The story of Sisphyus, the Greek mythological figure doomed to endlessly roll a rock up a hill for all of eternity, has endured for thousands of years, perhaps because nearly every human being knows the feeling of being chained to pointless, repetitive tasks that seem like they will never end.
In games, there's a word for that: grind. Existential Comics, a webcomic devoted to deep-cut jokes about philosophers and philosophy, recently reframed the classic tale of Sisyphus around that controversial aspect of gaming culture, in a comic where the doomed prisoner of Hades receives a "Just Keep Rollin' On" achievement for pushing the boulder up to the top of the hill five thousand times. And Sisphyus couldn't be more excited about it.
From World of Warcraft to Cookie Clicker, it's easy to find yourself in games that feel like interactive Skinner boxes, designed to lure you into doing the same thing over and over and over again. Like all behavioral conditioning, grind requires a reward to incentivize its repetition, and achievements have become one of the most popular (and arguably emptiest) rewards.
The question of whether grind and achievements are fun, or just manipulative wastes of everyone's time, is of course a matter of debate and personal taste. Sometimes it's soothing, even therapeutic to tune out the world and lose yourself in a repetitive task, and maybe even enter a state of "flow".
One person on my Twitter feed suggested that they'd actually love to apply this sort of gamification to the boring tasks of their everyday life, to make them more bearable or perhaps even enjoyable. (There's an app for that, of course.) "Achievements" aren't just something we chain ourselves to in the name of entertainment; they can also be a way of finding entertainment in the things we're already chained to. After all, if you've got to keep pushing that boulder, why not find a way to enjoy it?
In just one year since its launch, P.T.—a short but haunting "playable teaser"—has gained a sort of cult status among video game fans. It's a snippet of possibility, a flicker of potential for a Hideo Kojima-directed Silent Hill game we now know will certainly never exist (read my reflections on the series here).
The game is set in a single atmospheric hallway that loops, twisting the player's sense of reality (this excellent P.T. critique will give you the idea). I thought P.T. was so scary that I had to hand the controller off to someone else to finish. But when our friend played through it, none of the experiences I'd had occurred for him; it's opaque and capricious, and has launched dozens of wild fan theories.
Since the cancellation of Silent Hills, P.T. is no longer available on the PlayStation Store. But if you never got to see it for yourself, Calgary-based aspiring game developer Farhan Qureshi has meticulously modeled and recreated P.T's hallway using the low-impact Unity tool. It's an amazing technical achievement, and a chance for some edition of that iconic space to exist in a fashion everyone can visit.
"I started this project for a 3D modelling workshop I'm teaching for a game developer group here in Calgary," he writes. "At first I just wanted to make the P.T. hallway, then started adding sounds and...other things out of obsession. In total I've spent about 104 hours over four weeks making this, and I'm happy / burnt out enough to stop here."
His attention to detail and sound makes it feel almost exactly like you're playing the original game. For those who are interested in tools themselves, Qureshi, who hopes to find a job in game development, has an extensive post on how he replicated the hallway here.
Download "PuniTy" for free here.
Room escape games are all the rage these days—you know, you and a small team of friends get locked in a venue full of puzzles, clues or objects to assemble, disassemble and decode so that you can get out. Apparently Sweden has had real-life secret puzzle castles going for 20 years; here in London, my friend Pip tried a room escape that involved some kind of hint master scolding her through a screen. Recently I was in Belgium and some friends and I were looking for a place to have dinner and we passed a room escape venue on the way, just like you'd pass a convenience store. These things are everywhere now, even in Budapest bars, as you can see from the video above.
As a design form, though, room escapes are having some growing pains, from what I understand. It seems it's actually very challenging to create a series of nesting, escalating physical challenges that interlink, that offer the players the chance to feel smart and successful, but never to feel hopelessly stuck. You have to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant objects—subtly, so it's not like you stick a post-it on every clue, but not so subtly that the players start ripping the actual paneling off the walls in search of secrets. Your storytelling has to be entirely self-contained, so that players never feel confused or that something is missing.
Designer Adam Clare has written a cool piece on frequently-asked questions and best practices in the design of room escape games that help illuminate some of these considerations. It's neat to think about for anyone interested in this growing trend, and at the very least it will help you with some basic tips before you try locking your friend in her closet for her birthday.
This is pretty nifty: You can generate, explore and edit mysterious and beautiful landscapes using the webcam on your computer. Make sure you're in a well-lit area, let your browser access the webcam, and then try pointing it around the room as you use standard controls to "walk around in" the unique spaces that blossom before your eyes.
The tool, called Reflection, is by Ian MacLarty, and it's both awesome and unsettling. Reminds me of being a kid, face pressed up close to peeling paint or aging carpet, imagining entire worlds inside the negative space. Of course, when I turned the webcam on at first, it was pointing at me, and I found myself wandering into a swollen-cheeked land where some cloud formation of my own face, eyes slowly blinking, constituted the sky.
Try it for yourself. It's free, simple and provokes the imagination.
"We want to open up a conversation about race in video games," write Dr. Samantha Blackmon and Alisha Karabinus in a Kickstarter video for Invisibility Blues, a proposed video series exploring racial representation in the world of gaming. It's an issue that comes up often at Offworld, but as the video notes:
Writers, critics, academics, and journalists have been talking about race in video games for years, and yet the representation of people of color in gaming hardly seems to improve. When PoC are presented, many lack nuance. Sometimes, they are completely missing from game worlds, or, if present, are relegated to background roles. We want to create a video series exploring the best examples of diverse characterizations, the worst, and the whole spectrum between.
Blackmon, an Associate Professor of English at Purdue University, and Karabinus, Purdue PhD student, are also writers for Not Your Mama’s Gamer, a diversity-focused games website founded by Blackmon that features analysis from numerous female academics. Although they've created videos for the website before, they want to launch Invisibility Blue as a dedicated series, with five episodes in mind:
--Character Generation Engines and Representation
--Reactions to Games Critics on Representation
--Women of Color and Intersectionality
--Indigenous Populations in North America
--Race and Fantasy Games
They hope to raise $4,500 to help cover production costs, their research and analysis, and stipends for the consultants and academics whose voices they wish to include. Currently, the campaign is a bit over the halfway mark, with only eight days to go.
I admit: as someone who clocks in at about 120 words per minute I have a special affection for typing games. Deprived of virtually all other reflex skills or precision aiming, it is fun to feel good at something. Since childhood there have always been games, from Mavis Beacon to Typing of the Dead, that let me excel at my one main gift.
Now, developer Cannibal Cat Software has crossed Typing of the Dead with Dragon Warrior, and the result is Secret of Qwerty, an old-school RPG where you fight mean trees and ghosts and things by typing at them. You explore a map and some dungeons, gather gold and buy equipment, and I am really, really into it. You probably will be too.
It's the loving little touches—the intentional homage to the bad translations of ancient Nintendo games, the self-managing statistics, the easy saves, that make this one such a pleasure. You start the game at HOMEROW CASTLE. Come on that is so cute isn't it sghfjdghdj.
Secret of Qwerty is a small download, for free or pay-what-you-want. If you, too, love typing games, also check out Monologue, a clever little jam game about having to finish your victory speech before a train runs over the rival you've tied to the tracks.
Figuring out how to connect with another human being is often a puzzle. In Tough Love Machine, bringing two hearts together is complicated business; you control two arms trying to help those pulsing symbols of human affection come together, as the inexorable force of gravity tries to separate them forever.
In the game, as in love, there is no undo button, and your arms—perhaps like your finite capacity for love—can only reach so far. But if you do manage to unite the hearts, you;ll get to see the screen erupt in a joyous checkerboard of color, at least for the brief moment before the next challenge begins.
This emotion-themed puzzler was created by Andrew Morrish, who also made Super Puzzle Platformer and The Heart Is Safe, a game about a character who wears his heart on his sleeve and has to avoid getting hurt.
GHOSTZ recalls the virtual pet craze of the 1990s: simple digital beings in your care, marching obliquely against unchanging backdrops, whimsical of mood and utterly dependent on your actions. Death was often a part of the virtual pet experience, although according to a (real or imagined?) P.F. Magic info sheet from 1997 cited in the beginning of the game, very few players actively wanted to face the possibility.
GHOSTZ imagines a virtual pet experience about caring for a ghost. This can include offering it a bone from its former form ("DISRESPECTFUL") or punishing it with holy water. The little Twine-based game is driven by actual statistics, although these are hidden from the player, mirroring the emotionally-nuanced nature of our relationships with living things both virtual and real.
It's a simple game made by Dixon Grimdixie for Porpentine's virtual pet-themed PetJam, but what I like about it is the way it's nested in the creator's own warm personal reflections on the era of digital pets and how robust and full of possibility they felt.
Play GHOSTZ for free in your browser here.
The objective of NEVER GO TO WORK is in its title: Your alarm goes off just after 6 AM, and it's time to get to the office. Except arriving there ends the game, and you don't really want to go to work, anyway.
You are Agenesia, disgruntled and harboring a crush on your unreliable bus driver, and your meandering takes you all over town. Anything can go wrong: I was killed by ghosts on a mini golf course, and found myself inexplicably on a riverboat. I wanted to go to the strip club, but it was closed. I kind of like the gritty caprice of Agenesia's world: The rough textures of the graphical interface, the not knowing what to expect—is my intentional avoidance of efficient bus routes going to make my lateness to work sprawl wonderfully on the digital clock before me, or will I accidentally stumble into a game-over?
Some of the opacity doesn't serve the experience though, something I don't mind saying as developer Rani Baker (who also made this buggy but nifty nostalgic rebuild of Demon's Forge, the kind of Apple IIe game that I'm weird enough to still be excited about) is still taking feedback toward a final version of the game. I have a pack of cigarettes in my inventory slot, but while clicking it sometimes takes me to a wonderful neon ritual site, at other times it gets me stuck in an endless loop. I'm not sure what it's for. I enjoy the tension between needing to keep moving and not wanting to arrive at work, but while the collage of unpredictable moments feels creative and cool, at times I wish there were a little more for me to do.
NEVER GO TO WORK is free to play in your browser. It is the latest title to be commissioned by the Interactive Fiction Fund, which aims to support both established and up-and-coming interactive fiction makers with actual money (I'm a backer; consider becoming one yourself here). The last title was Morning Rituals, a game about a Satanic Keurig machine (which we liked).
Oh, claw machines. Those playful, enticing toy bins we've fairly recently learned are definitely rigged to routinely thwart your desire for a new fluffy friend. Even if you study this wonderful WikiHow guide to winning crane games ("if you haven't won, repeat the process to try again"), the claw machine seems fundamentally destined to break your heart.
Until now. Plenty of video games cast you as the cool young arcade champion on the block, but never before has the cool arcade been a claw machine. In Claw Champion Earth, you battle other kids in a game of frantic, duelling prize-grabs that manage to capture everything you like about claw machines, and also everything you don't like about them, except it's still fun.
It's simple to play: You and another Claw Kid, played by the computer, swing your spindly claw arms in frantic, urgent competiton, trying to grab the most prizes from the machine. What makes it really fun is that your prize, or your opponent's, can get stuck in the PRIZE AREA, meaning if you're fast enough you can swing over and pluck something right out of their winner's chute. You end up grasping hopefully for toys, whispering the same kind of no-no-no-come-on-rrgh-yes-yes-yes mantra you might mutter at the shrine of a real machine.
With over 16,000 indie games now available on the website Itch.io, it's not always easy to figure out which ones to play. But with the help of their new Randomizer tool, finding a new game to play around with is just as easy as swiping right.
Although the game hosting and distribution site already has a featured games section and tailored recommendations for existing users, the Randomizer allows you to set a few criteria, like whether you want games that are free, what platform they're on and if they offer local multiplayer. As you browser, each suggestion pops up inside a frame—which didn't work for me in Chrome, so try another browser if it's a problem—and when you're done you can offer feedback about whether or not you liked it before moving on to the next.
In my whirlwind tour of the Randomizer, I ended up playing an oddly soothing game about searching for a beast in a bucolic landscape, a two-player version of hide and seek with little eyeballs on feet, and a split-screen, Inception inspired shooter that was pretty entertaining for the ten minutes it took to beat.
The results are inevitably a grab bag, but if you're bored and have some time to burn on a Tinder-esque tour through indie gaming, you've got nothing to lose. Take the Randomizer for a spin.
Have you ever wanted to glide through the seas with the grace of a giant sea creature, killing everyone in your path? Did you enjoy Ecco the Dolphin, but wish it had allowed you to commit mass murder? Then Pequod might be for you.
Named after the whaling ship in Moby Dick, this procedurally generated game allows you to play as the white whale itself, though it differs quite a bit from the plot of the classic Herman Melville novel. For starters, you have a name: Mobias. And as we learn in the opening sequence, an archetypal sea captain has placed a bounty on your head in revenge for the death of his daughter, which is why a series of whaling ships have come hunting for you. You must destroy them all.
I'm not going to pretend that I know anything about ships, but I can tell you that they get progressively bigger as you sink them to the bottom of the sea, and your foes include an airship you leap up and pull down out of the sky, as well as a massive, bizarre seacraft with a gaping mouth of teeth. You can also power up your whale with weapons, including the one thing that was always glaringly absent from Moby Dick: lasers.
Created by Bearmancer, Pequod a pleasing little thing to play, thanks to the slick, effortless way it makes you feel like you're moving through the water, the pretty sunsets that occasionally smolder over the wreckage of defeated enemies, and again, lasers. It is currently pay-what-you-want for PC and Mac on Itch.io.
Prune is a game so simple that its elegance becomes hard to describe. It's a game about trees stretching their limbs slowly toward the light, and how sometimes you must trim parts for the betterment of the whole.
Designer Joel McDonald describes it as "digital bonsai": With a swipe of your finger, you plant a procedurally-generated tree, which gracefully begins growing and branching; when it reaches light, then flowers blossom. Along the growth arc you can swipe to wick away lesser branches for the betterment of the whole, or to affect the shape of the tree.
On a mechanical level you want the tree to make enough flowers to quantify "success" (tiny stars in the sky resonate with each petal), but often this objective develops only a secondary importance. You are doing thoughtful aesthetic work, too: Pruning away some branches means a healthier, taller tree, but you can also create graceful silhouettes. Sometimes you are merely playing with nature to see what develops; you can zoom in to flick away even the tiniest twig, to rustle a little petal.
As you progress through Prune you'll gently consider environmental factors like wind, or great looming shadows against which your tree can't thrive. It's very soothing, thanks in part to the gentle ambient soundtrack by Kyle Preston.
Last Week on the Colony is a new, regular Monday item here on Offworld, a special satellite transmission designed to highlight our favorite Offworld stories, wonderful trends, and the stories from elsewhere in the galaxy that got us talking. Read the rest
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