Thursday, 3 October 2013

Final Girl by Hanon Ondricek

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(Version reviewed: Original)

Final Girl is a highly innovative horror-thriller delivered via the StoryNexus platform. The player takes on the role of a teen girl who must identify a masked staple gun(!) killer in the wake of a cabin-in-the-woods-vacation massacre of her friends. I haven't played anything quite like Final Girl before, and while some of that will be down to me never having used StoryNexus before either, it's also clearly down to the game itself. I've not seen a game manage horror genre microscopy like this before, with stats like Squick, Terror, Exertion and Badassery. You even need to manually control your out-of-of-control breathing. The whole thing is framed as a slasher flick, and there are some touches of meta level commentary, but they don't come at the expense of the effect of the core story. As it is tense and gruelling to be the final girl in a horror film, it is tense and gruelling to make your way through this game. This is why I find the author's 'send up' description in one of his blurbs (though not the other, and I prefer the other) somewhat off target.

(The other day I read that a term emerging to describe a variety of ironic storytelling less aggressive and more affectionate than postmodernism's is 'metamodernism', but since I've only heard it once, I'd best not harp on it.)

It may be possible to complete Final Girl in under two hours but I died at around the two hour mark, then accidentally conceded my death, losing all my progress. Well, I'm pretty sure I lost it. The trouble with StoryNexus is that there isn't one piece of freaking documentation for players. While working out how to play was a broadly intuitive experience, finer points like 'Is there an undo? Can I save? Do I need to save?' were all left blowing in the wind. Maybe some veterans can chime in here.

The upshot is that Final Girl is a substantial game with some demanding elements, and it might take you to the two-hour mark or beyond. You'll also need to create a StoryNexus account or log in via Facebook or Twitter to be able to play. It's absolutely worth doing these things, unless you hate horror, because this is an unusual and surprising game. It also has an attractive visual style and an effective audio soundtrack. And more than once it says: "You no longer have any of this: 'staples in your face'". Low level spoilers ahead.

The term Final Girl, describing the lone female survivor at the end of many a horror film, was coined by Carol Clover in her book of horror film criticism "Men, women and Chainsaws". When Final Girl, the game, started with what appeared to be the final scene of a slasher film, I was disappointed with both of the trajectories I anticipated. I thought that either (a) the game was going to cut away from this final scene back to the very start of the story, one of my least favourite filmmaking devices, or (b) the game was just going to be really short and end then and there.

The first surprise of Final Girl was that neither of these things happened. The scene ended with the apparent death of the bad guy, but then the debriefing just kept going until a new investigatory story began. And this story becomes the game, interspersed with flashbacks to the prior story which led to the first scene. So the game's title is a good one. Final Girlness is normally a state acquired by a film's end. In this game, you begin as the final girl, fully formed and already possessed of a degree of savvy – which you'll need because as you'd expect, the killer isn't really dead, and you need to work out who he or she is.

StoryNexus play is based around cards. In Final Girl, these represent locations you can explore. To play certain locations you'll need to have already played particular cards, acquired certain items or set certain stats. Conditions like these can also apply to actions which might appear on the screen. To be able to move, you might need to rest to lower exertion. To do something particularly cringeworthy, like examine a corpse, your Squik level might first need to be reduced, or you might need to take a deep breath to reduce your fright levels. This micromanagement is a good match for the minutiae of horror films the game is simulating, because they're all about microscopic detail: a foot trying to not squeak on the floor, someone hiding in a closet trying to hold their breath, a door handle being turned as slowly as possible, etc. In response to your decisions, the game produces a ceaseless and fascinating parade of cards, badges, icons, skill updates and status reports. If you get better at something like using a pair of pliers, you'll be told exactly how you just got better at using them, whether you learned from fumbling or whether you learned how to wield them with sweaty hands.

Amidst all of this mechanical fun there's still a mystery which needs solving. You went to the cabin by the lake for a vacation with a dozen friends. Where are they now, and is any one of them the masked killer? Flashback scenes round out your relationship with each of these horror archetype teens. So much of this game comes in short stabs of prose, but these slightly longer memories are well written and do a little for each character. They also allow you to act upon the knowledge gained from them back in the present.

The lone element of Final Girl I disliked was the ubiquity of the killer. He (or she or it) attacks you again and again as you explore, and it's a time-consuming and no-gain encounter each time. This kind of ongoing harassment of the player is a pretty common stress tactic in horror games, but it's not handled well here. I suspect its random occurrence rate has been set too high, and similarly, too much of the encounter itself is down to 50/50 luck. That said, it is kind of StoryNexus to either explicitly tell you the odds of success of an action you're about to take or to give you a broad estimate of your chances in words (EG 'nearly impossible').

Dying and accepting your death leads to a game over screen with a movie review assessment of your playing style. This is the most overt display of the game's meta film material, though there are scattered in-game jokes as well. However, Final Girl walks the walk so well, the commentary comes across mostly as a fun addition. The game's act of quoting so many slasher films in its performance is its major gesture, a much stronger communication delivered at a more fundamental level. This is an excellent horror game with a sense of fun, but which doesn't skimp on tension or grizzliness either. It's got a few grindy elements, but with the exception of the repetitive run-ins with the stalker, I think they help make the experience what it is.

4 comments:

  1. I haven't played Final Girl or for that matter even read the rest of your review past the point where you warn of upcoming spoilers. But: in StoryNexus you can neither save nor undo (unless, occasionally, there is some special hand-rolled action offered to take back something you just did). Instead, the status of your character is always preserved as it was based on the last thing you did -- and if that was an action that blitzed your story state, then I'm afraid there's probably no way of getting it back.

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  2. Hi Emily. Thanks for the info. My reply is spoiler free, too.

    When I super-died, it was due to a silly moment of indecision and then clicking thoughtlessly, rather than that my finger slipped or that I didn't know what I was doing. There are times in the game when you can click a PERHAPS NOT option, which seems to act as a cancel or undo, though assessing exactly what is being canceled/undone can feel a little vague.

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    1. I feel your pain. I once accidentally SOLD MY SOUL in Fallen London even though it was completely contrary to the character I was trying to play.

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  3. I thought the most overt comments were the banded cards.

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