Last Updated on October 14, 2020 by Bruno Lauris
In an article entitled “An Assault Upon Our Children,” Se-Woong Koo wrote that “the system’s dark side casts a long shadow. Dominated by tiger moms, cram schools, and highly authoritarian teachers, South Korean education produces ranks of overachieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire program amounts to child abuse. It should be reformed and restructured without delay.” (Koo, Se-Woong, 2014)
Warning! Spoilers for the game.
The Coma: Recut — Announcement Trailer… if you are interested in seeing it.
What is this game about?
“The Coma: Recut” is a visual upgrade for the game “The Coma: Cutting Class”. Both games try to do the same two things:
- To allow players to experience how unhealthy our modern (Korean) school system can be.
- Most people have experienced what school is. This means that the players will be able to relate to the events that happen in the game. But, the designers will be able to create a horror experience by using the fears that we all have felt as pupils. For example, failing an exam, abusive teachers, and bullying.
What do you do in the game?
In the game, you will be playing as Youngho Choi a Korean school-boy. Choi happened to pull off an all-nighter the other day to prepare for his exams. He also managed to oversleep and is late for his final exams. Ow, boy! Your job is to get to school on time and pass the exams.
While rushing to your exams, you meet a girl from another school. Choi takes his time to start a conversation with her. The conversation starter fails and you have to continue on.
Right next to the school gates, you meet your classmate, Seho. He explains to you that another student that you know, Taehoon, tried to commit suicide last night in school. (Why was he there at night?)
When you try to approach the ambulance car to see your friend the transport drives away. On the ground where the car stood you find a pendant. You deduce that the pendant belongs to your favorite teacher Ms. Song. You decide to bring the pendant to her.
You enter the school and everyone is in shock by this recent development.
The school staff cancel the exams and give everyone time to calm down and come to terms with what has happened… This would be the sensible thing to do… Yet, that is not what happens. The school staff insists that the exams need to happen and that everyone has to attend them. No excuses!
This is the first moment in the game you get to notice how demanding and inhuman this school system can be.
“Even a dead body is not going to stop the exams from happening.” — paraphrased, I think one student in the game said it.
Not to mention the fact that a first-year student tried to commit suicide.
You get to the class where you meet your teacher Ms. Song who “looks like a Korean pop-idol”. She insists that you have to meet her after class to talk about your grades that are failing. The protagonist gets excited about the idea that he might be alone with his favorite teacher. *wink wink* Her looks also distract the protagonist from giving her the pendant. You decide that you will give it to her after the exam.
You go inside the classroom, start the exam, but you feel very sleepy. You regret pulling of that all-nighter. You pass out and wake up in the middle of the night. At first, thinking that it is a rude prank. You try to leave the class and while exploring the school you meet Ms.Song.
But for some reason, rather than helping you, she starts attacking you with a box cutter. Now the horrors begin. There is nobody in the school, you can’t see outside the windows, a teacher is trying to kill you… What else can go… and will go wrong?
1. What did I not like?
1.1. The story does not have big enough stakes.
The problem: In any horror game I expect there to be staked. I need to know that something is at risk for the protagonist. In a game, I want to beat the odds, evade the punches and cut the balls off my enemies! If the stakes are not high enough, then what is the character`s motivation for being in the story? Why do they struggle?
The main reason why the protagonist is so worried about the exams is that he might lose his summer holidays… WOW! I can`t imagine how he is going to survive without those!
When I was growing up, I spent my summer in the countryside… working the fields… so… I don’t get it. It is not that bad…
That type of risk does not motivate me as a player to search for answers to the mystery, worry about the exams, etc.
Sure, this is not the only stake in the game. There is the well being of a good friend, for example, but that is also not motivating enough. A designer should not expect that players will care for a character only by stating that she is a good friend. If only I had the chance to meet this person in-game. To see how awesome she is. In the end, I did save her, but not because I cared for her, but because my moral compass said it was the right thing to do.
This was a missed opportunity to makes the players care. And what players care for, they will be afraid of losing.
The fix: A horror game should make the player feel a sense of neverending pressure. Make them feel that something is being at risk.
In other words, we all have felt like we were risking something in school. Most of the time it was someone’s opinion of us we cared for. If we were bad at school, then we were losers to our mates. Not good enough for our parents. We got yelled at by teachers.
This game should have set up similar expectations. What if we fail, then a person`s opinion of us will go down. That person should be very important to the protagonist and us — the player.
For example. The protagonist could have had a sweetheart. She/he really wants to bee with us, but our lover’s parents do not wish their only child to be with an underachiever. If we will not be able to pass these exams then the parents will not allow us to meet with our special someone. This goes well with the “abusive education” theme and makes the stakes interesting.
1.2. The gameplay is repetitive.
The problem: The gameplay consists of the protagonist exploring areas and finding resources. Achieving story milestones and evading the succubus killer. Rinse and repeat.
As a side note. I think that the repetitiveness comes from the limitation that this game had to be released on the PlayStation 4. Plus, this game was made by a small team. That aside…
I completed the game, reached the “true ending” and got all the achievements in 4 hours. You would think that a game like this would not get boring in such a short time. Yet, it did a bit for me.
The game is repetitive because:
- There is no progression. You gain all the abilities at the start of the game. There is no vertical (+1 to health) or horizontal (new skills) upgrades in the game. There is no mechanical change in the character. No matter how much money you gain, resources and notes. Nothing changes gameplay-wise. Of course, you could say that the progression is the story. Fixing your marks, gaining a new friend, saving the school, etc. I love great stories in games. Yet, this is a game and not a book. It needs gameplay as well.
- The antagonist always acts in the same way. She sees you and attacks with the same attack pattern. The worst is that she is easy to exploit. If you enter a new building she stops following you. You can also with no problems evade her attacks by pressing “w”… There are so many ways to escape her that she stops being a real threat quickly. I only died a total of 2 times during my 4-hour play. Not because of how unpredictable the antagonist is. I died because I was not careful and got poisoned, and was not able to find an antidote in time.
- The “quests” are always the same — go to “x” and press “e” next to “b”.
In short, the gameplay does not vary and there is nothing unique about it. It is the same “run-and-hide” gameplay we have seen in many other horror games.
The fix: In short, more variety should have been added to the gameplay. Now, I am not talking about adding a complex crafting system or first-person shooter elements. You don’t need to go that far. Even adding small mechanics could have made the gameplay spicier. For example:
- In the game, you get to know about some of the school staff doing immoral things. How about having these corrupt staff members become puppets of The Shade and attack you? This way the game would have had more enemies to fight not only The Killer.
- “Resident Evil 7” showed everyone that horror games where you can fight back can be scary. Even by adding only a single firearm or a melee weapon the gameplay would have been more varied.
- Since the game likes us to press the “e” button a lot, how about adding obstacles in the game? Environmental stuff that we could trigger while running away to slow the antagonist down.
1.3. The notes scattered around reveal too much.
The problem: Scattered through the school are notes and memos that fill in the backstory. Although the notes are important in creating this interconnected universe. Where the school feels like a real place. The notes also explain the whole horror and mystery away. They allowed me to figure out who is the bad guy in the very beginning of the game.
Why is this a problem?
- To have horror you need to have uncertainty. The moment you know who, what, where, how… about the bad guys all that you have left to do is to defeat them. What else is there to do? You know everything about them. Not to say that all horror games need to have murky waters. These revelations can come at the climax of the game, but not in the first half of the game.
- Too much is said and not shown. Some of the things in the notes and memos were more interesting to me than some of the stuff happening in the game. For example. Did you know that the school principal persuaded the school nurse to pimp herself out for money? I wish I would have gotten the chance to influence this part of the story somehow, but a lass…
The fix: Granted, some players love to read in-game books and notes. Yet, I believe everyone will agree that it is cooler to read about a secret in a note and to interact with that thing as well. Sure, you meet The Shade, you find the relics that are mentioned in these notes. Yet, you don’t get to interact with those things enough, use them, change them. It would have been cool if, for example:
- Finding relics would have unlocked new abilities for the protagonist.
- We could have met some of the characters mentioned in the notes. Like Soomi Park who turns out is a badass paranormal investigator and fought The Shade many years ago. Plus, she is the one who passes down the relic/pendant to Ms. Song.
2. What did I like?
2.1. The antagonists. Mainly The Killer.
Why does it work? The main antagonist takes the visual form of the protagonist’s beloved teacher Ms. Song, but her features have been twisted. She is not the same caring, encouraging person anymore. Now she is The Killer who stalks the halls of The Coma world killing anyone in sight.
What I like about her as an antagonist is that she has the tendency to appear when you least wish her to appear.
Sometimes you are exploring the classes of the school to find notes, resources, do objectives and then… You hear that horrid outcry, high heels tapping… You know she is there, but were? You also know that you will at some point run out of stamina. That she will catch up to you and hit you like a truck… I liked that. It made my heart pump a bit faster at the right moments.
There is even a good lesson in this for horror game designers. Sure, there are things that should be improved in the game. Yet, the general enemy concept is ideal for a horror game. You don’t know when she will appear (uncertainty), she is faster and will catch up to you (unavoidable), and she is stronger than you (you can only hope to survive). This is a good “formula”/principles for designing any horror antagonist and can be used as an example.
2.2. The story elements are interconnected. Everything has a purpose in the story.
Why does it work? This is a subjective thing. Some players love more bizarre and weird stories that don’t add up. Some like logical stories with cause and effect. I don’t have a preference. I like stories no matter what type of story structure is being used as long as it is done effectively.
In this game`s story-line everything makes sense. Every character, every note, everything is connected in some logical way. It is not random, it is by design.
- The reason why The Killer has Ms. Song`s appearance is that The Shade is obsessed with Song`s grandmother. Using Song`s image is a way to disrespect her ancestor + she is our beloved teacher, we care for her.
- The pendant we have was passed down to Ms. Song by her grandmother. The pendant is the sole reason why we are able to survive The Coma world, ]enter it and exit from it. Originally, the pendant was used by Song`s grandmother to fight The Shade.
- The boy who “committed suicide” at the start was actually stabbed by The Shade while trying to investigate Seho`s weird actions. He overheard Seho and The Shade arguing and got punished for meddling. Since he did not own a relic (pendant) as we did, he was not able to survive The Shades attacks.
- The reason why your grades are slipping is that Seho was using The Coma and The Shade to substitute your homework with his shitty homework.
I could go on and on like this. Everything connects to everything in some way or another and I liked that. It meant to me that even if the game was repetitive, I knew the story would at least make sense. That it would be worth it to find all those notes and to pay attention, finish the game. Take from this what you will.
2.3. I liked the lore. The paranormal stuff. It was simple but effective.
You won’t get any Resident Evil bioterrorism nonsense here. Sure, the horrors are supernatural, but it goes along with the Korean culture of ghosts. It also functions as a great metaphor for an unhealthy education system. Let me show you some example of what I mean:
- In-game: The school is a hot spot for negative emotions and thus has created The Coma world. Real-life: Schools can put so much pressure on us that leads to health problems, depression.
- In-game: We awoke in The Coma world because of our mental state. Our mind did not get enough sleep, we were stressed out, we were afraid of failing. Such disturbances create nightmares. These nightmares allowed our protagonist to be closer to and enter The Coma world. Real-life: Even I still have nightmares from time to time. In these dreams, I forget to hand in an assignment in time and got punished for it. Stress and other negative emotions can have a real influence on our state of mind.
- The Killer symbolizes teachers as being puppets of authority that put all that negative pressure on pupils. Chasing after them, punishing them for failure, giving out inhuman loads of homework.
Lesson: Horror functions as a metaphor for our lively fears. This game is a good example of how to incorporate these fears into both story, gameplay and lore.
2.4. The ending.
Depending on how you play, there are a bunch of bittersweet endings you can achieve. No matter which one you get, in the end, you had a stroke during exams. The ambulance came to get you and now you are in a comatose state, like the boy at the beginning of the game. (Not spoiling the different endings.)
The endings are good because they take into consideration your actions. Did you help your childhood friend, did you improve your grades? I liked this because it meant that the actions I performed in the game meant something. They had some effect,
The best thing is that the game ends with a lot of unanswered questions . Will the protagonist wake up, will the other boy survive his injuries? What will our Ghost Vigilante partner and The Shade do next? I would gladly like to receive answers to some of these questions. Maybe in a sequel?
Yet, if a sequel is made and the gameplay does not change, then I probably will not play the game. I think that a sequel will need to make drastic improvements to the gameplay in order to motivate me to play that sequel.
The main thing that I concluded after writing this article is that there are many horror games set in school-like settings. For example “Little Nightmares”, “Corpse Party” and “White Day: A Labyrinth Named School”. All of them by design or by accident function as metaphors for modern school systems.
Yet, I think that “The Coma: Recut” is the best of them. The best at integrating horror gameplay with the premise that the Korean education system is unhealthy.
This is one of the many benefits this game provides. It functions as a great case study on how to accomplish this integration property.
Man… This was not a short read, right? 😀