Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Electric Haunted Hayride

All this talk of zombie invasions in everyone's favorite games with the general resurfacing of zombies as a rule during Halloween is bringing back my bizarre 10 second musings on how awesome it would be if a zombie apocalypse ever happened. Never mind that I'd probably be one of the first to go. Luckily, if my activities this October are to be believed, I'd make one hell of a zombie. In between intense readings of The Walking Dead, a comic I took far to long to read, I've taken an odd job at a local haunted hayride.

Whitetail Farm's haunted hayride occupies a bizarre space somewhere between exceptionally hokey and genuinely scary. I'd feel extremely awkward criticizing the ride if it were some sort of family-friendly wacky Halloween fun ride, but the rather gory props used and attempts at genuine scares seem like they were going for a somewhat older audience. At the same time, it plays it ridiculously safe in other areas. Is a cliche chainsaw-wielding Jason or a flying white sheet ghost really pushing the horror envelope? And that's where I come in. The ghost part. Not a zombie per se. That's the job of a friend of mine several yards down the ride, while another guy I know jumps at passers by in a devil costume between conversations with a Priest who, none too ironically, is a total pedophile. Does lusting after underage girls negate the stereotype?

There is a truly bizarre thrill to be derived from scaring a trailerfull of Missourians pulling a rope behind a tree. With the hood of my raggedy jacket down low, crouched behind a couple thin trees who's seems fairly dubious, the frightened screams from up ahead serve as a wonderful confirmation that I succeeded. It's not that I'm particularly overjoyed with my having what it takes to become a haunted house worker, if that is something to be excited about. It's just nice to be vindicated for the effort. "Did you see those punks? That's right. I scared them. Beat that, McDonalds Burger Flipper man. Damn straight I'm earning that $6.25 an hour." And let's bring that back to where we started. I'd be one hell of a zombie because I'm already doing a damn good job scaring people for minimum wage. Imagine how good I'd be at it if minimum wage was brains?

And like a preacher myself struggling to bring a story about my niece and her skateboarding friends back to the Lord, it's time to bring this exciting anecdote back to games. I've been building this weird metaphor in my head between my weekend job and Valve's upcoming multiplayer horrorfest Left 4 Dead. The game is like the virtual extension of a haunted hayride. The survivors are the paying customers ($60 dollars, in fact) on a ride crafted to some degree to scare the living shit out of you. Meanwhile, the zombies are the paid employees. Except it's like if you wanted to pay to work at the hay ride. I guess that's not totally out of the realm of possibility. There are paid internships and unpaid internships. I'm sure it can go into the negatives. Left 4 Dead is one of those fun games I get to talk excitedly about with my friends who don't happen to be internet-reading game nerds. It's a big budget zombie game coming out at just the right time, Halloween. As a result, a lot of my friends just know about. Something odd I've been noticing though is that many of them don't seem to know about playing the zombies. Perhaps it's not something sold very heavily in the advertisements?

The zombie side has me flip-flopping on whether I'm interested or not. All reports from the field make it sound pretty fun, for sure. The survivor side sounds like where it's at, though. The AI Director system which dynamically restructures the game based on your preformance and experience, really speaks to Valve's unique approach to making games. As anyone who took the time to replay the Orange Box games with commentary knows, Valve loves to focus test. But they seem to take it from another angle. Rather than dumbing down their games based on rumblings from the peanut gallery, they come up with new and creative solutions that include the idiots while keeping the more seasoned players from walking away in disgust. It'd be interesting to know the kind and amount of focus testing was involved in the making of Left 4 Dead based on the nature of the game. Valve promises restructuring encounters, making them easier on you if your ragged and beaten, or upping the ante if you're doing too damn good. It would be interesting to see how they found out when to let off the onslaught. What is too much? Hopefully me and Valve will agree on when and when to ramp up the difficulty. If Portal is any indication, I'm sure we will.