A few years ago, I fell in love with the new wave of absurdist visual novels and playful experimental indies that threw you into a mineshaft of underground internet culture, littered with call-backs to unfamiliar cinema, and obscure jokes sourced from message boards or video services outside of the west like NicoNico.
Remix culture titles introduced their audience to a new cultural pantheon gilded with drama that often managed to pull at your heartstrings and immersing you in a narrative deeper than the comedic tone. Sonoshee’s (@sonoshit) Critters For Sale left me reflecting on the framework established by earlier visual novels Dog Of Dracula and its sequel that heavily leveraged the same style of satirical commentary.
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.
Masahiro Ito (known for his work on Silent Hill) has created an incredibly delightful macabre wasteland setting, called Acid Buffer Zone, realized in models and paint, absolutely deserves a presence in video games.
If that isn’t enough artistic inspiration for you this weekend, take a look at the works of painters Boris Groh, and Keith Thompson
The Global Game Jam for 2019 is happening next week, find a local event in your area and participate!
At a glance, Noir mystery stealth title Dollhouse gives the impression of having overlap with The Ship but with a procedurally generated single-player twist. Multiplayer seems to revolve around the player being assigned targets with an interesting perspective-switching mechanic involved. Certainly worth a look closer to launch to see how the unique gameplay unfolds.
Retro-esque Rogue-Like Haque is on sale and seems like a fun time if you enjoy ASCII-Flavored tactics games.
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.
(Content Warning: Given the heavy themes of self-harm, nihilism, and death in some of these titles, please proceed with caution if you don’t have an appetite for such themes. We will provide individual content warnings per title, as some are not as heavy.)
Writing about games is particularly pleasant because it forces you to discover little-known gems. Games previously overlooked now become the focal point of an in-depth analysis which adds to the appreciation of the task at hand.
SYSCRUSHER is one of those gems, punctuated by lo-fi cyberpunk visuals without any reservations or ego, a style complemented by primitive synths, artificial voices, and diode-lined hallways. It comes from the mind of Maine Indie Developer Dirigo Games (@Dirigo_Games), A developer previously known for Minotaur-’em-up Depths of Fear :: Knossos.
Vikintor (@vf_vikintor on twitter) is a Brazilian indie developer cranking out some of the most visually haunting art I’ve seen in recent memory. His upcoming game is a Japanese inspired platformer with macabre body horror visuals easily associated with the stylings of Tetsuo: The Iron Man or famous contemporary horror manga artist Junji Ito.
Vikintor’s first game was the Virtual Boy inspired Dungeon Crawler “Ritualistic Madness”. Set up as a “found footage” re-release of an unsettling game dredged up from obscurity, Ritualistic Madness pulls you in right from the start. The straightforward design of the levels and easy to grasp controls lures the player into a sense of comfort before the horror creeps in. You realize quickly you aren’t the only thing moving in the maze, and it’s a race against time to quickly find all the keys and navigate to the exit before you’re run down.
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.