Disasterpeace's wonderful soundtrack for Polytron's seminal game Fez has just been released on mouth-watering, lucent pollen-colored vinyl sheathed in a gold-embossed gatefold jacket. It looks as beautiful as it is certain to sound.
Well, this is wonderful—Jason Scott, creator of the GET LAMP documentary and tireless historian in the service of games, is releasing a huge trove of scans from the archives of Infocom veteran Steve Meretzky.
Infocom, of course, was a leading developer of mysterious and beautifully-written computer text adventure games in the 1980s. Meretzky's carefully-kept notes—over 9000 scans, says Scott—document numerous aspects, from design to business, of what was widely considered the company's golden age, in which it produced famous games like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, and the remarkable, pioneering A Mind Forever Voyaging, written and made by Meretzky himself, among others.
For someone involved in game design, this is priceless work. Unfettered by the crushing schedules and indie limits of the current industry, the designers at Infocom (including Steve, but not limited to him by any means) were able to really explore what made games so much fun, where the medium could go, and what choices could be made. It's all here.
One of the challenges in the video game space is that design knowledge is often prized tightly behind the doors of competitive game companies, and then lost when the tides of business change or studios close their doors. Software and hardware age, and works younger than a decade can be fundamentally impossible to access. The work of archivists like Scott is often unsung but essential to the memory of the medium, and his TEXTFILES.COM has become a virtual museum of all manner of computer history. Learn more here.
If you like the idea of stamping approved and rejected stamps on animals' helpless faces, Animal Inspector is the game for you. In a world where pets are taking up too much space, or have turned bad, or maybe both, the Animal Inspector's job is to flip through dossiers and decide which pets are useful enough to stick around.
Of course, pets' utility is often things like "is a good listener" or "hides a lot". That's just how pets are.
Animal Inspector, made by Tom Astle, is sort of like a lighthearted take on the famous Papers, Please, where your document-processing decisions can create moral conflicts or story branches. If you don't follow your supervisor's instructions, which are often wacky and place you at odds with your coworkers, you collect a "strike", and you can only have three. Your main objective as an Animal Inspector, though, is to stay on the job long enough to protect your own beloved dog from getting inspected away from you. How far will you go to keep him safe?
It's well-conceived, fun and funny—you must type your own comments, or reasons for approving or rejecting a pet, on their dossier, and you can save these and share them on social media (I rejected one puppy with only the comment "has a stupid face"). Though the game isn't massive or anything—I finished in 25 minutes—it has multiple endings, and there is lots to see.
It also has a soundtrack by Ben "Torahhorse" Esposito (whom we've previously interviewed on Offworld)—Animal Inspector is free to download here, but those who purchase it at the suggested $3 or more get the soundtrack.
The game is very simple. Confronted with a color-starved scene of a street, an apartment front, or some other mundane place, the player must press any key, and the punctuation of a gunshot rings out. You might see a muzzle flash in one of the windows right before your eyes, or you might not, the sound coming from outside of your field of view. Pressing any key up to three more times may or may not trigger another shot, and then the scene changes. The set of scenes you see, and the hidden violence that may be occurring in each, is different each time you play.
There is a remarkable thought space around such a deceptively simple design. You as the player notice the urge to 'advance' the scene; you find yourself wishing the shot will occur where you can 'see' it. The game's challenge, in a sense, is being able to sit in the pause after that first sound and to notice how you feel about it—and about your own lack of agency. There is a cold, frightening inevitability about the fact you cannot really observe, control or predict any aspect of the distant violence. You never get to know why the shot was fired, if anyone was hurt or killed, what any of it meant. There may be another round of gunfire coming, and there may not, but all you can do is press a key and see.
Any key will do; letting the player use the mouse, Barr said, would have added too great an illusion of control, the player "pointing" hopefully (?) at dark windows. Mapping to a specific key, too, would accord the player too close of a relationship with the idea of a single "trigger." With careful decisions like these, A Series of Gunshots elegantly decouples the report of a gun from the thoughtless, self-relieving behavior that "shooting" usually is in video games, and redraws the weapon as it exists in reality—a deliverer of unknowable darkness.
You can play A Series of Gunshots for free in your browser here. Offworld has previously covered some of Barr's projects here and here.
By now you've heard the entire world would be saved if only everyone learned to code. Now, a tutorial made by Minecraft developer Mojang and its new parent Microsoft is here to teach coding fundamentals to children—or newbies of any age, really.
At Motherboard, Rachel Pick describes how it all works, and said she was surprised at how much she learned, even though as a 27 year-old woman she hadn't expected to be in the tutorial's presumed audience:
Things that seem arcane become more accessible when translated through familiar visual concepts, and it's awesome that Rachel's experience emblematized that. As she reports, the tool was developed as part of the annual "Hour of Code", an imminent campaign to attract young people to coding and programming careers in the hopes of diversifying the space.
It's part toy, part political cartoon: Indies Alejandro "Aquma" Quan-Madrid and Arjun "Archie" Prakash have created an iOS and Android app that envisions Donald Trump, known immigrant-hater, as a piñata you can whack to produce candy.
"I'm half Chinese and half Mexican, and I feel like the crazy shit Trump says really demonizes both of my people," Aquma writes to me in an email. "Seeing as how physical Donald Trump piñatas were popular in Mexican communities throughout the country, we wondered why no digital version existed yet. So then we made one."
I often think about the fact we don't really have 'online lives' any more. When I was small, to have a 'handle', to get on the Information Superhighway, was like attending a masquerade ball on a brand-new planet. All of you were suddenly someplace else, strange and new.
"Progress to 100" doesn't sound like the most exciting name for a game, but this clean, two-toned series of iOS puzzles is a real crowd pleaser. It might offer you just a single word, and using the functions of your device—tilt it in a certain pattern, lift it up, touch it as suggested—you satisfy the puzzle.
If you want to tell a sad, fraught story, does it need to be through a video game? Not always—but Llaura DreamFeel is a creator who has a unique, refreshing grasp on the little spaces that open up in games that can't be created in other media, and she makes profound and considered aesthetic choices with her works.
Last year, her game Curtainaffected many: The story of two girls in a Glasgow punk band, the game is consciously both bright and glitchy and tightly-framed, two choices that help tell the story of an abusive relationship.
Her writing style seems to make even abstracted sketches of human beings feel grounded, plausible, in a way I haven't quite experienced through more traditional 'game dialogue' ("people who like good music usually don't take the time to become good people" is a particularly jarring quote). She has a masterful sense of structure, too, and her newest work, Istanbul, Texas, is a brief but strong example.
You play a man returning to Donny's Discount Dungeon (formerly Donny and Dave's Discount Dungeon), a record shop that you may or may not have burned down, to see what's left. One song makes you want to tear down everything you find; one song makes you feel hopeful to rebuild. Saying any more about the game itself would probably ruin the delicate experience, but the tension DreamFeel has built between the man's two states of being is unexpectedly palpable.
It's the way the character drifts independently, a train wreck who can be influenced by the player's movements, but never wholly controlled. His sprite is indistinct, a sort of continuously-weeping raincloud with two grasping hands.
"I had never made rough and ready lil characters and art like this before, literally scribbling pixels until I hit something I liked. And I just threw out everything I didn't," says DreamFeel, who also tells me Istanbul, Texas' initial conceit came to life while she was delirious with food poisoning, trying to design a game that would capture the cathartic push-and-pull of getting sick and then feeling briefly better til the illness rises again.
"This idea of structuring a story is always really important to what I do, and I was thinking about how could I use music to that end," she continues. "Usually music just becomes this background texture to a scene unless the game responds to it directly (or the music responds directly to the game).
"I realized another way to give structure with music would be to use two songs intentionally juxtaposed against each other. Everything came from that. Particularly the first song, Yaylalar by Selda Bagcan, helped develop the story a lot."
Every 80s baby remembers Bob Ross, the gentle-voiced art instructor whose public television show brought "happy trees" and "almighty mountains" to life before your eyes, often using nothing more than a pallet knife, a fan brush and a little Titanium White. Although Ross's "Joy of Painting" ceased airing in 1994—right before he passed away from lymphoma in 1995—he's being remembered and adored today by a potentially unlikely crew: gamers on streaming service Twitch.tv.
Twitch's audience primarily convenes to watch people play video games live, alternately cheering players on and trolling them with a fascinatingly-specific vocabulary of in-jokes, memes and visual iconography. Sometimes this leads to expansive and delightful cultural phenomena—remember last year's 1.16 million-person Pokemon game, and the rich bank of lore that organically sprouted up around it? Have you heard about the communal machine art of Salty Bet?
In Twitch's latest happy surprise, the world of meme-spouting esports geeks has been drawn into a charming relationship with late painter Ross. The service just launched a "Creative" channel, and celebrated it with a nonstop marathon of all 408 "Joy of Painting" episodes starring the gentle painter and his teaching techniques. The results have been genuinely beautiful: The Twitchers are transfixed by Ross, his warm throwback style and the way he summons lakes and fir trees to the canvas as if anybody, even you, could do it. Though the popular "Let's Play" format often involves lots of yelling—streamers chatting and shrieking while irritable meme jockeys accuse them of cheating— watching Bob "play" gently with color, light and idiosyncratic vocabulary ("don't piddle it too much", he softly warns aspiring painters to the chat's sincere delight) has had a charming effect.
I clearly remember being little, watching Bob scrape misty mountainscapes gently across a pale sky. Suddenly he'd slash the canvas with a knife of Van Dyke Brown, and though he promised it was a tree trunk—and it always would be, quite beautifully in the end—the child-me would be secretly horrified, convinced he had ruined it.
RUINED, the Twitch chat erupts with hundreds of users every single time Bob begins a new landscape feature, a slash of brown or black whose role in the pastoral environment has not yet been clearly established. I can't help laughing along. I want to type RUINED, too. "trust in bob," users urge in response. "have you learned NOTHING," laments another.
Whenever Bob finishes a painting, everyone types "GG", or "good game", a common post-competition sign-off. Relatively-obscure internal video game language becomes wonderful in its new context; chatters praise his "god-tier" skills, or suggest he has "nerfed" an ugly feature by blending it more naturally with the rest of the painting.
With "The Joy of Painting", which aired on PBS from 1983 to 1994, Ross sought to democratize the arcane and elite art world with clear, unpretentious instruction (his biggest tip is to make sure you have enough paint on your brush) and a gentle, playful attitude. "This is your mountain," he might say, hoping to offer the at-home viewing audience an opportunity to feel as if they had the right to make art—and to enjoy it just as much as some fancy-pants painter. Ross sought to challenge the misconception that art had to be gatekept by skill, and that spontaneity and imagination mattered the most.
"Let's have a river," Ross might decide. "There are no mistakes, just happy accidents," he advises. "Let's give this tree a friend," he suggests. "I wish I had a friend," reply several tens of Twitch users, either in ironic unison or sincerely.
This democratic approach, his hypnotic soft voice and the deeply-soothing, ASMR-inducing patter of brush on canvas make Ross a secretly-awaited hard counter to the traditional world of public "gaming" and Let's Plays. Where games culture traditionally prizes "elite" skills and internal knowledge, Ross offers an environment where participants get to watch something rare and magical coalesce—and yet the skills still feel attainable, and the simple spectator always feels welcome and loved.
Lots of the people typing "can Bob respond to chat?" are trolling; some of them might just be young and genuinely hopeful. You can't know, really.
It's rare that we get a chance to remember that sometimes the crowds really are wise. It is easy to develop and to calcify a natural suspicion of "gaming community" online. Which makes experiences like the Bob Ross Twitch collective all the more meaningful—what if the gentle painter posthumously inspired tens of thousands of chat-spamming esports geeks to try making art? What if the parlance of Bob Ross' old democratic, joyful painting program made its way into the cultural vocabulary of competitive video games? It's almost enough to restore your faith in humanity.
If you like to watch people play arcane games while talking softly and serving ASMR keyboard tapping, you might enjoy my Lo-Fi Let's Play YouTube channel, explicating odd 1980s and 90s adventure games.
Join a group forging through the desert in search of a pyramid, as your skin begins to blister mysteriously away. Or explore the ruins of a sigil-painted village as the slick bodies of giant hornets lurk, swollen and sleepy with blood. Wander the suggestion of a mysterious village in continuous rain, urged onward by a pale, sad voice.
These are the delicate, expressive horror games of Kitty Horrorshow, whose works have become some of my favorite discoveries of 2015. Most people acquainted with games have specific ideas of what horror looks like—zombie crawls with scarce ammo, visually-dark psychological explorations punctuated by jump scares, or intentionally-clumsy relics dredged from the Japanese console age. Horrorshow's works—most of which can be completed in less than half an hour—feel delicate and literary by comparison. The fact technical sophistication isn't a primary focus makes the spaces she creates feel like abstract art—like the iconic monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey, forbidding in its plainness.
With each release her works grow in strength and efficacy until they stay with you. If you haven't played any of these games, there's no better time to try—again, you generally need less than an hour, and they are free or pay-what-you-want here.
"I feel pretty hollow if I'm not actively working on creating something," Horrorshow tells me. She'd planned to be a writer, but traditional channels had their limits: "I didn't just want to tell stories, I wanted to frame them with whole worlds the player could explore and inhabit."
Like many modern independent developers, Twine was a "gateway drug" to the design space for Horrorshow, who grew up with games like Myst, EverQuest, Blood, Doom and Thief among her favorites. "I realized that I got a thousand times more satisfaction from creating environments with stories in them than I ever got from writing linear prose," she says. "Finally I decided to take a shot at making actual first-person 3D games, since I've always loved video games and was always most impressed by the ones that made me feel like I existed somewhere."
"After a few flailing attempts to learn Unity I started working on the floating temple in Dust City. I imported a really simple column I'd modeled and quickly realized that if I wanted to, I could make it out of glass or marble or crystal or gold, I could make it the size of a skyscraper, I could duplicate it a thousand times. That was pretty much The Moment."
Although for Horrorshow game development represents an evolution on linear writing, her writing is still the star of her work—to me, her game worlds feel like ideal vehicles to deliver poetry and prose in new ways. She cites Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, James Tiptree Jr., and Joyce Carol Oates as some influences, as well as Lovecraft ("though not as much as a lot of people think").
"I've spent most of my life being obsessed with Silent Hill, and I still feel like it's more of a home than most places I've ever lived," she says. "I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Porpentine, whose writing is impossible not to be changed by, particularly if the use of language is important to you."
"I like to watch Thundercats and daydream about Third Earth, because that show is full of really fun, beautiful, imaginative environments. I read a lot about ancient civilizations, architecture, and the psychology behind things like horror and the uncanny, and that's usually pretty inspiring."
Kitty Horrorshow says she explicitly set out to create horror games, which gratifies my own interpretation of her work. "I had fantasies of becoming widely known as some kind of modern Horror Mistress, like the video games answer to Wes Craven or Stephen King," she says. "Anymore though, I try not to lock myself down as much. If I get a story idea that I really love I'll go for it, horror or otherwise. That said, I think I've saturated myself in horror's ideas and motifs for long enough that I'll probably never get away from it completely or very far, which I'm okay with. The bottom line is I really want to create stories that are fantastical and that inspire wonder. Whether or not they do so by being frightening, I figure out at the time."
If there can be said to be a unifying feature about her works, it's the way they all feel like mysteries—what motivates me through her strange and occasionally-surreal worlds is the desire to find out what happened, is happening, will happen. One of the common problems with popular horror is "the ending"—when to reveal a twist, how to conclude the experience thereafter—and I love the structural elegance with which Horrorshow tackles this challenge.
I suppose I sort of start with the answer and work backwards. When I have ideas, they're usually very broad and blunt ('A huge pyramid shows up in a desert and starts being a jerk')," she says. "As the writer I already know what's happening when the game begins, so as the game designer my job becomes imagining the player's starting perspective and figuring out how to portion out the information that eventually leads to their understanding."
"Luckily for me, this usually isn't much harder than just writing a short story and then dividing it up into a paragraph or two at a time, and as long as the story's properly paced things work out okay," she says. "Every portion just needs to contain one more step, one additional idea or puzzle piece that will eventually paint the whole picture… I imagine I'm creating some kind of ruin or archaeological site that the player's visiting, but then try to work the player into the story of the place somehow, so that they're connected to the setting rather than just a visitor."
The larger themes I've divined from the games I have played—thoughts on faith, community, depression—are "largely accidental", says Horrorshow, who says she never goes into creating something with the intention to deliver a "message or moral."
"That said, I like to think there's an element of subconscious deliberation at work, because a lot of the time I'll get half-way through making a game, and then suddenly its 'meaning' will dawn on me," she says. "I like this approach because a lot of the time it's cathartic and surprising. I didn't realize what Rain, House, Eternity was really about until I had nearly finished it, and it was a powerful, deeply personal moment for me, and it also allowed me to make an ending that was much more appropriate than what I'd planned."
Kitty Horrorshow is currently working on a haunted house story ("haunted houses are my all-time favorite horror idea)" presently titled Anatomy, which she hopes to release for Halloween. She also plans to collaborate with ceMelusine (another Offworld favorite creator) on a project she suggests horror fans will like.
Her work is funded via Patreon, and she's just begun focusing on games full-time, so financial support will help to nurture and sustain Kitty Horrorshow's amazing continued works. Visit her page here and consider becoming a patron. Almost all of her games are available for free or pay-what-you-want from her digital storefront here.
Subterfuge is a mobile group battle among submarines, all fighting for might and territory on the bottom of the sea. One game can last around a week, during which you manipulate, negotiate and often betray your friends in an arms race for "Neptunium". You would not believe how consuming and harrowing it is—in my timezone-spanning game with several friends, our relations grew strained, people woke in the night to check the board, and some of us quit from the stress.
I was a quitter. I didn't even properly use the game's "resign" function, but simply erased the app from my phone while capering around the apartment, laughing uneasily. I'm just not very good at strategy games. It's never been my genre. I struggle with number and spatial concepts; I lack a natural confidence. After being wrung raw by Subterfuge I am never going to play it again.
But I think you should, even if you are like me. Everyone should have an experience of play like that just once. And the great thing about Subterfuge—the reason I really wanted to give it a try—is that it understands that my lack of acquaintance with its system is partially the genre's unconscious biases, and it's tried to do something about that.
"The Admiral", from Subterfuge
It's thought that strategy games have a mostly-male audience, which is a sensible assumption, given that the player is often asked to play as a battalion of noble old white dudes of history, spreading into conquered territories. When I interviewed Susana Meza-Graham and Sara Wendel-Örtqvist of deep strategy game publisher Paradox Interactive, though, they said one of their titles in particular had a player base that was nearly 40% women, the highest of any of their games at the time—Crusader Kings 2, a game about family dynasties.
Crusader Kings 2 isn't just a game about sending troops to change more chunks of the map into your own color, but instead focuses on the rulers of your territory and their families. Your king has a customizable portrait, you decide who he marries, and you watch your children squabble among themselves, one of them eventually bidding for your own throne. Hopefully they wait until you die first. It adds some color and humanity to what's normally a series of territorial calculations, and it's thought that this helps welcome more women players. Fans have even made a popular mod that breaks the game's "historically accurate" gender succession rules.
Subterfuge, too, has gone to great lengths to humanize its chilly subterranean world of numbers versus numbers. It's an aesthetically-beautiful game, with abstract representations of factories, generators and undersea mines in unique colors—the kind of coffee-table style players of tablet and touch-screen games now prefer. But it's also full of frankly-awesome looking people—the game's "specialists" whom you hire for additional perks and abilities feel like fully-realized humans, and they were designed with intention.
Ron Carmel, who designed the game along with Noel Llopis, has said the characters—created by illustrator Shane Nakamura—were designed to intentionally countermand stereotypes. He told me one of his goals for the game was explicitly to create women characters who were defined by non-physical attributes, even in a world where those attributes have to be communicated through a character portrait. "We want the first thing that people think to be something other than 'she's pretty' or 'she's not pretty'," he said.
The art you're seeing in this post is Subterfuge's specialists, each one a beautifully-drawn individual. The game is not only made more unique and attractive by its attention to diversity for both its men and women characters, but this extra focus helped invite me into a genre that usually signals that it isn't designed for me. Even though I struggled in a group of friends who play games like these more often, I was able to have a memorable and uniquely-challenging experience of play because Subterfuge made me this invitation.
If you give it a try yourself, be warned: it might occupy your days and test your friendships! You can also play the game with strangers, which seems both more mysterious and less stressful—on one hand, it's tougher to estimate who you can trust in negotiations, but on the other, if you stab someone in the back you (probably) never have to talk to them again. I still haven't spoken to any of my friends since they've invaded me. Hmph!
Hey, games are cool, yeah? Check out some of my favorite character portraits from Subterfuge below, and learn more about the game here.
Silent Hill is one of games' most iconic horror brands, having spawned some 14 titles and two visually-faithful, if thematically-insulting, movies. If you're not acquainted, I wrote about the founding heart of the series and why it matters so much to fans here.
Now, Duncan Fyfe brings us a worthy and entertaining longread about Centralia, Pennsylvania, a coal mining town that shares traits with the illogical, fog-belching purgatory of Silent Hill—and that was used as a site for its movies. It's a haunting read, not least because the people of the area had been through quite a lot before their lost town became a gawking site for tourists and graffitos.
Toronto's nonprofit Hand Eye Society's annual WordPlay festival is one of my favorite curations of a given year's niftiest narrative and text games. In recent years this space has become one of the most interesting for small indie games full stop, so if you are an Offworlder who can look at this list without having played a single one, what are you even doing? 'Fultoning' okapis in Metal Gear Solid V, I bet. Tch.
Most of these games 'contain' text, but few of them are 'text games', if you're one of those people who has a hard time with 'text games' (and also, if you look at this year's Interactive Fiction Competition, as we'll be doing later this week, the very utility of 'text game' as a descriptor has begun to crumble).
There are some cool-looking games in the WordPlay curation that we haven't tried, too! And I'm bummed the jury missed Wheels of Aurelia, but it's just a testament to how vast and exciting and full of creative potential and participation this space has become.