What is the act of play? When presented with a game, is play the participation of the so-called “player” within structures created for them, acting within the choreographed dance laid out before them? Is play the moments in between, where improvisation takes hold, and the unexpected occurs? Is play the times in which you stop clinging to control, to perceived notions of input and action, to simply be within whatever world it is you’ve chosen to delve?
The crisp refreshing taste of a fresh pear hitting your tastebuds, while the winter wind bites your face. Good Morning, Drifters by @lowpolis is an exercise in appreciating the little things and the picturesque memories we make with friends.
With no dialogue choices, linear paths, nor open worlds to explore for mysteries or tragedies, it would be a disservice classify Drifters so crudely as a “walking simulator” when it politely asks you to engage, instead, as a passive observer. It is so often that we find ourselves as passive actors in our own social lives, crippled by the same anxiety that has befallen poor nervous Dandelion. Drifters is a game that emphasizes the connections that you make with people, where activities are framed simply as a delightful backdrop.
What defines the self? A name? A role? The tasks we are set to? What others perceive us to be? What we perceive ourselves to be? Or perhaps something more? This question has possibly plagued mankind more throughout the ages than any other, but it defines a key conflict in the world of OFF in which we emerge fully-formed, and find our existence immediately questioned. As we begin we find ourselves perceived as little more than a figment of the imagination of a humble cat.
Horror, a genre known for having as many pitfalls as there are fall-prone protagonists, and one that is notoriously hard to integrate into video games. While there are countless examples of Horror done poorly across all media, games present a slew of challenges very specific to the medium which are far too often not taken into account during development, leading to lackluster Horror title upon lackluster Horror title. This is apparent enough that some commentators have even come to eschew the title of Horror game, opting instead for Horror themed game.
Among the retro-throwbacks of the current indie renaissance, first-person shooters harkening to the golden era of id and Build engine titles are up there as one of the most commonly occurring iterations on a genre. They tend to be an easy format to recreate: hand the player an armory of guns then turn them loose on a labyrinth of gnarled hallways and rooms stuffed to the brim with enemies lying in wait. Varied enemy types are mix-and-matched in myriad hordes thrown at the protagonist, the interplay between their varying tactics forcing you to stay on your toes as you adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
You have fun twists on the genre with games like STRAFE and Tower of Guns throwing rogue-lite procgen into the mix, or simply hardcore returns to form with something akin to DUSK. There’s bullet-hell injected MOTHERGUNSHIP, as well as arcade styled Devil Daggers. Of course, along with the overwhelming amount of solid titles fleshing out the FPS space, one can explore more experimental takes on ripping and tearing with things such as DRL, which reimagines DOOM as a pure rogue-like experience. Further down that path, there’s modding tool ZKVN which turns the engine into a host for visual novels.
In 2019, to pan for gold in an endless river of free Web-playable Unity releases, one can simply query itch.io. A decade ago, however, there was no such bounty. In fact, in 2008, Unity was only about three years old, and its expansion beyond Mac exclusivity was still fresh in the memories of those who were paying attention at that point. One had to actively seek out releases akin to those that make up today’s cornucopia. Discovery was far less centralised, much as it was for self-released music before Bandcamp made a name for itself (The story of how game soundtracks gave Bandcamp a significant popularity boost is for another time). Back then, it certainly felt as though a larger proportion of discoveries in “neat little games” came by chance, word of mouth, email, or one of many diverse aggregators.
Of course, to be clear, the engine doesn’t strictly matter. Naming Unity is rather: first, to evoke the meta-genre of “neat little games”, by way of the rapid prototyping such platforms permit; second, the setup to a coincidence of microcosmic scale. Unity Web games these days compile to something that can run natively in the browser; back then, it was the now-deprecated Unity Web Player, akin to Flash Player. Enter the “neat little Web-playable Unity game that turns out to be something truly magical”, hailing from a decade before you had a constant stream of that. Enter a path to popularity characteristically idiosyncratic of the era, a game that held top place for a month in, get this, Apple’s Dashboard widgets directory. Enter… Mars Explorer.
The original Moon Patrol was a 1982 arcade game from Irem, likely best known for introducing parallax scrolling . The player operates a buggy, which drives through a sidescrolling landscape while jumping or shooting from its dual cannons, simultaneously firing above and in front of itself. Between jumping and shooting, the player is equipped to take care of myriad lunar dangers, such as UFOs, boulders, or pits. It’s quite fun (and readily playable to this day anywhere from the Switch to MAME), although, being an arcade game, it’s obviously designed to be hard in a way that extracts maximum coinage from patrons.
As with many arcade titles of the time, it found its way onto just about every 8-bit home computer, including the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the TI-99/4A, the TRS-80, and even the IBM PC. However, again, just like its arcade contemporaries, every single port was awful. 37 years later, however, thanks to video gaming’s rich culture of nostalgia, it now has a good home computer release! Enter Yok‘s Moon Patrol.
Long ago, in the era of Netscape and Internet Explorer, I would spend hours surfing the net trying to find any sort of MMO that, A) could run on my brick of a computer, and B) was free. World of Warcraft and Everquest were the biggest thing around, the novelty of online communities uniting so many around common goals. I would pore over articles on Asheron’s Call, Star Wars: Galaxies, Final Fantasy XI, Ragnarok Online… For every game out there, it had another ten beside it, veritable hydras housing universes inside of them.
In a far-flung future, cyber-laden Vapor Trails from developer sevencrane (@sevencrane) presents a sidescrolling action game oozing with style. Weaving a plot of intrigue and mystery, the player fills the shoes of Val, part of a robotic line known as Valkyries, thrown out to waste away in The Deeps for being too adaptable. Your abilities take you far, though, as you find yourself working your way back to the surface for revenge.
The basic premise thus far is that you pan around a single-area point-and-click environment, looking for characters or artifacts, ultimately in the service of acquiring musical instruments. You then go through the magic door in a free-standing wall, back to your boundless isometric white room, where you set down these instruments and configure them. Some allow you to write a melody. Others are droning instruments where you just select a pitch; others yet are drums, which let you tweak their sound and step-sequence them. They all sync up, and the general course you take is finding one instrument, setting it how you like, and returning to the point-and-click environment, where the means to uncover yet another instrument have just been unlocked. You go back to your room, make your loop a little more interesting with another instrument, then repeat until you’ve found every instrument the game offers thus far.
The instruments themselves sound quite pleasant, although the granularity of sequencing is a little limited if you’re trying to do anything rhythmically complex. Then again, this is just a toy, and a truly charming one at that. Beyond the fun that can be had composing, and nearly anything with a little thought put into it sounding decent since the instruments are almost all in the same key, it’s such a delightful world to poke around on the other side of the door. The way interactable elements animate under your cursor, the strangeness of the conversations and of the characters’ desires for trades, the faint hint of your loop that you can hear coming from the door when you’re outside, and the stylistic contrast between the grayscale “outside” and the stark monochrome “inside” all make for an experience that’s candy for the eyes as much as it is for the ears.
It’s a great little prototype so far, and I look forward to what may come of further iteration. If I had to give one piece of feedback, it would be that it could do with some optimisation, as even natively it has a tendency to lag, which can really suspend disbelief when the animations of the instruments desync from the audio.