Month: January 2014

Abnormal Mapping Fo(u)r Podcast

Abnormal Mapping Episode 4: Fo(u)r Podcast! A mountain of games, atop which sits the greatest of all video games: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. But are the mappers capable of scaling the video game mountain and in what frame of mind will they encounter their goal? In this episode both Matt and Jackson have existential crises when they consider the deepest of all questions: WHAT IS GAME?

Games discussed: Depression QuestUltra Business Tycoon IIIThe Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Next month’s game club: DOOM

Matt made a game! You can play it here.

Relevant links:
the entire list of Naked Twine Jam submissions
putting pets into art games
the Indie Statik 50 Best Free Games of 2013 list
Need For Speed: The Novel, based on The Movie, Based on the Game

You can get this episode directly by clicking here.

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Gingiva

In playing these small free games, it’s not often that I’ll spend more than two or three hours with a game. In part that’s because I’m ridiculously hyperactive when it comes to my playing habits lately, but also just because few games can inspire that kind of investment. Increasingly, I wonder to myself whether games even should strive for that kind of investment. Which leads me to Gingiva, an RPG Maker game.

There’s a lot I like about Gingiva. First and foremost is the art, which is gross and surrealist and full of character. Second is the story, possibly about sweatshops? but definitely about the link between capitalism and misogyny. It’s expressed through a world in which you are a headless woman paired with a murderous set of teeth, set loose to take down The Man, which manifests in a lot of weird ways. 

The problem is this storytelling is presented in the context of a turn-based JRPG, and along with that come a lot of the trappings of such a game. All of your attacks and statuses are weird, but they all map faithfully to Final Fantasy style tropes. Your characters are strange and the enemies even stranger, but they all line up time and again to play out battles. Gingiva is a cool game that struggles under the yoke of being an RPG that demands a lot of grinding and constantly throws enemies at you.

It’s a problem with a format like RPG. RPGs are either about a complex numbers game or a (admittedly less ubiquitous) vehicle for delivering big complex stories in games. The problem is that in a smaller, more individualistic game-maker space there’s no need to wrap your strange narrative-driven game in a bunch of ‘gameplay’ to pad it out and meet some semblance of expectation. Instead, all that stuff just gets in the way.

I played Gingiva all the way through, which took me several full evenings of effort, and at the end I felt like my time and energy had been badly misused. Not because the game is bad, because I really liked a lot of what it was about, but because the very genre and its baggage made what should have been a very focused, entertaining exploration/narrative game into a total slog. Which is unfortunate, because this is a game otherwise worthy of people’s time. But in a world with thousands of games

Galah Galah

Games-as-montage is one of the most interesting spaces (to me, anyway) in games experimenting beyond their traditional structure. Be it 30 Flights of Loving or The Stanley Parable or even bits of Experiment 12, the way that disparate events can be compacted into linear play experiences to create new impressions is really exciting. So what if you montaged not only story, but EVERYTHING from graphics to mechanics?

Galah Galah is that game. A weird series of what are essentially mini-games jammed together into a not-quite-cogent narrative, this trip down the pixel rabbit hole is amazing in just how evocative it can be while having almost zero internal consistency. Yes, there’s some recurring ideas and graphics. But for the most part every minute you’re thrust into an entirely new space, left to figure it out for yourself, until the game whips you to something wholly different. 

What’s great about this isn’t just the atmosphere, which is intense but almost always very clear, but also just how effective nothing more than tenuous threads can allow a player to draw conclusions between disparate play elements. In a medium where narrative is often plotted with all the rigidity of railroad ties, seeing something abandon any storytelling outright in favor of this loose free-association between game maker and game player is fascinating. It only barely holds together, but Galah Galah is a good argument for holding together not being a driving necessity in games.

Bokida and One Last Dance for the Capitalist Pigs

Here’s a twofer for you: a while back I streamed both Bokida and One Last Dance for the Capitalist Pigs on my twitch account, and the archived show is above. They mostly speak for themselves, though I’ll admit I’m an amateur streamer, but I’ll add some more thoughts down here.

Bokida

I wish I liked Bokida more, because its stark world and strange creation/destruction mechanics are very cool. The problem is that you’re given a lot of abilities and nothing fun to do with them, leaving you to just go from point A to point B and vaguely interact with the environment until the chapter ends. It’s supposed to be the first bit of a larger game, but there’s no concept of what the larger game could do that would be more interesting given the limited toolset and world you’re given. It’s neat, but totally empty.

One Last Dance for the Capitalist Pigs

I really like the hand-crafted aesthetics of a lot of the games I’m playing lately, where it’s clear that someone made something by hand and then just scanned it into the game. There’s an honesty to it, a sense that this crafts-centric way of thinking about games is really what liberates people to be weird and experiment with more personal stories. One Last Dance is definitely one of those.

Deus Ex by way of a politics 101 class, One Last Dance is a story about fighting capitalistic oppression through a weird blocky world made of markers and paper, where you try to destroy the reality television that oppresses people by going to a shop run by Karl Marx. Who is a chicken. It’s a strange game, quirky in the most fundamental ways, and wholly speaks to being created by a singular vision. It’s hardly profound, but games with such clear authorship are few and far between.

One Last Dance isn’t a perfect game (I go on at length in the video about a really needless puzzle area), but I really like just how weird it is. There are few games that try to be so relentless strange, and One Last Dance pulls it off with an honesty that seems almost naive in its uniqueness.

CAVE! CAVE! DEUS VIDET.

Games are systems, which means that they’re incredibly good at teaching people things, because the whole way we interface with a system is by learning its rules. As we do that, if the information is absorbed correctly, one can slip in certain ideas with the basic mechanical stuff, with pretty stunning results. That’s games as learning, and I feel like it’s a very underutilized field outside of simulators.

CAVE! CAVE! DEUS VIDET. is a visual novel that attempts to do this through those mechanics. In this instance, it’s goals are small: impart art history, and an understanding of what a piece of art can mean in historical context, in a way that is explored through the very nature of a problem the game presents to you. In this case, it’s the historical significance of a Bosch painting but told through madness and time travel. 

It’s a weird thing, notable immediately for how striking its art styles are, and how it uses them to impart ideas of symbolism in the basic modernistic approaches to the main story that carry over when you get to the part where you’re decoding the paintings themselves. This is an initial chapter of something that purports to be ongoing, and I’d love to see more. 

Save the Date

You should play Save the Date. Play it a lot. I played through 20 games of it in about an hour, and watched as the whole thing unfolded. And telling you about Save the Date is to pop the bubble of rumination that it crafts around itself, so just go do it and then come back and we can talk about what it all means. 

I picked the best ending of Save the Date on my first playthrough. I didn’t know it, because I hadn’t seen the other outcomes yet, but being a glib video game guy I did the contrarian thing and said no when told to begin the goal, and the game ended in a slightly down but not really that impactful non-ending. This is the best you can hope for in this tale of disasters, universe hopping, and narrative deconstruction. 

What I think really works in Save the Date is that it relies upon the logic of the game structure without really bothering to pick it apart. You know you’re in a game, and quickly you’ll get to the point where you convince your date that she is a video game character, and that’s really where the interesting stuff begins to unfold. Beyond all the silly bad endings, in this one spot where these characters begin to reflect on the nature of their being, is one of the better examples of games narrative deconstruction through games I’ve seen.

It touches on even more subjects, and often with more earnestness, than something like The Stanley Parable. I think it suffers many of the same faults, too, in that it tries to be a bit too clever, and I wish that it had some commentary on the one ‘good ending’ within it, but by and large it goes out of its way to ask you to reflect on what it means to have endings, to tell stories, and what characters and art itself does for the one who engages with it. 

Pet Loris Simulator

Mike Joffe’s Pet Loris Simulator is at its core an educational game. Such things were products sold to schools heavily in my childhood, things like Number Munchers or Oregon Trail were meant to be fun but also to teach you a lesson. Such is the way of Pet Loris Simulator, a twine game that resembles a virtual pet game like Nintendogsor the like. In it, you receive a pet loris after seeing it being cute in innumerable youtube videos. What happens next is up to you.

Pet Loris Simulator is a very small game that drives its message home with every passage: Lorises are endangered wild animals, and shouldn’t be kept as pets. It’s a game that should come with an animal cruelty warning, but that shouldn’t discourage anyone from playing it, as its depictions of systemic violence from poaching and illegal animal trade and the ignorance of owners half a world away is profound in its curt reality check. No matter what you do, you cannot keep your loris alive, because you’ve already made the wrong choice of owning a loris as the premise of the game. 

That’s what I think is really interesting about the game: the removal of a win state is indicative of the harm being done by anyone who goes down this path in real life, and thus not only is Pet Loris Simulator educational (I didn’t know anything about a Loris’ poisonous bite, for example), but it equates that education with activism in a way that I think is extremely important. To know is to understand. To understand is to act rightly. Education is what can put an end to cruelty, Pet Loris Simulator argues, and it is certainly a good first step. As far as games-as-activism goes, it is a stand out piece that shows by examples in as fun a way as illegal primate ownership could possibly be. 

Broken Age (Act 1)

Double Fine’s Broken Age is a weird beast of a game. The first big giant kickstarter success story, its humble beginnings quickly ballooned into a game so sizable that it’s been split into two parts, one releasing now and the other releasing later in the year. I was tempted to wait, but a new game showing up that I knew I could play in an evening was exciting, so play it I did.

Broken Age is an adventure game through and through. You click around environments, talk to people, collect and combine items, and then use said items to enact the progress of the story. What’s interesting about it though is that it takes this very static framework and gives it an ease of use that is welcome, though hardly revelatory. This is a game where it’s nearly impossible to get stuck so long as one stops and thinks, where backtracking is kept to a minimum, and nothing feels truly obtuse. The gimmick, such as it is, is that there’s two characters that you can switch between on the fly, but honestly they operate as wholly separate entities with only a thematic idea between them.  This is as traditional as adventure games get in structure.

What’s more interesting then is the thematic elements. Broken Age is a charming story, full of jokes that are incisive without being mean spirited, something games seem to have a hard time with. But as importantly, underneath all the jokes, is a message that took me by surprise. The young woman, Vella, has a story that’s about the subjugation of women by the culture they live in, where maidens are fed to a monster yearly to appease it. Vella thinks this idea is quite rightly stupid, and seeks instead to not only fight the monster, but spur others to her cause.

Anyone who pays attention to video games knows that games have a very real problem with portrayals, inclusion, and treatment of women, from game making to game playing. So it’s surprising to see a story here that actually is about what it means to challenge an oppressive patriarchal status quo, and how it can affect even those who suffer under it into believing the backwards lies they’ve been fed. It’s presented in the context of a Disney-style fairy tale, but it’s really clear about what it is in a way that I can’t help but marvel it. 

The game is a treat, even in its half-completed state, but its willingness to be this nostalgic revisiting of a genre and also a fairly progressive (for a widely released, big-studio game, very progressive) game in its messaging is commendable. Broken Age manages to have a foot in both the future and the past, but instead of feeling held back it really turns that into something lovingly crafted and wholly consistent. 

Ultra Business Tycoon III

This isn’t the first game I’ve talked about on this blog from Porpentine, and it certainly won’t be the last. Ultra Business Tycoon III is a twine game masquerading as a business sim/tycoon game, where you’re tasked with building yourself a net worth of one million dollars so you can get into capitalism heaven or something. The game itself is actually pretty tongue in cheek, a mishmash of ideas from 90s PC games all thrown together in a bizarre wasteland of strange interactions and even weirder collisions of concepts, from shareware gates to AIs to trash monsters. 

That game itself would be worth your time for the simple sake of its inherent weirdness and complexity, but on top of that is layered a whole other meta-narrative of the player who is playing UBT3, an unnamed person who is revisiting a beloved game from her childhood and reminiscing about all the memories that are tied to her experiences in this world and her life at the time. 

It’s a poignant reminder that the media we consume are the signposts of our life as much as the things that happen to us, and that a song we hear or a game we play are as much of who we are as the people around us and the things that befall us. It’s nostalgic in some of the most small, poignant ways, and to give them away would be criminal. Go. Play. Thank me in the morning.

Hey, I made a game!

Hi everyone, Matt here. I wanted to take a break from my seemingly daily pieces on the weird small (and not so small or weird) games I’ve been playing to say that I made a video game myself, and you can play it right now! 

Last week Merritt Kopas announced the Naked Twine jam, a game jam that was meant to use only the basic Twine program without modification or special coding to construct a game. Deciding that it was as good a time as any to do a real thing instead of just thinking about it, I jumped in and started working on a Twine game. Several days and many tired nights later, I have a game!

Love • Worthy (episode 1)

Big thanks to Merritt for putting on the jam. You can find a full list of games and a write up of her motivations for doing it (including a quote from yours truly) right HERE. I know that I’ll be messing around with Twine more in the future. The first game is the hardest, right? So hopefully there’ll be many more weird things I make showing up on this blog in time.

Okay, back to your regularly schedule video games talk.