How come we find these crunchy, glitchy outdated artistic modes so endearing? I’m no ontologist, and as much as I would love to write out a treatise on hauntology to explain this fascination, instead we’ll focus on how we got stuck in this creative mobius strip and how to get out of it.
In the current era of design trends we often forget how compelling gameplay, in the same vein as a story, relies on the framework built by context, the cumulative effect of our efforts throughout a campaign, or a cleverly addictive loop of mechanics.
It’s the idea that being skilled at the gameplay isn’t enough, a player must interlace their quick-witted maneuvers with an overall vision for masterful execution of the gameplay: The Metagame
Part interactive fiction, part audio drama, part exploratory game. In the Pause between the Ringing is a fascinating journey into the ontological impact of colonial occupation and resource exploitation through the lens of magical realism. Not only exploring what it means to be seized by hostile corporate overlords, but the ensuing effect upon a language, a culture, and the places that form in its wake.
Commissioned by the Victoria And Albert Museum’s Design/Play/Disrupt program, Pause is a bleak reminder of the not-too-distant past, when the English and Dutch crowns extended their tendrils across every continent and encircled the world. At the core of these imperialistic ambitions was economic innovation and exploitation of natural resources without any regard for the local populace.
Rainstorm EP is a cozy little collaborative piece by Jake Grizzly Pierce and Jakey Mumfie. Its soft pixel rain soothes the spirit with tunes you find buried inside various objects. It’s a game that asks you take a small moment out of your day, put work down, and interact with something that doesn’t overly demand your attention.
It’s a gentle massage for the eyes and ears that relieves some stress and helps to center the player. Tiny pieces of world-building comments help build its atmosphere both during and after discovering tape collection hotspots. Muddled visuals give way to short, varied audio vignettes crafted with love, leaving a feeling that this is less a game, and more of an artistic jam session.
One more job shouldn’t have mattered. I’d killed nobles before. You could float a whaling ship on the high-born blood I’ve spilled. Another nobles steps in to replace the last one. All equally corrupt. Why should an Empress be different? But she was. I watched her bodyguard’s face as they took him away. Dead eyes. I knew I’d pay for this one, and maybe I deserved to. A storm was coming that would shake apart everything I’d built.
– Daud, Knife Of Dunwall’s opening narration
At the time of Dishonored’s release there was a consensus among many who’d finished it that the story was missing something, and Corvo’s nature as a silent protagonist certainly didn’t help to reduce this impression.
It wasn’t until I had spent time with the well-received Knife Of Dunwall DLC that the game felt anywhere near close to the vision promised by the original release of Dishonored. I didn’t exactly think that DLC would change much beyond adding a few extra hours to the game, padding out the world a little, and tweaking some mechanics, but I was very wrong.
Thief, Thief! What a great set of games that so many of us are familiar with. But I’m not here to talk about the immersive gameplay, the thoughtful stealth mechanics or the incredible level design of any of the entries.
No, I’m here to discuss something often neglected at the hands of critical analysis. The narrative. I largely regard Thief as a franchise to have one of the most thematically satisfying arcs in any game trilogy I have ever played. Everyone loves Garrett, the titular Master Thief, but few talk about the game’s amazing cast of villains and antagonistic factions.
The City in Thief is a living, breathing environment that is both timeless yet clearly present. An anachronistic city-state bubble in a medieval flavored era, it presents an atmosphere not too far off from the tech-fantasy realm portrayed in The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind.
The hand of The Builder is in the smallest nail, the tiniest gear, if they be worked well. The hand of The Builder is in the tallest tower, the grandest bridge, if they be worked well.
Sven Co-op is almost old enough to drink in the US, having recently hit it’s 20th anniversary this past week.
Sven has a special place in my heart, it was the core bonding ritual of myself and many others during our younger days. Friends from other gaming communities would meet together in a plethora of maps, stretching from banal puzzle solving dungeon crawlers to absurd scenario based maps. Sven was outlandish and highly pulpy, at times coming off as a cross between Mixed Media and Video Games. Whatever tools and assets a level designer had at their disposal were fair use, and it was open season on the most exaggerated, cartoonish elements of the Half-Life mod universe.
Taking a night drive down the Columbia Gorge in Washington is an often mystical experience, the ambiance of cruising through heavy rain or passing moonlit pines propels you to another world. Games are no stranger to driving sequences, but developers are starting to use this as a vehicle for narrative instead of a simple gameplay set-piece.
Silverstring Media‘s Glitchhikers was a pleasantly cozy segue into night driving games. It’s a simple setup where you switch between lanes instead of focusing on the throttle, and this decision to make driving a more passive experience opens you up to explore the car as an environment of it’s own. It’s no longer a second-skin for your protagonist to get from one segment to another, but now a true space of its own.
Venturing further down the game’s enchanted interstate your vision becomes glitchy, alerting you to the arrival of a stowaway. These passengers materialize in and out of the seat whilst imparting unsolicited observations and philosophical conundrums to your weary ears. It’s a wonderful magical-realism piece that captures the essence of roadway meditation on life’s biggest questions. I grew rather fond of the dialogue system and often even goaded my friends into playing it in front of me as a makeshift Rorschach inkblot test.
A few years later, Arbitrary Metric‘s Paratopic decided to make heavy use of its own dry dusk-and-evening driving sequences peppered throughout the game. A synthesizer arrangement drifting from the radio offers up a Wendy Carlos homage and a moment of reflective respite between the game’s jump-cuts to break up the pacing. Similarly to Glitchhikers, a glance to the side would offer you a puzzling shift in the contents of your passenger seat. This visual trick helped to further the feel of a disjointed narrative delivered non-linearly from a potentially unreliable narrator, creating a sense of unease that makes you question the story’s already erratic jumps even more. (Disclosure: Arbitrary Metric’s Jessica Harvey is a contributor for Rebind but was not involved with this piece)
But not every game has to or will utilize driving the same way; Sea Green Games‘ upcoming TRANSMISSION seems like it will offer a pure low key cruising experience. Across moonlit nights and rain-slicked roads, synthesizers illuminate your ears as the neon lights do the same for your eyes. And as Glitchhikers proved, there’s plenty of room for Proteus style experiences. If we drive to relax in real life, why not in a game?
Even without true driving sequences, Kentucky Route Zero gives the player a similar experience of a waking dream while exploring uncharted territory on forgotten maps. It’s enough to pull you into the same feeling you get chasing ghosts down haunted highways and old service roads. And at the next turnoff, you’ll never know what you might discover about yourself.
Why modern mainstream FPS games flee from the demons of their forebears
Running through hallways. Low on health, out of ammo, not knowing if the next corner would lead me to the salvation of a health pack, or to a horde of demons ready to slam dunk a fireball down my throat with no way left to fight back. Haggard, tense, tired.
This was my experience with Doom in the 90s, and one I’ve found sadly lacking across the last decade of mainstream games, replaced instead with regenerating health, demons that explode like piñatas of goodies, and a misplaced sense of near-immortality. Games, unlike any other medium, provide unique experiences at the intersection of story, setting, and mechanics, but it’s a fundamental shift in mechanics across the medium that is responsible for this spiral from horror to god complex.
And if they weren’t regarded as such by most, why should you care?
Several decades of game development certainly hasn’t. A lack of mainstream artistic acceptance is yet to stop people from developing their artistic vision with discipline and integrity, applying it toward refining gameplay and turning it into exploratory pop-art pieces for their audience.
In 2010, Roger Ebert challenged the industry at large, standing his ground with his statement, “Video games can never be art,” and a shock subsequently cascaded forth. At the time, there was much debate over precisely what this meant. For him then, it seemed to be that the medium had failed to engage or move him as broadly as film could do, even for someone who had never seen a movie. Many seemed taken aback, viewing it as a personal attack. Their reading of Ebert’s statement culminated in the notion that game *creation* wasn’t an artform.