Wednesday, January 25, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! The Ocean House

As this series of posts runs through the entire length of the classic computer role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, assume spoilers.

"Rain just falls at magic hour
It's just the sound of you and me
Time twitching murmurs of our friendly machine"

Goldfrapp - Pilots (on a star)

Welcome to the Ocean House Hotel!
You get sent here as part of Jeanette and Therese Voerman's quest chain to find Bertram Tung so you can find the warehouse you're supposed to blow up so you can advance from Santa Monica to the Downtown area, which arguably makes this part of the main quest chain while feeling like anything but a main event. I tend to like "haunted house" themes in RPGs and adventure games, chasing an intangible quasi-foe by uncovering whatever sordid crimes and misdemeanors yet bind it to this plane. They tend to involve the exact opposite of hack'n'slash or pixel-hunting and strive for atmospheric locales and half-glimpsed terrors, making for excellent counterpoints to the usual zombie-slaying routine. The entire "survival horror" subgenre of adventure games was built around this sort of thing, but I'll gladly stack the Ocean House chapter of Bloodlines against any of them.

The basic plot's nothing to write home about. Jealous husband turns axe murderer, yadda-yadda Stephen King yadda-yadda. Until replaying the game now, I never consciously realized how it managed to pull off so captivating an effect with so sparse an array of objects and characters.
The two apparitions never stick around more more than a second's glimpse. A lot of old-timey black and white photographs fly off the walls toward you in a threatening manner, vases explode and at one point all the pots and pans start poltergeisting around the hotel's kitchen.
Now we're getting somewhere! As you huddle there in a corner trying not to get beaten to an ignominious final death by tin crockery, you start to realize the noise is the whole point. An eerily silent hotel basement suddenly erupts in a cacophony of metal clanging, an effect achieved with little more than the generic noise the objects would make when tossed around in-game anyway. Rarely do you see (or rather hear) so much achieved with (apparently) so little.

Bloodlines' failings in fully utilizing the Source engine for visual effect were more than compensated for by an inspired aural background throughout the game. While other locales feature apt musical scores or well-acted character voices, the Ocean House glories in short, succinct and to the point sound effects unequaled since yon olden days of radio dramas.

As soon as you enter, a storm begins to sound outside (as it must in a ghost story, natch) and will not abate until you finish your quest but will drift out of earshot occasionally when the artistic direction calls for stifling silence instead. Discordantly twanging single strings resonate from nowhere in the back of certain corridors. Staring into an elevator shaft through the broken doors you can hear the wind whistling - needless to say it's made to sound almost like the wailing of thin, desperate voices. Attempting to walk upstairs along empty halls you fall through the crumbling staircase only to immediately hear slow, deliberate footsteps... from above you! Stuck in the basement, you uncover the first few clues as to the grisly murders perpetrated herein, including this delightful tidbit:
Your next stop is of course the laundry room, where something rattles heavily in a single operating laundry machine until it stops and creaks open at your approach to reveal... not a severed child's head! Psych!
A slow, awkward little clumsy piano tune congratulates you on managing to start the elevator. You enter it only to hear a monstrously evil voice cackling as the doors shut. You brace yourself, expecting to fall or to be trapped forever... only to find the doors pinging politely open for you on the second floor. Jump scares are easy. Averted jump scares, now that's a whole different matter. Successfully alternating the two is what makes for real suspense. Only after you exit the elevator do you hear it, out of sight in the locked room next door: the unmistakable sound of a metal blade striking meat and bone and being extracted with effort again and again, continuously.
As I remarked in my comments about The Secret World's Faust Capital mission, part of games' value as artistic medium lies in carefully frustrating the player by sometimes making him feel powerless, helpless to affect a certain situation despite an entire arsenal of supernatural or futuristic abilities. Everything in the Ocean House retreats perpetually just out of your reach, glimpsed or heard but disappearing as soon as you open the next door.

I remembered the ending to the Ocean House as slightly disappointing, but this was apparently due to my playing the scandalously incomplete release version of the game. You ascend the hotel to an apparent idiotic Super Mario platform-jumping nightmare tangle of collapsed ceiling beams... only to have the friendlier of the two ghosts helpfully reconstitute the room momentarily to its sunny 1958 glory -
- leaving you to effortlessly cross the last few steps and retrieve the macguffin, her locket. A heartwarmingly anticlimactic but fitting, bittersweet finish for an otherwise gloomy and gruesome story. Yet there was something missing. No, really, there was something literally missing because the incomplete soundtrack to my old version of the game lacked that rich, warm female voice suddenly crooning "if I lived forever you just wouldn't be so beautiful as the sun." This, in a vampire game, from a ghost begging you to banish her. Like a stake through my shriveled heart.
I love it!

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