Premature Evaluation: Monstrum

Given how utterly terrifying, unknown and lethal the sea has been to humans throughout recorded history, maritime horror is a remarkably underused setting in games. Perhaps it's a British thing, being an island nation obsessed with naval superiority, that stories of ghost ships and sea monsters are so particularly resonant: the largest percentage of our idioms are nautical references. By and large, if you can’t fathom what a phrase means, it probably comes from sailing. In fact, “by and large” and “fathom” are nautical terms. The same goes for: cut and run, toe the line, know the ropes, touch and go. You can build entire statements out of them alone: “It’s not a hard and fast rule, but anyone who is three sheets to the wind is a bit of a loose cannon and should be given a wide berth, even if, normally, you like the cut of their jib.” Nautical terms pop up in unusual places. Slush fund, for example, comes from the practice of hoarding the rancid fat from boiled meat so that it might be sold on at port. Yummy.

Each week Marsh Davies skittishly edges into the gloomy bowels of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or simply hides in a locker and tries not to cry too loudly. This week he dons his brownest trousers and hopes never to face his fears in Monstrum, a firstperson horror game set on a boat that procedurally reconfigures its layout every time you get eaten.

My, hasn’t the Find Some Things While Being Chased By A Thing genre come a long way? Only two and half years ago it was largely consigned to the realms of shonky boo-scare creepypasta homage. Now we have dozens upon dozens of iteratively-improved indie imitators, and even the lustrously-rendered likes of Alien: Isolation, which took Slender’s sandbox-scare principles to the triple-A firmament. You’d think, after all the shrieky reaction-cams, exhaustively explored lockers and soiled pants, that a new entrant of this genre would have to try ever so hard to be as effective – and, to its credit, Monstrum does give an earnest shake to the basics, inasmuch as the procedurally arranged cabins and corridors give its replays a Roguish unpredictability. But, largely, this is a retreat from the fulsome narrative structures of Alien or Outlast to something more simple and, ahem, slender: a gloomy environment and stuff to find in it, before something finds you and permadeaths you through the brain.

Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea is a classic Cab Calloway song, and an apt enough sentiment for the problems you encounter in Monstrum. But, interestingly, the sea wasn’t always blue, either in the phrase after which the song gets its title, or indeed in much writing of antiquity. Blue as a colour is notoriously absent from ancient Greek, and things we might normally consider blue are given other, startling descriptions: Homer famously describes the sea as wine-dark. Did the ancient Greeks suffer from mass colour-blindness? Not only them it would seem: regardless of culture and geography, perception of the colour blue is slow to be evidenced in language across the globe. It’s not in the New Testament or in the Torah (though there is some debate over this, none of the possible candidate words are ever used to describe the sky). Ancient Japan made no distinction between green and blue. Could it be that simply by not having devised a word for this colour, we did not perceive it or even conceive of it?

Awaking with amnesia, the protagonist’s perennial curse, you must scavenge a few erratically punctuated journal entries to make sense of your predicament. Apparently, you’ve been a bit poorly and, during your convalescence, something ate a lot of the crew. Those that remained skedaddled to a life raft, leaving you only an apologetic note and a few overturned lockers to barricade your cabin. It’s probably obvious that you should think of escaping too, by one of several routes: life-raft, helicopter or submersible, and possibly others I have not yet discovered. Which you should choose depends on your luck at recovering various items, secreted in different locations on each playthrough. An aerial exfiltration will demand bolt cutters, keys and the helpfully described “nearby equipment”, which, in my experience, is not actually nearby. The submersible requires new lights, a welding kit, a battery, and balls of steel while you wait out the extremely noisy launch sequence. I haven’t yet succeeded in escaping even once.

You can only carry five items at a time, and you might want to save a few slots for glowsticks, noisemakers, fire extinguishers and other handy tools – so you can’t really hedge your bets over which route you’ll take. You need to go for one, and stick to it. Although, you won’t really have a sense for which one is the more viable on any given playthrough until you’ve died a large number of times – what items are needed, what they look like, where you are likely to find them and how you use them is not something that you’ll ever intuit first time round. Your surroundings are similarly unfamiliar: even without the ship switching its corridors about, it remains a maze of twisting, darkened halls and identical rusting bulkheads that resists your ability to memorise. I think a fair amount could be done to make things a bit less baffling – at least to get you up to speed with your protagonist’s presumed knowledge of ship procedure – but clearly the idea is that you aggregate the knowledge required for survival over successive lives.

Anyway, back to horrible things on boats. In 1951, the HMS Affray was the last Royal Navy submarine to be lost at sea, with 75 hands on board. The circumstances around its demise are mysterious indeed, with subsequent reconnaissance not managing to conclusively say how the submarine ended up on the bottom of the sea bed off the coast of Alderney. At the time, mutiny and Russian attack were mooted, and some believed the training exercise in which the Affray was engaged was cover for some other sort of mission. Though these explanations seem very implausible next to mishap and mechanical failure, there remain two deeply peculiar and aptly spooooooky occurrences. While searching for the missing sub, one of the rescue vessels located a massive object on the seabed using sonar. It was too large to be the submarine in question, but with the possibility of saving the Affray dwindling by the hour, it was not investigated. When the rescue vessel returned days later, it had gone.

And you’ll certainly go through plenty of those. Even without a bogeyman on the loose, Monstrum’s ship is a safety compliance officer’s nightmare, with deadly drops and ruptured pipes that periodically emit lethal jets of steam. Dying to these is instant and really quite irritating: your mind is on bigger things and then – squirt! – game over. You can disable them with nearby valves, but this feels a bit of a chore. I can see why they were thought to be a good idea: taking control of your environment is good preparation for later, when you may need to book it down this same hall with something in hot pursuit. And yet, to stumble from a gloomy galley into Videogames Deathtrap Corridor feels a weirdly obtrusive contrivance.

You really do have bigger problems, too: something hunts you in the darkness of this derelict ship – exactly what, and how, changes. Monstrum’s big draw is that it will eventually have a bestiary of three possible foes and you never know which you’ll face on a given attempt. The variety in this early alpha is limited to just two flavours of horrible, and I’ll only talk about one of them: a hulking, glowing brute that has already appeared in the promotional material for the game. You can hear it thumping down the corridors, its fiery glow giving you small forewarning of its appearance round corners. Despite some time with the game, I haven’t been able to discern its rationale or process for finding you – although it often does, pounding across the space between you to snap your neck. Hiding in lockers, the number one pastime of gaming protagonists in 2014, seems only occasionally effective, though I’m not sure why. You also have noisemakers and throwable items, but I’ve not been able to make effective use of them: the ship’s unknowable layout rarely allows you deploy such lures with forethought, and the cramped confines often mean you face the monster down a narrow corridor. Throwing a coffee cup to distract it is not going to work – although I have tried.

The other spooky occurrence is even weirder and a lot less likely to be true. Supposedly the wife of a skipper of another Royal Navy submarine was visited by a ghost - a ghost of an officer who’d died in the second world war, to be precise, and not one of the Affray’s crew. Dripping wet and still clad in his naval uniform, he informed her of the Affray’s location - information that, according to James Hamilton-Paterson in “Seven-tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds”, turned out to be accurate. Wooooo-oooooo-oooo!

Other monsters may have alternative ways of traversing the ship and, supposedly, other means by which they detect the player’s presence. I don’t know what they are, because, as with Alien, a lot of the AI smarts is sadly but unavoidably invisible to the player. I think these games would be a lot more interesting to me, although a lot less scary, if you had a top down view, and could see the monster AI at work, snuffling round bulkheads and poking about in lockers, declaring its every thought or suspicion. As it is, the intelligence against which you pit your own wits is reduced to a lethal cameo: either it’s here, and you’re dead, or it’s somewhere else.

That said, I appreciate that the Find Some Things While Being Chased By A Thing genre is an attempt to systematise horror, to try and make it true to the medium of games rather than simply ape cinema. The experience of playing a game can never be anything like the experience a horror film protagonist has in his or her linear narrative; the foreknowledge and repetition make horror games a structurally and emotionally distinct experience. Monstrum’s reconfiguring corridors and alternating antagonists address the problems of over-familiarising yourself with the threat through multiple playthroughs, even if it sacrifices some of its coherency as a setting to do so.

If you have a spare half-hour-going-on-entire-evening, I recommend idly googling unexplained marine sounds. There are quite a few of them and they all have funny names. The Bloop was a sustained, low-frequency moan, thought to be of animal origin - and yet several times louder than the loudest recorded animal. Then there are Quackers: all the more interesting for supposedly having been recorded by both Russian and American vessels during the Cold War, each assuming they were encountering a technology developed by the other. This is not to be confused with another, recently solved mystery sound, bio-duck, thought to be vocalisations from the antarctic minke whale. The quacking of a Quacker comes instead from the Russian onomatopoeic description of a frog’s sound, and while sources are so scant as to have apparently warranted the Wikipedia page’s abrupt deletion, it’s plausible that there are indeed large marine animals which have fled to greater depths to escape the vast increase in marine noise.

It’s certainly basically effective: as you scuttle around the decaying and deserted hulk, jumping at every rattle and creak, Monstrum proves that the bare bones of the genre are themselves unnerving. That said, if you put me in a dark box and occasionally make a loud banging noise, you can pretty much consistently trigger my fight-or-flight response (though mostly just flight). With that in mind, I’m not sure it’s enough, for me personally, to be scared – I also have to be interested as well, and I worry that the task of collecting items feels too unknowable, repetitive and arbitrary. My excitement hinges on the potential of Monstrum’s AI encounters: how visibly you can interact with it; how distinct in its behaviour one monster is from another. The other bugbears with the alpha – clunky menus, botched animations, absent “save and quit” features and keybindings dredged from the very depths of hell itself – I have confidence these will be addressed. But my personal qualms are broader: the genre’s come along way since Slender, I just don’t know if it’s in a direction I’m particularly keen to follow.

Monstrum is available from Steam for £10, and it’s planned to stay in Early Access for 3-5 months before launching at a full price of £12. I played version 0.8.2 on 12/02/2015.

37 Comments

  1. LennyLeonardo says:

    I hate it when horror games try to be true to the medium of ape cinema.

  2. Hex says:

    I’ve been waiting for this game for about 12 years, now. While serving on the USN’s oldest operating aircraft carrier at the time, I frequently found myself daydreaming about the thing as a setting for a horror game involving monsters and the player’s need to locate and repair a means of escape.

    The ship regularly experienced power issues during the several deployments I joined the crew. Walking down the long passageways with nothing but periodic emergency light oases every 20 yards or so was terrifying and awesome. No matter what time of day it was outside, it was always midnight in the guts of that beast.

    • Democrodile says:

      One of my great uncle’s worked at the shipyard’s in Jarrow in the 30’s and described similar feelings whilst working in the darkness of the Olympic and other ships that were at the end of their lives.

      “Echoes of murmurs and memories” is something i remember him saying. Whilst I adore naval history I doubt there’s a sum that could be paid to me to put myself in a similar position.

  3. amateurviking says:

    Interestingly, the translation of the Odyssey I have*, translated it as wine-blue. Which I always though was a bit funky.

    *I want to say it’s Graves’ but I am currently a very long way from my bookshelf.

    • Jorum says:

      “wine-dark” is the normal translation.

      Interestingly the ancient Greeks tended to call the sky bronze for some reason.

      • MistaJah says:

        Radiolab told me they had no word for blue and that their sky was green.

        • Bugamn says:

          Umberto Eco wrote a very interesting book about translation and he touches on the topic of colors. From what I remember, it’s more like different cultures can use different frames to interpret colors, so that the translation can’t really be done 1:1. As an example, it mentioned a tribe whose words for colors were more related to brightness and texture, or something like that, which could help to distinguish fresh vegetables from bad ones. Those words can’t really be translated to colors as we are familiar. And we can’t simply say that we have the word “bright” and its enough, because we don’t interpret bright as a color.
          Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the book with me, but I recommend it to anyone with an interest in translation.

  4. bill says:

    Was Slender before Amnesia?

    The point about understanding AI thoughts is interesting. Reminds me of the way that Half Life managed to use its Spec Ops voice barks to create a much more interesting scenario and make them seem much more intelligent than they were.
    Maybe these kind of games need some talking monsters. A few of the early splicer encounters in Bioshock, where they were taunting you from the shadows or telling you they were going to find you were also pretty effective, if pre-scripted.
    Which, of course, brings my train of thought to Thief and the way the guards would verbalize their thoughts.

    If you could mix the thief AI and vocalization with something scary like splicer/aliens/haunts then you might get a more involving experience. It’d be a tricky line to walk without making them seem to predictable and dumb though.

    • EhexT says:

      FEAR did this perfectly. The Clone Soldiers verbalized their plans and especially their reactions. Hearing the squad leader order one of them to check out flashlight and them actually doing that made them seems like the smartest things you’d ever fought – especially when the squad leader would then react with a loud “oh fuck!” when their scout gets vaporized by a mine or a grenade.

      • bv728 says:

        The AI in F.E.A.R. is actually surprisingly simple (see link to alumni.media.mit.edu for details – it’s a cool paper). It’s really well implemented, but I think they degree to which they sold the impression that the AI is complicated and communicating is the more impressive feat there. I think you could get an entire article out of analyzing how effectively F.E.A.R. used audio cues and level design to convince the player things were more complicated than they were.

        • Bugamn says:

          I wish more games had a simple AI as well implemented as FEAR. Enemies in latest iterations of CoD, BF and MoH that I played seemed as complex as targets in an amusement park. In most FPS I have played recently I don’t remember seeing the enemies doing anything more complex that standing behind cover. Sometimes they throw grenades.
          Halo also had some nice enemies, but it has been some time since I played it. Will Microsoft make it available from any digital retailer? Microsoft had some nice games for PC.

        • Ross Angus says:

          Alice, would you mind having a go at this article? I believe F.E.A.R. is one of your faves.

  5. malkav11 says:

    Hm. I like the setting, but I was expecting something a bit more in the vein of Amnesia or Outlast – i.e., a narrative-driven experience with hiding from things that want to murder you along the way. I’m quite confident I’m not interested in a largely experiential procedural take on horror gaming, however it might jangle my nerves. Just as well I didn’t preorder in Nuuvem’s big sale.

  6. meepmeep says:

    Top alt-tagging there.

    • April March says:

      It’s too much! Davies, you went too far this time! You’re suspended! Give up your journo-badge and your writing gun!

    • Ross Angus says:

      I feel there should be a tag for “a parallel article is hidden in the alt text”.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Yeah, Chris did very well adding alt text to every image when he used to do this column, but Marsh has been going above and beyond since he started.

    • kament says:

      Wow, thanks meepmeep! Nearly missed it. So much better than stupid pull quotes. But yes, a tag would be nice, good call, Ross.

  7. MistaJah says:

    This looks a bit like Penumbra, doesn’t it? I’ll rather pay £12 for a finished, polished game than £10 for buggyness monster Ness of a game thankyou.

  8. Spakkenkhrist says:

    I can’t find anything to corroborate the story about the huge object being detected by sonar in the HMS Affray case, source?

    • Marsh Davies says:

      I believe it’s referenced in Disasters of the Deep: A Comprehensive Survey of Submarine Accidents & Disasters by Edwyn Gray.

      “By early May the Affray had still not been located but [Captain W. O.] Shelford was impressed by the number of letters and telephone calls his HQ was receiving from clairvoyants, mediums and other sources of psychic and para-normal phenomena, all of whom claimed to know where the submarine was located. Almost in desperation he plotted the various positions on his chart and was surprised to find that they all centred on one specific location and at a point that was outside the main search area. In Shelford’s own words:

      ‘I told the Admiral that so much evidence was accumulating in this way that we should send a ship to investigate it. Captain Foster Brown went himself and immediately reported such loud echoes on the Asdic that “they nearly knocked him off the bridge”. A fuller investigation revealed absolutely nothing in the area (and) it was in any case some seventy-five miles from the spot where the Affray was eventually found.’

      No one has ever explained why there should have been such a powerful sonar echo in that particular location, and the unanimity of the psychic references to the same spot makes it all the more puzzling.”

      • Spakkenkhrist says:

        Thanks, I couldn’t find it referenced anywhere else in my brief search.

  9. P7uen says:

    I have zero interest in Early Access or Greenlight at all, but always look forward to Marsh Davieseseses’s’es articles. I have enjoyed RPS a bit less since the departure of the old hands and breaks from John and Alec, but now they’re back and with the superb writing above, RPS is still one of my favourite sites. Thanks RPS!

  10. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    People must have been able to perceive blue before naming it – or how would they have known there was something that could be named?

    • GardenOfSun says:

      A classical problem of philosophy right there. With such questions, in my humble opinion, you start to get close to the rabbit hole of the matter of relations between subject-language-reality!

      If I may elaborate further – furthering, of course, on the “my humble opinion” course – the answer lies in the fact that there’s no “blue” independent of our concepts. Even though it seems many philosophers and scientists – especially, I must say, in your fair anglosaxon world – do not seem to realize it, we do not perceive “a thing out there” and then give it a name, but rather produce names as means to adapt to each other’s course of actions – and as a result of this, as mere artifacts of perception, “objects” and “stuff” arise in our experience. Meaning that – for example – it’s quite possible that in the distant future there will be people who won’t understand why we called the sea “blue” and be puzzled by such a strange expression. What was the sea, then, all along? Why, nothing but a frame of reference to allow us to talk with each other.

      (Reality cannot be found, as we are so desperately wont to do, in what our language *seems* to say, but rather in how the relationship between language and non-language must be in order for signification to be possible. And maybe in mathematics. Maybe. But that’s language too!)

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        The human eye contains three similar types of cell for detecting coloured light, each of which is sensitive to (a range of colours which peaks at) a particular colour, Red, Green and Blue. Any other colours are inferred from the relative intensities detected, eg something which is purple will be detected strongly by the blue and red cells and will be interpreted as purple in the brain.
        So, given that colour blindness is genetic, and we can see that modern Greek populations don’t have an unusual level of colour blindness, it’s very likely that the ancient Greeks could see exactly the same colours as us, so their lack of a written word for blue must be sociological, not biological.
        It would be interesting to know when words for blue were introduced to the Greek language.

  11. Eight Rooks says:

    On the one hand, thank Christ, it’s not just me:

    That said, if you put me in a dark box and occasionally make a loud banging noise, you can pretty much consistently trigger my fight-or-flight response (though mostly just flight). With that in mind, I’m not sure it’s enough, for me personally, to be scared – I also have to be interested as well

    I don’t like to even call it being “scared” – any idiot can slap me on the back and make me jump, there’s no skill involved there. On the other hand, you’re kind of contradicting yourself with

    The experience of playing a game can never be anything like the experience a horror film protagonist has in his or her linear narrative; the foreknowledge and repetition make horror games a structurally and emotionally distinct experience

    – no! Bad games journalist! Unless you think that the only thing the protagonist goes through is being “scared”. I mean, I take your point in general, but “distinct” seems like it’s entirely the wrong word to use. They are not completely separate, end of story. If a horror game gets me invested, using pretty much the same tricks as a film might, I’ll still care about it, I’ll still be got at on a far deeper emotional and intellectual level long after the jump scares have turned into nothing more than cheap haunted house tricks.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Ugh, I have no idea what happened with the formatting there, and now I can’t edit it for some reason. D’oh! I did think it was a really good writeup (and confirmation it’s probably not a game for me) I just tut-tutted at that particular point.

      • Ross Angus says:

        I think when we accidentally tied Peter Molyneux to a stake and burnt him, the fire got all over the edit buttons.

        THERE IS NO GOING BACK THERE IS ONLY FORWARD.

        That is what I’ve tried to draw from this experience.

  12. Cfoofoo says:

    ” I don’t know what they are, because, as with Alien, a lot of the AI smarts is sadly but unavoidably invisible to the player.”

    This is my problem with games like this too. The Alien supposedly has a complex sensory system it uses to track you. The big monster in the first Dead Space appears at specific pre-scripted moments. In your first playthrough of either game, these two approaches are indistinguishable.