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The Sandbox: That Old Creeping Feeling

The Sandbox: That Old Creeping Feeling (photo)

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Nearly a decade after “The Blair Witch Project” brought camcorder shakiness to the masses, first-person horror once again took center screen in 2008 courtesy of three releases, two of them zombified: January’s monster mash “Cloverfield,” February’s George A. Romero’s installment “Diary of the Dead” and October’s rabies-crazy “Quarantine.” Given our Youtubing, cell phone-vid culture, it’s an unsurprising cinematic trend, and one that seems particularly suited for horror films, where a fixed perspective can be easily manipulated for scares and is capable of creating a sense of immediate, frightened involvement for viewers. Well, that’s what it does in theory — these films didn’t all use their shared viewpoint in truly terrifying ways.

I suspect the reason for this common failure has less to do with a filmmaker’s skill than with the limitations of this approach within film in general. Despite their gripping, thematically astute you-are-there conceits, features like “Cloverfield” and “Quarantine” allow audiences to enter the fictional world only through side characters who, for uniformly contrived reasons, have chosen to confront life-or-death situations that demand action with voyeuristic passivity. As an audience member, you’re somewhat immersed in what’s going on, but the artifice doesn’t hold because it’s too weighed down by nagging questions about our on-screen surrogate’s background — Why is this dolt still filming? How is his camera always pointed in the right direction? Why doesn’t someone smash the twit’s recording device to smithereens? — that undermine the central illusion. We’re there, but far too often it feels like we’re not.

Many of these obstacles are absent in the gaming arena, where “survival horror,” a lucrative subgenre spawned by 1996’s PlayStation blockbuster “Resident Evil,” has regularly employed, to decidedly unsettling effect, first-person P.O.V. “Doom 3,” “Condemned: Criminal Origins” and “F.E.A.R.” are a few of the plentiful titles that have transposed action and horror movie tropes to a first-person-shooter realm where engagement with the proceedings is direct and active. This tactic has been further refined by Valve’s recent Xbox 360 and PC hit “Left 4 Dead.” In the bestseller (currently fifth on the domestic console sales charts), you’re presented with four straightforward, narrative-free cinematic zombie apocalypse campaigns, each one leaving the player, along with three human- or A.I.-controlled cohorts, to reach safety by navigating an environment (airport, city downtown, countryside or farm) overrun by flesh-eating undead whose fleetness recalls that of “28 Days Later”‘s hungry monsters.

03042009_leftfordead.jpgBetween “Left 4 Dead”‘s extended opening cut-scene, corny film posters that kick off each scenario — the airport level is dubbed “Dead Air,” and boasts the tagline: “Their flight just got delayed. Permanently.” — and the requirement that players assume the role of one of four bedrock genre stereotypes (biker, tough chick, old war vet or businessman), the game overtly attempts to put players in a familiar big-screen (un)reality. But unlike its fellow P.O.V. zombie brethren “Diary of the Dead” and “Quarantine,” there’s no impression of detachment in “Left 4 Dead,” which primarily relies on sporadically ambushing the player from all directions with massive swarms of the undead to create a heady blast of panic, fear and excitement.

The game’s visceral immersion is amplified considerably by its multiplayer design. “Left 4 Dead” is meant to be played cooperatively with friends (either online or at home) and triumphantly delivers an in-the-foxhole experience when sitting alongside living, breathing comrades you can verbally strategize with or scream at. Drawing on pistols, shotguns, machine guns and Molotov cocktails to blast your way through hordes of zombies while barking commands at, and requesting help from, fellow survivors — or, in the online Versus mode, assuming the role of a bloodthirsty reanimated ghoul — is as rousing an approximation of what it might actually be like to endure an outbreak of the undead as you’ll currently find. And, in terms of urgent, frantic kicks, “Left 4 Dead” significantly outpaces its cinematic counterparts, which can’t help but depict a disconnected view on mayhem that typically involves irrational idiots stumbling upon, and then (as repeatedly occurs in the three aforementioned films) hysterically fleeing from, supernatural incidents, bouncy cameras in tow.

So games are just creepier than films, especially when they feature first-person perspectives, right? Well, not exactly. “Left 4 Dead” provides an initial anxious high, yet — as with the cheap jolt tactics of “Doom 3” and the hallucinatory dread of “Condemned” and “F.E.A.R.” — it soon wears thin, due mostly to a problem shared by many of its celluloid equivalents: repetition. Modern horror games frequently generate greater terror than films simply because of players’ direct relationship to the action (and their power to dictate pace), they’re nonetheless plagued by the same brand of monotonous predictability born from preprogramming. Spend longer than an hour with “Left 4 Dead,” and you’ll likely turn numb to its gameplay rhythms and beats, which prove as telegraphed and homogeneous as an ’80s slasher flick’s fatal money shots. These P.O.V. adventures offer encompassing sensory/participatory thrill rides, but those thrills are still narrow and as dependent as they’ve always been on design and narrative ingenuity — much rarer qualities that have always been responsible for any horror show’s ability to scare and keep scaring.

The Sandbox, a column about the intersection a film and gaming, runs biweekly.

[Additional photo: “Left 4 Dead,” Valve, 2008]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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