I play a lot of freeware games. I start to pick up on trends. Many of them come about out of convenience. A lot of free games are products of a jam and so a straightforward production pipeline is essential. I guess game jams work as an excuse to make a game not “good” enough to meet expectations of a typical game release, so they proliferate as the largest modern genre of freeware. Which is whatever, a lot of game design demands a short length, but the videogame economy does not. Game jams are unfortunately effective.
There’s a narrative trend that I don’t know how to describe in a snappy way. I do know once I start describing it, like, most people who’ve been around these scenes will know what I’m talking about. It’s just unacknowledged with any kind of specific name. Crucially, I’m talking about games that try harder than is needed to mean something. Videogames that hit you over the head with their intention, in a way that I don’t think is motivated by being blunt or obvious. Game design in the vein of Passage, where it’s more important to make a statement about the present value of videogames. Prioritizing commentary on expectation-value than much more affecting expression. I guess videogames inevitably asserted they’re not toys in a way as annoying as possible, because the inverse discourse really is and was that annoying. Ennui has to be sincere before it can be excised.
Every message that gets written here feels kind of lost once it’s passed. Here’s another one.
Support Art, Make Games, Write, Tell Someone You Care
Typical shmups ask a player to (albeit in simplified form) pilot an aircraft. They present wars of impossible odds, in which a skilled individual defends, well, something. This kind of really obvious framing is something I might take for granted, though because it’s a strong tradition, it has an especially clear expressive goal. I hesitate to call it a power fantasy because most shmups really do have impossible odds. This framing may be alarmist and reactionary, but they are, at least, coherent within their expressed intent, by expressing near impossibility with extreme difficulty.
rRootage doesn’t have any sort of straightforward thematic framing device while remaining clear and communicative. You pilot a pixel surrounded by wireframes that fires a giant laser at a shape-like assemblence that emits a collage of shapes. It’s quite beautiful actually, makes me want to be writing about that instead (maybe in the coming weeks…). Without representative graphics drawing connections to real life counterparts, I feel a hyperfocus on the play loop. I think about what the gliding movement feels like to me, I think about the lines I have access to, I’m focused on the peaks & valleys of stress and emotion a shmup incites in me.
a bit on frustrations in smaller critical spheres, but mostly, the games ANODYNE (2013) and EVEN THE OCEAN (2016). it’s fun stuff let’s get it
I kinda paused at the idea of making a videogame as a gift. A short pause. I know there’s really nothing wrong with that. Surely it’s as personal as anything, and I think I’d enjoy being on either side of such a gift. That reluctance isn’t my own, it’s absorbed from being in games. A sense of what games can do and what they’re for pushes away meaningful expressions dedicated to someone else. It feels like this because videogames are always polishing, always focus testing, always trying to reach as a broad an audience as possible. Can something like that truly reflect an individual?
Nelly Cootalot: Spoonbeaks Ahoy! is a stranger game than it would normally feel like, because it was made as a gift to the developer’s girlfriend. Nelly, the protagonist, was made in her likeness. A pretty clearly masculine Spoonbeaks Ahoy is not explicitly romantic, the author’s nevertheless romantic interest spends a majority of play time outsmarting portrayed-as-vain and material-obsessed women. There’s a feeling of crypto-sexism because the, male writer, accents how much more special Nelly is compared to other women and even other characters in general. His motivations are really transparent. From a mile away, it’s obvious how an expression of “you’re not like other women” is degrading, undercuts solidarity, though it’s used so frequently in fictional romantic contexts.
In TIMEframe, players catalogue a civilization’s culture before imminent meteor destruction. The last ten seconds unfold over ten real-life minutes. Landmarks stand as monuments to their influences, established ideas, and important pieces of history. After ten minutes pass, the meteor strikes and the player starts again searching for relics they haven’t found yet. Each discovery will provide a note about its importance. Here is the bare, slightly underground monument to nihilism, and its explanation. Here is a triumphant statue, and the short manifesto abandoning fear and proclaiming truth.
What makes this so effective is a mystical vocabulary which builds the people’s voice, lending them a culture deeper than their props. It makes the civilization feel materially different than our own history. As I found more messages, I was able to decrypt their ways of speech, and understand references to other notes. Just as literature doesn’t conveniently define each term as it’s used, neither does TIMEframe. Slowly, a narrative forms: the story of a civilization hyper-aware of its possible extinction from its beginning. How people fear, reflect, and build on this—and their reaction when it comes again as a meteor in the end of times. The text is dense, but the format lends understanding. Altogether, there is probably only a page or two of text throughout the game. The spaces you find these notes do much of the expression. Long stretches of sand fill up the world, leaving time for reflection, and adding a sense of anticipation to each figure you see in the distance.