A Killer Headache is a difficult parser-based puzzle game. I’ll say right off the bat that zombies are not my cup of tea. The zombie meme is like a band that put out its last good single about ten years ago and is now subsisting on nostalgia tours and crappy reassembled Greatest Hits albums. I can’t blame it all on overexposure, though: even before they were terribly played out they weren’t really my thing. Zombie movies are like the torture-porniest subgenre of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. I watch The Walking Dead on and off, sometimes I go without coffee for an entire morning, but that’s as close as I normally get to the shambling undead. They just aren’t my thing. I’m expounding on this not to criticize Mike Ciul for making a game in the zombie genre, mind, but to fess up to a serious authorial bias against it.
That being said, I liked it. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I liked it. There was a lot of competence under the hood with this game, and I could tell as I played it: most of the things I didn’t care for about it seemed like authorial choices, not mistakes. Also, it employs non-linear storytelling and non-linear gameplay, which I love. More after the jump.
General: A Killer Headache is a puzzle game from the perspective of a zombie after the demise of humanity. The description (The apocalypse is over. The human race lost. You’re hungry. And you have a hell of a headache.) and title seemed to indicate dark comedy, but that’s misleading; A Killer Headache is a severely depressing story about death, failure, and suicide, with a lot of violence and gore. I’m not sure if I would’ve preferred dark comedy, honestly. The bleak philosophical tragedy of the protagonist’s situation is handled well, but I can’t say it was very fun to play. I’m not exceptionally squeamish about experiencing or committing violence in IF games (an important qualifier!) and I enjoy a good dark comedy with an evil protagonist. I also devour tragedy with a fork and knife, generally. But with a game where you start out with the knowledge that there’s no real difference you can make, satire is one of the few things that can really make it playable. It’s hard to keep up the motivation to solve puzzles and >UNDO over and over again with that sort of nihilism.
Writing: For what it is, the writing’s good. That sounded more back-handed than I intended. The writing is good; the description is, for the most part, spare and dry and matter-of-fact, which is the only real way to go with this sort of horror. Though I don’t know if I would necessarily describe the atmosphere of this piece as horror so much as horror-themed: I’ve played horror games (Anchorhead) where nothing actually bad was happening yet (Anchorhead) but I was terrified every time I tried a new command due to the sinister drizzliness of the rain (goddamn you, Anchorhead), and I tend to think that’s what’s at the soul of horror gameplay — evoking fear in the player. Silent Hill 2 also a fabulous example of this with its tendency to make players more scared of air raid sirens than monsters. I don’t think A Killer Headache is intended to be scary. I think it’s intended to be depressing. And it is very, very depressing.
Over the course of the game the player character goes through a subtle character arc as conveyed through a series of flashbacks: and the arc is fairly subtle, at that, even if the flashbacks aren’t. I enjoy flashbacks a lot in gameplay, if done well, and these are presented more as interactive stories than puzzle-solving gameplay; they primarily demonstrate how the protagonist is dwelling on his decisions having to do with death and suicide, and tell us things about the zombies. Given the protagonist doesn’t overtly emote, this is a pretty fantastic way to convey emotion: and it’s a good thing he doesn’t overtly emote, either, because there would’ve been no way not to make that melodramatic as hell. Over the course of the game he considers suicide but repeatedly fends off danger in the form of dogs and undead children, finally choosing to place himself in what he hopes will be a form of rest from his hunger by hunkering down in a walk-in freezer and praying over a rosary. The very last sequence of the game is a dream that he’s with his friends. This is intrinsically sad. It’s difficult not to find him and his plight exceptionally sad: the main question being, what is his aversion to finding a more permanent way to commit suicide? Still, the mood and emotional arc of this story is deftly handled, and I admire that a lot.
I have two main complaints about the writing. The first is the usage of dogs, children, and a nun for shock value. Could there be any three more arm-twisting attempts at grit and brutality? I didn’t appreciate that one of the very first puzzles of the game involved having to figure out how to brutally kill a dog, and then watch it die painfully: not just because I like dogs, either. It seemed to be the game holding up a big sign with red lettering that read, I’M GRITTY!, and I wasn’t impressed. When it then went on to present me with undead children and a self-sacrificial nun, I started rolling my eyes. That’s the sort of over-the-top gruesomeness that turns me off zombie media in general: it’s that kind of violence porn that seems to exist solely to disgust the reader and make them disengage themselves from the narrative and I think it’s equivalent to jump scares in cheapness. I really would have liked to see some genuine horror and pathos that didn’t rely on monstrous and/or victimized “innocents” to tug on heartstrings.
The other quibble I had — ah, isn’t this always my quibble with zombie media — was logic. For one, the protag seemed to be a sentient, reasoning, morally self-aware person, if a bit traumatized: basically just a human with re-attachable body parts and a craving for brains. How did this lead to a zombie apocalypse? Not that zombie apocalypses ever really make a lick of sense, but everything else seems to imply that the other ghouls are monstrous, and yet here’s our depressed, introspective protagonist. I’m not sure if I’m meant to take away that he’s unusual or that human nature would lead to such an outcome anyway, and either way I’m not sure I buy it. There are a few other logistical problems, such as the eagerness of dogs to eat clearly rotting flesh: is there literally nothing else these dogs can hunt? Animals have an aversion to putrid-smelling things and dogs can smell very keenly. The other problems of logic I encountered were more issues with gameplay, so I’m going to leave them for the next section.
Design: The design of this game was fairly capable, but I think it was a bit too difficult: I didn’t find it impossible, but I did end up resorting to >HINT many times and eventually the walkthrough. I blame the latter on my burnout with the game in general, though. If I felt like I could accomplish anything, positively interact with anything, or like it was likely I was going to discover anything that wasn’t just gory and horrific on the next screen, I might’ve had more moxie for finishing tricky puzzles. As it was, I eventually went, “meh, I just want to see what happens.” Your mileage may vary considerably.
The bit where the design fell down was, in my opinion, that it depended largely on resourcefulness puzzles that were counterintuitive to IF game playing and depended on utilizing the environment using everyday logic and pragmatic thinking — and then was inconsistent or non-pragmatic some of the time anyway. A good example of this was getting your friend’s severed head to bite your shoulder to act as a carrying case: why in God’s name would I have thought of that, much less how to get him to do it? At best I might’ve considered his skull could hold a few items, but it never would’ve occurred to me to use him as an impromptu backpack. It doesn’t help that you wind up having to use it to hold things that a human skull seriously could not hold. I’m aware of the Bag of Holding properties of containers in interactive fiction and video games, but it felt very tonally out of place in this game, especially since the size of an adult human cranium is something with which we’re all fairly familiar.
The puzzles were fairly unforgiving, too, and often relied upon doing something three rooms ago that you couldn’t have known would come in handy now without being able to think as many moves ahead as Deep Blue. I don’t fundamentally object to this, actually, given saved games and >UNDO; I’ve enjoyed games that were like this before. However, like I said, my general weariness with the nihilism of the premise and atmosphere and frustration with some of the inconsistencies of the puzzle logic caused me to give up and turn to walkthrough before I might’ve in a more rewarding game. I say more rewarding, not better, because I still do think this was a fairly good game, all things considered: however, until the very end, there was little to no positive reinforcement that I was accomplishing anything meaningful in the grander scheme of things.
Overall, I think this game could have done to have been conceived as either a bit less depressing or a bit less difficult: as a more story-based lower-difficulty puzzle game the mood of suicidal existentialism could’ve functioned more handily and not have been interrupted by how frustrated I often was. As a dark comedy or at least something with a sharper satirical edge, I might’ve been entertained enough to muddle through irritating puzzles, though I think the puzzles needed some more beta-testing in general. As the game was, it was too bleak to motivate me to wade through how challenging it was. I can appreciate its objective virtues and I enjoyed several of them, but I was glad when I was finished.