Pictured: catwalk over electrified sludge, spider enemies, pipes.The original was of the very first survival horror games. It went through increasingly abstruse sequels, until suffering the double indignity of an Uwe Boll movie adaptation and then a high profile reboot that was the most overstuffed hot mess of a game I can think of.
A short list of crimes:
- control shenanigans
- inventory system designed via divination/casting reptile bones
- camera shenanigans
- "cinematic" storytelling
- mysterious powers
- spider enemies
- tentacle goop with mysterious powers
- "cinematic" driving sequence
Jack White, of the White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather, is a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to making music in the studio. He's outspoken about wishing that bands were forced to make their first album on nothing more than a 4-track--and while with any such sweeping generalization it's easy to think of reasons why it's not the best idea, I find it an aspirational sentiment. Something about nailing the basics before you get fancy.
Disparition - Timişoara
And in that spirit we frame today's design reboot: Torch. Take away the crawlie things, the Powers, mysterious past, the glowing tentacles that grab NPCs in scripted sequences, fixation on another medium's way of storytelling, scrape it all out and rinse with the garden hose--until you are only left with being alone, in the dark.
Torch is a game about delving deep into our most basic fears. Home invasion, kidnapping. There are no cutscenes, no long dialogues with celebrity voices. You play a string of characters that need to survive the worst night of their lives.
[A key inspiration: the film The Strangers. In his directoral debut, Brian Bertino takes a small cast, a single location, and sets about wreaking havoc with little more than mounting dread and suggestive framing. (Do not watch this movie with anyone who is even a little bit scared of home invasion.)]
Just as horror movies benefit from minimalist production, maximalist dread, Torch would be built from the two titular elements of survival horror. Probably near-third person or first person, set in small but densely constructed and detailed levels. The control layout would be adequate but unfussy, but this would be offset by a positively austere use of HUD elements (ideally none).
The game opens directly from the desktop with a black screen while loading, no splash or title screens. A text-only menu on black background. Players choose from a branching list of progressively worst-night-of-my-life scenarios of various ordinary characters, given first names only, a one or two word bio. Ellen, homemaker. Alex, dentist.
One of the first stories presented is being at home at night during a break-in. Barring aggressive play, it should be reasonably easy to "win," but the player has been given a taste of the atmospheric dread to come--NPC assailants vary their numbers, start locations and motivations on every playthrough.
Other early scenarios are a walk home at night, finding the car in a dim parking garage. A laundry list of sequences based on exactly the things we're most anxious about in life.
Through the shorter introductory scenarios, the player masters the essential survival skills: the flashlight, the small combat sequences (dictated by the abilities and identity character they're playing and weapons available), but mostly the timing/decisionmaking, situational awareness. Learning to take careful cues from the environment to survive. Running.
Soon the most difficult scenarios unlock. Waking up in the den of a serial killer (tonally dark but without any overtones of sexual abuse) with all but locked doors and needing to escape--you can try the phone, but how do you tell the police where you are? Violent home invasion, and the like.
Upon it's small, PC digital-only release, Torch is judged with a very favorable 83/100. Critics enjoy the freshness of the back to basics, no-frills approach to harrowing situations. The game doesn't take many hours on paper to complete, but played with headphones and the lights off, most players voluntarily take their time savoring the panic.