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About the StoryThe apocalypse is over. The human race lost. You're hungry. And you have a hell of a headache.
Discretionary warning: This game is violent, scatological, and eschatological.
Nominee, Best Individual Puzzle - 2012 XYZZY Awards
Well, the first line certainly draws the player in, Ever since you died, the migraines have been getting worse. Sounds like my kind of game.
Overall, I found the story entertaining, but the solutions a bit specific. From a technical standopint, I was very pleased with the capability of the parser to accept a range of synonyms, and the text was well-written and carefully edited.
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A Killer Headache casts the player as a zombie in a posthuman world with the immediate goal of ridding oneself of one's blinding headache by finding and eating more brains. It's truly a sad time to be a zombie when you have to live off the grey matter of animals and other zombies, but what saddened and maddened me was how excruciatingly difficult I found this game to be. In common with Changes, also from the 2012 IFComp, A Killer Headache has a world model of great sophistication, but it's even harder than Changes, and its nested hint menus almost induced apoplexy in me.
A Killer Headache was apparently inspired by a long and existentially discussion about zombies on the intfiction.org forums. I sped read the discussion after playing the game and can say that cumulatively, the participants knew their zombie stuff, as I claim to myself. Author Mike Ciul has considered the gamut of post Night of the Living Dead ideas and come up with his own version of the zombie mythology. The zombies range in sentience from below average to above, but they are all still possessed by their hunger, which can blind them to almost everything else. They specifically want brains, a schtick begun by the film Return of the Living Dead in 1985, and some of the humour of this game is also in keeping with that film's supposedly funnier aesthetic. (That's to say that RoTLD marked the arrival of "funny" zombies in zombie movies, but that I didn't find that film very funny myself; no slur on this game's humour intended.) An example would be the pathetic, moaning conversation you can have with the severed head of your friend Jim in the game's first location, your trailer.
The practicalities of being undead are foremost amongst this game's interests. The first puzzle is just getting out of your trailer. Your lack of coordination makes fiddling with the doorknob annoying and your lack of strength means that using brute force tends to destroy parts of your own body. Various enemies can tear your hands and feet off, hampering your future hazard-negotiating abilities. Falling down a ravine on your stupid zombie legs could result in an eternity of being pecked at by vultures. The game's commitment to the hopeless grisliness of zombie existence assuming zombies have feelings of a kind, which is this game's atypical premise is unwavering.
The difficulty which ensues is also unwavering. You're constantly being interrupted or killed by enemies while in the process of trying to solve difficult and fiddly puzzles, often under time pressure or with the added complication of your concentration being dragged away into pre-zombiedom flashbacks. This is clearly a point of the game, to convey that zombie "life" is indeed arduous. The point is effectively made and felt, but I don't think the experience should be quite so impractical to move through as a game. When you die, it tends to be several moves deep into a losing streak of actions, and to verify your suspicions about your situation often requires exploring several branches of the nested hint menus, paging in and out, going deeper and shallower and reading the lists of topics which are so convoluted that they cross reference each other.
A lot of the difficulties of play are also a consequence of what is exceptional about this game: its highly involved world model. The different groups of enemies interact with each other in complex ways, roving the desert, staking out objects and locations, fighting each other and fighting over you. The behaviour of the hated mob of zombie children is especially impressive. However, the author has not missed an opportunity to turn any particular permutation of circumstances into another hazard for the player, and the hint topics reflect this, reading like a troubleshooting manual for a day in hell. Did the dogs tear your hand off? Did they tear your foot off? Have they trapped you in the diner? Have the children trapped you in the diner?
My player wherewithal was gradually eroded over time as I kept trying and failing to solve my zombie problems. Some solutions were quite abstract ((Spoiler - click to show)put the other head on your shoulder), some relied on the kind of small-scale fiddling that has proved eternally difficult to implement to everyone's satisfaction ((Spoiler - click to show)I had terrible problems trying to find the commands to express what I wanted to do with the pump and gas tank), some were solutions I was too late to try ((Spoiler - click to show)try to keep your limbs in this game; it's better that way) and some were just very demanding. Dealing with the (Spoiler - click to show)mob of zombie kids occupying the diner near the end saw me dying on almost every move. I was spending about four times as much time moving in and out of the hint menus as I was playing. I had also been trying to play using speech-to-text, and being constantly driven back to the keyboard to fiddle with the menus was intolerable in my trammeled state, so this was where I gave up, unfortunately missing out on some existential ending, according to other reviews of this game.
A Killer Headache is dense, cleverly constructed and well written, and its savage entitites show a wide range of behaviours. The whole thing is harrowing. I just wish I hadn't found it so agonising to play. Perhaps the context that IFComp creates wasn't right for this game. Without the desire to try to finish this in two hours and the knowledge I still had a pile of other games to get through, I expect I would have been more receptive to the challenges it posed. What I don't have any kind words for are its nested hint menus. Nested hint menus drive me nuts in any game it's about the only extreme prejudice I have in text adventuring and the complex nature of A Killer Headache managed to show this particular method of dispensing information in its worst light.
That said, the game did a few things that fell pretty short for me. Just about the time I was getting the hang of things, it felt like Ciul was saying, "Welp, okay, I've shown you what I wanted to show you so there's not much more point to this so let's enter the denouement." Suddenly I found myself going from puzzles that were so transparent that they didn't feel like puzzles to puzzles that were hard and seemingly pointless except to be there for the sake of having puzzles. Because, y'know, that's what 8 out of 10 IF players allegedly crave. That switch changed the mood of the game considerably for me. I was enjoying the back story more than the puzzles, and was willing to jump through minor hoops to get more flashbacks, until the flashbacks became solidly interwoven with the puzzles and provided no real story, just means to an end.
And as for the ultimate finale, I found it really linear with weak reasons why I couldn't do certain things, and even the hints didn't get me to the ending of the game. Upon reading the hints to see what my ultimate goal was (because really, I felt like I was just solving puzzles because they were there, not because I was feeling motivation), I thought to myself, "Really? That's it? That's the goal, to find a peaceful death? When let's be honest, I have found many, many ways to painfully die but then I'm dead so the end result is the same and when I'm dead I'm supposed to care after the fact that it was painful?"
This is when I realized that I'd gone from a game I'd enjoyed to a game I really wasn't enjoying at all, and so I quit struggling for the last lousy (fourth) point and called it good.
Sad, because I think this could have been a larger work that explored some cool ideas.
The game has only a few puzzles, but they can be difficult to get right, especially just getting out of the door at the beginning.
Your body parts can fall off, remain animated, move around, etc. The game gets somewhat gruesome; there was at least one part that made my stomach sink.
Overall, an interesting game. Only recommended for fans of the zombie genre.
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