I finally got in front of a PC for long enough to play through some of Korsakovia, a Half-Life 2 mod about a crazy guy who’s crazy. It’s an extremely moody and sometimes creepy recreation of what the crazy guy sees or, rather, what he imagines he sees, since we’re led to believe early on that he removed his own eyes. So it’s perhaps a psychological horror game, say. Silent Hill without the more extreme zombie-ish elements.

Anyway, I’ve been slowly getting through the game, though it’s frequently deeply challenging to work out what I’m meant to do at any given moment. A lot of it revolves around running like a madman (ha ha!) from location to location, hoping that different doors will be open or whatever. Still, there are some good moments to be had in there, some of them pleasingly spooky.

My absolute favourite part is a floating coffee cup. At one point, early on, I was sure I’d seen a floating lamp, but when I approached it a little closer I discovered it was a trick of the shadows and my eerie feeling abated. It was resurrected in force when I entered a cafeteria and saw a coffee cup floating in mid-air. It’s a great effect to defy gravity in a game engine built around what was (at the time) a very impressive physics engine. The coffee cup just hung there. I walked over and kind of nudged it, wondering what would happen. It fell to the ground and shattered, giving me a pleasing startle reaction. Hands down the best of the creepy bits, for me.

The other particularly good effect I’ve encountered was, again, a trick of physics (or anti-physics). A room full of a slowly rotating column of detritus – wooden boxes, barrels, shipping containers. The stuff floats at varying heights above the ground in a warehouse space, rotating like a slow and fixed-position hurricane. In fact, you’re meant to climb up it to do some inexplicable thing at the top, but just the sight of it when you enter the room is deeply pleasing. Not so creepy as the coffee cup, but a very good moment.

Both those good tricks are based not on having the bestest and scariest graphics or sound design, but on leveraging the underlying rules of the world itself. By defying its own laws of physics, normally faithfully applied, the game world becomes a far more disturbing place. Clearly, if physics itself can go wrong, then things are very messed up indeed. Further, because it’s not the case that everything is acting crazy, the instances where things are off-kilter are far more effective. If everything was floating and spinning then you would just know you were in “whacky physics land”.

In fact, it’s not unlike the idea of using glitches as a game design ploy. Stuff like floating coffee cups does happen in many video games simply by mistake. And it’s just as eerie when it’s unintentional, if not more so. By placing glitch-like elements in a word, you can channel that feeling of things going badly awry. There are few things more awful than feeling like the world can’t quite be trusted, that things aren’t behaving themselves.

In Korsakovia, the “glitches” become the knowledge, or strong suspicion, that you are insane. Perfect.

1 December 2010
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