A Killer Headache

by Mike Ciul profile

Horror / Zombie
2012

Go to the game's main page

Member Reviews

Number of Reviews: 3
Write a review


6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
If you think being alive is tough, try being undead., November 7, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, IFComp 2012, Inform

(I originally published this review on 15 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 19th of 26 games I reviewed. The game had been updated once during the competition before I played it.)

A Killer Headache casts the player as a zombie in a posthuman world with the immediate goal of ridding oneself of one's blinding headache by finding and eating more brains. It's truly a sad time to be a zombie when you have to live off the grey matter of animals and other zombies, but what saddened and maddened me was how excruciatingly difficult I found this game to be. In common with Changes, also from the 2012 IFComp, A Killer Headache has a world model of great sophistication, but it's even harder than Changes, and its nested hint menus almost induced apoplexy in me.

A Killer Headache was apparently inspired by a long and existentially discussion about zombies on the intfiction.org forums. I sped read the discussion after playing the game and can say that cumulatively, the participants knew their zombie stuff, as I claim to myself. Author Mike Ciul has considered the gamut of post Night of the Living Dead ideas and come up with his own version of the zombie mythology. The zombies range in sentience from below average to above, but they are all still possessed by their hunger, which can blind them to almost everything else. They specifically want brains, a schtick begun by the film Return of the Living Dead in 1985, and some of the humour of this game is also in keeping with that film's supposedly funnier aesthetic. (That's to say that RoTLD marked the arrival of "funny" zombies in zombie movies, but that I didn't find that film very funny myself; no slur on this game's humour intended.) An example would be the pathetic, moaning conversation you can have with the severed head of your friend Jim in the game's first location, your trailer.

The practicalities of being undead are foremost amongst this game's interests. The first puzzle is just getting out of your trailer. Your lack of coordination makes fiddling with the doorknob annoying and your lack of strength means that using brute force tends to destroy parts of your own body. Various enemies can tear your hands and feet off, hampering your future hazard-negotiating abilities. Falling down a ravine on your stupid zombie legs could result in an eternity of being pecked at by vultures. The game's commitment to the hopeless grisliness of zombie existence assuming zombies have feelings of a kind, which is this game's atypical premise is unwavering.

The difficulty which ensues is also unwavering. You're constantly being interrupted or killed by enemies while in the process of trying to solve difficult and fiddly puzzles, often under time pressure or with the added complication of your concentration being dragged away into pre-zombiedom flashbacks. This is clearly a point of the game, to convey that zombie "life" is indeed arduous. The point is effectively made and felt, but I don't think the experience should be quite so impractical to move through as a game. When you die, it tends to be several moves deep into a losing streak of actions, and to verify your suspicions about your situation often requires exploring several branches of the nested hint menus, paging in and out, going deeper and shallower and reading the lists of topics which are so convoluted that they cross reference each other.

A lot of the difficulties of play are also a consequence of what is exceptional about this game: its highly involved world model. The different groups of enemies interact with each other in complex ways, roving the desert, staking out objects and locations, fighting each other and fighting over you. The behaviour of the hated mob of zombie children is especially impressive. However, the author has not missed an opportunity to turn any particular permutation of circumstances into another hazard for the player, and the hint topics reflect this, reading like a troubleshooting manual for a day in hell. Did the dogs tear your hand off? Did they tear your foot off? Have they trapped you in the diner? Have the children trapped you in the diner?

My player wherewithal was gradually eroded over time as I kept trying and failing to solve my zombie problems. Some solutions were quite abstract ((Spoiler - click to show)put the other head on your shoulder), some relied on the kind of small-scale fiddling that has proved eternally difficult to implement to everyone's satisfaction ((Spoiler - click to show)I had terrible problems trying to find the commands to express what I wanted to do with the pump and gas tank), some were solutions I was too late to try ((Spoiler - click to show)try to keep your limbs in this game; it's better that way) and some were just very demanding. Dealing with the (Spoiler - click to show)mob of zombie kids occupying the diner near the end saw me dying on almost every move. I was spending about four times as much time moving in and out of the hint menus as I was playing. I had also been trying to play using speech-to-text, and being constantly driven back to the keyboard to fiddle with the menus was intolerable in my trammeled state, so this was where I gave up, unfortunately missing out on some existential ending, according to other reviews of this game.

A Killer Headache is dense, cleverly constructed and well written, and its savage entitites show a wide range of behaviours. The whole thing is harrowing. I just wish I hadn't found it so agonising to play. Perhaps the context that IFComp creates wasn't right for this game. Without the desire to try to finish this in two hours and the knowledge I still had a pile of other games to get through, I expect I would have been more receptive to the challenges it posed. What I don't have any kind words for are its nested hint menus. Nested hint menus drive me nuts in any game it's about the only extreme prejudice I have in text adventuring and the complex nature of A Killer Headache managed to show this particular method of dispensing information in its worst light.