IF Comp 2012: A Killer Headache (Mike Ciul)

A Killer Headache is a highly difficult parser-based zombie-horror puzzle game. As usual, the jump will be followed by non-spoilery comments; then if I have anything spoilery to say, there will be spoiler space. The fact that I am reviewing it at all indicates that there are beta-testers.

I have to start any review of anything like this with a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of gory horror, and I’m weary of the zombie genre. Shredded flesh, bodily fluids, missing limbs, things blown apart with shotguns, maggots, apocalyptic wastelands… This is not what I would voluntarily do for fun.

I try to take each thing I play on its own terms, and say to myself, “Self, someone out there is enjoying this shredded brain matter and these rabid dogs just as much as you would enjoy a historical intrigue, in Edwardian costume, distributed with tea cake feelies and read aloud by Benedict Cumberbatch.”

But nonetheless it was a game about brain matter and rabid dogs, and the “ew” reflex was strong enough to distract me sometimes.

So. A Killer Headache belongs to that genre of zombie horror in which you’ve already been transformed and are one of the zombies yourself. On the other hand, zombies in this universe eat one another’s brains, not just those of the living, so everyone/thing you meet is a potential threat to you. It embraces the survival horror concept and provides a lot of different ways to die, not all of which are very well clued, and some of which are cruel in the zarfian sense: you can drop something in one room and discover many moves later that that’s the reason you can’t make any progress. In addition, though some aspects of the game depend on realism about how physical objects interact, others kind of expect you to ignore that real-world knowledge and do other things. (* See spoilery footnote after the spoiler tag, if you want to know what I am thinking of.)

That said, fundamental unfairness seemed to be part of the point of the game (Life sucks, and then you’re undead!). So I feel less secure in complaining about it than I would in some other case. It’s possible that someone who was more into the setting and theme would have had the patience to fight the puzzles and insta-deaths longer, and that this would have cohered into an experience that was aesthetically satisfying. I just didn’t have the stamina, though, what with all the decaying maggotty flesh and how I was trying to play this thing on a dinner break. So I did make a good faith effort for quite a while; then I went to the hints; then I gave up on the hints and went to the walkthrough.

Despite issues with the design and fundamentally not really liking the experience, though, I can say that this was a better piece than a lot of others I’ve run into. I didn’t see any bugs; the writing was reasonably tight; there was a backstory, not deeply developed, but sufficient to make me think a bit about the person the protagonist had been before the zombie apocalypse. And there was what seemed to be an intended emotional arc, though I think it makes the most sense if you don’t stare at it too hard.

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Much of the game involves being killed over and over again in a violent way by other zombies or by crazed animals. However, if you do everything right and put a lot of effort in, then you can instead go to sleep in the cold with your prayers, which is, it’s implied, better and more peaceful, the desired outcome. At least, in the moment it’s written as though that’s a desired outcome. On the other hand, if you’re paying attention during flashbacks earlier in the game, you will know that a) the protagonist has serious doubts about the nature of the afterlife and whether it’s possible to die in a way that frees your soul, what with all the zombies wandering around; and b) that cold doesn’t actually put an end to zombies; it just puts them in suspended animation for a while.

So in fact you’ve gone into a hibernation that will presumably end whenever you warm back up, perhaps when the generator runs out of gas and the temperature in there gradually rises again. And then you’ll be stuck in the freezer compartment until you go mad from lack of brains, and who knows whether you’ll really be gone at that point or not, or whether some poor sap sooner or later will open the compartment again.

I am not, therefore, really sure what we’re supposed to take away from that ending if we give it a lot of thought. If we don’t consider all those other elements, it could be a story of how a person, though zombified, nonetheless manages to reach for a salvation that he had previously thought zombies didn’t have enough soul to desire. And that’s kind of an interesting arc; symbolically, it makes a kind of sense out of his encounter with the nun, because the nun is the only zombie we see who has retained enough humanity to act altruistically. So it kind of fits that it is her gift of the rosary that allows zombie-protagonist to try to re-ensoul himself.

Though on the other hand, if it’s possible to be a sane and soulful zombie in the first place, then is suicide the right answer? And the stuff about the cold hibernation is there; it’s laid out in some detail; and it’s not part of standard zombie lore. So I feel like we have to assume the author wanted the ending to be complicated by those factors. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to read it with all the pieces included, though.

And now the promised footnote:

* This is a game where a severed head is the player’s carryall. You are supposed to carry a can full of gas inside the skull of a head that is adhering to you by biting onto your flesh. Isn’t the can too big to fit through a skull-hole? Full of gas, isn’t it also too heavy? Won’t the head’s weakened gums eventually lose their purchase on the rotting muscle of your shoulder, especially when you’re jerkily running away on a foot that you just recently re-attached?**

** Man, I’d really rather be debating whether it’s realistic to fit the marzipan petit fours on the tea tray when it’s already covered with chocolate-dipped fruit.

4 thoughts on “IF Comp 2012: A Killer Headache (Mike Ciul)

  1. The freezing idea was inspired by Max Brooks’ “World War Z.” Before I picked up this book, I would have classified myself as deeply uninterested in zombies. But a friend of mine, who works in the Philadelphia city planning department, told me how Brooks used the medium of zombies to make a memorable social commentary.

    A Killer Headache was my attempt at using zombies to make a more personal existential commentary. But to me it’s all food. Let’s say we meet in the middle next time with a game about pâté en terrine?

    Here’s a link from another of my inspirations, London chef Fergus Henderson:

    http://www.nosetotailathome.com/2009/01/02/lambs-brain-terrine/

    I drew on one of his cookbooks to prepare the brain featured in the game’s cover art.

  2. Pingback: IF Comp 2012 Final Roundup and Thoughts | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  3. “I try to take each thing I play on its own terms, and say to myself, ‘Self, someone out there is enjoying this shredded brain matter and these rabid dogs just as much as you would enjoy a historical intrigue, in Edwardian costume, distributed with tea cake feelies and read aloud by Benedict Cumberbatch.’”

    This is so true it made me giggle out loud. Love your insight as always, of course (err, said the person who’s never actually commented before) but as someone else with a much stronger predisposition to Benedict Cumberbatch than body horror as well, I also try to make an effort to review in spite of my own subjective preferences. It’s pretty difficult, honestly. I don’t always know exactly what people who write things in genres I just don’t understand are going for with their writing decisions, so it can be hard to judge whether they were effective.

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