Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, the King of Horror brings you... something just plain horrible. To compensate, here's a scary ghost noise: WhooaAAAAAaaaaahh!
"At the very top of your seemingly benign keyboard is a row of function keys," begins the spooky, totally spine-chilling pitch for Stephen King's F13. "On a standard PC, they number F1 to F12. Key F13 doesn't exist . Even on a Mac, the F13 is an unassuming little key that simply captures a displayed screen. What if an F13 with some real potency appeared? Something menacing, a merger of technology and terror brought straight to your desktop. Would you dare strike such a key? A provocative yet unanswered question for horror fans and computer users. Unanswered until now... "
Uh... okay. Stephen King fans? I'm sorry. I'm so sorry you have to see this.
My favourite thing about F13 is the bit in the description about Macs, because there's nothing funnier than a story pointing out its own problems. You can almost see the guy who had to write this drivel sitting in his office, typing away, then looking down at his fingers and muttering "****" under his breath.
(Which is quite a skill, don't get me wrong, especially without training...)
You have to pity him, really. You have to pity anyone who finds themselves sitting in front of a computer and ordered to make a function key sound scary. If you fail, your job is on the line. If you succeed, you're opening the door to a whole career of keyboard related spinoffs. Print Screen of Persia. Backspace Invaders. Star CTRL. Start Wars. Clay PgDn Shooting. A developer could weep.
Not however as much as anyone who was suckered into buying F13.
Let me put this into some context. In 1995, there was a movie licensed from one of King's works, and that movie was called The Mangler . The Mangler was a movie about an evil piece of laundry equipment that killed people, and it was as good as you'd expect that premise to be. IMDB currently gives it a rating of 3.4 out of 10. In 2002, there was a sequel, creatively called The Mangler 2, in which the evil laundry equipment of doom is turned into an evil virus that infects the internet and kills people from cyberspace. Yes, really. On IMDB, this unnecessary pile of King-spawned piffle scored 2.3, putting it right down there with Santa With Muscles , Leonard Part 6 and Lawnmower Man 2 . Got that? Good.
In a head-to-head heavyweight crap-off between The Mangler 2 and Stephen King's F13, it would be the existence of F13 that shat longest and hardest on the man's legacy.
F13 isn't a game. It's a multimedia experience , and if those words don't send a colder shiver down your spine than anything Mr. King could dream up, you never walked into a games shop in the mid 90s. When CD-ROM took off, developers realised that everyone was so easily dazzled by the magic of pictures AND sound moving on screen simultaneously, they only had to wave the digital equivalent of a bit of shiny metal and we'd buy it. There were interactive movies that were barely interactive. There were overpriced joke games like our good friend Microshaft Winblows . And then there were things like F13, which billed itself as an 'interactive timekiller', because that sounded better than 'clicky pile of poo'. Others included Dilbert's Desktop Games , Take Your Best Shot and predating CDs, The Laffer Utilities .
Such was the way of the 90s. And for the 90s, at least this might have had novelty value. People probably wouldn't have taken a Shining to it, but wouldn't have ended up deep in Misery.
Unfortunately, Stephen King's F13 came out in 2000.
The closest F13 gets to unleashing the horror is when you load it up the first time and see exactly what you've bought: "Everything's Eventual", "Fun House", "Deathtop Backgrounds" - oh, Christ - "Bumps and Thumps" and "Screensavers". That's it. That's all you're getting.
Well, quality always beats quantity. Let's check them out in order...
"Everything's Eventual" is the only thing in the pack that really smacks of Stephen King instead of simply making you want to smack him for putting his name on this, being a short story you can enjoy/endure on your very own monitor. The F13 box proudly proclaimed "Never Before Released In Book Form", which was true. It wasn't however written for F13, having appeared years earlier in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it found its way into print two years later. Reading it here, you get an ambient soundtrack that adds nothing and stops for several seconds every time it has to loop, as well as a few pictures that also add nothing. It's about as comfortable to read as books on screen always are, which is not at all. More than a few pages have horrific typesetting, the italics are thin to the point of anorexia, and while I could only endure about half of it, that had nothing to do with any horror within.
Onto the Fun House! Here, there's no excuse for F13 not to produce the goods. Think of all the great Stephen King related games you could make for something like this. "Annie Wilkes in... Misery Loves Company", in which you play a crazy Kathy Bates trying to keep James Caan in your house until his willpower fades and he agrees to write the book you want. "Gerald's Minigame", a point-and-click adventure about trying to escape from the cabin. "Super Christine Racer", in which you go head-to-head with a Buick 8 and the truck from Duel, before facing your ultimate opponent, KITT from Knight Rider. Why, the possibilities are endless! Some of them might even be good!
You know what you actually get?
Feeding some fish.
I'm not joking.
"No Swimming" gives you a fish-tank full of snappy little buggers, along with five animals to feed them - a rhino (!), a dog, a gator, a cow and a horse. You drag and drop them into the water and the fish eat them. Then you do it again and again until you can't be bothered any more. If you don't feed the fish, occasionally they lunge a bit at the monitor and leave cracks. In a word: NEXT!
Game 2 is called "Bug Splat". You're given a table. Cockroaches crawl across it. You click on them to splat them. You start out with a swatter, then move up to a newspaper and a hammer. If you fail... uh... you get a generic game over screen. Apparently the best players in the world are called Chris, Farsh, Hoser, Derek and Flano, because they're the ones on the High Score Table, and after enduring some 10 levels in search of anything interesting, I can't imagine anyone having the patience to beat them.
The final game is... "Whack a Zombie". Hmm. Let me sum this up in just one caption:
"Deathtop Backgrounds" would be the most embarrassing thing in F13 if not for the fact that Bumps and Thumps exists - a soundboard of screams and random horror sounds that the creators expected you to jump at the chance of setting as your Windows sounds. Who wouldn't want to replace a beep with "CatAttack" or have "ZombieMunch" as their start-up noise? Answer: Sane people.
The "Deathtops" - and I repeat that only in the way a teacher puts an object of shame in front of a pupil to remind them of what they've done - are as weak as Stephen King's protestations that Maximum Overdrive was intentionally that bad. The best of them is "Big Roach" - a badly rendered cockroach sitting on a human finger. Others include a badly rendered car sitting outside a shadowy house, a badly Photoshopped advert for some guy apparently called King Stephen, though no hint as to where his kingdom is located, a clown labelled "Designing A Hidden Evil" for some reason, yet more roaches, and the graveyard background from the Whack A Skeleton game. You can also tattoo your screen with the F13 logo itself, as a permanent reminder of why you should never buy anything unless it has the PC Gamer seal of approval, except for The Thing, which I'm still really sorry about, okay?
Last, and tragically not least, there are seven Windows screensavers, although none of them quite understand the point of a screensaver is to save your screen by actually having the stuff on it change , and would in fact burn their poor quality art onto the monitor as if with a flamethrower.
Terror Eyes is easily the dumbest. There are eyes. They blink. If you're particularly scared of eyes blinking, horror may result. If not, prepare for much yawning. Slightly better is Creature In My Room, in which a sleeping kid completely ignores a few monsters who show up for a few seconds and leave. Murder & Mayhem and It's Just Lightning tell short stories about a house of murders and an evil clown doll, respectively though both pale in comparison to the deep narrative of Johnny Castaway . Stephen King Trivia is exactly that, just displaying a load of questions and answe AAAAARGH!
Sorry, a moth just flew through my window and compared to this, it was terrifying.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Evil Genius At Work is a cartoon Stephen King typing book extracts on the world's oldest computer, complete with green text on a black background. (Remember, this game came out in 2000!) And finally, there's The Works , in which random books float onto the screen along with a sentence or so of synopsis. The screensaver doesn't even give them the real covers, so they're all just pompous looking books with a bit of badly Photoshopped text on the top. Rubbish.
And that's it. That's the whole F13 experience. It's not exciting, it's not scary, it's not even immersive. It's just... oh, a single word can't sum it up. Crap, rubbish, claptrap, idiocy, poppycock, twaddle, brainless, dazed, deficient, dense, dim, doltish, dopey, dull, dumb, foolish, futile, half-baked, half-witted, idiotic, ill-advised, imbecilic, inane, irrelevant, laughable, mindless, moronic, nonsensical, obtuse, pointless, puerile, senseless, shortsighted, stupid, stupefying, thick, thick-headed, trivial, unintelligent, unthinking, witless, fetid, foul, cack-handed and really not very good at all.
But who is responsible for this? What unbelievable arsewits would put their names on such an obviously dreadful excuse for a game, especially one released so many, many years after its whole genre of dreck could have hoped to be seen as anything other than the laziest of cash-ins?
WHAT? Presto Studios? But... but they made The Journeyman Project series - some of the only Myst style games actually worth playing! Hell, they made the actual Myst III: Exile, which was at least reasonable. They even made Star Trek: Hidden Evil, which... okay, well, everyone has bad days. But this? What convinced them to make this? Did they lose a bet or something? With Satan?
Well, never mind. They're dead now, and it's finally time to answer F13's big question:
"What if an F13 with some real potency appeared? Something menacing, a merger of technology and terror brought straight to your desktop. Would you dare strike such a key?"
No. Because that would be stupid, and the kind of thing that leads to you being killed through cyberspace by an evil mangle. There's only one key F13 can persuade me to push, and believe me, it's a pleasure. But there wouldn't have been much of a market for "Stephen King's Delete", would there?