatever…it’s just a hobby that I’ve had some limited success with). Sorry for that aside, but I can confidently say that the sound design in “Afterfall: Insanity” just sucks. Sound will disappear suddenly when you turn in the wrong direction; some of the sounds are not appropriately large enough given the massive environments on display (a real lost opportunity); often while walking about in the outside world, there would be no background sounds at all, other than the small clicking of my heels (with no reverberation off the destroyed buildings next to me); then the opposite problem would occur where there would be gale-force wind sounds in a small area where there was no indication visually that wind was blowing anywhere; next, the monster growls do not instill fear and are not menacing enough. I could go on, but you get the picture. Interestingly, this is not the first time where sound design (or lack thereof) has actually come damn near ruining a game for me. Venturing a guess, I would say that sound design took a serious backseat to other elements of the game (say, the wonderfully developed environments), and this fact detracted from my experience with the game in a big way.

afterfalllastYes, I’m going to end on that negative note. If another “Afterfall” game is made, will I play it? I absolutely will. At the same time, I’ve heard the developers boast that their game will be forthcoming on major consoles like the 360 and the PS3 next year. Seriously? Uh, that’s probably not going to happen, given the general lack of “fit and finish” here. But I wish them the best of luck. They have a fan in me…but only if improvements are on the nuclear horizon.