Does anyone else remember the movie Big? Okay, I’ll admit that I’m getting old, but the image for The Fabulous Fear Machine reminded me of the magical fortune teller machine that turned David Moscow into Tom Hanks for the film. That is, however, almost exactly where the similarity between the two oeuvres ends. The Fabulous Fear Machine has more to do with a real time strategy game that uses legends as a currency. It’s a fantastically interesting concept, and it’s well worth looking into, especially given that we’re in prime Spooky Season.
The titular machine is a fortune teller machine with the power to grant you your darkest desires—so long as you’re willing to sacrifice your soul and whatever goodness you might have ever imagined having. In game terms, that desire tends to translate to world domination more than anything else. However, the way you manage to achieve your goals in The Fabulous Fear Machine is by using fear to manipulate society; you use the machine’s agents to deploy legends to sow unrest and terror among the masses, thereby thwarting your enemies’ goals.
Oh, wait. Did I mention that you aren’t the machine’s only master? Rather, I should say, your initial character isn’t the machine’s only master. The Fabulous Fear Machine actually sets you into three separate but linked campaigns, in which you play separate characters with different agendas. What’s cool about the way the title plays out is that each of the campaigns tells a complete story about a given character and how the realization of his or her goal frequently doesn’t end the way he or she would prefer. There’s a morality tale here, but it doesn’t always succeed.
The actual concept of The Fabulous Fear Machine is really good. You deploy legends and rumors in a given area and grow them in order that they gain increasing footholds throughout the title’s regions. There are more than 70 different legends with which to play, and credit where it’s due, Fictiorama Studios has gathered a pretty comprehensive list of urban myths. The legends in your arsenal range from the Bloody Mary of childhood sleepovers to more esoteric concepts like the horrors of climate change. Fictiorama Studios has chosen a particularly enlightened visual to represent how these legends grow—comic book covers. As you develop your legend’s power, you reveal more of the horror’s comic book cover.
I really love this as a concept because it’s a great way to represent the power of stories and storytelling while reminding us that what may have begun with a kernel of truth rapidly devolves into something incredibly ridiculous. This may seem like a ham-handed metaphor, but The Fabulous Fear Machine leans very strongly into the nostalgic charm of the old Cryptkeeper comics with a side of Carmen Sandiego in the sense that you have your own vile henchmen to deploy.
Let’s not forget that The Fabulous Fear Machine also incorporates time and resource management mechanics. Yes, nurturing a legend requires expenditures of resources (Oleum), but let’s be frank, the game’s real driver is actually handling the timing. Not only do you have to deploy your masked henchpersons at the appropriate times, but you also have to respond to timed events that require more hands-on direction than you might anticipate. If you’re a more casual player or one who’s snatching quality gaming time where you can find it, this aspect of The Fabulous Fear Machine can get pretty frustrating.
You’re also going to encounter rival masters of the machine who have often competing agendas, and here’s where the strategy mechanic really comes into the fore. You must counter your enemies’ moves without sacrificing too much of your own fear development progress in order to succeed at each mission. The balance can be a delicate one, but frankly, finding that balance becomes repetitive.
If The Fabulous Fear Machine has a deep flaw, it’s that there’s not nearly enough differentiation between the missions. You learn pretty early in the title how to set up the board for success as you start recognizing the fact patterns that allow you to anticipate the moves the game’s AI will make. Yes, there are situations that good planning won’t avoid, meaning that some missions will come down to some pretty fine margins, but you’ll recognize them from the jump. In this situation, casual gamers will likely be happier given that they won’t be playing in such long sessions, so the repetitive nature of the missions won’t be as big an issue.
Remember the bit about how the Fear Machine is a metaphor? It both is and isn’t. We all know that propaganda exists, and that elites use the propaganda machine (see what I did there?) in order to manipulate society in just the same way The Fabulous Fear Machine has its characters use the machine and often to the same ends. By both poking fun at the concept and rendering it more concrete, Fictiorama Studios could have engaged in some very real and solid societal criticism. Unfortunately, they back away from doing just that, leaving the stories with incomplete and inconsistent messaging. I certainly grant that the devs are more interested in creating an interesting world that makes for a great play experience, but c’mon. You can do that while still making a point.
The Fabulous Fear Machine has a really amazing hook that’s hampered a bit by repetitive gameplay and some awkward messaging, but with some great nods to pulp horror comics and tongue-in-cheek humor, it is certainly worth the $17.99 you’d spend on it on Steam even with just nine or so hours of playtime.
- HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
- I want to put my thoughts on the stories here because I prefer not to spoil things for those who choose to play without knowing the story. When I say that the title doesn’t quite hit the mark with its messaging, two of the three chapters are just frustrating in their conclusions. While the characterization of the persons you’ll follow from their initial encounters with the machine are great and their stories compelling, The Fabulous Fear Machine flirts with some pretty big issues. The first involves fears surrounding big Pharma and anti-vaccine conspiracies, which is certainly pertinent and timely given the conspiracies haunting the COVID vaccines. However, rather than repudiating those fears, The Fabulous Fear Machine chooses to double down on them and provide a certain amount of validation for those fears. Yes, I do understand the story that was being told, and why the character makes the choices they do. However, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and we cannot ignore the context in which this story arises.
- The second story features incredibly regressive views about addiction, so if you or your loved ones have been dealing with those issues, you should likely give this one a pass. Again, the story makes sense, but the fundamental messaging about addiction is deeply problematic.
- The final story is solid, but I do wish there had been a bit more development of the colonialist ideas underpinning the particular story being told. That said, it’s satisfying.