Fear and Hunger is one of the most unique projects I have ever encountered.
I stumbled upon this game through one small YouTube letsplay channel (all thanks to Riskrim) and it was a very pleasant surprise. Playing demo 4 turned me into very enthusiastic fan - the amount and quality of work that was done already showed incredible effort and passion author was putting into his project. For me, this game stood out not just by merit of its solid well-crafted style or interesting and innovative game-design alone, but because of what incredible composition they formed, made to complement and enhance one another.
I want to go through every aspect that impessed me the most and that i consider an important part in what makes this game so great and unique.
I) Immersion and atmosphere
- Main theme.
For me, as a main source of motivation to engage with the game serves its theme – exploration of brutality, wickedness and perversion and extends of their growth through the context of the game. On its own it is a great selling point – it sums up all of the game’s features without directly revealing them, so player would know what to expect from the game without spoiling any crucial parts and it sets to challenge developer’s dedication and creativity, by providing wealthy basis for development of story and atmosphere.
In order to realize full potential of its theme game needs to create a coherent structure of narrative, worldbuilding and atmosphere and correctly incorporate every element into a perfectly tuned composition.
Worldbuilding takes burden of explaining players why they should immerse in happening events by providing realistic picture of the world around them, it is a foundation that should establish rules and principles all other elements use as reference to correctly coexist with each other without compromising consistency of whole structure. Fear and Hunger achieves to create coherent, believable picture of large living world, embedded with nuances and hidden meanings on top of generally well-written and creative lore. From the surface level, game follows traditional dark fantasy formula by portraying hopeless and oppressive world, devoid of light or salvation, where brutality and wickedness run rampart and unobstructed by concepts of order or justice. In such settings, gods’ design usually is mitigated to the only purpose of accommodating the atmosphere, while narrative is focusing on mortal beings and ways how their relations and interactions with one another shape the world into the horrible place it is. Commonly there gods portrayed simply as individuals with power, instead of higher beings that serve special grander purpose, emphasizing hostile and inhospitable nature of the world by removing concepts associated with civility and humanism.
What surprised me was to see how game stepped forward from this structure by adding more complexity and depth to its celestial aspect. Fear and Hunger reverses the situation by implementing element of deeper and grander meaning into gods’ characters – it provides each one of them with unique significant role and focuses on their general development and incorporation into the narrative.
Huge role in incorporating gods into narrative plays their presentation – well-paced and gradual reveal of information helps to naturally translate complexity of their characters to players. Aside from that, a different approach towards exposition regarding mortal beings and gods serves even bigger purpose – through the subtle distinction in the ways worldbuilding addresses them game gains ability to manipulate players’ attention and use it to direct their focus and change the perspective. It is seen, that when talking about humans and other lower sentient races game incorporates “show less, leave more for imagination” formula – information about existing civilizations is extremely scarce, but overall state of their moral and humanistic degradation is clear and obvious. On the other hand, game shares extensive amount of details about gods, presenting as much information as realistically possible – it shines light on their meanings, their possible motivations and the rich story they have with the world. However, it remains presenting complete picture vague, even in a rare occasion of direct contact, managing to keep their actual identities a mystery and therefore extending this sense on overall feeling of the game. That approach achieves to avoid driving players’ attention from superficial ideas, instead shifting their focus towards exploring the nature of celestial beings and darkness they cause, rather than on results of their actions, what I think is essential for this aspect of the game.
While the worldbuilding serves as a basis for all other immersion-oriented aspects, the way game presents immediate information is what is doing central work on establishing proper mood and atmosphere to the player. A great game uses as much of its components as it can for that goal – from the visual and audio design to gameplay and lore, if everything works in a coherent composition with each other and chooses a complex enough theme as its core, as a result may come out a true masterpiece. With Fear and Hunger it is pretty much the case – aside from worldbuilding, that was already described, game uses its graphics, its audio and most of its gameplay elements with great success.
The art perfectly conveys depressing alienated atmosphere of the game through bleak grey tones of surface world and dark nightmarish scenery of anxiety inducing dungeon levels, emphasizing on gore, brutality and body horror in most intense moments. It is very well done on technical part and from stylistic standpoint ideally suits game’s mood. Character design forms its own sort of realistic style, with emphasis on crudeness and detalization in models, which helps to stand out its impressive variety of monster designs, that revolve around themes of nudity, mutilation and other unpleasant motifs.
Sound design is something that I, personally, haven’t heard in a very long time – general quality is astonishing and amount of specific implementations will uphold most demanding standard. Usage of ambient sounds is exceptionally creative and worth noting – playing various tricks on player, game achieves to create very unnerving paranoid atmosphere, always making sure to not let him relax even for a second.
However, with all regards to visual and audio design, what makes this game truly unique is gameplay, as through its mechanics it makes biggest impact by setting up most subtle, most complex and most powerful atmosphere-building components.
1. Combat mechanic
- Segment-targeting system
The central gameplay component is combat. At its core, it is a result of natural progression of traditional turn-based fighting mechanic – a segment-targeting system. In my opinion, that system should become a standard for many genres of modern games, from pure action-oriented products to stat-based rpgs. Even by default, this system is pretty complex – it creates a prioritization mechanic by bringing difference in segment attacking efficiency and it provides very deep development potential through allowing implementation of almost limitless variety of unique sub-mechanics. In addition, it also positively affects other related mechanics, such as inventory, looting, health-maintaining system and others. Game very successfully utilizes this system right now – every enemy has distinct fighting style, which requires devising a special strategy to deal with and only in rare occasions enemies’ characters will appear as a single entity and not as a set of mutually related elements each with own role and purpose. It perfectly manages to fulfill the role of main combat mechanic and as an atmosphere-building component it is utilized very effectively on many different layers.
Second main in-combat mechanic is talking – main character is able to try to engage in conversation with the foe with the cost of an action. Every enemy has its own set of questions with different outcomes. This is not a novelty in turn-based games, but it is another great mechanic that I want to see used more in similarly styled rpgs, because it is a very effective tool in setting atmosphere and world-building, especially in a game with emphasis on such things. Currently this system is in a very raw state – while it allows a relatively diverse variety of actions to execute (receive information from enemy, get a new party member, calm down/confuse enemy for a limited amount of time or completely pacify the situation), it lacks actual weight that would make outcomes of these questions more effective. With all the criticism, this system is working well as it is right now. It is a great tool that provides additional world-building information and helpful hints for curious players, while from player’s perspective, using it is very interesting and rewarding.
A significant importance in combat bears an element of random. In battle it is revolving around a coin toss “minigame” – a 50/50 winning chance luck test. Every enemy in the game, with a small exception, has its own special attack that charges during a battle and then applies itself after main action from the turn, initiating that minigame. It punishes player for failing by death and is implemented as a sort of parallel mechanic – it can be disabled by removing a corresponding limb from an enemy, but outside of that it stands separately from main combat system, ignoring important attributes such as strength, current health, ability to miss etc. From a grander perspective, it stops player’s skill from being the only factor that decides an outcome of a fight, representing chance and what may be player’s character could be interpreting as a chance because of their lack of understanding. The way it is applied in the game adds risk for player to lose everything even in an initially successful turn of events. In a result, this amps up tension inside and outside of combat immensely - it forces player to thoroughly think and consider before entering combat encounters, and puts colossal amount of weight on decision making during that combat.
- Long-lasting consequences and player's treatment
From the outside perspective combat is utilized as an introductory tool and in continuous use as a primary mean of generating tension, being the main reason of player’s fear of interaction with the unknown.
The brutality and difficulty of the first combat establishes and promises to player what to expect from further game. It shows extreme hostility of the world he enters and teaches long-lasting consequences of engaging with danger. Firstly, realization of segment-targeting system on player’s character is made to accommodate that important principle of game’s design. In event of severe trauma characters lose their limbs, and logically - that event is very common in dungeons filled with terrible monsters. Loss of a limb is permanent (with small hints `of possibility to grow it back through alchemy mechanic, but for now it’s absent), as is its effect on gameplay, not mentioning a horror of seeing your character in decapitated state and realizing that it is unrevertable. Experiencing that first time was a powerful moment for me, thanks to the atmosphere I was immersed in process to associate with my character enough for the effect. I felt that range of emotions of a person that understands that he has lost something from his body and now has to live with it – a genuine panic, fear and existential horror.
Most important part in that plays presentation of game’s relation to the player, it is most prevalent here and runs through the rest of playing experience. What you can do to an enemy, how you can harm and mutilate them and how game indifferently treats that, in same way it is applied to player’s characters. That establishes not only game’s in general, but specifically its world’s relation to the player, building up feeling of alienation and hostility, signifying absence of any sort of empathy or special treatment. When your hand, head or leg cut off, interface’s only reaction is small prompt before immediate return to fighting, not even a reaction from a character – the way event presented as a commodity and its implications about world’s attitude towards you are powerful means of instilling uneasiness and tension.
2. Saving system
A person that didn’t play the game would wonder why death or dismemberment is such a big deal – just reload and replay fight until the perfect outcome. At this point comes central gameplay component that makes all others so effective – saving mechanic. In this game saving is implemented very interestingly: firstly, let’s talk about two different types of saving systems – in normal games and in rogue-likes.
The traditional system is known to all, it’s main goal is to accommodate long narrative-based process as a mean of going back after closing the game or game-ending event, such as failure or death. While its purpose is only to save progress for a player to be able to continue from last achieved point, it has created phenomena of abusing saving system and replaying dangerous encounters for perfect outcomes, supposedly not intended by developers. This is more relevant for turn-based or stat-based rpgs (i.e. savescumming in fallout), where the outcome is affected by random. This system’s main issue is that it ultimately fails to provide proper characterization and effect to specific situations and gameplay in general, by removing any stakes from risk-revolving aspects of the game and rendering them inconsequential.
The other system alters saving mechanic severely, building gameplay to revolve around it on several layers and lore to incorporate story and world in it. Instead of starting game over, death of a character treated as another step in continuous process of completion the game, with external progression implemented as most important component, usually through some ability/items unlocking or currency systems, for example you can take “Binding of Isaac” and “Enter the Gungeon” correspondingly. Since the point of that system is to accommodate cycle-oriented nature of the game, it gains means of implementing risk-revolving elements into the gameplay, but not to the extent of having them outside of cycles.
Fear and Hunger creates a hybrid of these two systems – firstly, it removes external progression completely – now death is absolute, there is nothing earned from dying except player’s experience. The in-session progression is focused more on consumables and some wearable inventory items – collected food and alcohol items are base resources for the fear and hunger management system, amount of healing items dictates your fighting capacity, various books open some range of abilities and actions and there is some variety of armor that gives damage reduction. There is no stat or level growth, winning in battle most of times gives you much less than it takes - currently there is only ONE sword in the game that deals drastically more damage that default one, and it’s not a reward for killing the strongest enemy. This always makes player to focus on an actual process thus making it more emotionally effective in result.
- Specific saving implementation
Other, more important part is conventional absence of ability to save – there is no option in the menu, and, on a bigger scale, there is no game mechanic that is treated as supposed initial component of the game. There is an actual ability to save, but it’s made as more of a hidden mechanic then what actually expected to use as granted – it’s incorporated through a consumable item that gives a single-use ability to save and in addition moves character on next step of spiritual enlightenment. Both bonuses are given without any preliminary explanation and come up as a surprise for a player on first use, while second is not even completely clear in what it does after that. More importantly, reducing ability to save from being an initial important part of playing experience to being simply a reward – a small (but still significant) component in not a central part of the game, not only makes this reward extremely powerful, but also expresses that gameplay direction change to the player. Moreover, basing this system completely on a random emphasizes its inconsistent nature as a game mechanic, helping to solidify presented point in player’s mind.
What’s most important is how this influences playing experience – if any other horror game uses momentary scares based on sudden or subtle methods, Fear and Hunger manages to make whole experience a tension filled nightmare by making every encounter extremely dangerous and reworking saving system to the point of almost nonexistence. Game achieves to create a realism in gameplay from a psychological standpoint – it is truly horrifying to traverse dungeons knowing that there is nothing to stop you from losing everything, making smallest things gain tremendous effect, when even just a weird sound is enough to stop player in fear and tension. To generalize – a mechanical implementation of gameplay is built in rogue-like-oriented fashion, with heavy emphasis on random in larger parts of fighting, looting and saving mechanics, while from atmospheric and continuity standpoints game is focused on narrative progression and traditional treatment of main character’s story and role in the game. That exact composition of thoroughly built atmosphere and lore, enhanced by brutal and unforgiving gameplay is what I would describe as game’s identity.
This is a cut down version of my analysis of this game, due to character limit i had to remove all critique, so it may appear weirdly written in some places. For those who might be interested i will put full version in official discord channel. Aside from that, my goal was to express why i considered the game so amazing and try to covince people to check out game for themselves as well as motivate developer to keep doing great job. I wholeheartedly believe that this project has all of the chances to become a next big thing in indie community and i wish it good luck.