Ginger Nuts of Horror
....and are generally uninteresting as antagonists, owing to their almost cartoonish uber-villainy (they would not be out of place in certain Marvel comic franchises).
Never heard of this one? Not surprising. An obscure, dirty and extremely short lived franchise from the days of the Dreamcast and original X-Box, Condemned: Criminal Origins is a bizarre hybrid of first person not-quite-shooter, point and click adventure and survival horror.
Billed as another step in the evolution of horror in video games, the original game follows the exploits of Detective Ethan Thomas who operates in a world of urban filth and decay; a world that is crumbling down around his ears, its dissolution almost inevitable. The game makes a point of emphasising how close society has come to total collapse; radio broadcasts, TV news reports and snippets of overheard conversation emphasising the almost mindless violence that is escalating beyond all control or containment, the abandonment of civilised mores by otherwise perfectly “normal” people who, within a space of days, become just other examples of the human vermin infesting every street of every city; the inability of sociologists, politicians, priests and philosophers to explain the phenomenon, leaving humanity only one step away from descent into total chaos.
At the game's opening, Ethan Thomas is called to the site of a particularly elaborate murder, in which a victim is sat at a dining table opposite a mannequin -mannequins in general play a large part in the game's recurring symbolism-; a motif that Thomas recognises as belonging to a particular serial killer. It is at this point that the game attempts to distance itself from other first person games of its era, by not descending into action and gun-play, but a comparatively sedate “forensic” investigation, in which the player must investigate the crime scene for clues and evidence.
This could have been fantastic, even given the technical limitations of the era; the more action-oriented segments of the game punctuated by point and click style puzzles and mysteries. Unfortunately, the technical execution of the investigations is fairly banal, requiring nothing more than for the player to sweep any given area with a specified device before clicking a button to take a photograph of it. There is none of the in-depth analysis one would expect from a game that markets itself in the way that Condemned does; a factor that its spiritual successor, at least in terms of intent, Heavy Rain, exemplifies. The investigations are generally nothing more than simple find and click affairs, and generally tedious or frustrating to the Nth degree, as the player will find themselves scanning an area or surface several times with myriad different devices before finding what is necessary (the clues often oblique, as is the order in which they are to be gathered).
A great shame, and arguably the game's most crippling flaw, as this was its chance to be something truly noteworthy; a case of not being the equal of its own ambition or inspiration. Even more tragic, considering that the game has glimmers of absolute brilliance: its atmosphere has to be experienced to be believed: akin to watching certain examples of cinema such as Seven or similarly macabre pieces, the game seethes with despair and a kind of sickness, the consistently urban settings feeling diseased, as though reflecting the ideological decay occurring in the city outside. From derelict apartment blocks to abandoned tube stations, to disused factories and empty elementary schools, the game contains almost every backdrop familiar to and beloved of fans of horror cinema, and uses them to its advantage rather beautifully: each has its own host of horrors, its own stories to uncover, many of which fans of certain genres will immediately recognise. In that, it plays like a simultaneous homage to and history of psychological horror, the crumbling, claustrophobic corridors of factories and office blocks, the heady, grungy, griminess of the game evoking The Silence of the Lambs, the aforementioned Seven, Last House on the Left and other notable works.
Its horror vacillates between the incredibly subtle and sophisticated to the cheap and yawn-some: beyond the fantastic atmosphere, the uncertainty the game evokes as to Ethan Thomas's mental stability, there are numerous jump-scares, orchestra stings and other cheap and nasty horror thrills that serve to diminish the game rather than enhance it. It feels as though the developers or some other influence upon the game lacked faith in its central premise and the atmosphere it evokes to carry the day, littering it with more popular, tried and tested jumps and tricks as a means of making it more appealing to a wider market.
This is an immense shame, as it dilutes what might otherwise have been a very notable piece of work indeed. Between the periods of exploration and investigation, the player is increasingly deluged with ham-fisted combat segments, which, strangely, for a first person game, are largely melee based, and not terribly successful at all: whilst the various tramps and drug addicts and pipe-wielding lunatics can provoke some minor scares, they are generally just frustrating, the combat clunky and extremely difficult to get to grips with, the sheer number of enemies attacking from various sides at times enough to make the player grind their teeth in frustration. The game feels padded with these segments, as though it wanted to be something else; something more sedate and story driven, at some point in its development, but was torn apart and stitched back together into something wholly less than the sum of its parts. The “combat” segments also have the annoying quality of reminding the player that they are, in fact, playing a video game, when the game's appeal relies upon immersion in its atmosphere. Again, a wasted opportunity.
As the game progresses, the player becomes less and less certain about Ethan Thomas's mental state, the extremely “real” environments and enemies giving way to subtle distortions and what appear to be supernatural phenomena (the school setting has some excellent examples of this). Contrasting beautifully with the world established, and never entirely explained, these elements are some of the best in the game, as they come somewhat out of nowhere, blind-siding the player, and leaving them extremely uncertain as to what is truly happening. Unfortunately, this also results in an ambiguity and narrative uncertainty at the game's climax that some may find frustrating or unpalatable.
It's an entirely frustrating experience, as there are glimmers of an excellent game here, in the same vein as Clive Barker's Jericho, another example of great visuals, settings, aesthetics, but with controls and pacing that are so all over the place, it's impossible to appreciate as an example of video game art.
Condemned has managed to amass a minor cult following, despite its flaws, largely because its atmosphere, setting and mythology are so intriguing: the notion of a society in decay, reflected not only in its architecture, but an ideological corrosion; of madness and violence as something communicable, is fantastic; something that could make a wonderful basis for a novel, comic book, TV series...even a re-imagining of the franchise. Given the current political climate (spontaneous violence erupting at presidential rallies in the USA, heightened racial and religious tensions throughout the UK, Europe, anti-immigration scape-goating by corrupt and feckless governments and media outlets), Condemned is the kind of work that has a lot of potential, at least in terms of its foundational conceits: it could be remarkably relevant; the kind of video game that non-video game playing public and media take seriously.
As it stands, the original game is so powerfully flawed, it is difficult to recommend; it's worth experiencing for its atmosphere, for the clever concepts that it broaches; for the occasionally brilliant moment, but anyone doing so must also be prepared for periods of extreme repetition, frustration and general tedium, as the game is never quite the equal of its own boasts, nor does it have a great deal of faith in its own purpose.
Now, the game's sequel, Condemned 2, is all of the sins of the first game ramped up to the power of N, with a whole host of new ones to keep us in the critical sphere champing at the bit.
Rarely has a sequel served to so wholeheartedly murder any glimmer of potential in its predecessor; so utterly capitulated to popular pressure and profoundly gutted itself in an effort to become more whole.
Condemned 2 simply does away with any subtlety, any attempt to treat the playing audience with a degree of respect or sophistication.
Ethan Thomas, who is significantly redesigned and re-imagined in this game, is an excellent case in point: in the original, he is clearly around middle age, slightly overweight, not massively handsome; a fairly average man caught up in bizarre and extraordinary events.
Condemned 2 makes him a grizzled action hero; a “Solid Snake” archetype, as devoid of distinction as any number of “designed by committee” specimens.
Furthermore, the game abandons any of the quieter, more atmospheric moments of the original game in favour of almost constant combat; the game is a mindless bloodbath, which would be fine, if that were where its strengths lie, but the combat here is at least as frustrating as in the original game, if not moreso. The horror of this game is also notably less sophisticated, erring on the side of jump-scares and graphic violence to evoke reaction, as well as taking the player character out of the claustrophobic confines of a suburban setting during its latter segments, which destroys any thematic consistency.
More and bigger does not necessarily translate to better, as this game aptly demonstrates: the escalating combat simply becomes frustrating, after a time, especially since the game seems intent on amping itself up to sheer ludicrousness in terms of situation (there is a point where you fight an honest to god grizzly bear).
But the greatest sin of this game is with regards to the fragments of back mythology established in its predecessor; whilst the first game contained suggestions of the mysterious cult (“The Oro”) that may be responsible for the escalating violence and societal decay Ethan finds himself mired in, these elements were ambiguous, counter-pointed by the player's uncertainty as to Thomas's own mental state; to what degree what he experienced was real or hallucinated.
Here, those elements are made overt: the Oro exists, they ARE responsible for the escalating violence and societal decay and they are baddy bad bad bad, from 666 Badlane, Baddington, Badtown, the nation of Bad.
First and foremost, applying responsibility for the escalation in violence to an agency such as the Oro does away with the depth and intrigue the original game established; it takes responsibility way from the player for considering these notions both within the constraints of the gaming universe and outside, in waking life. It effectively absolves the player of responsibility, making them the unambiguous “good guy,” despite the violence they commit throughout, whereas the first game ended with the very possible concept that Ethan Thomas was just another one of the lunatics that infest the game's urban sprawl, and may in fact be hallucinating the whole damn thing. Second of all, providing an absolute and concrete explanation simply renders the game down to a “game” and nothing else; violence is not a complex thing in this world anymore; it is simply the unfortunate product of very bad men being very bad men; there are no more complex factors to consider. Thirdly, the Oro themselves are vague in terms of their philosophy and motivations, extremely silly in terms of their aesthetics and design and are generally uninteresting as antagonists, owing to their almost cartoonish uber-villainy (they would not be out of place in certain Marvel comic franchises).
Such a sad, sad waste; the death knell of what might have otherwise been very promising, if flawed, material.
Purchase a copy here
A vile waking... There are places we walk; cold and dusk-lit; places where the wind whispers, carrying echoes of forgotten games. ...a storm of sadism, more loving than any embrace or caress he'd ever known... There are places where we are naked; where the grass and weeds rasp across bleeding wounds, exposed nerves, their dew glistening red. ...we are all sick; some are simply sicker than most... Places where the silence cannot be broken, its insect chatter fraying thought, fracturing sanity. ...shadows swarming around their intertwined bodies, whispering, congealing... These are the Strange Playgrounds; places where we meet our murdered or abandoned selves, and join their desperate games. Come and play awhile