Overclocked: A History of Violence
First posted on 10 March 2008. Last updated on 05 June 2011.
Best known for its dystopian thriller The Moment of Silence, developer House of Tales is busy readying the international release of its latest, ambitious adventure game—Overclocked: A History of Violence. A German language version of the game has already been released in Europe in late 2007. Recently, I have been granted special access by publisher Lighthouse Interactive to an early build of the English language version of the game for a hands-on preview, and I have been able to get a good look inside of what the finished game will be like. What is evident right from the start is that the story this game tells is definitely not for the faint of heart.
The date is 11 November 2007. For weeks, the city of New York has been covered in rain. Brooklyn Bridge has been closed off due to damage from the torrential storms. As if catalyzed by the bad weather, crime and abuse rates in the city have grown so high that new assaults constantly make into front page stories in the newspapers. In recent days, the rain has started to calm down so that it is no longer dangerous to stay outside, but it is false hope to assume everything else is changing for the better.
David McNamara, a psychiatrist freshly arrived from Washington D.C., has just woken up in his room at the Skyline Hotel, after a short and restless night of sleep. He sets out on the assignment for which he has come to New York. Unfortunately, the city proves to be quite a foreign and an overall unpleasant experience for David. He is cheated by a taxi driver out of most of his money, the cash dispenser does not work, and even the ferry which he needs to take to Staten Island does not look to be safe to ride on.
David's destination is Staten Island Asylum, a truly grim and poorly kept establishment that is soon (supposedly) to be closed permanently. The only personnel left are the strange and unpleasant Doctor Young and Nurse Tamara. They introduce David to the secret assignment for which he has been recruited to here. Apparently, in the last days, the police have found 3 males and 2 females in their early twenties wandering around the city with their clothes bloodied and torn—some with guns in their hands, screaming and acting aggressive, unwilling or unable to communicate with anyone. David's reputation as a young, talented forensic psychiatrist who has developed an unique therapeutic technique seems to have impressed the authority in charge, and he is now expected to help with this case. Indeed, quickly enough, the patients start to respond to his therapy. Slowly and methodically, he closes in on the center of their anxieties. Their tales begin to intertwine and form a gruesome and shocking story. Yet, David's own tumultuous personal life and the memory of his career in the army that torments him to this date may not constitute a cheerier tale by comparison.
Throughout the game, the player is put into the role of David who is trying to unravel his traumatized patients' suppressed memories of events from before their confinement at the asylum. Building on retrospections and flashbacks as well as moving through recollections of events in reverse time, upon choosing the story creation process to fulfil this premise, the developer has taken up quite a challenge.
The first task for David is to make his disoriented subjects responsive to their current circumstances, by finding the right stimulants for each patient's mind. Then, during each psychiatric session, by forming memory stimulating conversations, the player is allowed to relive a specific subject's vivid memories and to embody that character while reliving that subject's recent past. Right from the start, every moment spent inside these memories involves instant danger and rushed decision making. As it may be expected, it will take a long process of learning the patients’ personalities and perspectives, before the circumstances and the core of their trauma will finally reveal themselves and David will make sense of all the fragmented and unordered recollections. Step by step, the player will learn the truth of where they have been and what they have feared so much.
Even beyond the patients' own inner experience, the reality portrayed by the game seems to be a world that is corrupted by violence, fear, and anger. There are signs of interpersonal conflicts everywhere and in every character's lives, as if there is some basic inability to understand or care about other people's perspective. Many characters in the game appear to represent the different facets of these phenomena or the triggers that induce them. For example, there is the sarcastic, suspicious cop Moretti, who carries inside him the cold objectiveness, or maybe indifference, of the law. There is Doctor Young, who holds a nasty jealousy towards David that is seemingly borne out of a generational gap and a radical difference in medical opinion. There is also the laconic or even peevish security guard whom David meets at the asylum, who trumpets his own arrogant, long unemployed special kind of wisdom. Nevertheless, he is perhaps, in a twisted way, the most friendly and approachable sane person in the game. Having all these said, the game is not preachy in any way, as it delivers no easy solutions or excuses for the problems that the characters are creating for themselves. To lighten the mood, the game boasts brief flashes of humor (but dark humor, as appropriate), most of which come from the characters' own cynical life philosophies or their sarcastic, distanced outlooks of some grim events in the game.
Outside the work hours and the asylum case, there is a wealth of additional details to be discovered that help to build up David's character. These occur in the mornings at the hotel and evenings after work, at the "Nighthawks" bar, and over private telephone conversations between David and his wife or his best friend. I must say that this is probably the first time since the last Gabriel Knight game I have felt that, upon taking my first steps in a game, the main character already has a deeply believable history that goes beyond the specific storyline of the game. His turbulent marriage, his stormy past army career, and his unorthodox beliefs all have a great influence on the events in the game, so that after a while David will find himself struggling to maintain his own emotional sanity and his position of authority at the asylum.
The game is divided into 5 chapters. Each chapter runs over the course of a day and leads off with an often mysterious, parabolic title like a chapter of a novel. Every day starts or ends with a very emotional event, which refreshes the gaming experience of following through another work day. In later chapters, like in a good thriller novel, the story starts to go completely wild and breaks the initial rigid structure of a methodical investigation.
The interface in the game is simple and effective. When you move over a hotspot, the cursor changes to a dialog balloon, a hand, or a magnifying glass. When you click on an object with the hand icon, several more icons show up to identify additional possible actions: eavesdropping, pushing, crawling, and others. Conversation topics from which you choose also appear in the form of icons. In addition, David has a PDA which he uses for various special tasks.
The game clearly focuses on storytelling and on doing it in an immersive way. Puzzle solving and interactions within the game are taken to a distant second. In consequence, the puzzles are mostly easy, straightforward, and are clearly designed not to disrupt the linear and fast paced movie like flow of the story. Most often, they consist of more or less unusual usages of the few items available in the player's immediate reach. Sometimes, the player is seemingly under pressure to act quickly, even though there are no real time constraints built into the game. There are also no red herrings or overzealous numbers of hotspots.
A great part of the game is devoted to piecing together the events that the patients share through their conversations with David. The voice recorder in David's PDA works as a sort of an archive of these conversations, enabling the player to play out bits of their stories to each other to try to elicit more responses from them.
The graphics are a classic combination of pre-rendered backgrounds and 3D character models. Neat uses of close-ups and camera pans add quite a lot of dynamics to the scenes. When a dialog starts, the camera often moves to close in on the characters' faces. Besides relentless rains and stormy clouds, grit and decay fill up the majority of game's locales. This is especially true for the many areas inside the asylum with peeling paints and rusty machineries as well as the mystery location from the troubled youths' memories. Dynamic lighting gives to such fun features as the flashlight's stream of light which the player can fully control in dark places. The virtual cinematography is edgy and has a deliberate modern gritty movie style. It seems a lot of thought has gone into making unconventional scene edits, both for visual stimulation and for narrative presentation. For example, the game employs classical movie cinematography techniques such as split screens. This is very effectively used during the psychiatric sessions, where David is seen talking with a patient and at the same time scenes from the past are being recreated inside the patient's mind. The character models are well textured with details including skin pores and hairs as well as simple but effective facial expressions. The faces get more animated during pre-rendered cut scenes, which the game features in large numbers, and some (such as the nightmare scenes) can be really elaborate and cinematic.
Music is mostly triggered by events in the game that carry emotional impact. It can be suspenseful and toned down for the subtle, slower scenes, or it can be disturbing with a heavy electronic beat for the tense, action packed recollection scenes. The game is also full of excellent sound effects that lend a very convincing ambiance to the environments.
With its ambitious premise and innovative narrative style, Overclocked: A History of Violence may represent an important step for the adventure game genre as it competes against other storytelling medium. However, the "rat in a cage" kind of feelings and other kinds of emotional pressures put on the game's characters can really get through to the player, so playing the game can be emotionally draining. I personally hope that there is to be found some cathartic release for the player in the finale of this "not so happy" story.
Overclocked: A History of Violence is scheduled for an English language release in spring 2008.