Weatherby Asylum's Dr. Primrose wreaks horror in Human Head's "Lost Within."
Yeah, so the graffiti on the walls is sure unsettling: “A Monster Returned”; “Nobody Came Back from Surgery”; “To Kill a Ghost, Burn Its Remains.”
Everything’s dank and creepy, the windows are all locked tight and the howling, gibbering noises coming from the hallway up ahead are definitely not comfort-inspiring. Wait, what just moved?
Welcome to Weatherby Asylum, the spooky setting of Lost Within, the second and newest mobile game by Madison-based Human Head Studios. Seeing Human Head return to the mobile universe — its first effort was the 2012 kid-focused adventure game Fort Courage — is a little surprising, given that the studio is best known for console and PC work, and its last full game release, 2014’s MOBA-with-crafting elements Minimum, was a PC effort.
Chris Rhinehart, Lost Within’s project lead and one of the studio’s seven original founders, says the studio had been looking for an opportunity to jump back into the still-exploding mobile-gaming market. So when Amazon Game Studios put out a call for potential mobile partners in 2013, Human Head was poised and ready with a survival horror pitch.
“The mobile market is huge, but we wanted to do more,” says Rhinehart. “We wanted to make a game that was visually amazing.”
Rhinehart describes Lost Within as a “play-your-way” game, one where “you don’t just hide.” And his observation is astute — as your do-gooder deputy scours the halls of the haunted asylum for a mysterious boy, a demented doctor and, of course, a way out, he can run past the twisted denizens of Weatherby, sneak past them using distraction tactics or collect parts to craft items that can stun them or blow them up. The big key is the control scheme, which, for a pleasant change from many mobile games, actually, you know, works. Tapping the screen glides your character through the spooky halls, while swiping shifts your view. And, best of all, the game’s been programmed to intuitively understand that your frantic tapping means you’re trying to cram yourself into a locker to escape a gory death and not, say, stop to inspect the drawers of the nearby desk.
“We were super careful,” says Rhinehart. “We don’t want people to mis-click things. When players mess up, we want them to know it was they who messed up, not the game.”
David Holmes, the Amazon Games producer who helmed Lost Within, first encountered Human Head when he played Prey, one the studio’s most popular and successful console titles.
“We look for strong partners with significant gaming pedigrees,” he says. Still, Holmes, whose background is in PC and console games, had to be convinced to give Lost Within the green light. “At first I was like, ‘Another game in an asylum?’” he says. “But we were surprised at how the story ended.”
The storytelling is a big part of Lost Within’s appeal. In addition to the rotting notes and documents you’ll find on the filthy floors, the asylum does some storytelling of its own, revealing the horrors of the past through triggered flashbacks, some of which are of the interactive variety, all of which are of the disturbing variety.
“We built this for gamers who want a deeper narrative,” says Rhinehart. The gameplay lasts six to eight hours — a number that qualifies as sizable for a mobile offering — and takes more than a few “wait, what?” twists and turns.
Lost Within also sports a bunch of elements that will be familiar to anyone who’s played a survival horror game in the past 10 years. You’ll have to hide in lockers to escape murderous enemies, like in Evil Within. Getting past the asylum’s bestiary requires copious amounts of item-crafting, like the Resident Evil and Dead Space series. The disturbing graffiti and notes are reminiscent of scare ’em techniques from the Bioshock series. These things are familiar, yes, but they’re also further evidence that you’re getting a console-level experience on your tablet or phone.
Some of the monsters take clever advantage of what would otherwise be the mobile platform’s limitations — creatures like The Follower, an enemy who only moves when you’re not looking at it. Given that, unlike on a console or PC, you can’t move backwards, you’ll have to look away to see where you’re going, giving it the chance to move in for the kill. And you will hear it moving.
Rhinehart admits his development team relied on the low-polygon construction bag of tricks they used in the studio’s late-’90s PC games, Rune and Dead Man’s Hand, to create the creepy-yet detailed vibe that permeates Weatherby Asylum without exceeding the platform’s graphic limitations.
“This was very much in our wheelhouse,” says Rhinehart. ”We didn’t have to do a lot of ‘How are we going to do this?’”
Lost Within is currently available as a $6.99 download in Apple’s App Store and through Amazon Games.