IFComp ’12: A Killer Headache

A Killer Headache is a game with a soundtrack that has The Mountain Goats on it. That is to say, it knows what it’s doing. It’s also by Mike Ciul who’s partly responsible for Gigantomania in the ’10 Comp. I liked Giganto and thought it should have placed higher. It was a bit avant-garde and that may have been what turned people off. Killer Headache is much more traditional, but the pendulum may have swung the too far in the other direction.

A Killer Headache  is a game in the “you are a zombie” genre. In it you are a zombie. The twist is Ciul humanizes the experience. The PC here is less shambling monster and more a guy in a bad situation. It works well. Look at the beginning.

Ever since you died, the migraines have been getting worse. At first you tried the usual – aspirin, caffeine, screaming – but you quickly learned that the type of migraine caused by having a large part of your brain eaten by an undead creature does not respond well to medication. The only known remedy is nutritional.
The brains of lower animals will work, partially, for a short time, but only human brains have the right balance of vitamins, essential fats and amino acids necessary to hold off the searing, throbbing agony long enough to make it to your next meal.  And they taste surprisingly good. Unfortunately, while you were busy figuring all this out, the rest of the undead world was finishing off the last of the human race, leaving you with…
That’s how you do an intro: character, motivation, set-up and plenty of wit. It pulls you in and makes you part of the world. Which is really what Killer Headache does best. It lets you revel in zombiehood all scooping out brains and losing appendages. But there’s also enough grisliness to give the game some edge and it makes the situation pitiful and painful enough that the ultimate goal feels like a natural extension of the premise.
It’s decidedly old school with plenty of ways to get into a unwinable situation without realizing it. For those who like this kind of gameplay and aren’t under the Comp judging time limit this game might prove a fun nut to crack. However I’m pretty dumb when it comes to tough puzzles and so turned to the hints after one failed playthrough. I’ve got a feeling Killer Headache’s place in the comp is going to depend entirely on how generous people are with this kind of thing. I don’t have any problem with cruel games, especially ones as short and compact as Killer Headache. My main issue with the game is that its not always clear when you’ve fucked up something for good. The game requires you to lose limbs at points but there’s nothing to indicate that this isn’t a bad thing. I backed away from the solution to one puzzle because I thought that losing a hand meant I was taking the wrong approach. And yet I completely messed up on another because I wasn’t careful enough with manipulating the hoard of children and I didn’t realize how touchy the situation was.
But really this is a minor complaint. A game like this is all about replaying, learning the particularities of the situation, and manipulating it to your advantage. Even relying on hints, I enjoyed it. The presentation is top-notch and it’s a compelling twist on an old cliche. If you know what you’re getting into there’s a lot of fun to be had.
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