At first it seems like there's not much to it: Colorful figures play in a room, and when you click, you create a disruptive burst that knocks them over, knocks the lettering off the wall, leaving a pleasantly-animated chaos—even tipped over, the three-piece band keeps playing
But the little sliders in the corner of the screen let you adjust your disruption, its range and degree of force. The most fun way to play is to turn everything down and just gently start nudging about for the duration of the song. Then you start to notice fun details, like the tiny pizza slice on the table, or the little collection of beers, and try to nudge the letters more gently (I keep trying to make it say ANIMAL RAT).
Wake the animal inside you. It's a fun thing to do with a song.
This week, our partnership with Critical Distance brings us a takedown on 'empathy games' from one of the field's most well-known independent designers, as well as a unique collection of games inspired by the classic Breakout.(more…)
I don't think my mother ever expected to have such a wild daughter as me. She's an accountant, and we have nothing in common. Maybe because of that, I hang onto what little I know of her teen years in the 1970s like flowers pressed in a book: Her summers in a seaside town, hitchhiking along the road at night with her troublemaker friend. The time my grandfather came to pick her up from the rest stop where she'd gone to hang out with boys, and how he thundered with disapproval.
Those are really the only stories I know about her childhood, except for the one where my grandmother forced her to wear a wool dress she despised. I don't know what it would have been like to become a woman right when Summer of Love was ending, with the roulette wheel of the road and strangers' cars your only real way out. Even now our instinct is to think that cars are usually for men. Video games about driving? Always for men.
But there is so much more about cars than driving; maybe it's better to say there is so much more to driving than just the car. I do remember when I got a car of my very own for the first time, and printed out a Google map—how powerful I felt that I could drive down the eastern seaboard to go visit a boy. Because I was a girl, a car meant more than simply an ordinary stage on some common, anticipated ascent to social power, the same way the red eyes of a vehicle slowing on a seaside road at night were more than just lights for my mother. They were a beckoning flicker; they were a secret her daughter would come to know years later.
Wheels of Aurelia is a driving game that is about that more. You are androgynous, mischief-lipped Lella, driving on the famous Via Aurelia from Rome to the French Riviera in 1978. Along with you is Olga, a femme you met recently at a disco. At the beginning of your trip she asks you why you invited her. You can ask her, if you want, why she accepted.
As the Via Aurelia curls and sprawls, Lella and Olga get to know each other, pick up hitchhikers, and get into road races. You as the player have two tasks: First, abstractly, to drive, which you can mostly do one-handed. It feels like being an adult woman, to drive one-handed, smoothly with the mouse. Most of your attention, the other hand, will be on the dialogue. Everyone, from Olga herself to the patchwork characters you may pick up along the way, wants to talk to Lella—they are drawn to her in the way people tend to seek out the queerest woman in the club—easy to speak to because she is "other", easy to experiment on, the receptacle for the car crash of anxiety and identity politics that come from being "a woman in the Pope's country", as Lella herself sometimes puts it.
Your choices for Lella's dialogue tend to be pleasingly subtle, mimicking the pall of delicate anxiety that can overhang people trapped in the same car for hours. You pick up a man who swears he's seen the Pope in a UFO. Your choices are not merely to "accept or reject" this person, but to make the elegant distinction between cheerfully affirming him and politely nodding along. As his behavior escalates, taking his side begins to feel genuinely radical, like a protest against a flawed mental healthare system, like shouting out the car window—who gets to decide whose strangeness is all right and whose isn't?
After all, you have yet to learn why Lella herself is on the road, what secrets her past contains. You can let this hitchhiker call you "Mamma". You can promise him, gently, that you will not take him back there.
All of Wheels of Aurelia asks you to consider your political attitude. Olga, the girl you like, says she can't be a feminist because she wears skirts. She might only be joking, and you can only joke back—either warmly, or with an unkind aftertaste. Eventually a sexist tough guy (Lella calls him only "prick") challenges your right to the road, and makes you race him. You and your straggling passengers, all of you trying to negotiate a complex, bittersweet and fundamentally unfair condition of life, talk as you press the accelerator. As you literally hurtle at breakneck speed for purchase against patriarchy.
Each session of Wheels of Aurelia is only about 15 or 20 minutes long, and will come to a natural end based on your decisions. There seem to be eight endings, but each session is different from the last, and you can have conversations in some games that feel suddenly new, no way to know how you unlocked them alongside the lawlessness of the road. Sometimes an encounter will interrupt what feels like a crucial dialogue point; you need to learn not to worry about the "flow" of the story, to embrace its risk of accident, of getting lost. Its jazz spontaneity liberates Wheels of Aurelia somewhat from the systematic feel that other choice-driven dialogue games have—last time I chose this, so this time I'll choose that instead—each trip is a brief flicker of curling road, of seawall and revving engine, a cigarette sometimes coming to Lella's lips, a rarely-seen flirtatious look. The wonderful original music—the insistent hiss of clanging drums, rock guitar, horns surging their punctuation—sounds out a life that almost feels like it could have been yours, in another time. If you had only been standing by the road in the right place.
In a nod to driving games of a different sort, you can even choose Lella's car every time you hit the Via Aurelia, and also add your three initials to a classic scoreboard with your completion times. But the driving hardly matters at all. I love Lella. If I'd known her I would have gone to France with her in a heartbeat.
Imagine you are playing the classic arcade game Snake against your friend, except the "snakes" are Solid Snake and Liquid Snake from Metal Gear Solid. Well, your imagination is real.
Snake? Snake! has you competing with a friend or coworker or whoever else is in the room with you right now to crawl over as many snoozing soldiers (if you don't know anything about MGS just go with it) as you can while avoiding the other Snake.
You don't need a player two to check it out, although it will probably be pretty easy for you to win. Maybe you can play against yourself using both hands. You're pretty good!
Snake? Snake! was made for DUPLICADE, a game jam themed around arcade-style player versus player games that can be won in less than a minute, and that feel like barely-legal bootlegs of existing properties. See all the entries here; I'm partial to "KoolBert" and "Poutine Time", and we love the totally unofficial Twin Peaks dance-off Fire Dance With Me.
Simon Parkin has done an interesting profile at the Guardian of players with disabilities who have found a community—and a supplemental income—via online streaming service Twitch. He interviews Mackenzie, a young woman with severe epilepsy who plays games online for a select audience she is careful about getting to know.
Like Mackenzie, who sees her work as partially a way to promote understanding of her condition, streamer Stacey Rebecca plays the competitive digital card game Hearthstone, and shares some of her challenges with her fans:
Only a relative handful of disabled streamers earn their living from the service, but as well as providing a supplemental income, Twitch offers a support community. "Twitch gives me that feeling of being less isolated," says Stacey Rebecca. "I have a lot of regulars, and it's nice to have that kind of friendly group that I can essentially hang out with each day without having to leave the house. And because I've been open about my mental health problems, I attract a lot of viewers who are experiencing anxiety. It helps us both feel less isolated. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement."
The massive and growing online streaming community also has demonstrated the power to be a force for charitable causes, claiming to have raised more than $10 million for charities in 2014. On her own, Stacey Rebecca raised £6,500 for mental health charity Mind.
Whether it was Leland Palmer's grotesque waltzing or the silent shimmy of The Man From Another Place, dancing played a key role in the cult favorite mystery show Twin Peaks. Now you and a friend can play as different Twin Peaks characters (even a log), and join a sobbing Leland on the dance floor with Dance Dance Revolution-style controls.
It's called Fire Dance With Me (of course), and it's awesome, free and quick to play. One of you plays with the arrow keys, the other with the WASD controls, as a surprisingly-compelling dance take on the Angelo Badalamenti sound plays. It was made for DUPLICADE, a jam for short player versus player games where one person can win within 30 seconds.
This year's DUPLICADE is themed around games that feel like "outlaw flea" works, bizarre knockoffs and bootlegs mashed up from media properties real and imagined. See all the entries here.
Designer Robert Yang has done a suite of unique and challenging games recently, small but considered works on consent, embodiment and masculinity, among other themes. In Stick Shift you jerk off a car; Hurt Me Plenty is about consensual pain; Cobra Club is about dick pics in the era of state surveillance, and the new and complex Rinse and Repeat is about waiting til after your gym class to help wash a hunk who calls you "bro" and "pal", and who wears sunglasses in the shower.
These games are playful, funny, and sexy, and they provoke reflection and dialogue. Yang often reveals a thought process behind the technical decisions in his work that can be fascinatingly-congruent with the spiritual ones. But just four days after its release, Rinse and Repeat was banned from all broadcast on the online streaming community Twitch, just as Cobra Club previously was. Yang is among the most-banned developers on Twitch—perhaps an exciting status for an artist, but evidence of troubled standards for content.
Twitch rules say that while occurrences of nudity or sex acts in games are "okay, so long as you do not make them a primary focus of your stream," games with nudity as a "core focus or feature" are disallowed. Under this rule, video games that feature sexualized bodies (usually women) for titillation are okay to stream, but that Yang's work centers on the vulnerability of nudity in a consensual space and other meaningful issues apparently makes it obscene.
That means Twitch treats my games exactly the same as the disgusting RapeLay, a game that I won't even bother describing here. This equivocation is offensive to me, when I focus heavily on ideas of consent, boundaries, bodies, and respect in my games.
But what really pisses me off is that my games actually earn their nudity, and cannot function as artistic works without it. Then here comes Twitch, which argues that some blue alien chick boobs in Mass Effect are OK to broadcast because they're obviously there for some bullshit titillation? The totally unnecessary exploitative bullshit of Dead or Alive babes, or Metal Gear Solid's Quiet, is somehow more appropriate than a game about consensually scrubbing a guy's back? (While we're at it, let's add a dash of systemic homophobia into the mix.)
By contrast, Yang points out that services like YouTube and Vimeo have policies that allow for depictions of nudity and sexuality that have artistic, aesthetic or narrative intent. Twitch's policy as it stands unfortunately only emphasizes the pall of immaturity at best, homophobia at worst, that still hangs over "gaming culture" like cheeto dust.
It's especially disappointing as Twitch streaming can play a decisive role in the visibility and success of strange and unusual video games. A significant number of players, particularly younger ones, find out about new games by watching popular livestreamers and YouTubers (lots of whom have, oddly enough, become successful by essentially shouting obscenities at video games), and to restrict this crucial channel to conventional works seems harmful, as does the message that Yang's projects should be grouped in the same category as a "rape simulator" from Japan.
Yang suggests Twitch revise its policy to account for the context of the sexual imagery, and Offworld also hopes the company considers this. Nuance in the policy and case-by-case considerations of sexuality in games would show respect to the full breadth of our medium and its players.
If you're a Twitch user and you want to see Yang's games allowed to stream and this policy re-evaluated for all developers in the future, you can send a (respectful!) message via the company's customer service portal here.
Dorothy, Wendy and Alice are frenemies who disagree on everything, and it's breaking up their band, D.S.A (Dynamic Squid Antithesis). In a cool, handmade adventure game, you have to help the friends manage an increasingly surreal and trippy landscape full of rough style and offbeat humor.
D.S.A., by TheWaether, has been five years in the making. I love its intense strangeness (an ancient gramophone threatens to play "Rollin'" by Limp Bizkit at you; a wall of Harry Potters prevents you from entering the enchanted wood, a missile silo alludes to an R.E.M. concert) and its intentionally-rough, unique MSPaint graphics.
But it's just plain good fun as an adventure game; the main mechanic involves you switching among the three friends, with the actions each take affecting the situation of another friend. D.S.A. feels substantial to play, too—I've only just scratched the surface of it, really, and I'm being sucked in to its increasingly weird world.
Designer Adam Curtis has made a two-player flash game called NotDOBA, inspired by the aesthetics struck by 60s graphic designer Saul Bass.
Visually it looks as neat as you'd expect. Curtis says he hopes the turn-based two-player game will appeal to fans of fast-paced local multiplayer works like Samurai Gunn or Nidhogg. I hope Curtis changes the name—I don't know what NotDOBA is nor is it catchy!—but the developer says he's committed to the ongoing update works necessary for a game like this to find a persistent community.
SPL-T is a brand-new black-and-white puzzle game for iOS about the simplicity of splitting up space. You're compelled to touch and divide squares much in the way you create harmony out of the table rings left by a soda glass, or straight lines from a pile of spilled salt. It's impossible to stop playing with.
The core concept is very simple to grasp: Touch a square to split it. Your first touch creates a vertical line, your second a horizontal line, and then a vertical line again. This alternating arrangement lets you plan your dissection, and you aim to split the board as many times as possible before you run out of moves. Ultimately you're scored based on your number of splits while you make even grids—difficult to describe, but instantly sensible and evident to the hand and eye when you try it for yourself.
It's designed by Simogo, who is is my favorite mobile game developer. The two-person team is just as at home making visually-distinctive, narratively-driven works like Device 6 and The Sailor's Dream as they are with cute action games like Beat Sneak Bandit or Bumpy Road. Says the developer:
In many ways SPL-T is one of the most "purposeful" games we've made. Every tiny decision has had long discussions. We've weighed arguments against each other. We've put in and out features. Tested what feels like one million rules. A simple thing like removing the restart feature might seem like a miss – but it's deliberately not there, because we want every round of SPL-T to count. We want you to get better at it and get a deeper understanding for it every time you play it. We don't want you to look at online leaderboards at pointless numbers. We want you to talk to friends playing SPL-T, and we hope it will invite you to talk about strategies together.
The developer's crafty reputation has led many to suggest that there has to be more to SPL-T than meets the eye—after all, why should a game of black and white lines and minimal sound have a 69 MB file size? Pure puzzle endeavor or not, I recommend getting on board.
Them's Fighting Herds is an in-development 2D fighting game starring deer and sheep and alpacas and things kicking each other and using magic. I thought this sounded really niche for about 20 seconds until I looked at its fundraising page, and all of a sudden I was a twelve year-old girl again with my eyes turned to massive cartoon hearts.
I am clearly not alone; as I write this the game has raised over $100,000 in one day. Some of that is down to the fact the characters and universe are designed by Lauren Faust, creator of "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic". Clearly there is something about Faust's lovely hoofed mammals. I'm not saying I'm. on the verge of falling in love with a deer or going to a conference about it but, like, I can see that happening for others.
The character designs and fighting game lore for Them's Fighting Herds are adorable and imaginitive and while the $436,000 target is quite steep for game crowdfunding these days, big numbers can be done when you have superfans behind you, and when you promise hoofed mammal fans an interactive graphical lobby probably anything can happen.
Niall Moody has released an interesting mixed media project called Mount Pleasant Drive. Defined by the creator as a "broken audiovisual radio", you tune among sometimes dissonant, sometimes wonderfully harmonious sounds derived from the software itself, and a collage of acid-washed images shot around Glasgow gently hazes and shimmers before your eyes.
I've never been to Glasgow, but a location-specific audiovisual space genuinely appeals to me as a concept. If you could generate soundscapes solely out of images of your town, what would it be like? Mount Pleasant Radio makes it easy to engage in the fantasy of some staticky, magic old dial that you turn to get from place to place, from memory to memory, from the soul of one city to the next.
The art is by the talented Marie Cardouat, of Dixit fame, and backers have the option to support a musician who has donated musical accompaniment for players. It's so exciting that Kickstarter funds will enable this deservedly well-loved, unusual board game to thrive in a market that tends to demand less sentimental or more explicitly-themed works.
There are currently 7 days left for the campaign if you want to get one. The game will also see a limited release at the upcoming Essen Spiel 2015.
Mine is probably the last generation to have tangible memories evoked by the sight of a video tape. We can remember the clack and heft of them, the colored plastic, the rough white wheels and the forbidden, squeaking black tongues inside. The labels where you wrote down in marker or printer ink whatever flicker of time you'd frozen in the box.
Mystery Tapes is a wonderful, nostalgic neon space where staticky monitors sit in congress around a pile of 640 video cassettes. Their labels offer random-feeling names like CRY AND DOUBT or TABOO PHONE, and when you put one into a slot, a little bit of color, sound or shape springs to being in the world. You can put in three or four at a time and each tape has a unique contribution to the landscape. The combinations feel theoretically endless.
It was much more engaging to rifle through the heaps of tapes and try different ones together than I would have ever expected. CULTURAL SHOP, GENERAL TRUTH and SWEET FILL gave me the sound of lonesome whistling among buttery prisms. I could almost catch a whiff of that old Blockbuster smell—no, worse, the tiny shop in your local strip mall where you'd hang out after school. It was another time, and Mystery Tapes, free or pay-what-you-want, feels like an eternal portal to it.
Imagine your manly sporting class has just finished, and everybody—including that hunk you often admire—makes their way to the showers. What if… he asked you to help reach his back?
The hunk wears sunglasses in the shower and insists on calling you "pal" and "bro" even as you apparently enjoy an intimate minefield together. Immediately, Robert Yang's Rinse and Repeat makes you consider subtext and safety in this vulnerable public space. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the game is that to make "progress" with your shower buddy, you often have to wait in real time until "after class".
One of the first things you notice when you log into the game is a procedurally-generated schedule (macho classes with random names like "blood aerobics" and "combat yoga")—your first time, you have an hour after class to enjoy shower time with your hunk, and after that, you need to wait until the next day.
The waiting is effective at creating a sense of anticipation—imagine if you really were hoping for the chance to knock at the door of intimacy with someone, one gym class at a time? The days and hours would seem interminable. But on his developer blog, Yang says that as a game mechanic, waiting is inherently submissive, and in that respect Rinse and Repeat is something like a subversion of his spanking game Hurt Me Plenty (read about it here).
The world is dark save for a faint horizon. You can hear a low, sonorous hum, a wavelength of music lying low, waiting to be born. You gently nudge one single node, and thin spines of light twinkle into being along a rolling hill. With them, color enters the sound you hear; you touch another node, and the suggestions of alien clouds sprout in your sky, bringing with them a low and laughing bass impression. Turn the sparkle up, and the thin spines along the landscape sprout into something like flowers. (more…)
The clown ambles through a pale, sweet but cheerless city, where residents mope, mourn and preach to the sidewalks, lost in their troubles. The clown wants to give them hugs. They all hate clowns.
I've never understood our cultural fear of clowns. From the time I was small I've felt the twang of empathy for the painted, mournful funnymen, the way their bright-colored clothing seemed to contrast with the work of earnest self-humiliation—pies in the face, squirting flowers, falling down—for laughs. My French grandmother gave me a porcelain mime figure whose cheek was painted with a tear. I would stare at it til I felt like crying myself.
The game is called Dropsy, after an old-timey term for heart-related water retention, and stars a large nonverbal clown apparently of the same name, who constantly grins as if he were in pain. Any place he may lie down to sleep, he has strange dreams. It's a "point and click adventure" in the loose sense—you explore the world and resolve problems by coupling objects with destinations or people—but it feels to me more like exploring an emotional landscape, sketched in the colors of sidewalk chalk, at some turns touching and at others grotesque and sad.
When you start the game in Dropsy's tent, you see things set out for the birthday of a girl we assume is his only friend, a crayon drawing he has made her for an annual gift. Your first goal is to bring her present to the graveyard where you're told she can be found. Oh. She's in the graveyard. Right.
There are no words in the game. Even when you think there ought to be, like when there are signs to read or when messages of success and reward flash on the screen, the language is invented and unfamiliar, words and letters like alien balloon-animals twisted together before your eyes. The downcast citizens of Dropsy's town express themselves in visual shorthand that cycles through speech bubbles over their heads: They feel blue, they are lonely, hungry, too hot, bored, stoned. They will often "say" a picture of Dropsy's face with a great DO NOT circle and cross over it. Authority figures ward Dropsy away with angry squiggles and bright, intransible exclamations.
This means figuring out the needs of others is part of the game's gentle puzzle. The music, a sort of unusual pastel jazz (by the wonderful Chris Schlarb), is perfect: It wholly captures the melancholy of having only a simple person's small hope in a big world full of twinkie devourers, expensive prescriptions and do-not-enter signs. The sun also moves across the sky as you explore, meaning sometimes it is dawn or daytime, and sometimes it is evening or late at night. Characters move and obstacles appear and disappear depending on the time period; the lady preacher you find in the church by day can be found smoking lonesomely atop the children's slide in the playground at night.
What made Caillebotte's work unsettling to those already disdainful of the Impressionist wave was that unlike his contemporaries, Caillebotte was showing how old methods could be used to tackle new subjects in a stunningly expressive way. None of Monet's hazy studies in color for him, nor Seurat's pointillist moods; he painted modern Paris as if he were painting a Greek god.
What does this have to do with game design? Consider the fact that the methods and visions of games like Journey, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Gone Home, Sunset, and Dear Esther all use tools derived from the "triple-A," big-budget market—the domain of tradition-bound games—to tell new stories about new people, in the process creating something stunningly different.
Cross writes at length about how independent game developers have done interesting things in smaller games by using the creative techniques and tools of some "higher-end", bigger game-makers, just like some avant-garde impressionists once did. It's particularly useful to compare the arc of game development to that of art history, since this field, being both young and insular, tends to have a short memory, frequently re-treading the same lessons.
We Know The Devil is a visual novel about three friends consigned to a miserable Christian summer camp. Eventually they'll have to confront the Devil, which might just be allegorical for how, in a group of three, two will always bond a little more closely.
The game is written and designed by Aevee Bee of ZEAL fame, with art by the wonderful Mia Schwartz. I'm a sucker for the nostalgic aesthetic, which sees 90s-style photography and grunge art mashed up with the "magical girl story" influences of anime like Sailor Moon, plus a synth soundtrack by Alec Lambert.
And the concept is neat: The unpleasant summer camp, populated by unbearably-normal staff and grating peers, seems to be a place where the bad kids (being particularly in need of discipline, possibly also considered disposable) get exiled in order to do combat with the Devil. Remember your adolescent summers, and the strangely-intense interrelationships and betrayals of that age? The things that happened among all of you without you ever really understanding: That felt like devilry, didn't it?
The game makes some unusual choices with the visual novel format that suggest to me it's more suited to people who 'speak this language' already, or who have a lot of experience with the roles and arcs of these kinds of games. For example, where normally you'd be guiding a character toward your own ideal romantic outcome, here you don't 'play as' anyone—you act as a sort of unseen arbiter, choosing who to get to know, choosing who should go with whom. Without the anchoring concept of 'being a person' with your own objective, I found myself wishing the game (as more conventional visual novels do) took its time to ground me in the world and circumstance, and that it introduced me to the characters more directly, by drawing their traits one at a time through behavior and description, rather than through quick-cycling among snippets of their nature.
I think the game's use of non-essential dialogue (neither necessarily characterizing someone nor moving the story or highlighting its theme) makes you feel like you're watching strangers Tweet amongst themselves, which is an interesting choice, but skipping between so many quick bites among three people before you've had time to know and distinguish them can make it sometimes confusing to read, follow and invest in. I had to make my first pairing choice long before I had an idea, beyond broad visual strokes, of what kind of person each character was.
What the game excels at, though, is creating unique, believable characters that make just the right canvas for "shipping" with one another or other visual novel characters, or for doing fanfic and fanart about (and from what I've seen on social media, people are already doing this).
People do absolutely amazing things with video games. As for Grand Theft Auto V itself, I thought it felt like an essay in aging and complacency. But often when creators won't push boundaries, fans will, so long as you give them the tools.
Someone has shot and edited the entire intro of True Detective in Grand Theft Auto V—reproduced it using in-game footage and then put it together using After Effects. Here is the fan-made version: