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Horror is an odd genre, one that's too often defined by a reliance on jump-scares and sudden attacks that don't really add much to the value of the game experience. At Bigben Interactive's GDC booth—Bigben is the publisher of Frogware's Sherlock Holmes series—I got to check out 2Dark, a stealth survival-horror game from Alone in the Dark designer Frédérick Raynal, with a unique visual style that combined elements of story from Heavy Rain, with the humor and style of the 16-bit era.
Shown from a top-down isometric view, it was like Zelda: A Link to the Past crossed with Silent Hill. While close in visual style to Lone Survivor, 2Dark has the most unique look of a pixel art game that I've seen—largely because it's a 3D game. While I wasn't entirely sure, due to the thick French accents of the developers who walked me through a demo of the game, the characters are voxel-based—made out of cubes—but if I got it correctly, there's a pixel-based shader put on top of them, which conforms them even more to the classic 16-bit sprite look.
The game opens with you playing Smith, a happy family man, who goes to investigate something while camping, to return to discover "his wife cut in two, it happens, sometimes," as described by Thierry Platon, the writer at Gloomy Wood who provided color commentary throughout the demo. Smith hears a scream and runs off just in time to see his children fading into the distance on the back of a bus. The game picks up 17 years later, as you piece together clues about other missing children.
2Dark proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you don't have to be realistic or rely on jump-scares to be creepy and scary. Much of the game is cast in darkness, and you make a certain amount of noise when you walk, run, or use weapons (guns are particularly loud) which creates an expanding blue circle for the duration of the sound that can attract characters if it gets near them. Similarly, enemies or NPCs will have a white circle that shows the limits of their field of vision, and if they see the beam of your flashlight or lighter, they'll come investigate.
The first level takes place in an abandoned amusement park, run by its former incredibly creepy clown star. You soon discover that the clown has been abducting children, so you'll need to save them, escorting them back to the entrance, tip-toeing past any enemies you haven't already killed. And if you have killed anyone, then you have to hide the bodies or the kids will run away.
Along the way you discover the first of what is apparently a ring of serial killers, with the clown as your first target. At the center of the circus, he's forcing the children (who are wearing quite frankly adorable animal onesies which seem at odds with the dark tone of the story) to jump through a ring of fire. Wait too long for him to go through the motions, however, and he opens up lion cages nearby for the beasts to attack you.
The clown, the level boss, has a lot of health and will attack from the shadows, so it's necessary to always keep him in the sight of your flashlight, lest he flank you and attack from behind. Not having life-bars or other indicators of health, 2Dark shows you the damage on enemies or your heroes in the form of voxels being knocked out of them; the more you damage the boss, the more chunks of his body go missing, which is actually far creepier than it sounds.
Killing the boss didn't end the level, though. It was still necessary to get the abducted kids to the exit. Platon told me that in later levels the kids would be more easily distracted, would cry at random intervals (drawing attention), and that some would have Stockholm Syndrome and want to stay with their serial killer. Darn it, Jimmy!
There were further dangers on the way out too. The conspiracy started to reveal itself with an encounter with three armed men who had packed children into boxes for transport to an undisclosed location. Dispatching them, since two of them had guns, was no easy feat. In the demo the Gloomy Wood devs attracted the attention of a lion, which they were able to maneuver into setting upon the gunmen. However, this was a risky proposition, since predators in the game will target the children first, since they are smaller, easier prey.
2Dark is easily one of the most fascinating games I saw at GDC, where the visuals drew on nostalgia for the 16-bit era while simultaneously pushing the concept of what pixel art can be or do. The emphasis on design, difficulty, stealth, and horror was evident through the gameplay and story. It's expected to darken your screens on Xbox One, PS4, and PC later this year.