Skinny Stone Tower of Babel

Everyone’s playing Minecraft these days, so here’s a scene that might be familiar. I’ve built my sweet cliff-side villa and I want to go exploring.  The thing is, getting lost is easy when the world is made of blocks.  I want to make a monument—an unnatural landmark—so that I can always find my way back home.  It’s time to build a skinny stone tower of Babel.

But first, I must undress. I’ll put this nice wooden chest down right here, and I’ll strip naked and fill it with my clothing, my materials, and my tools.  Two stacks of stone blocks should be all I need.  And now I build.

I’m a herculean builder. The ancient Greeks told stories of me—Kent, god of speedy architecture.  My building method involves jumping and block-dropping. I put a block on the ground and I stand on top of it. I then hop into the air, balancing a second block below my feet.  I hop again and drop a third block on top the second one. Fortunately, I can stuff my pockets with enough stone blocks to build 700 giant temples where my worshipers can admire my building prowess.

Up and up and up I go, laying the blocks as fast as I can jump, and the ground rushes away from me. Pretty soon the only limit to my range of sight is the clip distance. The blocky grass reminds me of rice terraces in Thailand and tea plantations in Darjeeling.

Whenever I show this game to someone new, particularly to people who don’t play many games, they say that the graphics are terrible. I guess that I can understand this. The omnipresent wielded tool or hand-stump is a constant reminder of just how grainy the textures are. Even at medium distances the textures don’t tile well.

The way to convert anyone is to climb the tallest thing you can find. Minecraft vistas are sublime.  They’re so unabashedly digital, and yet so organic.  Who can look at a scene like this and not be overcome with awe and wanderlust?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I haven’t come for the view. I’ve come to jump. I toe the edge of my impossible obelisk, and then I plummet awfully to the ground. Game over! Score: &e0.

Alright, so: Game Over screens. These are used to signal that the game has ended in an unfavorable way. Maybe you’ve run out of time, or you’ve run out of lives, or you’ve run out of hearts, but the game is over and you didn’t win it.

When I die in Spelunky or Rogue, I have to restart from the beginning. When I die in Dragon Age or Dead Space, I have to return to a save state, rewriting history as though I never died. But when I die in Minecraft, I return to the same world that I left. That tower I built is still there. The crater that the exploding creeper left in the mountainside is still there too.

Remember the nonsense score on the Game Over screen? It’s a holdover from an earlier version of survival mode, when you got points from killing monsters. But to me the broken score counter is emblematic of how Minecraft eschews traditional gaming impetuses and measures of success. Minecraft isn’t about getting a high score. It’s about exploring and building and destroying.

I’m easily exhausted by traipsing around a city in order to collect hundreds of assassin’s flags, but I love exploring in order to see what there is to see. I have a perpetual desire to crest the next hill, to see what’s at the top of that cliff. There’s something about hearing the low moan of a zombie while you’re entombed in a narrow tunnel of your own construction that strikes a wonderful harmony of fear and curiosity. It’s great to stand gazing into an abyssal cavern and be overwhelmed with the simple need to see what’s inside.

Minecraft is special because the main character isn’t you, it’s the world around you. You are only as important as the effect you have on the world. AND SUCH IS LIFE. Now join me and look up in perfect silence at the stars.

Do I control your body or your mind?

I’m going to talk about Loved now.  If you haven’t played it, you should go fix that.  It won’t take long.

I believe that all games require trust.  When we start playing a game, we form a pact with it.  To some extent we’re giving ourselves to that game—we’re allowing it to affect the way that we move our hands, and maybe even the way that we think.  To play a game is to surrender.  We allow ourselves to be led.  We trust the game and, more abstractly, its maker.

Well, Loved is a game about trust.  It’s about a child and a god.  “Are you a man or a woman,” it asks me. I can’t know that the asker is more important than the answer.  I click on man. “No, you are a girl.”  It’s so strange for a game to begin with a contradiction.  I am asked a question and I answer honestly. I surrender to the game, and it betrays me.  Why are so many games afraid to jerk you away from yourself, to break your trust, to reject your answer? It’s so effective, so startling. It asks me who I am and then it tells me who I am.

“Will I teach you how to play? Or not?” If you click on play, the speaker responds, “you don’t deserve it.”  If you click on not, the speaker says, “you will fail.”  Either way he’s taunting you.  The strangest thing about this proposed tutorial is that your decision has no effect whatsoever on the game.  The prompt only provides the illusion of choice; the demeaning responses of the program are coupled with the demeaning implication that your decision doesn’t really matter, that you don’t know what’s best for yourself.

And so begins our abusive relationship: me and the game maker; the little girl and her god.  I hop across the silhouetted land, and he gives me orders.  “Jump across those barbs… good girl. Touch the statue and I will forgive you.”  The first meaningful decision comes at a branching path.  The top path looks easy and safe, while the bottom path looks perilous. “Take the bottom path.” Do I trust him?  I take the top path.

“Ugly Creature.”  A flash of light, and I continue.

There are two ways to play the game.  Either you trust the narrator or you don’t.  Either you obey or you rebel.  The game maker sets up his stand-in as an antagonist from the beginning, with a brash contradiction and a couple of insults.  As soon as I disobey him, he insults me again.  So I keep disobeying, even when it wouldn’t hurt me to obey, even when he’s only asking me to stand still.  I won’t stand still, I keep moving, and something strange starts to happen.  I don’t notice it at first, but my surroundings become increasingly clouded with colored boxes, giant pixels, until by the end of the game they fully obscure the details of the environment.  I can barely discern my surroundings: there’s the sky (blues), the ground (multi-colored), and danger (red).  Maybe this is all that I need to finish, but it’s frustrating.  It’s like the world around me is disintegrating, becoming cloudier.  In the final hallway, I run, red blocks descending in pursuit, and I fall….

“Why do you hate me?”  No decisions at all. I can only click on hate.  The game responds, “I loved you.”

Strange.  I play a second time, and I take the lower path.  In place of insults I get condescending praise.  “Good girl,” he says, like I’m a dog.  This time there aren’t any colored blocks.  In fact, everything appears in black and white.  At the same time, the world becomes clearer, building in detail and intricacy.  Vines trail from the ceiling and flowers grow on the ground. Maybe the colored blocks were some sort of punishment, and the detail is a reward.

Is the black and white world really better than the colorful and abstract one?  I think that the colorful world is harder to navigate, but it’s also more vibrant.

I believe that all games require trust, and perhaps all movies and books do too.  Maybe art is about surrender.  Maybe we surrender our eyes and our minds every time we look at a wonderful painting, every time we hear a beautiful song.  But compared to games, other art forms are passive.  Midway through the game, Loved asks you, “do I control your body or your mind?”   The more I think about this question, the more it disturbs me.

The truth is: I trusted Loved, and it abused my trust, and that is why I love it.

I toe the edge of a precipice lined with barbs, and my god tells me, “jump.”

Indies already won. Like, years ago

Congratulations, Indie Games! I have good news! The news is: you have already won the battle against AAA commercial games. On several very meaningful levels, the results of the struggle are obvious. You are victorious. It is time to wipe the froth off your beard, relax, and drink some delicious mead out of Bobby Kotick’s skull.

No, seriously. As of several years ago– although we didn’t all realize it at the time– indie games were already poised for a secret ninja-takeover of the hearts and minds of the world’s internet-literate youth, a campaign they continue to pursue, with great success, to this day. The most progressive and important modern art being created anywhere on the earth comes in the form of digital games, usually indie games: particularly, experimental ones which push at form and design standards. Because of the model under which indie game designers struggle, this groundbreaking art has been available, for free, to anyone and everyone who cares to access it.

Basically, for the first time in history (maybe? I’m willing to discuss this), almost the entire canon of the world’s newest and most important artistic movements are available for zero cost to anyone. So long as they have internet access (and unfortunately, in some cases, so long as they are fluent in English), people, particularly young people, can have a world-class artistic experience–on Kongregate or Newgrounds. Just like that. And if they choose to do some more exploring and dig up developers’ sites, they’ll have access to even more groundbreaking art. Usually for free.

This incredibly broad exposure was not part of the growth of arthouse cinema, western literature, or the static visual arts. Nearly all the major works of each of those mediums except maybe public statuary were at first restricted to people of certain education backgrounds or class origins. Internet is still limited to those who can afford it, and who can afford the leisure time to enjoy it, but that’s a lot of people. I suppose the closest we’ve ever come to this before was during the development of rock music as a new artistic movement, when radio made it available to people of all age groups and backgrounds– but even then, the kind of discussion and community involvement we’re able to have about indie games on the internet was impossible over the radio, even though adoption of the new movement was broader. With rock music, the music was also controlled by an industry; indie games, on the other hand, are often self-published and anti-industry, and there’s no barrier to artists entering the movement.

This all occurred to me when I decided, in desperation, to read through all of the comments on Newgrounds for Gregory Weir’s Looming, one of the best indie games I’ve recently played. See, I’d found all of the artifacts in less than an hour, but I’d spent an extra forty-five minutes wandering around Looming, with nothing to show for it. Finally, shamed, I decided to search the comments to see if anyone had put up some hints. Back then there were something like 100 of them. Now there are over 500, and the game has earned a large banner on Newgrounds’ front page. The game is getting massive exposure. Furthermore, when you read the comments–both supportive and frustrated, by those who felt moved by the experience and by those who didn’t get it–it’s obvious that this game is betting played by the whole of the basic Newgrounds cross-section. So, a lot of these players are very young. They’re excited and invigorated by the work they’ve just experienced, they’re eager to talk, and they’re young.

This, of course, is the key detail. See, my current internship in the office of a small Japanese-owned games publisher has given me information and perspectives about internet advertising and audience targeting which have been incredibly enlightening in the context of my background in games writing. Newgrounds is one of those sites which targets its advertisements at teenagers– often quite young teens. The people clicking on banner ads on Newgrounds– the people it knows it’s making money off of, and thus the demographic the whole site is geared towards– are in high school, or occasionally even younger. This meshes with my personal experience with Newgrounds: In early high school and late middle school, I remember spending at least an hour every weekday on that site. I haven’t yet heard the marketing team here at my internship talk about Kongregate, but I assume it covers at least part of a similar demographic.

So: an army of impressionable young people, internet-literate, at the stage in their lives where they are making incredibly important decisions about the kinds of things they want to dedicate their existences to, are accessing cutting-edge art on websites that present these works as normal, cool, and interesting. And these websites are encouraging kids to talk to each other about them. Most interesting about Weir’s game is that it includes developer’s notes for those who finish the game. This seems to have gone over enormously well with the Newgrounds crowd– I saw more than a few comments from players who felt like this helped them to ‘get’ the game, or made them more excited about it than they already were. So not only do we have young people talking about art with one another, now we’ve got the artist talking back to them. Which is, of course, fantastic, if you want to get kids excited about indie gaming.

Now, I know it’s not as utopian as I might be suggesting it is– Newgrounds is no place to access cutting-edge indie art games compared to, say, Play This Thing, which filters through everything and highlights the high-points. But it’s happening anyway. Indie games are snagging kids before they’re done with puberty. Indie games snagged me that way, too: as a young teen with no income, I adopted freeware games in late middle school as a way to entertain myself for free. I gradually began playing more and more ‘artsy’ games, so to speak. Discovering Cactus’s work for the first time was even more exciting than when I discovered funk and jazz, around the same time. It was like waking up.

Indie games can’t yet compete on an equal commercial plane with AAA games, largely because of the way they’re treated by the hype-dependent games journalism machine. But indie games were already winning the battle when it came to enlightening and engaging young people from a broad variety of backgrounds– players and nascent devs alike– even back when I started following freeware games in 2004. They’re winning even harder now. I predict further catastrophically magnificent world-devouring win from here on out, too. It’s like the indie games community on the internet is some vast, hulking, star-destroying insectoid brood mother, laying her egg-spawn in the millions of teens who access their work on Newgrounds and Kongregate every month. Someday, them eggs are gonna hatch.

POST-PAPERS EXHAUSTION POST!

All of my writings for school are done.  My brain hurts, and migranes have inflicted me with temporary blindness. I wrote 35 pages in two days and read over a thousand pages in one weekend to prepare myself for the process. Now I cannot focus my eyes more than five feet in front of my face, and I have a headache. Hooray!

So I wrote this frivolous thing. It is a list of all possible definitions of the ‘Second Person Shooter.’  See, most of the random web searches that get directed here are phrases like “definition second person shooter” or “example second person shooter.” People out there want to know what a second-person shooting-people video-game would look and feel like. And they think we know? Pah! We don’t.

Frankly, we’re curious, too. We picked the name “Second Person Shooter” basically because it sounded interesting. Our excuse: we were despairing. We’d just spent over an hour combining random nouns in the hope that something would click, but we’d only come up with monstrosities like “Antelope Rapture” and “Black Hole Church.” (I still think either of those would have been awesome. Perhaps we can sell them to nameless indie-rock bands.) At any rate, we are definitely not the experts on what a ‘second person shooter’ would look like. I myself don’t think that a second person shooter would be any fun to play, unless the idea was approached with a certain amount of drunken levity.

1)      A GAME WHERE YOU ARE EMBODIED, AND CONTROL A DIFFERENT GUY WHO SHOOTS A GUN

In this game, you have control over yourself, in a first-person perspective, and over another individual, the shooter. It would be a little bit like that one team-building exercise where blindfolded people team up with non-blindfolded people who shout instructions at them while they and navigate mazes or throw yarn balls at one another. Have you ever done that? I did it once at a summer camp staff training, and it was horrible.

Anyway, for this game, I’m thinking of things along the lines of the robot segments from TLC’s Logic Quest. Remember that one? You had to program a robot-like boxy-man painted up to look like a king or a knight. He was always inside this weird kind of spacious jail cell, and you would have to program him with a set of commands that would let him unlock the cell. Anyway, this variety of second person shooter would require your embodied digital self to either 1) program or 2) directly control a separate individual who has a gun. Objective: shoot dudes without getting you or your puppet-man shooter shot. It would be INCREDIBLY COMPLEX. There would be WAAAY TOO MANY CONTROLS. Basically, this setup would translate poorly to the kind of moment-by-moment excitement of a shooter— it would be awesome, but only for five minutes. After which point every player would either tear the game directly out of their hard-drives with the brute psycho-magnetic force of their unholy rage, or commit pathetic, despairing suicide in the drippy corner of their local basement. That’s what I did after a few sessions of Logic Quest. Yep.

2)      A GAME WHERE SOMEONE DESCRIBES YOU IN SECOND PERSON AS YOU SHOOT PEOPLE.

Such a game almost already exists. It’s Night of the Cephalopods: A Terrifying Experiment in Narrative Excess, a lovely bit of indie freeware from 2008. In it, you, the terrified Lovecraftian protagonist, run through a foggy forest while squidly-face monsters chase you. You shoot them. EVERY TIME YOU DO ANYTHING, the narrator describes it. There aren’t too many variations in the voiceovers, so you’ll quickly reach the extent of your amusement with this game—but for its length and complexity, it’s brilliant. It would BE  a second person shooter, except the descriptions are phrased in first-person rather than second.

3)      A GAME IN WHICH OTHER PEOPLE SHOOT YOU

I’m thinking of something in the style of The Onion’s ‘Close Range’, but instead the player is the guy who gets shot. And dies. Over and over. Or maybe the player never dies, and just stands there while he or she gets shot again and again for no reason. Not sure which would be more effective. Basically, though, that’s the bottom line: you watch as someone shoots you over and over and over and over again. Infinitely. Not much else to say about this idea. Maybe the environments would change? In one level, you’d stand there while people shot you in a jungle; then there’s be an ice level, and every time you’re shot your body would physics-slide all around the map, ragdolling against barriers? No idea. Not even sure where player action would fit into this game.

(Also: the staff members of the embarrassing college humor magazine I write for consider Close Range to be one of our favorite-ever videos. New recruits sometimes have a hard time understanding why we love it so much. But we do. It is sublime. And I love the Max Payne references.)

4)      A GAME IN WHICH YOU MUST SHOOT THE SECOND PERSON OUT OF EVERY PAIR

Pros: Would teach our children the important moral binaries they will need in order to navigate the modern, adult cultural world.

Cons: Would be very short. Also, very easy. Too easy.

5)      …GOD OF WAR?

While checking over this post, Kent suggested to me that the famous from-the-victim’s-perspective death scene in GoW III is a second-person death scene. A shooter version of that, he posits, would be a second-person shooter. So: like idea number 3, but instead of playing the silent victim, you’d shoot yourself. Gosh! So  crazy!

I would only play this game if there were a bit where time slowed down while the bullet flew towards your face, and you had to contemplate the philosophical profundity of your self-capping act.

PAX Indie Showcase

Nestled in the center of PAX East’s enormous expo floor, between AAA game demos and hardware booths, were two low rows of tables crowded with widescreen monitors and laptops. This was the Boston Indie Showcase, a collection of six games from Boston-area independent developers, selected from a pile of submissions. Their prize was exhibition space, and our prize was the chance to see these games, one of them—Fire Hose Games’ Slam Bolt Scrappers—for the first time.

While Showcase winners Waker, Dearth, and AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!– A Reckless Disregard for Gravity have all been available for some time, Meigakure and Slam Bolt Scrappers are still in production. Meanwhile, Turba was available for only hard-copy purchase during the show, but had its online release on Saturday, April 4th. These games run quite a gamut of genres and styles—Dearth and Waker are incredibly slick student flash games from the MIT Gambit Labs, while Turba, Slam Bolt Scrappers, and Aaaaa! were developed by small production teams. Meigakure, on the other hand, is the result of Marc Ten Bosch’s individual labor. It was also an Excellence in Design finalist at the IGF this year.

The crowds were thick and the lines were long, so we split up to focus on different games and get the closest possible look at each. I focused on Meigakure, Slam Bolt Scrappers, and Waker, while Laura tackled Dearth, Aaaaa!, and Turba. Here’s what we found…

Miegakure, Marc Ten Bosch

The PAX-East show floor is filled with bodies.  I huddle over an unfamiliar keyboard.  My head hurts, my stomach aches, and I do not know how to get the little man on the screen to the glowing Japanese gate.  I feel stupid and I glance around to see if anyone is watching me, judging me.  I have to fight the urge to stand up and leave—to move on to the next game so that no one discovers my intellectual ineptitude.  And then suddenly I know what to do—my forehead lifts with a flash of insight.  I shift some cubes around, I change dimensions and I’ve solved it!  Three hops and I am Rocky at the top of the stairs, I am Kasparov whispering ‘check mate’ to Deep Junior.  My imaginary onlookers mutter in awe.

If the mark of a good puzzle game is a headache followed by cathartic victory, then this is a damned good puzzle game.

Miegakure is a 4-D puzzle platformer.  Trying to explain the game’s mechanics makes me feel like Flatland’s A. Square struggling to describe the third dimension to the baffled 2-D King.  Suffice it to say, you solve puzzles by moving yourself and other objects through different worlds and spaces where several worlds coexist.  It makes you feel like you’re using a muscle you didn’t know that you had.  You don’t fight against the game so much as you struggle against your own mental limitations.

Mark Ten Bosch says that he’s at least a year from shipping.  I think I’ll preorder.

Slam Bolt Scrappers, Fire Hose Games

Tetris is fun and everything, but I’ve always thought that what it really needs is punching.  Fortunately, Firehose Games shares this line of thought: Slam Bolt Scrappers is a team Tetris brawler.    You play as a burly little guy with a funny hat and giant fists.  He uses these fists to punch miniature chubby Cthulhus with aviator hats, an action that is logically rewarded by the acquisition of colorful tetris blocks.  You then use these blocks to build a fort with shields and weapons—you have to destroy the other team’s structures while protecting your own.

Laura and I are the best people in the world at Slam Bolt Scrappers.  I know this because we beat a team that had one of the game designers on it, who was in no way going easy on us, ok?  The game started off really confusing, but as we figured out what was going on it started to be a lot of fun.  It’s fast paced and frenetic, but that fits with the game’s overall absurdity.  The part of our brain that we use to solve spatial puzzles is very different from the part that we use to punch people who are trying to solve spatial puzzles; frequently switching between these two activities leads to a unique and enjoyable experience.

Slam Bolt Scrappers has a lot of personality, but it unfortunately also has its faults.  For one thing, the four characters look so similar that it’s easy to lose track of which one you’re controlling and which ones you’re supposed to be punching.  The screen is so crammed with color, movement and explosions that your eye never knows what to focus on.  The backgrounds are way too sharp and saturated, so they only add to the clutter.

Still, though. Tetris. With punching.

Waker, MIT Gambit

Back in September everyone was talking about an interesting gaming experiment: the MIT GAMBIT lab had created the same game twice—once as a set of abstract actions, and once with a story layered over these actions.  The idea was to see how the presence of narrative affected the player’s experience of the game.

Five months later at PAX East, GAMBIT has removed the story-infused game, Waker, from the context of its abstract companion piece, Woosh.  This lack of context didn’t do Waker any favors, though, because Waker’s story feels like it was pasted over a finished game.

It begins with a long voiceover that tells me I have to save a little girl from being trapped in her dream.   I then proceed to the actual game and it has no relationship to this plot whatsoever.  The platforming is competent and sometimes even clever, but what does hopping around on little platforms have to do with saving a sleeping girl?  Why does it say “Wisp obtained!” whenever I clear a stage?  After each level I’m fed a little piece of voiceover, but I can skip even these by just walking off of the screen.

As an experiment, Waker and Woosh were intriguing.  On its own, though, Waker is just another decent platformer with a poorly implemented story.

Dearth, MIT Gambit

Dearth is unusual. Set in a desert landscape inhabited by tribal beings with fish for heads, its play focuses on enemy creatures which look uncomfortably like hairy water-balloons filled with sweat. They’ll chase you and your AI (or human) partner, and if you stop moving for even a moment with one of these animals on your tail, it will start to kill you. Your job is to keep moving, maneuvering into positions where you can smash your creatures into your partner’s, destroying them. It’s a game about movement, constant movement, but it’s also the kind of enjoyably frustrating puzzle that makes you want to take your hands off the controls and go find some scratch paper. If you do that, however, you’ll die: the game wants you to keep thinking on your feet and compensating for your mistakes on the fly.

In the loud and distracting PAX environment I found it extremely confusing, as did the strangers who played with me. Once I figured out the rules, though, the single-player game became too easy. The two-player game, with its crazily complex maps and the added human variable, is much more interesting. After PAX, I showed this game to some friends in a public space, and as we tried to figure out some of the tougher two-player stages we attracted quite a number of spectators. For a while they crowded around us, calling suggestions over our heads and laughing at our frequent mistakes. When a puzzle game can inspire that kind of moment-by-moment excitement, I’m impressed.

I’d recommend completing the single-player levels quickly, to get an idea of the strategy involved, then quickly finding someone to play with. It’s interesting but unsurprising to me that although Dearth was designed specifically to show off a slick AI implementation, it only really shines when you get another human’s hand on the keyboard with yours, and start solving the puzzles together.

Turba, Binary Takeover

Turba is a rhythm puzzle that uses a grid full of colored blocks. Like many other games based around a block grid, it challenges players to empty the grid by removing groups of like-colored blocks before the screen fills. Unlike other, similar games, it allows players to set the challenge with their own music. The beat of the chosen song controls the rate at which the blocks are added, and clicking with the beat will award more points. A faster song means faster blocks and, thus, higher difficulty.

It’s not a simple clear-contiguous-colors game, though. The one mode I was able to see rewarded the most points only if a player was able to clear groups from each of the four colors simultaneously. Because the player has the ability to swap columns, and because there’s an incentive to hold off cashing in the points until you’ve got a group from all four colors, there’s an interesting risk-reward struggle apparent in each moment of play—should I clear the blocks now, or wait to make a bigger combo? I failed songs several times because the screen filled while I was too busy swapping columns to notice. It’s much faster and more frantic than many other, similar games, and the developers have obviously been thinking about new ways to break puzzle-game tropes and make their game unique.

Perplexingly, the Turba devs were only selling hard copies of their game at PAX. Since then, however, they’ve had their online release, and are now selling downloads from their site, and have made a demo available. They’re also working on moving it to digital distribution hubs like Direct2Drive and Steam.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!—A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, Dejobaan Games

This game has been out for quite a while, and anyone interested in indie games has almost certainly heard about it before. Though Dejobaan won’t release sales numbers for it, it’s obviously been incredibly successful: it hit the top five Steam sales during its first week after release.

Kent and I attended a PAX panel titled ‘Indies Will Shoot You in the Knees: Why We Don’t Play Fair’ at which Dejobaan’s winningly enthusiastic Ichiro Lambe asserted, several times, that the game’s success stems from the sheer quantity of personal character that the developers crammed into it. He is absolutely right: as an expression of joyous individuality, it’s a masterpiece. After playing it for the first time, when the alpha came out last year, I felt as though I’d run into an insane genius at a crowded party and enjoyed a fleeting, absurd conversation before losing him in a crowd. Watching Ichiro talk at PAX was a similar experience.

It’s not a game to play alone, really. Play it by yourself, of course, but for every minute you huddle alone with it, promise yourself that you’ll spend another minute showing it to friends, or to your family, or to random strangers on the street. Not only will they think it’s incredible, but they’ll love you to death and assume you’re awesome for liking it. And you will be awesome. The entire game is about celebrating what an awesome, sassy person you are—at any rate, about celebrating the kind of person you become once you start leaping off of floating skyscrapers in a crazy world of neon lights and hilarious graffiti. It’s marvelous.

Let’s come up with excuses for why I die in Spelunky

You’ve played Captain Forever, right? If you have, you’ve picked up the drips and slivers of its story. Despite its neon graphics and cheekily deadpanned flavor text, it’s secretly a soul-crippling tale of sacrifice and cyber-horror! Hooray! Captain Forever is a trapped pilot doomed to fly forever in a kamikaze ship that reassembles itself after destruction. He must kill hundreds of enemies in an infinite cycle of death and gruesome rebirth! It’s like something out of Harlan Ellison, but with less Harlan Ellison. I adore it.

See, it’s awesome when games bother to explain in-game death and rebirth. Lord knows they don’t have to—have you ever seen an arcade game that bothers explaining ‘INSERT COIN’ in the context of the game’s story? It’s hard to talk about that mechanic directly without leaving the perspective—the ‘diegesis’, to use the technical term—of the game-world. Farbs didn’t have to come up with a backstory that explains why I can play Captain Forever over and over again, even after losing. But he merged old-school permadeath shmup game-logic with a WOWlike focus on repeat play and mined this for every ounce of crazy, and it’s awesome.

I started thinking—what would it be like to explain permadeath and infinite rebirth in another game? How about Spelunky? What’s going on there? Shall we sink into the sweaty morass of its diegesis—down into those caverns where La Mulana and Nethack collide head-on? There are bits of brain spattered all over the walls. There are little bats squeaking adorably. I am killing the shopkeeper, over and over again, throughout eternity. Yes. Let’s do this. Let’s make this as crazy as possible.

There are many archaeologists.

Under layers of dirt and grime and tattered clothing, each archaeologist seems identical, but each is really a unique man, each capable of unique mistakes and uniquely spectacular deaths. Some die in a fluke accident five seconds inside—others last longer.

Some are wicked, heartless fellows. They toss the women around like beanbags. Some are kinder. Some proceed cautiously, wringing every last ounce of gold out of the place before creeping on. Some will use the lady’s corpse to bludgeon a skeleton to death. Some will sacrifice her to Kali! But in the end, everyone wants to kill the shopkeeper—web him to the floor, blow out his brains from behind with a pistol. What can we say? It’s something about these caves.

The archaeologist is a ghost.

That’s why you keep running the same dungeon over and over, see. You ran it once, in human form—you probably died in the tutorial cave, or moments afterwards, feeling the first bat’s teeth in your jugular. Whatever it was, it wasn’t impressive.

So now you’re a ghost. Still unwilling to release its pathetic grip on your corpse, your spirit dreams endlessly of running the dungeon, of the infinite disasters you would have met had insane chance allowed you to live a minute longer—another minute—a few seconds. You run the dungeon over and over and over again, but your imagination always fails you: you have not yet imagined the dungeon’s furthest point. Someday, you might. You might dream a victory profound enough to bring this all to an end.

It will probably take you a long time.

There is no archaeologist.

We plumbed these tunnels with sonar long ago, and found them so complex and endless that it would be madness to send a team down there—and worse than madness to send a man alone and unaided. So we’ve simulated all its terrors, and now we’re taking applications. Applications for Suicidal Hero, that is.

Each applicant is tested  against the program. We’re looking for the ideal string of hops and whips and sprints and crimes. We’ll put them through again and again until we’re sure: the perfect super-soldier. We’ll train him up. It’ll be like Ender’s Game, but underground. Or something. When it all comes down to the big win, the blood will be real. The archaeologist will be carrying a machine gun, and he’ll be wearing a super-science bodysuit that gives him super-strength, and he won’t actually be an archaeologist. If he dies on the spikes, it’ll be a lot grosser than what you’re used to in 8-bit.

The archaeologist is a mistake.

We didn’t mean for you to see us. Truly, we’re very sorry. Usually when we go out into public, we make sure the holographic cloaking devices are fully powered. Nobody wants to see a tentacle-beast straight out of HP Lovecraft go waddling down the street in full daylight, and none of us wants to have to hunt down and mind-erase the blistered memories of any Earthling who saw us like that. It’s a sticky business, it is.

But you—with you, we screwed up. By the time we found you huddled in the dumpster, brain a soup, face stained with tears and twisted permanently with disgust and horror, your memories were burned too deep to wipe away. So we gave you Spelunky instead: we took you to the orbiting mothership and hooked you up to the game. It’ll give you something to do while we research a cure for Madness. It’ll provide you with infinite bliss! There’s no getting tired of Spelunky. Not as far as we know, anyway—we once had a patient on it for forty years while we tried to fix him up, and we’ll keep you on it, too, as long as we feel is necessary. It’s like a kind of therapy. It’ll soothe your splintered consciousness back into shape, so it will. You’ll play it forever, if you have to!

And you can play it forever. That game is a bitch to beat, even when you’ve got forty tentacles, like we do, and a mind capable of thinking twelve thoughts simultaneously.

Pfft. Spelunky.

Galcon Fusion is good times, some of the time

The gulf between multiplayer and singleplayer Galcon is like the gulf between an adorable puppy and a dead puppy that is already rotting.

Actually, that’s very unfair. But there is a huge divide. In my opinion, this iPhone-game-turned-PC-clickyfest is practically only worth playing on multiplayer. Multiplayer, particularly the team multiplayer, is a strategy-rich experience; the singleplayer is a dull, brief, staccato process that seems particularly ill-suited to the PC. I’ve heard good things about it on the iPhone, but when you’re playing thirty-second strategy games in your hand, while, as one reviewer put it, brushing your teeth, that’s a very different experience from hunching in front of your computer while the whole screen fills with robot strategy triangles. It’s simply not interesting enough to deserve all that space in front of your face.

Somebody got owned. By triangles.

Because that’s what this game is all about: circles and triangles. Lean, lean visuals. Admirable depth evolving out of a very slight, pared-down set of mechanics. And the developers tried to give this PC version some more totally unneeded complexity by including a seething mess of ill-explained singleplayer game modes that seem to have no reason for existing. And then there’s the AI. It comes in ten levels, some or most of which I could not actually tell apart from one another while playing. So, make of that what you will. This is a game which deserved more than to be weighted down with a million irrelevancies.

This is mainly because the multiplayer is so fantastic. I played multiplayer once last week—during finals week at my college—for over three hours straight. And it did not feel like a waste of time.

See, Galcon multiplayer is is more explicitly a kind of communication than it is in any other strategy game I’ve tried, simply because it’s so stripped down. The units are triangles; they point where they’re going. More triangles means more troops. No triangles means a player’s turtling. Everything that happens is right there on the table, ready for players to draw their own conclusions from. The pull and play of triangles is like a conversation between opponents.

The result is an incredible range of strategy—incredible, really, for a game with only one kind of troop, one kind of command, and automated unit production. By manipulating your troop output, you can trick enemies into thinking you have more or less troops than you actually do; by changing your troops’ direction mid-flight,y ou can pull off some impressive feints. And because your enemies here are people, not AI, the kind of strategy and trickery you can pull off is so much broader, so much more satisfying. There are such a diversity of viable strategies that by the time you’ve grasped the basic mechanics you’ve probably developed a distinctly personal play-style. And these styles stick out. The game is so slight in visuals that player behavior takes the absolute center stage. Other players in your game will know you by your favorite tricks. And you’ll know them by theirs. And team multiplayer is even more glorious—those games are all about wordless cooperation, about games turning on a dime, about perpetrating a fantastic kind of human chaos. It’s something that simply isn’t possible in the singleplayer.

So, the game has terrible music, unimpressive graphics, and a singleplayer mode that struck me as a waste of time. But it has a multiplayer that, out of a few bare-bones elements, inspires a pretty-much endless strategy experience. This is some really tight design. I am incredibly impressed with it. What I’m not impressed with, though, is the fact that the multiplayer servers go absolutely cold during much of the day, which makes it impossible for me to enjoy the one aspect of the game that I actually adore.

Actually, this is what the game looks like most of the time. A bit more placid, I'd say.

I got the game for two bucks as part of an indie bundle; knowing what I know now about the singleplayer and the multiplayer server situation, I’m not sure I would have bought the full ten dollar game just by itself. At any rate, there’s a free demo on Steam. I’d certainly recommend that, but since I bought the game already I don’t even know if that demo has multiplayer in it. I hope it does—this game certainly wants to show potential customers the best it has to offer, not the worst.

Wondered where we were all last week? We were doing finals. It was kind of a bitch. But we’re back now, and you’ll be seeing some interesting stuff soon!

Also, we are going to PAX East. More about that later.

ALSO ALSO, Galcon, regular iPhone Galcon, won the Innovation in Mobile Game Design award at the IGF last year. Here’s the dev’s– Phil Hassey’s–website.

Machinarium’s Ending Sucks

Endings are hard to do. I have an English professor who asserted once in class that ‘most endings are bad… pretty much, all endings are terrible.’ In a way, he’s right. Story endings are artificial. They’re where we choose to stop telling a tale that, in the context of the real, continuing world, has no actual end. The editorial act of forcing an end to a story’s living world can be an easy thing to mess up: many people would put this kind of blame on Harry Potter.

A puzzle! WoooooThe best ending of any kind that I can think of is possibly the ending to Casablanca, followed quickly after by the ending to Watership Down, which actually made me cry when I was in fourth grade. I can’t think of many games that have a similar sense of profound resolution. Indigo Prophecy’s ending arguably ruined the game for me; the ending to Beyond Good and Evil is a bit too baffling to be fully satisfying. Many people detest BioShock’s ending. The ending to KOTOR II was an uninspired mess. There are games out there with spectacular finales, but I’d argue that they’re the exception to the rule: Modern Warfare is one. Portal is another.* Usually, after the player has spent his or herself on a traumatically difficult boss battle, where can a game go? Can tying up the loose ends of a possibly feather-light plot compete with the excitement of climactic play? Often, no. Games have it tougher than most media when it comes to endings.

Machinarium is one of those games where you can feel the ending coming from far away. It feels very right. The action, which until the final hour or so has been spread all across a small city of robot people, begins to narrow, finally converging on a few puzzle-dense rooms stranded, lonely and hollow, high above the clouds. The music, which is frankly my favorite part of the game, becomes more resonant and contemplative, while the images become more arresting and, frankly, disturbing: the last character you meet is eerie, or at least a bit unsettling, in a way I found very compelling. (Hint: you perform crazy robot psychotherapy on it. Yeah.)

The ending also addresses a common theme that runs through the rest of the game: arcade culture. Throughout Machinarium, the player is exposed to old arcade games presented in non-traditional ways: chiefly, arcade games are presented as relics of the past, as grungy, dust-splattered, rickety, bike-powered objects, entertainments occupying a space as far as possible from the slick, bright, neon experience we normally associate with arcade games. The final encounter, or boss-fight, if you will, is also an arcade game. It’s also non-traditional: its soundtrack is jarring and unpleasant, its display elements are non-rectilinear and bereft of ‘digitalness’, and…

Well. IT HAS THE WORST CONTROLS OF ANY GAME, EVER.

The final ‘boss fight’ of Machinarium is so unpleasant that I put the game down for a whole month. Though the rest of the game is a rather calm, contemplative thing, something that can be solved easily with an old and fuzzy laptop touchpad, the final ‘puzzle’ requires a mouse and infinite patience. You must play an extremely long and badly-designed Flash game for which no rules or objectives are given. Dying pulls you out into the world again, where you must repeat a few trivial adventure-game actions in order to reenter the fight. I died countless times, mainly because my screen was wider than the game file itself (Machinarium is Flash) and every time my cursor left the game panel, I would lose control of the character and die. Furthermore, it’s a mouse-aim game with no separate controls for your avatar: you trail around after the aim cursor, able to control your own position only indirectly. I’m sure that not everyone had as huge of a problem with it as I did; nevertheless, it’s so badly designed that I doubt it would do well as stand-alone gameplay. Which is important in a game that’s partially about games. It’s not the main theme, but it’s prominent, and I expected better.

One of my favorite puzzles. It’s got the best background music.

Furthermore, I feel that it pollutes the atmosphere of the entire game: it features your robot taking down enemies with a gun. Up until this point, Machinarium is about a relatively-pacifist underdog robot who is eternally harassed by aggressive, bombastic, armed criminals. I did not expect his final triumph to involve shooting people, even digital people.

Aside from this, I enjoyed Machinarium immensely. It’s a gorgeous adventure game with awesome puzzles—something I hope to write about soon. I’m pretty sure that, art, difficulty, and puzzle-wise, it’s the best adventure game produced by anyone, ever, in several years.

But I haven’t yet played Time Gentlemen, Please, so don’t hold me to that assessment.

* Though the ending has apparently changed due to that awesome ARG— something I need to take a look at!

Sleep is Death

I preordered Sleep is Death today. Which is interesting, considering I was not an enormous fan of Passage.

I hated Passage for a pretty specific, personal reason. There was actually a lot about it I did enjoy: I liked the minimalist style, and I appreciated the player’s bleak lack of control over life and death. As a game where action equals metaphor, it works perfectly. But I had a problem with the meaning of the metaphor.

There’s a brief line in this article about every day the same dream that captures my feelings about Passage: Passage is trite, simplistic, and false. It’s too-perfect love. If that’s how Jason Rohrer thinks he’s living his life, hand in hand down a long hallway of colors, together all the time, great for him. That isn’t how most people live.

His assumption that this is life is what comes across as pretentiousness: anyone who doesn’t agree with the premise of the metaphor is going to perceive him as making art out of falsehood. During the time when I first played Passage, I was pretty lonely and was generally mildly upset with the universe; the game made me want to hunt Rohrer down and kick him in the face for being so blandly happy.Yeah, my reactions to everything he makes are totally personal and subjective– but I’d like to think that’s how he wants people to react to his games. On a personal level. On that personal level, I just wanted to kick him in the face for being happy in his stupid hallway, and for assuming that his own minor navigational problems, so to speak, were profound.

But Sleep is Death doesn’t look like anything trite at all. Where Passage was about what I see as a kind of fake idealism, Sleep is Death is going to be about actual interaction, about the problematic, fast-paced negotiation of a shared gamespace. The slideshow trailer he put up shows the kind of ambiguous, troublesome play that I appreciate in my game-metaphors about life.

Also: Storybook Weaver crossed with being a Dungeon Master. BEST. GAME. CONCEPT. EVER. I grew up on Storybook Weaver!

Good job, Mr. Rohrer: here are my dollars. I promise I won’t try to write class papers about how much I hate you anymore (something I actually tried to do last summer). I have formally erased you from my official List of Dicks. Be free, Mr. Rohrer. Show the world you know what the hell you’re doing. Again.

Hammerfight is like Omar Sharif

ATTENTION. I AM MANLY OMAR.

Or the game Omar Sharif would play. Let’s talk about it.

Like Sharif, Hammerfight is outrageously manly. Derek Yu wrote about the game’s manliness, and it was his assessment of the game—“like Charleton Heston in the Ten Commandments,” he said—that convinced me I had to own it. But I’ve come to disagree with his choice of actors. Yeah, Charleton Heston is plenty manly, but the game’s unusual style points me toward a different super-manly actor with a different cultural background and filmography.

See, Hammerfight is a game about dueling steampunk helicopter gladiators. Its setting draws equally from Dune, Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, and the blisteringly insane imagination of its developers, who are a pack of clever Russians. Like Omar Sharif, a man of Franco-Libyan heritage who could play both Doctor Zhivago and Sherif Ali, the game seems to straddle an East-West stylistic divide. Out of this tension it creates a kind of weird, syncretic perfection never before seen on the face of planet Earth. Look at the man. Look at the game.

I AM ALSO MANLY. BUT A GAME.

Honestly, this game is such a hodgepodge of cultural signs that it actually escapes them and becomes own thing entirely. We’ve got the middle-eastern soundtrack. We’ve got sabers and geometric patterns and other Arabic visual cues. We’ve got the quasi-Arabic character names. We’ve got the Dune references. But on the other hand, we’ve got player advancement linked up to  ultra-western World-War-One-esque army medals and some rather Teutonic player title awards, as well as flying sandworms, steampunk, Greek architecture and Roman coins, and the absurd inclusion of retro pixel-fonts on every screen in the game. Also animated smileys: If you fly in a taunting waggle while fighting, your helicopter will flash the other helicopters an animated yellow smiley face. What.

Basically, what I’m saying is that this universe that Kranx Productions invented for its helicopter brawler is fantastic. This game is the square-jawed mythic hero-figure justice lovechild of Gamal Nasser and the Queen of England. So, Omar Sharif.

CHAIN CAGE MATCH

But what about the crazy mouse-swirling combat? Well, it’s basically genius. There is not a thing like it elsewhere in the universe. But there is a drawback: playing this game too much will give you severe tendonitis in your wrist. If you can suffer that well enough, though, you’re golden.

Like World Of Goo, this game stands upon the strength of its appealing physics engine, and play consists of teasing this engine out, elaborating upon its possibilities and feeling out its limits. Moving your mouse in circles, you struggle with centrifugal force for the control of the giant hammer hanging beneath your helicopter. You then smash things with this hammer. Or you can hang a sword there, and slice your enemies instead! Or an axe! Or you can put a wooden mallet there and play a ball sport! Fighting an enemy in the slave pits? Cool. Fighting an enemy in the slave pits while the two of you are linked by a giant chain that responds realistically to momentum? COOLER. Sick of hammers? How about swinging around some guns, learning to adjust to their solid, punchy recoil? Every possible variation on the engine’s original scenario is here. World of Goo and Hammerfight share that kind of genius.

Much of your time outside these fights is spent tricking around with different loadouts, searching for the best combination of weapons. These weapons feel meaty and significant in combat, and learning each type’s playstyle is one of the central focuses of the game. Unfortunately, there is no Hammerfight wiki, but if there were, it would probably consist mainly of pages about different kinds of weapons. Someone had better get on that.

'Glory' is a statistic in this game. Awesome.

In all likelihood, though, no one will ever get on that. Very few people play this game, probably because it is outrageously difficult. The learning curve for mouse-enabled hammer-battle is quite steep, and although there is ostensibly a tutorial progression, the initial levels are pretty frustrating. In fact, the fifth level features you standing up alone to an army of giant flying-sandworm-zeppelins and a neverending stream of hovering buzzsaw robots who attack you in pairs and triples while the zeppelins fire heatseeking missiles at you. You will probably die eight or ten times, and, restarting, you will sit through the slow pre-level plotty bit eight or ten times, too. If you think you can handle it, stay on board. The real game has barely begun, and things get easier with practice.

If I ever get a time machine, I am going to do a few things with it. One of the first things I will do will be to go back to the sixties with a laptop and give Omar Sharif, then in his multicultural movieacting prime and with all his youthful hand-eye coordination still intact, the chance to play Hammerfight. Then I will come back to the present and give you all an update on what he thought about it.

If he doesn’t get tendonitis, I bet he loves it.

—-

By the way, here is a hilariously-grammared trailer from the developers, reminding you what this game is all about (‘HIGH ART OF FIGHT‘).