The return of Strangethink is cause for celebration, for me at least; the style of game that first brought me wholly in to the (eventually-christened) #altgames scene was very much embodied in his own Abstract Ritual, along with others like Cicada Marionette’s Crypt Worlds and Kitty Horrorshow’s Dust City.
Strangethink’s latest — and his first game since he purged the rest from the internet — is called Mystery Tapes, and it is a delightful procedural poetry generator. It opens into what appears at first to be an empty infinity, with the only objects three floating televisions surrounding a massive circular pile of VHS tapes. Just because there are no walls doesn’t mean you can go anywhere, of course; you walk to the tapes, and read their titles, and stick them in the televisions, and that’s about it.
Except that loading the VHS tapes into the TV’s built-in VCR doesn’t play them on the TV; it transforms the whole world around you. As Lana Polansky put it, that transformation is into a space with “Escher-like impossible architecture, luminously gradated pastel palettes and eldritch, moody thematic undertones.” It wouldn’t be good music journalism to say the game’s score is similarly luminously gradated pastel, but it doesn’t feel wrong.
What’s most striking about Mystery Tapes, though, is the words. Each VHS tape has two or three words written on its spine, in what looks like procedural fashion. It isn’t hard to immediately get apophenic about it; see what all three-word tapes do, given most are two and there are three televisions, aren’t there? Or notice that one tape among the stack has Kimberly as one of its words; why the proper noun? Are there others? And speaking of which, why three televisions? You start off where the fourth would be, and while you can kick around tapes by walking through them, whose to say that you aren’t the fourth television all along?
That apophenia leads to its own poetry. Once the impulse to parse through in purely positivist terms passes, you might find yourself leaning into literary technique. Maybe more beautiful worlds will be birthed out of alliteration? How will the entity within the orb react to a line of iambic trimeter? Which entity, of course, is the strange center.
Much the way that Abstract Ritual‘s spaces were awesome, but its mean spirited, procedurally generated prose anchored its character, Mystery Tapes is an estranged engagement with word formation. And it’s the more beautiful for it.
Pippin Barr has a strange aesthetic. His pixel art mostly looks like it was produced to be functional and that’s it, but the character animations are often bursting with personality; his games themselves read at first blush like dashed off jokes with a mechanics wrapper. And very often, I think, they read that way after the fact, as well.
Art Game has the player(s) choose the artist(s) they which to play as, and create works for an exhibition in the MoMA. Pick one and you paint, pick the other and you sculpt, or pick the third make video art with a friend.
The painter plays Snake, the sculptor Tetris. Except that both games are stripped of points and progression; once the artist hits the game they are playing’s fail state, the piece is complete. Title it and keep it, or discard it and try again. Once the player has a couple of pieces ready, they call the curator, and she comes by and (apparently randomly) decides whether the works are worthy of inclusion in the MoMA exhibition. After a certain amount of time, the exhibition starts, and the player can see people alternately praise and condemn their work, and the work of others, with airy, lofty words.
I’ve gone back and forth on the game’s framing innumerable times since its release. What allows that, though, is significantly more interesting, even if it is also strikingly simple; that the production is the fail state.
Most of my thinking around videogames as creative tools revolves around their ability to function as processes of creation rather than objects. This is generally true of what I care about with dedicated tools as well, of course; I make bad music because I prefer the process of making the music to the process of constructing the finished piece (or rather that is one reason I am incapable of making good music, in addition to the fact that I have a shit ear and no grounding). Games specifically designed as creative tools, whether Electroplankton or Great Artist, hold less appeal to me than the possibility of making shit in, say, Castle Doctrine (it is bad for this, I gave up like immediately, a waste of money).
But an output is still required, and the implications of that being the fail state are interesting. Are they that interesting? I don’t know.
Ritual is played by two people, each with a half of a keyboard to themselves. Each controls one of three brushes at a time and can swap between them, and move them along a 2D space in front of one of two backgrounds. The brushes are little sprites that trail fixed colors and textures, though different movement patterns will produce different strokes.
The metaphor isn’t perfect, of course; the brushes are more like physics objects, controlling a bit like a much-slowed space ship from Asteroid. You can’t pick them up and place them where you want, but you can have them gain some momentum and then release the key. The trail will stop but the brush will continue; the next time you press, the line will be broken.
I like Ritual for almost the exact opposite reason that I like Art Game; it is the sort of thing I can enjoy playing around in without worrying about the end result. Per the name, I suppose, but also per the aesthetic. It is really lovely.