These surreal, unforgettable little works will expand your concept of 'games'

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I'm often nostalgic for the graphics of the mid 1990s -- those bold, dark shapes juxtaposed against soft, staticky textures, limned in herky-jerky flourescent flickers like migraine auras. In music video interstitials, alternately morbid and comic late-night animated shorts, and in darkly cryptic portals to primitive net art websites, arresting collisions of photographic clippings would pile fluidly on top of goggle-eyed cartoons, or smudges of claymation and smoke.

At first, the last few years' short, surreal works of game maker Jack King-Spooner, who combines textured film footage with digital art and photography, put me in mind of that loved bygone era. His game Vessel, a short poem about automation, adoption and suicide (take care of your own limits), has an almost gothic AEon Flux quality as it references the burdensome condition of being a tool in a system.

King-Spooner's Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in Space is richer still, mysterious in the way after-midnight grunge era cartoons longed to be but were never delicate enough to manage. It is part of a trilogy, but I cannot tell which part. You are Widok, a woman plagued by flickering photorealistic premonitions that maybe have to do with the great mathematics of existence; you ride the Sluggish Morss, an interdimensional craft that plays host to an unexpected expression of id.

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Your universe is watched over by a disturbing quilt of multilingual infant heads; some of the characters are portrayed by photographs so plausible they could be the Facebook profile pictures of the creator's real-world friends, and others are inconsequential smudges of shadow or light. These background actors offer profound existential provocations or theories ("nostalgia creates laws").

I'm not sure whether my favorite part of the game is a long, bubble-like radiant elevator where a formless sort of tapir sings me solemn questions, lets me choose the solemnly-sung replies, or the part where an unfinished Barbie-like figure chants the words to Beyonce's "Halo" as Widok and her friend wonder at the origin of music, of their very lives. Maybe it's the eyestrain maze of shimmering black and white lines, where a needed four-digit code becomes audible in the music the closer you navigate to a serene, open-mouthed head at the maze's center.

It sounds like the kind of thing that wants to be weird for weirdness' sake. The works of the 1990s that King-Spooner's aesthetics recall certainly did often traffic in that kind of cynicism, that deliberate grotesquerie. But this is not like that at all: there is somehow absolutely nothing pretentious about King-Spooner's games. They are surprisingly straightforward and accessible to play, their fragments fusing and shimmering together to make an easy, dream-logic kind of sense.

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From bluesy guitar hums to interstellar electronica he seems to do most, if not all of the music himself. The language is plain and truthful, and something about the use of real photography, or the humble sound of computer voice effects (that often provide canny cover for King-Spooner's own Scottish accent) feels wonderfully vulnerable and intimate.

King-Spooner's Blues for Mittavinda feels handmade. The knobbled, shiny clay textures of its people are startling and lonesome on top of cowboy scribbles on wood-colored paper; they sit like toys on the photorealistic concrete and sand textures, the gentle pulsing of smoke and tumbleweed.

Blues for Mittavinda is the gentlest and most straightforward work among the King-Spooner games I've tried over the years, and even then it's given to dreaming—like when you're forced, for a few soothing moments, to inhabit the body of an incongruous bright tropical fish right after a fisherman alludes to the value of being present in the moment.

The common fact of your curiosity as a player, your compulsion to answer certain questions, gently marks you as a person who can't accept death or chaos. Blues for Mittavinda ends stunningly, with a fourth wall-breaking guided meditation on the raw, immediate sensation of existence, probably the best such meditation on being present I've ever tried. You should try it, too.

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Jack King-Spooner's vulnerable, generous, small games help remind me of why I like to work in games, to be frank, and I think they illustrate just how easy it is to take an instant and fall in love with the expressive potential of this medium. I was prompted to revisit and to gather some thoughts on these works now because his computer has up and died, which means he can't make games any more, and he's selling a donation-based bundle to help raise money for a new machine to create with. According to this interview he has created some twenty-two vignette games already.

I highly recommend you download the Jack in the Box collection for five bucks (or suggested donation); the few games I've mentioned here are already free for you to try, but as the collection includes King-Spooner's other works and his soundtracks, and as your purchase supports his further designs, it's worth considering anyway.