Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
It’s a generally accepted maxim, in the world of monster movies, that it’s the monster that makes the movie. Even in a horror flick with a truly top-notch cast—like John Carpenter’s The Thing, to pick an example that’ll make more sense in a second—Kurt Russell and Keith David’s arctic adventures wouldn’t amount to much of anything if they weren’t up against one of the best creatures in all of sci-fi horror fiction. And yet, for all their import, those monsters rarely get to be at the center of the story being told. Over and over again, we watch the humans struggle against these otherworldly adversaries. We see the humans try to fend off the slavering, mindless beasts. We see the humans triumph in the end.
Humans are overrated.
That’s the big lesson of Carrion, Phobia Game Studio’s recent effort to put you at the center of your own personal version of Carpenter’s chilly masterpiece—and not from Wilford Brimley’s point of view. From the moment the game opens—with “you,” i.e., a bright red mass of tentacles, malice, and teeth, bursting out of a poorly sealed containment jar in an underground lab—it puts you directly into the sticky tendrils of a creature whose goals are as simple as they are delightfully inhuman: Eat. Destroy. Escape.
The creature you play as in Carrion is a work of Lovecraftian art, the sort of monstrosity a robotic Ian Holm might wax poetic about while offering up odes to its unrelenting “purity.” It moves with a fluidity that belies its ever-increasing mass, gliding through air, water, and ventilation ducts with equal speed, and bursting into a crowded room like a bomb made of terrible, carnivorous meat. One of the game’s smartest touches is in acknowledging that there’s very little a human being could do in the face of this sort of bloody red assault; even the ones lucky enough to have guns spend more time screaming in your presence than shooting. Apex predators don’t sweat it, and the Carrion monster can give Maneater’s shark a run for its money (and then some) in the “eating human beings” department.
Even when Carrion offers up some friction—robotic sentries, guards with personal shields, a couple of especially nasty traps—it’s only so that it can give you a new power a few minutes later that lets you lay them all to ruin. The monster isn’t just a mindless killing machine, after all; it’s a hunter, too. There’s nothing quite like sending a quiet tendril down an airshaft and jamming it into the back of some hapless mook, taking over their mind, and forcing them to gun down their friends. Or slowly picking off a security patrol, webbing them up one by one so that you can devour them later at your leisure. Or, yes, fulfilling that most classic of monster-movie tropes: creeping into a bathroom, and giving one of your victims the worst on-the-toilet interruption in all of inhuman history.
Carrion has its flaws: Fiddling with your monster’s size to unlock its various abilities can be a pain, and the absence of any kind of map is a frustration that doesn’t feel worth whatever points it gains the game in terms of monstrous verisimilitude. But as a quick dose of absolute mayhem, a power fantasy (or nightmare, possibly), it’s pure, irresistible candy. Lots of games offer up unrelenting, flesh-devouring monsters as antagonists. It’s nice to be able to kick up your pseudopods for once, relax a little, and let the all-consuming maws do the work.