This IS A Series About Games You Haven’t Heard Of!
Normally, Second Opinion is a show where we take a game everyone’s heard of and try to present an alternative point of view. For example: why Half-Life 2, despite being the most-praised first-person shooter of all time, is overrated and bad. But despite the fact that we open every show with “THIS IS NOT A SERIES ABOUT GAMES YOU HAVEN’T HEARD OF,” we still inevitably get requests to cover games people haven’t heard of. That’s where Second Opinion Shorts comes in – it’s a chance for me to step back from yelling about why everyone is wrong and just celebrate a good under-appreciated game.
There have been a lot of good games this year. Like, a lot. It’s as though everyone in the games industry decided that they were going to single-handedly make up for the overall crappiness of 2016. Critics like myself are already looking with dread to the end of the year, when we’ll be tasked with trying to figure out which of these great games was the greatest. But as we reach the six-month point of 2017, you know what game’s stayed stuck in my head? It’s not any of the games you’re thinking of – it’s not Persona 5, it’s not Nier Automata, and it’s certainly not Breath of the Wild. It’s The Crow’s Eye, an almost entirely unknown psychological horror game that turns into Portal halfway through its runtime.
No, The Crow’s Eye is maybe not as “objectively” good as those excellent games I just mentioned, as much as any value judgement of an entertainment project can be objective. It had a few serious technical issues at launch, although those have been mostly fixed. Its writing is a bit clunky at times, and a few of the voice actors are clearly not professionals, including one character who makes Peter Dinklage’s mercenary Destiny performance look good. But that’s because The Crow’s Eye is a true indie game – not a publisher-backed million-dollar megaproject like No Man’s Sky, not a cheap cash grab like any of the hundreds of shitty DayZ clones on Steam – a properly independent game clearly made by people who were passionate for the project. It’s that passion – evident in every detail – that makes The Crow’s Eye so endearing to me, even and perhaps especially because it’s a little rough around the edges. It’s the game equivalent of an art film, except that it’s actually fun.
But look at me – I’m defending the game before most of you even know what it is. Let’s rectify that, shall we? The Crow’s Eye is a mixture of psychological horror and puzzle adventure, leaning more on the latter but not skimping on the former. The player wakes up with no memory in an abandoned building they soon discover used to be Crowswood University medical school. Their only point of contact in the crumbling nightmare is William Holtwick, a man who looks like Rutherford B. Hayes and sounds like Mark Hamill’s Joker. As he guides you through what may or may not be a series of maniacal experiments, you’ll collect letters and audio logs and slowly start piecing together the horrible history of Crowswood.
Now I know what you’re thinking – so far, so stereotypical. You’ve played this game a hundred times before. Well, bad indie horror games may be a dime a million on Steam, but one of the things that makes The Crow’s Eye so wonderful is that every time you think you’ve got it figured out it sidesteps the usual tropes and shows itself to be something much more original. The concept of a mysterious voice with ulterior motives guiding you through a nightmare hellscape was a trope even when Portal – which this game was very clearly influenced by – more or less perfected it. But what makes William Holtwick so interesting is that not only are you unsure whether or not he’s on your side, he himself seems unsure whether he wants to help you or torture you. This is a guy who makes GLaDOS look sane, and he’s given a wonderfully manic energy by Ryan Wiley’s cackling performance. I mean it – the fact that there’s no chance of Wiley being nominated for any sort of voice acting award at the end of the year is nothing short of criminal.
And then there’s Crowswood University itself. First off, can we appreciate that this is a horror game that takes place in a hospital that dealt with mentally ill people, featuring insanity as a central theme, and doesn’t make mentally ill people the villains? Do you know how refreshing that is, as someone who’s struggled with mental health issues myself? To see a horror story that acknowledges my struggles but doesn’t make me evil for having them?
And that’s not the only example of 3D2 Entertainment neatly sidestepping the horror genre’s more pervasive tropes. I’ve played other horror games set in hospitals or even medical schools, and Crowswood still manages to feel like nowhere I’ve ever been before. See, while it’s clear from the beginning that something bad happened here, it doesn’t take the easy route of just dumping buckets of blood over everything to scare you, something which has been absolutely done to death by this point. Instead, it builds a much more heightened sense of tension through subtle details. The desks look like they were very recently in use, even though the building is mostly rubble. An operating table doesn’t look quite right. Stepping in the water kills you instantly. The tutorial messages insist repeatedly that you need to learn how to make your own bandages. The scariest horror comes from not understanding what’s happening around you. Blood and gore may be momentarily shocking, but it’s not scary, because you know exactly what happened – at some point, a bunch of people died here. These seemingly tiny details are far more effective at sending a chill down your spine, because you don’t have the slightest idea what any of it means.
And as you learn more about what’s going on, traveling through more and more warped and surreal areas of the campus, you realize how ridiculous it was that you ever thought this place could be anything so mundane as a university…
The Crow’s Eye is a game that’s absolutely riding on its atmosphere, and while we’re on the subject, we’d be remiss not to mention how much Manuel P. Perez’s fantastic soundtrack helps to create that atmosphere. You can buy the soundtrack (I have), but while it’s good listening on its own, you really have to play the game to understand why it’s so good. At this point, reactive music is nothing new, but rarely has it ever been done with well. There are times where the music synched up with my actions so perfectly I felt like it must have been a coincidence – surely they couldn’t know the exact time in the song I would make that jump. Except that it happened multiple times, so, I dunno, maybe Perez is some kind of actual wizard. As a result, The Crow’s Eye’s sound design actually deserves the over-used term “cinematic,” because the music makes you feel like you have your own personal soundtrack as you play through the game.
Now, it should be stated that The Crow’s Eye is not really a survival horror game in the traditional sense. You get infinite stamina, infinite flashlight battery, and plenty of health items, so you never really feel like you’re in mortal peril. Plus, gameplay is more about solving puzzles than it is about fighting or running from monsters. But it’s still a rare example of a game about being trapped somewhere that actually makes you feel trapped, like horrible surprises could be around every corner. And while the game only has one jumpscare, I’d argue it’s one of the most effective the genre’s ever seen, largely because you don’t expect it. Worse, you’ll spend the rest of the game wondering if it’s going to happen again. You might not scream, but you’ll have trouble getting to sleep.
At this point, I’ve been talking about the game for a really long time and I’ve barely touched on either the story or the gameplay. To be honest, I think that’s one of the things I really like about it. It’s rare that game critics actually get an opportunity to do deep critical analysis like this. Overwa – you know what, I’ll pick on something else for once. Battlefield 1 might be a great game, but you can’t really dive deep into the subtle nuances of its design or explain how its mechanics help to create a particular feeling in the player. As someone who’s spent a lot of time studying game design, I love when a game can excite me by doing the little things as well as The Crow’s Eye does.
As for the story itself, I’m loathe to say too much for fear of spoiling a game nobody’s played, but let’s just say that it is, in fact, good. I generally hate any videogame story that starts with your character having amnesia, but that’s because it’s almost always a lazy excuse to skip over creating an interesting established character with a reason to exist in the world. But in this case, there’s actually a good reason for your character to have amnesia, because it turns what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward mystery story (that even incorporates a couple small film noir elements, if you can believe it) into something far more engrossing. You’re not just trying to solve the mystery, you’re just trying to figure out what in the hell the mystery of Crowswood University actually is. It works because it doesn’t feel like the universe was born at the same time you were – it feels like you’ve walked in halfway through an ongoing story where every character expects you to know who they are and what their relationship is to you and are trying to piece together what happened in the first act from scraps of dialogue.
It’s a little predictable at times, and the dialogue isn’t always as witty as it thinks it is, but so what? A game doesn’t have to be The Walking Dead to have a good story. If that game, with its surprising twists and turns, is gaming’s The Sting, then Crow’s Eye is more like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – it’s not hard to see where the story’s going, but it’s a joy to see it get there.
As for the gameplay, it’s a unique mix of point-and-click adventure game inventory stuff and physics-based platforming a la the aforementioned Portal (although the electromagnetic device you eventually get is honestly more reminiscent of Half Life‘s gravity gun.) Now, I have to caution new players that the first area is mostly point-and-click based, and it might put something of a bad taste in your mouth, because a lot of it is clicking around to find the one interactive object in the room. This is the one example of the game’s slow pacing working against it, but fortunately it doesn’t take long after that to get to the good stuff: block puzzles, tiles, bizarre supernatural locks that involve pushing flying colored blocks, flying around the level using the aforementioned electromagnetic gun, and a whole host of strange and surreal mechanics that combine in interesting and surprisingly intuitive ways.
See, a lot of games have tried to copy Portal over the years – Quantum Conundrum being probably the best-known and, in my opinion, weakest example. But – leaving aside the story for a second – what made Portal a great puzzle game wasn’t the portal gun. It was the way it smartly introduced mechanics that were absolutely ridiculous – hard light bridges, moon rock goo, etc. – and then combined them to make bigger and better puzzles. It was a game that was challenging, but never frustrating, intuitive even as it was showing you things you’d never seen before. And more than anything else, that’s what The Crow’s Eye takes from the game that clearly inspired it. It doesn’t just give you a weird gun and expect that to be enough like so many other games – in fact, the weird gun barely even comes into it. Mostly it’s about creating a complex system of internal logic that is also immediately comprehensible to the player, something that may not be a particularly innovative trick at this point but which is still rare enough to deserve praise.
Besides, even if it was a straight rip-off, it’s Portal with all the science stuff replaced with surreal, pseudo-Lovecraftian grotesque supernatural horror. Don’t tell me that doesn’t sound awesome.
Before we wrap up, I want to touch on something else about this game that isn’t really a part of the game itself, but is part of the reason I decided I wanted to talk about it this week. And that’s that the developers, 3D2 Entertainment, really seem like good people who actually care about videogames. When I reviewed the game for Hey Poor Player in March, I gave it the equivalent of a 7 out of 10 (a score I still stand by, by the way, and if you want to know why you can read the review.) Now, a 7 out of 10 is a good score – a very good score, in fact – but most developers consider anything less than an 8 or 9 a slight. That dismissive attitude is probably part of the reason a critic got DDoS’d earlier this year for daring to give Breath of the Wild a 7. But 3D2 Entertainment were thrilled – a lot of the people who worked on the game messaged me on Twitter and thanked me for the criticism. They didn’t care about the fact that I had complaints about their game, they didn’t care about whether or not my review would boost sales for them – they were just thrilled that someone liked what they had made and wanted to talk about it. That’s the reaction of an artist, not a corporate stooge.
Of course, that was just my personal experience with the devs – maybe they were sucking up to me in the hopes that I’d, I dunno, make a video later on about why you should play The Crow’s Eye. But when I was looking into this game again after Sgt. Polaris requested it, I learned that just this Thursday (yesterday if you’re reading this article the day it goes up), they released a brand new DLC with a new storyline and a new playable character called The Crow’s Eye: The Hole, 100 percent for free.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe I’ve misjudged these folks. But in a time where triple-A studios are nickel-and-diming us with microtransactions in full-price games, horse armor DLC, pre-order bonuses, limited editions, Season Passes and just about every other scummy trick they can think of, in a time where even most indie devs on Steam are more interested in making money off of the trading card sales of their shitty survival horror online multiplayer roguelike with crafting than they are in making an actual piece of art, it’s nice to see a developer who really does seem to be in it for the love of the game.
So that’s The Crow’s Eye. Its weird presentation, puzzle gameplay and nuanced psychological horror might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I still have yet to play anything this year that I found nearly as enchanting. It’s a game that reminded me why I fell in love with videogames, and how effective interactive storytelling can be when it’s done right. Is it perfect? No. Is it likely to find the kind of universal appeal enjoyed by something like Horizon Zero Dawn? No. But is it a piece of art that fans of the genre absolutely owe it to themselves to play? Absolutely.