You might have noticed that Short on Games missed its January column. Fear not: that just means that February is a double issue. That’s right: 2,000 words! Two games? Hope you enjoy.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the “Katamari is an indictment of consumerism” crowd, even if it does include Keita Takahashi, the series’ creator. Any critique of “consumerism” is likely to set my eyes rolling, because it never amounts to much more than moralizing. Imagine my surprise, then, when the latest installment – coming long after Takahashi divested himself of the series – presented the most compelling form and rhetoric of that criticism yet, and has so become one of my favorite Katamari games ever. The form is of a tapper, or clicker, or idle or incremental game; the genre is still confused enough to not have a unified name. The rhetoric is physical. The game’s argument takes place in your wrist, and it was compelling enough that I spent the week of Global Game Jam in a wrist guard, fearing the onset of an RSI.
The form of the idle game is important because in it is an embedded critique. The story goes like this: Ian Bogost, having been subject to a speech by Zynga’s president at the Game Developer’s Choice Award, decided to make a critique of the then-dominant genre of social games that Zynga had made a fortune with on Facebook. Bogost deconstructed these with a game called Cow Clicker, in which the player clicked a cow once every six hours to accrue currency. The game’s popularity made it more than an academic exercise, and the ultimate consequence was the popularization of the idler genre. In these games, the player rarely does more than click (or tap) to accrue currency. This currency is, generally, used to purchase upgrades that have two purposes: allow the player to click less, and accrue currency faster. As Jeff Gerstmann is fond of saying, the appeal is simple: “The numbers just keep going up.”
Gerstmann, who is possibly (Bogost included) the foremost critical authority on idle games, is not making an idle observation. The numbers going up is one of the more visible aspects of videogames design practices. It surfaces just how reliant videogames are on the reward loop, over and above its ostensible function as only a motivator for execution or skill. From its origin as a critique of predatory practices and poor design that turned out to be uniquely compelling to its current status as a genre-without-a-name, the idle game is uniquely suited to be a critical vehicle with teeth.
The year before Bogost sat through the Zynga president’s presentation, Keita Takahashi told attendees of the Game Developer’s Conference that, “I think I successfully expressed my cynical stance towards the consumption society by making Katamari – but still I felt empty when the objects were gone.” In the six years between Katamari Damacy‘s release and Takahashi’s talk, I remember hearing people float that theory around, between jokes about How High Would You Have To Be To Make This, and finding it uncompelling. Beyond even the formal category of games of complicity – your Spec Ops: The Lines and Trains and The Beginner’s Guides and so on – which attempt to clarify a reading of engagement or interactivity along a moral line, reading Katamari Damacy as a polemic against consumerism makes it, at best, along the lines of the arguments that situate JRPGs as nothing more than capitalist productivity simulators with even less of a leg to stand on. Takahashi’s own affective response to his game is striking, but as analysis it suggests no path other than a tired Louis CK or Jonathan Franzen bit. We live in a fallen society, it claims, and the blame lies on its inhabitants, not its architects.
* * * * *
If videogames are unique, then they are unique insofar as they can ruin your hands. The zenith of ‘interactivity’ is Mew2King refusing to see a doctor as his career slowly implodes. “Passive entertainment” can’t compete with that. There is no phenomenology of film that can make you aware of just how often your wrists are required in daily life.
Tap My Katamari – Endless Cosmic Clicker‘s mechanics are simple. You tap to roll the katamari a specific distance, and every amount of that distance holds an object which it rolls up. These objects also spit out coins; one at first, and eventually more. With coins, you can buy upgrades to the Prince, or cousins who will roll the katamari without your input. Every tenth object is a gating mechanism, a “Time Attack Challenge,” after which you advance to the next level. After certain levels you gain a Star Token, which can be used to buy Presents. These are functionally permanent powerups, as opposed to everything else which gets lost when you turn your katamari into a star, which requires upgrading the Prince to level 600. The strategy, roughly, is to play the game for a couple of hours until the cousins are powerful enough to generate sufficient coins to keep the whole thing going at a clip, and then check in every few hours. You do this less and less until you get to the point where you need more presents, and start it all again.
The most economical way to get coins, of course, involves tapping as fast as possible for a brief period of time. Whether you get this by the King of All Cosmos gifting you with the Royal Touch (for the nominal fee of watching an ad) or through the Coin Soul powerup that refreshes once an hour, rapid tapping becomes central to overcoming the stickier gates. The most effective way is to place both hands to either side of your phone and tap with each finger consecutively on both hands; doing this requires a very odd angle of your wrists.
This demand – that the body mutate to the desires of the software – is still not an analysis, but it is at least a reflection that does not demand a moralism. If the consumer society is unique, then it is unique in its demands on bodies; not to produce, but to watch the numbers keep going up.
The influences that Anatomy wears on its sleeve range from Videodrome to Gone Home, The Haunting of Hill House to House of Leaves. Its tension is created by rifling through a very dark house, but its horror is pure theory. Anatomy is a modest Cyclonopedia with as much, if not more, to offer.
Anatomy begins with the player in a house, which she wanders through. Doors either open or rattle when clicked, until the player finds a tape and player. When played, someone who gives the vibe of a clinical psychologist begins speaking of a theory of houses. At each segment’s end, a bit of text informs the player of the location of the next tape in the house. After finding a number of tapes, and hearing the elaboration of the theory of the house as metaphorical organism, the game quits itself out.
At this point, the rattling is worth noting. As much as it is the darkness that produces the tension, and eventually the narration that develops the horror, it is the doors that don’t open that develop the creepiness. The sound is a doorknob rattling in a way that is pitch perfect for someone trying to escape or break in, except it only occurs when you intentionally interact with a door. It is creepy not just because of its associations and possibilities, but because it requires a return to the fundamental question of your place within this world. As cliché as it sounds, the simple sound effect is making it clear that what’s to be afraid of isn’t a monster closet bursting out and spooking you, but the possibility that you are the monster in the closet from the start.
In the unzipped folder that hosts Anatomy‘s .exe is a text file titled “SPOILERS – PLAY BEFORE READING.” It is the obvious next step after the game quits, as there’s hardly anything to spoil; you may wonder if there’s not more game in here, or at least an explication of some kind. Read, the spoiler is simple: relaunch the game. It takes multiple playthroughs to experience in full.
It takes a couple more launches and automatic quits for the player to experience a Kitty Horrorshow environment, and its inclusion is deeply weird. The worlds of Dust City and Chyrza and Rain, House, Eternity are powerful in part because of their decontextualization. Situated explicitly as an outside, what should by all accounts be very familiar in its weird, unsettling imagery becomes, well, defamiliarized. That’s a strange thing to say!
Before we get to the house itself, some words about how the game incorporates quitting and launching as a mechanic. It is a historical peculiarity of games that any state which signifies an end to progress – especially a temporary end, from which it is possible to return nearly immediately – is elided into the concept of death. While Anatomy never makes this elision explicit, it is felt. Incorporating paratextual elements into the text has been a signature of Horrorshow’s since at least Dust City, and the way Anatomy does this is both recognizable and innovative. Innovative in the sense that it subtly engages with critiques of the walking simulator, especially those that claim to be about gamey credentials but are really fixated on the absence of fail states. Failing – dying – is integral to the experience of Anatomy, and not in a narrative way; but, more importantly, not in the sense of an arbitrary skill check, either. Your floating camera dies without dying, allowing the house, which already exhibits its own agency, to rearrange itself in relation to you.
Which brings us to the most important part, and what makes Anatomy possibly my favorite game made by one of my favorite game makers currently going. Because Anatomy understands that the horror of the house is not the things it hides, or what it represents, or (least of all) how it may be breached, but the theory of the house itself. Because the house is both material and symbolic in absolutely immediate ways, any attempt at taking either of these aspects alone will inevitably get mired in the other’s absence.
I’ve been beating this drum for years, but: ghosts are space. Particularly its becoming-linguistic. And Anatomy, more than possibly anything else I have ever encountered, gets that. What’s to fear aren’t historical events but the deformations that they leave on a place, and the possibility that the accumulation of those deformations might make it such that the place itself learns to speak. And in learning to speak, it would learn to negate. Anatomy‘s finale is literally a narration of that. It is incredible.
The theory of houses espoused in Anatomy is of the house as body. The tapes tell the story of living room as heart, bathroom as digestive tract, bedroom as mind, and basement as subconscious. The metaphors are questioned even as they are stated, though; both visually and audibly. The tape that tells the story of the bedroom as mind is in a master bedroom on whose walls are many pictures of teeth. The house as body is only a half-step to the game’s ultimate conclusion: that, given enough time, the whole house might become a mouth. The visceral terror there is of the teeth that grind. The horror is of the tongue that lulls, that tells you its theories and asks you for favors, that misdirects and negates. Because dying is just part of the vernacular, so trivial as to be named when it has consequence. But when the space can speak, the space that is the image of the family, of the site of reproduction, of capital and its bubbles; even if it only speaks to tell you that it has a mouth, that is horror.
Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival is the perfect videogame. Perfect, at least, in its simulations. It’s a board (video)game, which means that it is a boring slog, a barebones structure by which to stimulate sociality. The vulgar materialism of Amiibo lines up perfectly with the parodic Stalk Market and the fan infatuation with the Villain Tom Nook, rentier capitalist. The simulations are of systems as much as economies; so much pretends to skill. Amiibo Festival dares you to engage, knowing it won’t satisfy. The secret’s that it wants you to engage with each other, not it.
Porpentine and Neotenomie’s 3D Twine game Bellular Hexatosis feels as though it could be an experiment or a zenith; the marriage of Myst-style point and click with Twine is pleasingly odd, but it’s hard to tell where it goes from here. With Kitty Horrorshow’s increasing adoption of in world text, though, the possibility is certainly there.
The story itself crests slowly and is somewhat underwhelming in its brevity, but Porpentine’s mastery over the intentional misfires of moment-to-moment prose is on full display. The hub area is also a good touch; you move in circles to begin, which gives both space and momentum. Touch mushrooms and talk to eyes, it’s good.
Way to Go is an interactive experience, shot on 360° video, and funded by the National Film Board of Canada. The experience is of moving through space with an avatar. The space is a real forest that becomes abstracted over the course of the experience; the movement is of walking or running or flying along a track, or of stopping and watching.
The way Rez looms over on-rails games highlights their affinity with visual abstraction; Way to Go‘s triumph is leveraging that in a way that combines it with a reflective experience that doesn’t bow to flow.
The danger of Walking Simulators is that their laying bare of the mechanisms of spatial abstraction in videogames becomes tied to their affect. Per Austin Howe (interpreting Zolani Stewart), the Walking Sim is characterized by “drama, dread, and loneliness.” I agree, especially with the dread. What, then, is the consequence of this yoking?
My hope, at least, is that it doesn’t refuse us the possibility of acknowledging Splatoon‘s contribution to our understanding of spatial abstraction. Not just in its appeal – shooting the space instead of the people – but in its design from the ground up. From fashion to level and weapon design to absenting voice chat, Splatoon is an expression of the joy of virtual space.
If merritt kopas’ graphical games can be crystallized into one thing, it would be the use of the down arrow key. Shattered out, it becomes her manifesto of late last year or her Soft Chambers work throughout this one.
Obéissance, specifically, is about navigating a small environment repeatedly while reading the words of Simone Weil on consenting to obedience to God. I’ve called attention to her animations before, but Obéissance might have my favorite (the toe tapping!). It would be easy to praise the thematic resonance, but, like wrestling, what sets it apart are the little things.
I’ve developed a bit of a morning ritual, where I play/watch Automatic Mario levels as I eat breakfast. There’s a nice rhythm to juggling the Wii U Gamepad and a plate of food, as Mario skillfully avoids dangers and hits sound cues. That Super Mario Maker also lets me engage in pseudo-Situationist praxis is, in some way, all I’ve ever wanted.
If you make two choices a certain way, the ending scene of Trigger includes an extra snippet of internal monologue, where Wendy removes a key from her hand and reminds herself that she will likely never know what it is for. I read this as a kindness, given the choices made.
There are aspects of Trigger that I suspect might not work, but moments like with the key bring it into focus. As a story about people, Trigger is a minor masterpiece.
If there’s one aspect of videogames I’m going to wax poetic about some day, it is their axes. Horizontality is the fundament; verticality I find endlessly interesting. Downwell, then, has an obvious hook. That I’ve probably spent more time in 2015 playing Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup than anything else also helps. That waxing can wait for another day, though; Downwell is still about the satisfaction of chaining combos for now, and it’s incredible for that alone.
It seems impossible to overstate the work Robert Yang has done over the course of 2015, and Stick Shift stands partially in the stead of Succulent and Cobra Club and Rinse & Repeat, all incredible. If anything, the post-mortem seals Stick Shift‘s importance; it is political in a way that games have refused to admit themselves to be.
There is also a certain awkwardness to Stick Shift, in its representation of action – that is, its controls – that endears it to me especially. It’s an awkwardness that makes stroking the shifter feel particularly good.
That, and ACAB.
In my review of We Know the Devil, I tried to highlight how the Christian Summer Camp Horror Visual Novel is properly Brechtian in its popularity and realism (see p2). I don’t know that I sold many people on it. That’s okay, but I also would like everyone to play it.
Even if I feel like “videogame writing” is the easy mark, We Know the Devil shows just how often it fails; not as craft, but in its capacity to universalize important political knowledges. I later said that its collectivity is one of the more important videogame things ever. I stand behind that, and the fact that We Know the Devil is a superbly crafted story only adds to it.
In the tunnels that house Mart Donald’s, a Detective Joe hides in the corner of a room. In the back is a computer that tells you that you have no messages or friends. The front of the room has a few posters on the walls, a couch, a billiards table, and a jukebox.
The billiards table has ten balls – nine 8s, one cue – but there is no stick. The player can take a moment away from their quest to return the five Goddess Relics to the Goddess Moronia to click the cue ball and let physics take over. The couch is non-interactive, but the jukebox can be switched on and off. It only has one song; a noisy, industrial banger, on loop.
In the two years since I first played Crypt Worlds: Your Darkest Desire, Come True!, that billiards table, with the song on blast, came to symbolize the whole; it was my own internal metonymy. At the time, I was probably trying to break the billiards table, and enjoying the aggressive dimensionality of the sound from the jukebox. I’ve only ever played Crypt Worlds with headphones in, and any movement in space is reflected heavily in how the loop pans, and fades.
In playing Crypt Worlds, this room has two functions that I know; the computer that insults you is involved in the P.O.R.P. sidequest to obtain a cyborg body, and the Detective Joe can be pissed on daily to receive six gold bars. Gold is important as one of five ordinary collectibles, alongside Seeds, Meat, Crumbs and Bones. There are also Gold Bugs and Tears of God, Goddess Relics and Piss and, in a weird way, Days.
* * * * *
Crypt Worlds is a game in which the player opts either to save the world, plunge it into chaos, or shirk your responsibility entirely. As a being awoken by the Goddess Moronia to stop the evil Dendygar from destroying the Crypt Planes, your allegiance is clear. The threat of the Chaos God, whose tears are spread across cities accessible only by having archaeologists unearth ruins below your house, is less obvious.
To collect the Goddess Relics, and so receive the “Good End” in which Dendygar is defeated, the player mostly has to learn the rhythms of the world in order to maximize their income ahead of the correct days. There is also some light platforming involved. Summoning the Chaos God requires slightly more platforming; letting Dendygar win requires nothing but sleeping and occasional self care.
The draw of Crypt Worlds is its aesthetic. Textures stretched over blocky geometry, heavy use of “billboarded” 2D sprites, and a conservative use of particle effects makes the game recall the Playstation era visually, in a way that turns what was once a testament to money spent into a conscious choice. The other draw is that of the verbs included (‘move’ with WASD, ‘jump’ with space, ‘interact’ with left click, and ‘choose,’ situationally, with 1-5) a full fifth of those available (by way of using the right click) is dedicated to piss.
Pissing in Crypt Worlds is somewhere between an alternative interact and a resource. Like the various currencies it is something that must be accumulated and spent; like the more ordinary interact button, it largely serves to progress through space and provide new dialogue. The way that Crypt Worlds splits that difference is really fascinating: it makes pissing, as both resource and interaction, a catalyst for physics.
* * * * *
In my most recent playthrough, I finally succeeded in breaking the billiards table. The cue ball clipped through the edges and found its way off the table and all around the tunnels into the Mart Donald’s dining area.
My best guess is that the ball itself has its gravity box unchecked, because no matter where the floor was in relation to it the ball floated along at the same height. It got stuck behind the jukebox first, and I kept accidentally flipping off the loop and flipping it back on. When I finally bounced it out, it was weird to have that ball and not the tune. I had thought, before, that the billiards was what drew me in; the game itself, and its aesthetic especially, rely on an understanding of stasis. Sure, you can piss on the 3D-modeled characters to move them or knock them over, but that movement is half the comedy itself. People and things in worlds like this don’t move; that is how you learn them, and how you then establish a routine of accumulation around them.
Clicking the ball and having it move was a tacit admission of this stasis. The only way to introduce dynamism is to clothe it in the garb of another genre, a dynamic game within a static game. I think that’s still right, to some extent; but it is only partial. Watching the cue ball, with its cartoon-style thick black outline, float over the heads of the Mart Donald’s consumers was a reminder of the tenuous connection between game objects and game spaces, and the labor that is strengthening that connection. Absent those bursts of static that stood in for percussion, though, it felt like an empty epiphany.
* * * * *
Crypt Worlds continues to succeed, for me, precisely in how it lives in those tenuous connection, in representation. The game’s aesthetic allow it to move through nostalgia and comedy, to arrive at a juxtaposition of labor and alienation. In its currencies and its dialogue, in its topos and its verbs, in its assets and its soundtrack, Crypt Worlds returns constantly to work, both representatively and mechanically, and to alienation.
This is the other half of the comedy about making things move in a static world; it is the forceful assimilation of the abject into the space of abstraction. Pissing particles on polygons that consume, and on sprites that labor.
And to get to do that while an industrial riff ping pongs around your head; well, that’s a lot of fun.
A slight departure; this month’s Short on Games will focus briefly on a number of games that I played at, or found through, Indiecade and QGCon Local.
Tribal & Error is a game about language built to be playable regardless of the language(s) the player knows. The player controls a little tape player sent back in time to the ice age, to help ‘cavemen’ survive. The player discovers that there is a sort of language among them, and uses it to aid the humans in their troubles.
The demo was short – you can also find it here – but interesting. The core mechanical conceit is a rich way of combining accessibility with expression, which is worthy of praise. The narrative conceit rubs up against a pet peeve of mine: the “cavemen with capitalist familial organization” trope, though that isn’t necessarily the story. I’d be pretty hype if it didn’t devolve into that.
Uni is a Twine game about a nonbinary unicorn lady’s first day at college.
Probably the most interesting things about it for me personally are fairly tied together. I want to describe Uni‘s tone as “mixed,” but that isn’t quite right. It finds some amount of balance between the ‘personal’ tone that a lot of Twine employs, and a more oppositional tone that a lot of other Twine employs. I liked that mixture, even though the two rarely appeared immediately juxtaposed. The only possible exception is when the player attempts to apologize.
The other aspect is slightly more (videogame) formal. Uni looks very much like it was built in Twine 2.0, and it does a thing that I don’t remember seeing much in Twine games: it assumes the use of the built in back buttons. There are certain paths that branch to an end and yet are still written like they mean for the player to continue onwards. I found this incredibly baffling at first, and not in a bad way.
That oppositional tone mixes with the game’s design choice to use the UI in a neat way, I think, especially since so much of the tone (this is a shitty word; I am using it in a literary criticism sense) is directed at the player for things like invading the privacy of the character.
Engare is a line-drawing puzzle game by Mahdi Bahrami. It has something of an oleomingus aesthetic and the interactions reminded me, at least somewhat, of the work of Talha Kaya. I was really bad at it, but it was pretty and seemed neat.
Gathering Sky is a painterly birdflocking sim. I have no idea if it does anything other than drops you into a painting as a bird and asks you to figure out how to move and gather birds; if it does, that’s a shame.
As you fly around, lines will appear that will guide you. Touching or getting near other birds will have them join you. Sometimes other little lines will appear that you can touch and eventually they pop and maybe ding against a crystal and that’s nice. Sometimes you fly through big cloud banks.
Blush or Burn is a Visual Novel where you competitively flirt with another player on the same keyboard.
I played it alone, so I was mostly trying to figure out if it was just rock paper scissors with the three options each player had or something less straightforward. I really failed to determine whether it was because it was cute and I was too distracted.
60 Seconds! is a timed 3D dash-and-grab and survival Visual Novel. The dash-and-grab is neat since you are looting your own home. It kind of controls like a PSX Rugrats videogame. That’s not a bad thing, I think.
The survival game that it leads into seems to be the bulk of the game, and involves resource management based on the things got during the dash-and-grab. There’s wandering around and little cute storytelling bits there. That part seemed okay.
Abzû lets you be in a school of fish and ride a manta ray. I’ve been playing Aquanaut’s Holiday a lot lately so I got kind of excited about this. Aquanaut’s Holiday is more my speed, but Abzû seemed neat too.
The game is gorgeous, and it controls in a way that might be called swimmy. Moving around in the world is neat. I played it passing off the controller with someone who wasn’t super familiar with the Dualshock controller, and she was clearly struggling, but not in a necessarily negative way.
The big concern I have about Abzû after the demo is, presumably, going to be its selling point. The game seems like it is going to be the sort of thing that is advertised according to its Emotional Narrative and Emergent Gameplay. If they don’t do that – if they allow it to exist on the strength of its awkwardness and beauty – I still won’t play it because I don’t have a Playstation 4, but I’d be much more disappointed in missing it.
Seven Day Band is a 7 Day Roguelike in the style of Angband. The gimmick is that you develop the game as you play it. As you wander around the ASCII world and discover things, they can be changed; you name the enemy initially, and determine how strong they are and so on.
The person manning the booth – who I’m fairly certain was the developer – explained to me that his motivation was his assumption that when most people say they want to make a game, what they mean is that they want to change the content on an existing structure. Then I played it and he spent the whole time arguing about evolution and voluntary human extinction with some randos? That was weird. The idea behind the game is incredibly neat though, although I don’t know how much I dug the implementation, no matter how much Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup I’ve been playing.
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.
From Smiling’s Frail Shells is a playable thesis statement. It’s one that’s strongly stated, and no less so for being relatively common. To say there’s much subtlety involved would be to misunderstand what it is about the game that makes it worth playing.
The horizon of videogame thought is psychology. All major advancements in the form are encased in a theory of the brain. Artificial Intelligence and graphical fidelity are two sides of the same coin. We’re the vending machine: insert coin, get back a corresponding degree of recognition of the brain-patterns with which you are familiar. Metagamers and min-maxers think like the machine because they are trying to meet it halfway; PC irony-fascists and console warriors do the same. Jack Thompson called them a cause, Zimmerman claims they’re a century where “the lines will become increasingly blurred between game players and game designers.” He also calls them beautiful and specifically references their aesthetics; luckily this is in the gutter of the manifesto, where sentiment and melodrama overpower motive. Ebert said that art was authored; every hack cried that what better authorship is there than that which makes your neurons fire fast in response?
A note; a theory of the brain is a choice. It is not a theory of the mind. Frail Shells supports two possible readings, which happen to split cleanly along the lines of the ludonarrative. In one, it is about the loquacity of games, what they allow you to say, in the other about post-traumatic stress, the effects of undergoing and enacting violence seeping in to the moments where it is no longer present. The ludo is linguistic, a representation of actions boiled to mechanics that develops its irony as a function of the intervening brain. The narrative is that it’s an #altwargame.
It is in this context – which is to say the whole context of thinking about videogames as it exists – that the thesis statement exists. This is the context where a game that opens full Medal of Honor only to (medium) hard shift to domesticity and labor can function as a reasonable critique of the culture. It would be impossible to give a shit about the paucity of verbs in a shooting game were the concern the mind. In a culture where the concern is the brain, however, it is the only thing worth caring about.
There’s no shortage of games that call out the lack of verbs in shooting games, of course. Acid Wizard Studio’s After the Credits straight rips Contra sprites and sounds to make the same point; once the bros save the universe, what’s next?
The joke is the juxtaposition, of course; Contra Bill moves right and shoots, so how would he deal at a desk job? This is the common narrative element between Frail Shells and After the Credits; the heroic warrior gets a desk job. A nonspecific one, to be sure, but with heavy implications of something along the lines of data entry, although perhaps more lucrative. Mindless and repetitive, only unable to be completed by shooting.
If the joke is the juxtaposition, though, the fantasy is the non-transferability. A utopian reading of the “action games lacking verbs” genre goes like this:
Power relies on violence, but is not reducible to it. Those who enact violence are not, often, those who have power, only those who serve it. Nevertheless.
Those who enact violence – especially over a long period of time, doubly so in a focused campaign – are, when push comes to shove, those who find themselves in a position to engage with other aspects of power. They, almost inevitably, network with capitalists. Especially, again, when they are on a campaign like Contra Bill was.
The utopian fantasy of these stories is that violence itself is, ultimately, laughable, especially in the “power fantasy” style. It’s of no place because it only exists in a world without, say, PMCs. Contra Bill doesn’t work a desk job; he’s a “consultant.” The flip side of that is, of course, the utopian idea that these men have jobs at all. Veteran houselessness might be political capital, but it’s also real as shit.
There are deconstructions of other genre as well, of course. Shiro Games sort of subtitled their Evoland “A short story of adventure video games evolution,” which is to say it’s a pastiche of The Legend of Zelda games (up through Ocarina of Time) with a hearty amount of Final Fantasy VII mixed in, and one bit that riffs on Diablo. It started as a jam game, just like the other two here, but got expanded to a full thing; there’s even a sequel now, as of a couple days ago.
The early joke of Evoland is the same as of After the Credits; the first thing you do is move right to touch a treasure chest that allows you the ability to move left, then in 2D, and so on. Your name defaults to Clink, and once you move from action RPG to turn based you get a partner named Kaeris. She gets killed by Zephyros.
The full version kind of sucks. It is overlong, and the actual jokes are things like getting a “Diamond Necklace of Shiny Bling” which has the flavor text “[y]ou just became the first Gangsta Fantasy Hero.” The initial conceit wears out quickly, and the game never deigns to let up on it; the rhythms of the two canons it draws from can’t be established when they’re constantly being flipped between, so the exploration of a Zelda is missed just as much as the repetitious scope of a Final Fantasy. Even the collectibles – stars and cards for a Triple Triad clone – ultimately come up short.
It’s that final word in the pseudo-subtitle, the one that lends the prefix to the title, that makes the game so interesting and infuriating. Evoland can’t be a deconstruction, because it exists within the cultural context of games. Like a brain, it can only chronicle evolution.
Porpentine’s Grassfires of Veldstar (that’s a direct download link) is an action puzzler, a series of suggestions of stealth with a rude timer, a crystal hunter masquerading as an avoidance simulation. It’s really fun, in that immediate reset upon death, you’re really just memorizing (intelligently constructed) arbitrary bullshit, goddamn this is cute kind of way.
I can expand on that bit that seems less than enthusiastic here: it’s only arbitrary bullshit insofar as I consider all puzzles arbitrary bullshit. What Veldstar does is make each “life” last ten seconds; you start a level, the clock starts to count down. Your moves are entirely based on cues: the fire starts at the top of the level, so you run down. The bombers’ shadows enter house left and move horizontally, so you do as well, vertical movement to avoid the shadows that become dropped bombs. The tiles themselves are relatively clear as to whether or not they are impassable, and if there is a lack of clarity you test them and die and reset and try something different.
This last is, in practice, what the game actually consists of; you see the fire above, you run down. A wall below, you try left, it’s blocked you die, you start over, do the same but go right, the timer runs out just before the crystal, you don’t run down quite as far this time, make it to the crystal, repeat. The gamey hook is those frustrations, but also how you are holding up right as time runs out and you let go but the inputs have a bit of lag so you respawn and immediately, unbidden, rush directly into the fire and die again and push through.
More complicated obstacles are introduced as well, hidden bombs and laser pylons, the latter of which provide a fantastic little set piece. Mostly it’s just fun to die again and again and work through these microfrustrations. Also it’s really cute.
I’m pretty garbage at all of Michael Brough’s games, though none I’ve played more so than Helix. It’s where you’re an almost Osirian eye who circles other things which pops them, which gives you points. You don’t want them to touch you. If they do you lose all your points and have to start over.
The catch, of course, being that this is an iOS game, is that to move you must trace little circles on your tablet or phone. As the game opens, it shows a finger in the bottom right corner and suggests that you touch anywhere to begin. Once you do, an indicator shows up, some arrow letting you know something is coming from offscreen right there. It does, you dodge it, and a little line appears. If you fill the line around, it pops. It’s the kind of game that’s perfectly great to while away with, but that also hints at it’s own existence within an oeuvre.
Given that the game is legitimately gated by skill — though I feel compelled similarly to say that the joy of it is immediately apparent — I can make no particular claims as to how it progresses or where it might resolve. Helix does feel, however, very much as fascinated with abstraction and space as the other of Brough’s games I’ve played (namely 868-Hack and Corrypt. All three use touch controls in abstracted ways; where the latter two are tile-based, however, the subject at hand is fluid. The circle motion seems, in certain ways, a natural progression of the “flick a direction wherever” input methodology of a game like Corrypt. If any part of the device can emulate a button or a joystick or a pointer, why not let it? And, more importantly, if the fundamental input method is going to be one of emulating, of recapitulating former control schemes, why not run with that in ways that incorporate the abstraction of the collapsing of the visual and tactile space?
Which is also why that visual space must be metonymized. The little arrow that signals the first enemy once your finger touches the screen is a suggestion. The black background with its patterns is unchanging, but it is also in (a) space, part of a larger whole. But then, too, the boss(es) problematize this even farther, materializing as static that fades in to the screen without movement. There is movement from the outside in, which also passes through, but there is also movement inside. Static movement, in a sense; the metaphoric incursion of another dimensional plane into the two in which this is played.
All of which gels, in a way, with, especially, Corrypt, which (seemingly) functions at least partially as the clef to his work. Without knowing much about how the game goes past the first boss, it’s hard to say whether Helix is in a way “about” that hidden space or that extra dimension, but it very much seems to be. Or, at least, that is a read based on the impressions I have given that assumption.
In Chain Blaster, you fight the same six or so waves of enemies repeatedly, each time through making them slightly faster, adding a few bullets. It’s an hour of attrition to get to the minutes where the points even matter. For a vertical shmup, this is one (facet of the) Truth; the faster the scrolling, the more apparent the lie, the stasis.
It’s a series of fifteen minute chunks, repeated mindlessly until it isn’t and then it’s over. And then another hour or more if you were close enough. The aesthetics are the blandest of cyber, the frustrations macro. Everything, even death, wiped out by persistence, until persistence is the cause, and then an hour fifteen and you aren’t even on the board. I love it.
Winterstrike is a text adventure by Yoon Ha Lee in the Storynexus engine/universe. Like his Moonlit Tower (and much of his fiction), it trades on certain broad images – snow, mechanical birds, cities – to create a sense of space which is lived in by what I have, in the past, called fantastical materialism. It’s never quite just that the magical or sfnal aspects have a material base within Lee’s fictions, but that they are tropes treated as technologies. The grounded spaceships in the world of Winterstrike signify that the game takes place in the long conversation that is pulp/genre/science fiction, but that signification, the literary technique of it all, remains in tension with how it is reified.
There is, in some sense, a greater ease with which this is done in the context of a game rather than a story or novel; a game object has to be an object as well as a vessel for meaning. From the code through to the act of play: it is defined, it is interacted with productively or nonproductively, in accordance with that definition.
The Storynexus engine operates by offering the player a set of cards. At the bottom are the “pinned” cards, your (semi-)permanent hand. At the top a deck, face down. Clicking the deck fills the middle row, where cards with non-critical path options go. Playing these allows the player to advance stats, explore the world, and retrieve items. Once those have been done, the player uses the “pinned” cards to advance further along the story. The engine has recently removed much of the in game requirements that require real world currency.
Where The Moonlit Tower showed its production seams — the small setting, the surprise of more than almost no action options — Winterstrike seems more built around them. The engine means that the bulk of actions function as repeatable, optional vignettes; I found myself inciting riots over smokewater multiple times, but also quelling them or stealing the object to spite them, all to build up stats for reasons I didn’t yet then understand. It’s a strange way to engage the worlds Lee builds, but not one without merits. The gamey way that interaction is always only ever a means is a rich vein of fantastical materialist possibility, although perhaps not an especially accessible one.
9/16: minor fix
You, Me, and the Cubes is the last “proper” game Kenji Eno ever made, as far as I can tell. A downloadable WiiWare physics puzzle game, it trades on the subtext of that system in a way that is, among other things, genuinely cute.
The two player version of the game is obviously the one that is at its core, where both players use Wiimotes to generate Fallos (little gendered folks) to fling onto a cube. You populate the Wiimote with them with the *jerk off motion*, then throw them by holding the Wiimote vertically and snapping your wrist. Between these actions, you each point your Wiimote at a place on the cube and click the A button to choose where they will land.
The idea is that the Fallos will (de)stabilize these transparent cubes floating in the void. Throw in synch with your partner and they have a few seconds of invulnerability when they land; out of synch and one or both are likely fucked. If the weight shifts too far, whether through poor throws or by the whims of the wandering Fallos, they might fall down and slowly slide off the cube. When one falls, it emits a keening cartoon scream, and occasionally a bit of text pops up. They say things like “WHY ME” as they struggle at the edge, only to turn into a streak of color against the empty void and then nothing.
You, Me, and the Cubes is a puzzle game where reproductive futurism is an object of mockery and futility. Where, also, of course, because it is a game, it is about mastery. Where the child is meant to be swallowed into the void, and where that swallowing is the most immediately gratifying moment of the whole endeavor. Where the puzzle itself is the social, the means by which reproduction is encouraged and undertaken. It’s a game about coming together to fling children into the world, and laughing at, and about, and with, that act.
Aeryne Wright’s Line Crossing is a stylish, horizontal ascent into the afterlife (which, in the case of this game, is to say: into life).
The player character wakes up into a train car, wheels rumbling and text scrolling. It is suddenly night, and Afra is worried. She leaves her car, and the game begins.
Clicking on objects interacts with them, while the directional keys on the keyboard move the character. Up goes into the various cars on the increasingly abstracted train, down leaves them. Afra can speak to a number of the tall, avian beings; some with cow skull heads, others more traditionally hawklike. Many of them will offer Afra an item; once three are collected, the player can walk all the way off the train to encounter the Fates that will provide a new life.
Line Crossing is a wholly horizontal game, with progression to the left. This makes sense as a journey through and out of death, in the grammar of games. Right is forward, left back, and so Afra moves forward by going backward. The game’s real draw is its art; the avian beings are cast into relief against bulbous trees and cracked, thickly abstracted creeping vines, the train itself a blocky presence on top of slow spinning, carriage-like, clattering wheels. Even the font, appearing in RPG-style white-bordered blue rectangles, is stylized to the point of obfuscation.
That this all coalesces is admirable; that it does so in service of a little tale with subtle emphasis on process even more so. A strange thing, that a pretty game with an invisible inventory is enough of a story, but it is.
For whatever reason, the thing that stuck with me most from the early critical response to Gone Home was the occasional assertion that the game allowed you to interact with ‘everything.’ It might have something to do with genre assumptions; the FP(S), horror, and YA feel of the whole thing had me wall-humping, Doom style, and expecting to Scooby Doo a bookcase. Walls and identical books are things, and they certainly resisted my interactions.
I ended up thinking this in terms of the assertions – more common – that Katie, the playable character, was a vessel. Surely there was a way to read her willingness to pick up pencils and milk cartons with her unwillingness to disturb much of the contents of her father’s study. At the very least it is a kind of characterization. Obviously there is a technical explanation, but – and then I would stop.
D is a 3DO (and later PSX) game by WARP, Kenji Eno’s studio, in which the player controls Laura Harris, whose father has murdered a mass of people at the LA hospital in which he works. Laura enters the hospital during the ensuing hostage scenario and attempts to determine what is going on.
In the game’s first room, Laura faces a table. Walking around it, she can be turned to view a dish full of water. If clicked, she leans over and watches it fill, from the rim to the center, with blood. Laura looks aghast; you then regain control, and are free to repeat the little cinematic. You can, presumably, sit there repeating that sequence for the full two hours before the game kicks you out and you fail.
Pass the table and a stairwell into a room with a wine cask and a wall of spikes and attempt to walk toward the wall, however, and a cinematic triggers where the spikes slam forward and stop millimeters from Laura’s nose. The wall returns to the far side, but any further attempt to cross the room is fruitless. Laura will no longer walk in that direction, no matter what you input. At least, not until you solve the puzzle that makes the spikes retract, at which point you go along that way to progress.
These little things are ultimately lost in the game’s punch-you-in-the-face story, its supreme evocation of mood through space, and the apocrypha. All of those things are cool as hell, of course, just as its puzzles (a weird slot machine, memorizing astrological symbols, semi-arbitrary item use) are kind of bullshit. There’s something, though, to a potential genealogy of characterization by way of the elision of interaction. Not here, though.
If nothing else, the moment with the spikes underscores the way that Laura, caught up in a mass murder, learning a story of vampirism and cannibalism by slowly floating from one predetermined point in a room to another, represents more than a camera or a node in a systemic architecture. It offers the whole moody, goofy thing some weight.
None of which is to say, of course, that D needs anything other than what it is to be worth playing, because it is a seriously neat, atmospheric game.
Wolfgirls in Love is an unrolling of verbs and nouns to a beat by Kitty Horrorshow. It’s a story told through elision about two werewolves making out, running through a city, being pursued and harmed, and coming out the other end okay. The game was made for (or submitted to) Porpentine’s Twiny Jam, which means it is less than 300 words and made in Twine.
The first game Short on Games covered was a Kitty Horrorshow title, in which a Twine game was packed. Those had to do with space, and that element remains in this, although as more of a facet of the background. The little game’s crutch – a song plays while you play, the instructions suggest you attempt to keep the beat – does effectively shift the focus to the temporality.
Horrorshow doesn’t quite make this shift sing in the way that Dust City did with its, but it is a meaningful and promising move. That there is something Caitlín R. Kiernan-esque about the tone of the prose doesn’t hurt, either.
Which is all to say that, in addition to being a bit of an experiment and a confident, interesting piece of poetry, even as it is somewhat reliant on a gimmick, that I might recommend it most as a game to see what a tool can do, and where its maker can go.
Chocolate is a narrative pixel hunt by Talha Kaya.
I don’t know that I’m entirely comfortable talking about the narrative of the game. It seems largely to be expressions of frustration, manifested as externalized and internalized loathing and violence. Sometimes through text, other times through images and action.
As a system, the interface is very interesting, though. Occasionally the keys will control an avatar like you might expect, but the larger part of the game is done through static screens using the mouse. Move the mouse, say, left, and the jumble of lines on the screen will slowly cohere toward the middle; keep moving it too far, though, and they will begin to dissipate again. You move up and down and however until the image, of text or of, say, a bar of chocolate, snaps into being. That bit stops for a second, and then the next mass of squiggles follows.
There’s something about how the game incorporates “ordinary” input methods while relying mostly on this unique little mechanic that is, I think, worth stopping over, at least briefly.
Robert Yang’s Stick Shift makes me think, strangely, of Evan Calder Williams’ Hostile Object Theory – and of his cops as “comic objects” and “indirect hostile objects.” Not because it is a stretch, necessarily, but because the game’s foregrounded relation is one of pleasuring objects, and the man and his car never really come into conflict, much less enact the structural hostilities of capital.
Not that strangely, of course, because the similarity seems to me to be in the system, rather than in the narrative. I highly recommend Yang’s liner notes, whether or not you play the game yourself.
Cops are indirect hostile objects; they show up at random, an invisible number generated, chosen for representational value. They are comic; the “riot sticks, grenades, and an M4 rifle”-wielding uniforms don’t react when you click to make a kissy face, but the amount of real time they will take from you does. They’re narrative justifications of designed systems.
Maybe I afford them so much weight because it took five playthroughs over three days to finally see the end of the game, regardless of its being weighted in favor of your finishing, or because I played it with no foreknowledge the first time through and added an hour to my wait before I realized what was happening.
There’s also how much Stick Shift‘s like those arcade racers when, as a kid, you accidentally chose manual transmission, with no instructions and a timer that doesn’t depend on the race’s finish. And how that means you attend more closely to the transmission than the steering, and how you get publicly frustrated by it, even if you’re alone.
Crypt Community is probably the closest thing I’ll ever experience to the pleasures of owning a fish tank. It’s a game that wants to be read into – the word community in the title is conspicuous – or at least to be experienced dialogically. I’m not sure how possible that is. At the end of the tutorial, the game suggests that you “try to create a healthy, robust, satisfied crypt community.”
When I mention fish tanks, I’m thinking of the kind that Susan Choi’s My Education talks about. So when I point out that Avery Mcdaldno and Karl Parakening’s game is full of visible numbers, I hope that doesn’t not make sense.
You hold the mouse over folks and an unrelated row of lights blinks up over time. You hold the right mouse button down while hovering over a mob and every interval a grunt. You hold the left down over a portal and the sfx build and the light goes brighter until a little mob pops in the door. By the end you’ve held down so long that sometimes the one that pops in launches one that popped in three ago’s body like a billiard ball.
It isn’t that I disbelieve the end of the tutorial, necessarily. I can imagine the game reaching a point of equilibrium, where all current members of the crypt community have maxed out satisfaction that doesn’t decrease. I’m just not sure how interested I am in that – either as an ultimate gameplay state, or as a theorization of community.
Which equally isn’t to say that this (or the game) is ‘wrong.’ It has qualities – the dungeon-tiled single room, the billiards, the seemingly-arbitrary numbers/values – that allow for it to be experienced with that fish tank quality, which is wonderful.
Room of 1000 Snakes is maybe the most effective tutorial for WASD controls this side of having bought Half-Life when it shipped and having attended LAN parties for the next half decade.
The game opens with a crawl, in which you are informed that “They told you not to enter / You, an explorer, didn’t listen / ‘I will find out the mystery of the snakes'” and then you’re a disembodied camera in an Indiana Jonesish temple. You can walk around, or hop, and look at the neat stuff. There’s a dais with a podium with a big red button on it straight ahead; walk up to it to be prompted to ‘press E’ to use. Once you “use,” music swells. It’s The Verve Pipe’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” and it’s really, really funny.
The room starts to shake a little, and you probably click use a few more times, and you probably just start wandering around. And then you notice the holes in the wall spewing sand, and then you remember the name of the game. For the last thirty seconds or so, you shake off snakes. The chorus hits and the game ends and boots you out to an associated tumblr where you can buy “Collectible Jpegs.” It’s all really wonderful.
Here’s how you control the Capcom Classics Collection Vol. 2 port of Eco Fighters: you spin your arm with the triggers, either bumper fires, and the d-pad moves. Or: the square button swivels the arm left, the circle right, and the X fires. Or: the right analog stick swivels, left moves, and any of the above fire. Or: whichever combination of the above. This is appropriate, because the ship slugs and jolts its way around no matter which you choose.
Eco Fighter is set in a future where green anarchist teens are the space-faring heroes who save the Earth from becoming a “Dread Sphere.” Designed by the winner of a contest, it’s a horizontal shmup with the unique mechanic of your ship having an arm which can be customized with a weapon and spun in a full circle around you. It’s as awkward and goofy as it sounds.
You start off by blowing up a couple cranes, but a single level later you’re blasting turtles for no reason. The horizontal scrolling makes the whole thing dreamy, punctuated by seconds of action. Too-often mimetic bullet designs over busy levels with bad controls means enough deaths that they become less full stop and more comma, a clearing of the air. It’s a pretty little mess.