Indie | Flesh
By Lewis Denby
Lots of monsters, and no way to fight them. That’s the core concept of Flesh, an exceptional Half-Life 2 mod that released shortly before Christmas. It’s survival horror in its purest form: something horrible is going on, and you have to survive it. No guns allowed.
It’s a relatively lengthy beast for an amateur project, taking upwards of three hours to complete and spanning across five self-contained areas of a spooky estate. Flesh’s dual focus is on stealth and puzzles: spot an enemy, and you’ll have to sneak around it; find your progress blocked, and you’ll have to figure out a way around whatever obstacle stands before you.
It’s a vivid and self-assured project, one that borrows plenty of genre conventions but neatly subverts them to craft a rather unique experience. Its closest relative would be something like Penumbra, but where that placed its emphasis almost entirely on environmental conundrums, Flesh foregrounds its stealth mechanics. It does stealth a truckload better than Penumbra, too – enemies are constantly on the move, continually searching, and avoiding them means darting between dark areas, flashlight turned off, eliminating the long, dull waits behind crates that its obvious inspiration suffered from.
To aid your evasion, Flesh introduces the rather clever Monster Vision mode, which – for some very loosely explained reason – allows you to view the world through the eyes of your enemies. Tapping the right mouse button scrolls through all nearby foes, the screen coloured an ominous red, the eye level unnatural and uncomfortable. It’s your job to figure out, based on this dramatic shift of viewpoint, which of your surrounding areas are safe to visit, and which will instantly render you a pile of oozing flesh.
//The key to success
This becomes the game’s strongest puzzle; those tied to the environment are generally less impressive. They’re perfectly functional, and never leave you with a distinct desire to smash your keyboard to bits in frustration, but they rarely extend beyond finding a key, or – say – collecting items to restore a generator. If Flesh were a little more creative in its methods of blocking your path, in the way that Penumbra’s second episode so brilliantly excelled at, it could be a whole load more impressive.
But that’s not to take anything away from what its small team of amateur developers has achieved here. Perhaps most striking is its gorgeous, gritty aesthetic, achieved through a masterful understanding of colour and shading. It’s not the most complex thing architecturally, but the way its vivid hues emerge between areas of blanketed darkness creates a moody atmosphere that remains tense throughout. Equally brilliant is the sound design, with music and effects by Jesse Harlin. I’ll have to admit to a slight conflict-of-interest here, as I’ve worked with Jesse in the past on a couple of things, but even if I didn’t know him, I’m convinced I’d still be singing his praises here. It is absolutely professional-level stuff. Flesh’s audio even outclasses that a great deal of commercial products.
There are things I’d have done differently, perhaps. Some sections could be better signposted. The controls feel odd – it’s obviously meant to be played with a mouse and keyboard, but it feels as though more suited to a gamepad. There’s essentially no mouse-look, with the A and D keys used to turn left and right, and use of the mouse restricted to simple button pressing. In many ways, it’s a game that would feel a whole lot more natural on a console. Even aside from control issues, and even with its clever specks of innovation, it’s distinctly traditional survival horror. Playing that on a PC feels unintuitive, somehow.
But they’re all problems I forgot about pretty quickly. Because, ultimately, Flesh is a wonderful mod with a surprisingly human touch. Its purposefully vague story may set itself up as a heap of clichéd nonsense, but it becomes quickly apparent that this isn’t a game about the monsters. What they are and why they’re here is barely relevant. Instead, it’s a touching tale of one man’s destructive obsession with the occult, and how his behaviour affected those around him. Even more brilliantly, around the halfway point, a neat sub-plot emerges. Listening to the increasingly terrfied audio logs of a scientist funded by the troubled Master Blair, her inner turmoil as she tries desperately to decide whether her work or her safety are more important to her, is a rare segment of beauty in games generally, let alone amateur mods. It’s a subtle but powerful deviation away from the norms of videogame storytelling. That the scientist’s character is acted perfectly by Vanessa Cohen – and I really do mean that: the quality of her voice work, like Harlin’s music, far exceeds that of most professional products – seals the deal.
It’s an exquisite piece of work, the result of almost a year’s hard graft by its small team. That effort is clear for all to see. You really should play it. In terms of Half-Life 2 horror mods, it’s in a league of its own.
Flesh requires an installed copy of Half-Life 2 to run. Make sure you grab the patched version – there’s a game-breaking bug that occurs without it.