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Friday, November 27, 2020

How ‘Love, Sam’ Put a Fresh Spin on the ‘P.T.’ Formula

In an interview with Slate Magazine, developer Kitty Horrorshow talked through her approach to producing low-budget horror titles that are uniquely disquieting, and how she manages to accomplish this without leaning on any in-your-face gore or sudden jolt tactics. According to the Itch.io sensation, jump-scares are inherently unsatisfying, akin to somebody raising their ‘’fist up to punch you’’. She rationalizes that she is obviously ‘’going to get startled’’ by them, yet ‘’there’s nothing interesting or edifying about that [experience]. It’s just a reflex’’.

Dread scares, on the other hand, are tools that she finds to be highly effective when it comes to putting her audience on edge. For context, if a jump scare is when you threaten to ‘’attack’’ somebody with a loud bang, then a ‘’dread scare’’ (which, incidentally, is a term coined by Horrorshow) is when you coerce them into doing something unpleasant to progress. Especially if that objectionable action happens to be a genre no-no, like investigating a strange noise, venturing into a darkened basement, or interfering with an occult artifact. 

The genius of this is that – rather than bluntly confronting the player with an unexpected musical sting or a flash of shocking imagery (as though they are idol passengers on a ghost train) – you’re making them an active participant in their own fear. It’s like a sadistic game of chicken, one that would be absolutely impossible to pull off in any other medium. After all, where else but in video-games can you taunt your audience in such a provocative way? Daring them to press forward, as opposed to simply poking at them with a stick. 

Indeed, a well-executed dread scare has the capacity to torment you in a way that mere jolts could only aspire towards. Of course, Horrorshow is not the only practitioner of this method, with titles like Amnesia, Eternal Darkness and P.T all delivering their own fun takes on the concept. The latter game in particular contains a quintessential example, wherein a radio broadcast goads you into turning around, so that you can identify the source of an ominous wheezing sound. It’s a phenomenally upsetting moment, one that reduces even the most seasoned horror-veteran to a quivering wreck, and it demonstrates just how powerful a dread scare can be in the right hands. 

For another great showcase of this technique, look no further than Love, Sam. Developed by Korean Linguistics Lab, this unassuming gem was released in 2019 and sadly didn’t get half as much attention as it deserved. Exercising an uncommon amount of restraint for a first-person horror game, it’s deceptively creative, refreshingly understated, and artfully creepy in a way that will stick with you until long after the credits roll. Plus, it’s got an incredibly low asking price of just a couple bucks. 

The premise ought to be instantly familiar to genre connoisseurs, recalling many of the desperate wannabes that emerged in the wake of P.T. Don’t let that fool you though, because there’s more to it than originally meets the eye. 

As in Hideo Kojima’s mini-masterpiece, you control an unidentified avatar who is locked in a humdrum environment (seemingly a college dorm) with no escape route. In line with genre tradition, you must wander around this claustrophobic space – which includes a kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom – whilst things subtly change around you. Notes materialize out of thin air, cryptic etchings appear on the wall, and objects move of their own volition, all hinting at a malevolent presence that is tyrannizing you from behind the scenes. It’s pretty standard stuff to be honest and might even cause involuntary eye rolls amongst those who regularly peruses the ‘’horror’’ tag on Steam. 

Again, in the vein of that infamous Silent Hill teaser, your interactions with these fluctuating surroundings are ostensibly quite limited. You can flick the light switches on-and-off and maybe collect a few key items, however for the most part your role will consist of reading. And there is a lot of that to do here, as you’re basically tasked with thumbing through the entirety of someone’s diary for the duration of the game. Now that might sound unappealing at first, yet therein lies the crucial twist that differentiates Love, Sam from all the other P.T clones out there. 

You see, overlooking the messy room – like a church pulpit – you will find an immaculately preserved desk, upon which sits a journal entitled: ‘’My Dirty Little Secrets’’. Your sole objective is to read this book from cover to cover, whilst simultaneously consulting it to solve puzzles and appease the vengeful spirit that is holding you prisoner. There’s no larger goal beyond that, although it does turn out to be considerably harder than you might assume. 

For a start, the chronology of these diary entries is jumbled out of order, which (when combined with the author’s clunky expression) can be rather perplexing. Nevertheless, you’ll gradually come to familiarise yourself with the major players in this elliptical soap opera, and will piece together what transpired at Rosen Peek boarding school. In a nutshell, it’s a tale of adolescent drama, the Machiavellian backstabbings that occur in the classroom, and unrequited love turned sour. Related to you in dribs and drabs, it’s a compelling mystery that you will have to figure out on your own through inference, as the game refuses to spoon-feed you any of the answers. 

Furthermore, whilst it ostensibly relies on overused clichés and stereotypical teen archetypes (e.g: the arrogant jock; the popular mean girl; and the reclusive bookworm), there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. You’ll presume to be ahead of the curve on numerous occasions but, if you bear with it, you’ll be rewarded with some genuinely unpredictable turns that will upend your expectations. There are even confusing passages that you’ll want to chalk up to awkward English translation – with sentences that are phrased clumsily or entries that feel oddly inconsistent with what’s come before – only for you to later realize that they have been deliberately constructed in this way to hoodwink you. It’s very smartly written in that respect, filled with sly misdirects and red herrings that will keep you guessing. 

What’s more, the engrossing narrative isn’t the only aspect of Love, Sam that plays its cards close to the chest, as the gameplay intermittently reveals exciting new layers as well. At the offset, it might appear to be another run-of-the-mill ‘’walking simulator’’, one that has you trudging through a linear procession of frights and digesting an unusual amount of literature, however, you wind up having far more autonomy than you’d think.

Once the supernatural forces start to blur the line between what’s scrawled down in the pages of the journal and your present-day-environs, you’ll have to perform a variety of strange interactions with the memoir itself. This could entail anything from assembling a collage of voyeuristic photographs, to filling out a brutal personality quiz, to doodling macabre images that foreshadow threats on the horizon.

Before long, you will graduate to carrying out tasks in the wider dormitory and will even be transported to other menacing locations, wherein you will have to hide from pursuing monsters. Some of the things that Korean Linguistics Lab gets you to complete are remarkably inventive and it would be a disservice to spoil them. That being said, one notable highlight demands that you carefully trace over some lovelorn graffiti, whilst your view is obscured by an onslaught of torrential rainfall. The minutest slipup in your penmanship here will be enough to infuriate the revenant, leading to an extremely stressful situation that you will be reluctant to go through with. In other words, a fantastic example of a dread scare! 

Speaking of which, the developers exhibit a real panache for orchestrating agonizing scenarios of this caliber. Whether you’re psyching yourself up to fish out a letter from beneath a bed, or tentatively sneaking through a pitch-black room – relying on a camera flash for momentary illumination- you’ll be muttering ‘’nope’’ under your breath more often than you’d like. Indeed, the game is suffused with unbearable tension, which is an impressive feat given that it never conditions you to expect any obnoxious ‘’Boo!’’ moments or shrieking violins.

On the contrary, it’s uncharacteristically quiet for a horror release and depends more on sister suggestion than it does blatant shock tactics. What does pass for a jump scare here is often totally inaudible, like when you discover that a shadowy figure has unceremoniously plonked itself down on a nearby chair without any fuss. The effect is that you don’t so much leap out of your seat in terror, as you do shudder with discomfort (and maybe do a quick double-take, just to confirm what you think you saw). 

Not only does Love, Sam deliver on the heebie-jeebies quota – packing more into a brisk 90 minutes than most titles manage with hours upon hours of gameplay – but some of its gags are fiendishly clever to boot. For instance, there’s a bit where you hang up on a demonic phone call and the eventual pay-off is utterly bone-chilling, evoking classic urban legends like the Licked Hand or the Babysitter. It’s an inspired moment that will bring a massive grin to your face. 

Of course, none of this is to say that Love, Sam is without fault. The controls are a tad unresponsive, the strobe lighting is needlessly incessant, and it does stumble at the final hurdle. Oddly enough, it’s when the conventionally ‘’gamey’’ elements are introduced (like fail states and pseudo stealth mechanics) that things really start to fall apart, as the meticulous atmosphere that distinguished the rest of the game is traded in for finicky encounters. Ones that will have you have scouring YouTube walkthroughs, just so that you can get them over with as quickly as possible.

Prior to these momentum-killing sequences, you were treated to fresh ideas and new plot details at every juncture. Then, suddenly, it’s as if another developer took over and all that deliberate pacing was thrown out the window, replaced instead with a bunch of half-baked stalker chases. Owing to unclear instruction and harsh timer requirements, they never adequately telegraph what you’re meant to be doing either. So you’ll find yourself caught in a Groundhog Daystyle loop of defeat, being exposed to the same crappy enemy over and over again, until you’re sick to the back teeth of them. 

To be fair, this is a trap that’s befallen many other horror releases in the past, including Outlast 2 and The Evil Within. Nevertheless, by forcing you to repeat sections ad nauseam in this way, the game inadvertently reduces once-intimidating set-pieces into nothing but grating chores. It doesn’t help either that, after all the build-up, the climactic wraith ends up having a lackluster visual design. 

Frustrations aside, Love, Sam remains a superior outing that meaningfully evolves upon the groundwork laid by P.T.  The ‘’trapped in a looping environment’’ formula (that Visage and Layers of Fear tried to emulate) is augmented with an enthralling narrative, unorthodox puzzles, and truly innovative mechanics. Not to mention, some of the best ‘’dread scares’’ in the business. If you’ve got a couple of hours to spare, and are craving psychological horror that will get under your skin, then you should definitely give this one a whirl. 



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/video-games/3642698/love-sam-put-fresh-spin-p-t-formula/

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