Sunday, January 20, 2013

Living and gaming with Thalassophobia

There is the ocean..
I rarely, if ever, become personal on the internet beyond what can be deduced about me from my published books. In fact, already in the second installment of my series, "Bloody Peasants", you get a pretty big hint about one of my biggest fears, as the Eldritch Ocean is introduced.

The Eldritch Ocean is a Lovecraftian inspired, immense body of blackened sea, stretching far out into eternity. Its depths are described as housing some of the most sinister, grotesque beings ever born from the minds of sentient beings. These range from insignificant animated specs to gargantuan, warped abominations of which no words in mortal language would suffice. They slither beneath the waves, like enormous, deformed shadows circling around any fool daring enough to submerge in its midst.

Even the mere thoughts about the Eldritch Sea is said to pose a threat to anyone embracing it in their mind. To dabble your mind even in its concepts, trying to comprehend its vastness, has shown gruesome examples of people vanishing in the blink of a moment. Rumors talk of how they would instantly reappear surrounded by the massive pressure of cold, silent water with writhing pale flesh clutching their angle and nothing but a massive, burning eye beholding them as they’re torn apart by blasphemous beings.
Whereas some things are simply not spoken out loud; some things are not even to be considered, because the mere imagination of such would not only tear your mind, but eventually take you out of this world and deliver you to the abhorrent culture of beings lurking in the sea.

And then there is me...
In modern terms, I’ve struggled with Thalassophobia for pretty much my entire life. Besides being a really cool word that’s so unknown that even MS-Word won’t recognize it, it generally translates into a clinical phobia of being in the ocean (although some report very similar symptoms in big bodies of deep, dark water such as a pond or pool).  In this regard, there is a certain overlap to the related aquaphobia, and both can appear with varying degrees, ranging from the person afraid being on a ship in the middle of the ocean, to the one panicking if water is, unexpectedly, splashed upon them.

From a personal observation, aquaphobia can commonly be a fear for the submersion of the head below water, whereas Thalassophobia is commonly triggered by being in the ocean and/or the fear of seeing a huge underwater creature.

I didn’t know about Thalassophobia till a year ago. Ironic, since I’m a clinical psychologist working with anxiety and assume this only shows how relatively rare this phenomenon is. It has been something that’s been present for many years, however. It doesn’t mean I run away screaming when people invite me for a walk at the beach, neither do I have any issue splashing around on lower water. But I don’t have to get far out till I feel anxious and the very thought of being where I can’t reach the bottom terrifies me.
Do a Google, and you might see I’m far from the only person out there. A couple of examples from other people are these;

The specifications for this anxiety seem to vary between people. For me they have always centered around the unknown. That I am absolutely out of my element, that there is nothing I can do and that I’m reduced purely to a victim on these creatures’ turf. Being submerged I can’t call for help, neither escape and in fact, on a countdown till I drown. 

Just imagining what terrors could live beneath the waves, in the lowest parts of the oceans can terrify me. Seen from a purely objective point of view this is entirely irrational (and then again… there were people who for a long time did believe in the existence of a Loch Ness monster) but that’s anxiety at its core. It often doesn’t make sense till you’re actually in it.

For me; just watching the pictures in this link is impossible unless I take frequent breaks to check facebook or mails. Yes, they are excessive, mythical and highly exaggerated. But they make my heart pound, my body tremble and feel cold.
(In other words, if you feel like me, consider yourself warned. These pictures can be nasty. )

This was something my teachers had a hard time understanding in swim-classes back in school, and it doesn’t exactly look manly when you’re at the beach and your friends fire up the competition of who can swim out the furthest. 

And then there is gaming…
It’s ironic how I’ve repeatedly been able to expose myself to such a visual media as movies involving my object of fear, without it being much of a fuss. One would think that scenes like the underwater chase in “The Phantom Menace” would send me running out of the cinema crying (I did, just not for that scene alone). But no. I can easily tell myself it’s only a movie.

And then there are games; when things become too interactive. 

I don’t really like heights or tight, dark corridors either, in the same sense that a few people don’t fancy them that much.  Yet in a game such a Far Cry 3 I happily drive to the highest peak I can find and then over the edge. You know, just to see how far I can fall and still survive in the final moment. I’m weird like that.
I’m not fond of spiders either, but I happily chop them to pieces in Skyrim. The point is; I don’t have a phobia towards them, but I feel the pain of people who do. Especially when ‘those games’ come around…

To remain with Far Cry 3, I’m talking about the oceans. As you may know, everything in FC3 is beautifully done, the landscape lifelike and water seems like water. That’s the problem for me. I can take a quick dip in a shallow stream and franticly get back up on dry land, but in the ocean things become very much lifelike.
At first the water is murky; quickly it becomes dark and you’re stuck in an empty, deep void with strange shapes circling around you. They’re most likely sharks. Not the ones you see on a nice Discovery program. These sharks are assholes, only out to tear you a new one and most likely will. Because the protagonist might as well be wielding a cardboard sword once he’s underwater, as the game makes him virtually defenseless. 

I was downright scared at entering the oceans of FC 3. I have no shame admitting it. It only got worse when I realized there were those fucking crocodiles in the rivers and lakes, who often jump you with that “WRAAAAAAAAAARHH!!!!” jump-scare effect. Very true to nature, very terrifying, especially when the scene folds out with Jason fighting for his life beneath the surface.

In one mission, you are to infiltrate a heavily guarded ship, which of course goes a lot smoother if you swim all the way through the ocean instead of taking the water scooter. After trying two times and spotting what I thought was a shark, I grew terrified at every attempt and finally spent half an hour trying to storm the boat by ship. In fact, I’d rather spend 10 minutes looking for a means of transportation, than taking a swim through that damn ocean.

The game has a nasty tendency to force this upon you, however, if you want to make certain upgrades that require shark-skin. For a long time I skipped this entirely, at least till I got my hands on the rocket launcher and blew the bastards up whenever they swum close to the shoreline. Even then I had to take a deep breath and keep my eyes closed as I dived down to skin them.

This counts for those awful dark pools with the fish-monsters in Half Life. Especially as I played the Black Mesa update and they look much more lifelike. 

As I write this I won’t deny how blatantly silly it might appear to the uninitiated eye. Yet I’ve been surprised at how many people besides me feel this issue with gaming. I refer for example to previous post on, in which the issue is also nailed with Far Cry 3. You shouldn’t take my own points as rants about FC3, because it’s an awesome game.

Yet it shows that more issues certainly exist regarding good games, for some unfortunate people, other than those involving spiders or heights.

So where are we going with this?
I think there are some points worth mentioning at this stage. First and foremost in a more cynical approach, that I am amazed no horror game developer has yet fully capitalized on this. Yes, we’re dealing with an uncommon form within the anxiety spectrum, but still an element (in both senses) that most people can relate to.  Just as spiders, blood, darkness, heights and tight spaces are elements that have some degree of impact on a lot of people, so is the uncharted depths of the world. Especially the ones that _might_ be inhabited by things unknown. 

But besides from preying on the weak from a business perspective, what can we possibly do about it, us poor Thalassophobic people?

Depending on the intensity of the phobia, there might be ways to circumvent it, besides engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy, which is so often used to treat anxiety disorders. Even then there are no guarantees, and the likely means for me to overcome my anxiety would more than likely be to go take a swim out in the ocean. Which is something that’ not going to happen.

Instead, I’ve tried figuring out some safe ways for everyone to try out. While there are other methods, some of them can be unadvisable if not done correctly and often in collaboration with a trained therapist.

1) Light up the room
A cardinal trait of anxiety is how it convinces us in the split of a second that the perceived threat is very real and taking place. Immersion taken to an extreme degree, one could perhaps say about my FC 3-shark experience. Part of going against this is to keep around reminders that you’re not IN the situation; you’re watching something you wouldn’t like to be in yourself, on a computer screen.
I often play with very little light on. It’s an old habit that works great in many games. Yet in this regard, switching on more light, especially at night, helped me somewhat. Some even claimed that buffing up the gamma of a game helped.

2) Get a hold
In the same line of thought, taking a firm holding on your desk, chair, mouse, keyboard, radiator (when not too hot); anything to remind you that this is just a thing happening. Of course this is problematic as a lot of games these days require you to use both hands.

3) The sound of silence. Or Benny Hill.
A lot of horror plays on sound. Something the horror stories in books sadly lack. Watch a horror movie without sound and often something is severely missing. Just look at a game as Amnesia that utilizes more sound than graphic, if you ask me. Same counts for anxiety, I believe.

It can be considered, however, that since stillness of the ocean is something the thalassophobic fears, whether simply turning off the music in these games will help? Personally, I advice putting on some music that either calms you, whenever the going gets tough, OR; something really silly. It is said that few horror moments can really survive to the Benny Hill soundtrack, and to this I must concur.

When Dead Space 1 hit, I was scared shitless by it, till I bound the Benny Hill theme to a button and played it when things were too much. Eventually I adapted by some strange method, and went on without the need for it. Maybe I played it mentally; but to this day both Dead Space games are among my favorites.

4) You’re the ones locked in here with ME!
This wonderful sentence from Watchmen became my mantra for a while, whenever I would feel anxious. In games, so often you take on the role of the protagonist, the one who should actually kick their ass. I’ve had luck hyping myself up against sharks, half life fish and necromorphs alike by the phrase that THEY are the ones who should damn well fear me! Even if I didn’t want to wade into their element, at least I’d make them pay. Using the rocket launcher to blow up sharks was an example, or in other situations it can give you a temporary boost to confront them.
What you’re essentially doing, is channeling your mental flow. After all; fear leads to anger.  Just know this is a temporary solution that will eventually revert to anxiety again.

Some people combine this with listening to very angry music.

5) Look away. Shut your eyes. Take a break. Make it smaller.
There is nothing shameful in feeling this way. Nothing shameful at all.
Sometimes I need to accept this. I need to do something else or take a break before I push through with it. Some people have luck reducing the screen size too, making the threat appear smaller on screen. It seems strange, but I actually see the reason behind it.

And finally…
There has been no other point to this article, other than add to the relatively small collection on the topic, floating around on the internet (pun intended). On top of that, I missed some kind of advice from any page, so I thought I might chime in with whatever knowledge I could share to those guys and gals out there feeling like I do.

Ultimately, we’re dealing with a somewhat rare phenomenon, as previously mentioned. Nonetheless this shouldn’t be an issue preventing us from taking delight in what we love; gaming. I therefore hope I could’ve been of any assistance to someone out there. Just remember that my advice are just that; handy advice. Downright treatment is something best sought out with a professional.

In the future, I hope to do a youtube video about this as well. Till then, take good care!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Carrion Crown now on Obsidian Portal

Hey, everyone!

This is just a short update to let you know the entire Carrion Crown-campaign of ours is now online over at Obsidian Portal! It's a bit more friendly to read than here, so some of you might wish to check it out.

Take care now.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

PC: Looking back at 2012

So, we’re steadily approaching our first completed week in the new year that is 2013. And as usual, all the work on has kept us all busy; way too busy to play games at least. Besides a few pnp-sessions, the advent of this year spawned preciously little time for anything else, so I assumed I’d sit down and do the next logical thing.

Write about games.

Long time followers know I wrote a New Year’s Speech last year, and it was way too long. So instead, I want to look back, focusing solely on the domain of PC-gaming and its heights and lows throughout 2012. I hope to share with you some of the strongest impressions these titles left on me, be it for good or ill, maybe even inspiring someone out there towards a great experience.
So without further ado; let’s hit it!

How some of the most expected games turned out for me in 2012!

1) Diablo 3
There is no getting around the infernal elephant in the corner so we might as well around that first. I don’t think I ever hyped a game as much as I did with D3, perhaps with the exception of Dragon Age 2; meaning my expectations for it skyrocketed as far as the high heavens. I’d bought snacks, treats and even taken the time off for a whole week in order to play this gem. I’d watched those character class-trailers over and over, trying to find just the right option for me.

Of course there was some hesitation, as previous blogs have shown. But in the end it seemed forgivable; I dismissed it as trivial concerns likely not affecting my style of play.

And then, it all its irony, I don’t think I’ve ever been more disappointed with a game as I was with D3. Perhaps with the exception of Dragon Age 2. There were attempts at rationalization; denial of truth, an ongoing attempt at self-induced brainwashing that it was just my expectancies that were too high.
As I’ve later explained, D3 has seen its improvements; I’m not denying this. It’s just amazing how a game with so much development-time managed to drop the ball so hard. While legendaries certainly have become useful and thrilling to find, the lack of build diversity and lackluster item-acquiring keeps pushing me away from ever getting into it.  At the one time I surrendered and spent 150$ on the auction house, I had a rather good time on my whirlwind barbarian; doing what I wish I’d be doing from the start: Smashing up minions of Hell. Then, later on, there were nerfs and it didn’t really feel good anymore, unless I spent an additional 150$ or so. 

“Wah wah QQ MOAR D00D! KILL MOAR ELITS B4 MOANIN!” I hear some of you brilliantly argue. Well, this is not a complaint. I had my share of little fun in this game. All I’m saying is, compared to what was said in one of the very first trailers for the game; “This is a perfect example of our character design philosophy; there is no such things as too much power!”

Well, apparently there is, Blizzard?

In honesty, the approach of nerfing a powerful specc so it becomes as weak as the rest is contra intuitive in a Diablo-sense. It should be more about making the others speccs just as lucrative with a myriad of options.
If you’re in doubt, I might suggest asking those Path of Exile-guys. They seem to have it pretty much nailed down.
 And I’m not even going to start on that horrible, abysmal story that in some parts didn’t make the slightest sense.

2) The Walking Dead
As previously mentioned, I used to know and care little for the Walking Dead. Or zombie-games in general. Though I generally say what needs to be said in my former blog, TWD was a sudden, wild and emotional surprise for me that sprung up way behind the rest of you. Starting out with a careful approach towards the first season, I eventually got enthralled by the captivating storytelling and the sheer, beautiful horror that characterizes this universe.

TWD is beyond doubt the best game I played in 2012, luckily getting into it when all five seasons were available. How the rest of you managed for so long, waiting for the next episode to be released, hell, I can’t imagine. It must have been hell. It’s odd that it just appeared in a flash and took me by storm, compared to the two other titles this year, that I suspected would likely run off with the prize.

This only goes to show the value of going out of your way from time to time, trusting your instinct and try something new. You might find shitty litter most of the time, but on occasion there is that little, sparkling, zombie-infested treasure that will keep you up for nights and make you question your own ethics and moral. As I wrote in my article, if you haven’t yet; go play the walking dead.

If you’re into rough ethical decisions, zombies and a game that will make you go “Screw you!” for pulling you through such a story; I don’t get what you’re still doing here.

3) Baldur’s Gate - Enhanced edition
This one I covered as well, some time ago.

Well, it turned out my expectancies weren’t that far off. I haven’t written any specific reviews on this, because when I finally thought I’d get around it, there were so many reviews out there already.
What’s interesting, however, is the overwhelming amount of praise BG:EE had, which I’ve given a lot of thought since. Because, honestly; it’s not very good.

I somehow knew this, especially from what was written between the lines of their forum and statements before release. This is NOT a new Baldur’s Gate. It’s a rerelease with a few tidbit-goodies.  I think this is where most of us stumbled.

No, let’s cut right to the bone: This is BG 1 for those who don’t want/like/know how to mod the old versions on Good Old Games. Period. Argue, shout and bellow; but you won’t get around it. And for a 20$ price that’s excessive. The new characters are sweet but ultimately take up very little space. They’re side quests are decent, but too short.  The new Black Guard is interesting, though.

I got off as one of the lucky folks who experienced no crashes and could run the game perfectly fine from day one. Others said it was ultimately unplayable, and additions such as the ability to zoom in seemed downright redundant to me and I couldn’t think of anyone who’d actually have any use for it?

What ultimately killed it for me was the fixed FPS-rate, set at 30. I don’t know whether this has been fixed yet, as some people on the forum spoke about, but it’s very, very slow-going. Too slow for me, who always played it around 45. Add on top of that, that you can’t progress into the second game once you’re through the first (not until it’s released at least) and eventually I bought the old versions from Good old Games instead. There is a very easy and thorough guide to mod your BG-games into something much bigger, better and certainly MUCH more interesting than the EE.

Add in the BG1NPCProject and banter packs for a much more alive BG1. Try out the various mods for BG2 as well; especially “Amber” is really good for a whole new NPC.

I suppose we’ll just have to lean back and wait for Project Eternity now.
I’m certainly not getting the BG2:EE.
Neither would I ever want to play BG on my iPad.

Guess what; I did a blog about this as well! Hah, figure that.
This was one of those of which I was rather hyped and later proved right about being so. X-COM was beyond doubt one of the greatest hits this year, especially for people like me, who’ve been craving that special old school with a certain touch of polish. While getting the original formula right seemed to be an art lost after Terror from the Deep, we certainly came a good deal closer, as I wrote in my review.

While certain degree of freedom seemed lost with the more laniary approach in XCOM, there is so much you remember and reconnect with the same instant it appears on screen. The graphics are okay, the music lovely and the tactical aspect can give you more than you bargained for once you start cranking it up. Add in a load of the original enemies you encountered in the first game, and it’s hard not to be a little tempted by this game. While I hear those complaining about the streamlining and lacking elements from the first games (apparently there are people who miss carrying around live aliens in their backpacks…) I do recommend this game to anyone who loved the first two. 

5) Farcry 3
This one I began not long ago, so take my words for what it is. So far they’re all very positive; Far Cry 3 is one of those games that appeal to me so much because of the massive sandbox element, and the fact that it isn’t about to tell me what do to in what order. Somehow. I’m saying somehow, because I still jog around with 10 unspent skill points and the game won’t let me invest anymore in Path of the Shark till I complete more of the main story. But it’s such a little complaint, next to a massive shooter that has a high satisfaction in blowing up pirates and setting wild animals ablaze with a flamethrower. Barbaric, I suppose, but bear with me here.

It’s some of a completionist’s nightmare, in that way you pretty much need to fast travel in order not to get too sidetracked. Think of it as Skyrim with guns, on a tropical island.
It has the usual quirks and oddities some might remember from Thief; you blow off a pirate’s head and his friend will go crazy for a while, then shrug it off and return to his duties.  Or you can start throwing stones to lure them closer to your ambush; apparently not making them suspicious about the hail of flying stones coming from behind that container.

6) Legend of Grimrock
Coming in last but certainly not least is my dearly bellowed Legend of Grimrock; beyond doubt a treat to any Eye of the Beholder fans out there. The best way to describe this game is that it delivers what was promised; likely just as you expected. It’s a solid handful of dungeon layers with insidious puzzles and traps, along with nasty monsters to make your life difficult, as you battle your way downwards in an attempt to escape with your life.

It’s so brilliantly executed and can take several hours to complete if you aren’t using any kind of guide. There’s also a certain element of replay available, depending on how thorough you wish to be about it. It’s also one of those developers who seem so keen and set upon delivering a good game that they really deserve our support.
This is definitely a game you want to check out if you’re into rpg’s.