Halloween is too much fun to contain in a single day so, throughout the month of October, First-Person Perspective will focus exclusively on spooky, scary or otherwise holiday-related games.
These four columns will make up . . . OKTERROR.
Halloween has roots in all sorts of pagan and Christian rituals that have long since been transmuted into traditions barely resembling their original form, but that are still, surprisingly, very much the same. One of the key elements of the holiday is breaking the barrier between the living and the dead, or, to bring it into a videogame context, reality and fantasy.
By the end of the 12th century the Catholic church had made elaborate dogma out of the proper observance of All Saints'/All Hallows Day (November 1st) and All Souls' Day (November 2nd). The Vatican and (because achieving European nationhood at the time pretty much meant playing ball with the Papacy) the continent's population believed that the souls of the deceased stayed among the living until they were sent on their way on All Hallows Day. The catch to this whole system was that the night before All Hallows Day (or All Hallows' Eve — what would go on to become Hallowe'en) gave all those wandering souls one last chance at tying up loose ends. Of course, some of those souls were into trying to pay back their mortal enemies before leaving earth.
To avoid being spooked out by their enemies Christians developed the (not just for Christians anymore!) tradition of dressing up in elaborate costumes. Ghosts, apparently, aren't tremendously smart.
This whole chunk of context is to serve as a reminder that Halloween is, historically, a holiday all about breaking down the barriers of everyday life. In the past this meant elaborate rituals designed to throw off the dead when they wandered around our plane of reality. Now, the best example of this phenomenon is the Halloween side story — a tradition that provides the perfect opportunity to throw familiar characters and settings into strange new situations.
Big budget videogames, for the most part, take themselves pretty seriously. Regardless of the quality of the story at hand, it's pretty rare to see developers playing around with — or making a bit of fun of — the central features of titles they've spent years working on. This isn't the case for Infamous 2: Festival of Blood and Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, two pseudo-reality side story expansions crafted by, respectively, Sucker Punch and Rockstar.
In Festival of Blood, Infamous' protagonist Cole MacGrath is bitten by vampire queen Bloody Mary and is then turned into a bloodsucker himself. Undead Nightmare sees Red Dead Redemption's John Marston at the centre of a plague that has transformed his friends and family into zombies. In both titles players must navigate worlds where the characters and settings they know from the original games have changed context dramatically. All notion of canon is tossed aside for the sake of side stories that embrace the uniquely Halloween concept of reality and fantasy merging into one surreal whole.
Horror side stories like these offer a great opportunity for players and developers alike to explore worlds that wouldn't make much sense framed any other way. Even though Cole's time as a vampire may not fit with his character as portrayed in Infamous 2, it's a whole lot of fun to see his superhero story transformed into a mini-adventure filled with demons, ancient curses and blood vial collectables. Even better is Undead Nightmare's self-parody of the deadly serious John Marston. Throughout Red Dead Redemption players become acquainted with a man obsessed with reuniting his broken family and moving on from his violent past. The introduction of zombies to the Marston Ranch changes this wonderfully, giving Rockstar a chance to play fast and loose with the personality traits of an excellent character. Having Marston gun down the reanimated bodies of his loved ones, track a sasquatch through the woods and break a wild Horse of the Apocalypse is plenty of fun — having him do all of this while maintaining the grim-faced, self-serious demeanour he has in the base game is truly special.
Without Halloween we wouldn't get to experience these kind of side stories. Though the shape of our holiday celebrations have changed drastically over the centuries, game expansions like Festival of Blood and Undead Nightmare carry on a tradition that lets everyone take a break from reality and indulge in a temporary visit from the realm of the fantastic or otherworldly.
I hope we never see these kind of side stories disappear, because, to me at least, they represent the real fun of Halloween.
The Wikipedia entry on Halloween helped me write this. I can't spit that kind of knowledge off the top of my head.