i went to china / it was dumb / people are fake / we’re all going to die

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 thisand 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.

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Our Stage

Moirai presents a simple situation: a woman is missing from a small village. Despite being a 3D game, there are no mouse controls. The arrow (or WASD) keys rotate the camera and move the player forward or backward. The unfamiliar scheme combined with the low resolution makes the game feel oddly claustrophobic. After conversing with a few denizens and poking some sheep, I grab a lamp and go searching for the woman in a cave. A character suggests I take their knife for protection, who knows what could happen. My lamp and knife hanging over the camera draw out an uncomfortable dread of what might come. My character rotates too slow to comfortably traverse the winding paths of the cave. Around a corner I’m surprised by a farmer covered in blood and holding a knife and lamp.

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The Climaxes of Undertale

A climax is when every bit of foreshadowing, each side interaction, and the main attractions steer into one focal point. A fantastic conclusion will sear into my mind, long after I’ve parted ways. However, in many genres it will come down to a half-hearted, misplaced boss battle, maybe a big enemy with extra health points. It comes off as a vague obligation, to do this thing that everything else does, this thing that’s supposed to be done before a game is allowed to end. An effective dramatic climax is fueled by irreconcilable philosophies, individuals caught in their unshakable personal beliefs to do what they think is right. The audio and visuals will reflect the importance of the moment. I think a sure way to hone this, to go beyond effective, is to subvert established mechanics to forge a climax.

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Gods Will Be Watching, the Ontology of a Videogame

Gods Will Be Watching is certainly a videogame. Its challenges are systematic, filled with rote systems to be measured and understood. The game values these challenges highly, despite not necessarily forcing you to feel the same. The characters inexplicably, but endearingly, explain the rules of the systems. Its pixel art isn’t “traditional,” but has an inarguable lineage in the medium of videogames. It has a “morally gray” story to let the player exude agency in interpretation, using ridiculously high stakes involving billions of lives. The soundtrack is best described as an epic score. I say these things without scorn, to make clear how rooted it is in common videogame structures.

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The Beauty of Thief Gold

I first played Thief Gold because it has a vague reputation of being an ‘important classic. It’s the first game to bring traditional stealth mechanics into 3D, supposedly laying out blueprints for all of its successors. In that regard, the game is done very well, with reactive guards, gradients of light to shade yourself, and different levels of noise that will give yourself away. It’s honestly surprising that so much is implemented so well on the first pass at a stealth game. But what really impressed me in Thief was the experimental levels and aesthetic.

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Dustforce and the Rose of Mastery

Over the last few years I’ve picked up and dropped Dustforce several times. I always tried to top my own times and utilize a few improved strategies, but I never got too deeply into it. I would marvel at the top replay’s perfection, it was unrecognizable from my own play. The minute optimizations flew right over my head, all I could understand was pure speed. I thought macros would be required to play at such a level, so I wrote it off as not really worth it. Eventually though, I looked deeper into it, which opened pandora’s box.

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Pathologic & Player Relations

Pathologic opens with its three playable characters arguing on a stage. They present themselves and their cause, slander the others, then wait in darkened silence while the player chooses which to play as. Shortly after choosing, the player is visited by an otherworldly masked duo. These beings are terribly out of place, but somehow hold an unquestioned presence. They refer to the player as an actor, and inform them of the rules of the play (that is, the mechanics of the game). A theater is the very heart of this town, and is central to the game’s themes. Pathologic has a meta-awareness, that there’s a player, an actor, wandering around inside of it. It remains one of the least player-friendly experiences I’ve had.

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Walkthroughs Are Power

Videogame spaces can be infinite. Within, a player can move in any direction, in countless combinations. At its core, a videogame is a sort of abstracted ruleset, a limitation on how the player can experience. The specifics of these rules, and what must be done to progress within them is a constant communication with the player. This information can take the form of an elemental weakness of an enemy, the bounds and contents of a room, or an esoteric clue to a puzzle. Some players are bound to misinterpret, or plainly miss information altogether. A videogame’s abstractions will lead some players following along in step, and others stuck. The simplest, most obvious solutions to one player can come off as the most contrived to another. This is not a failing of the player, this is not a failing of the game. In fact, this is not a failing at all. This is inevitable.

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A Selection of Squinky’s Fabulous Games

Des Rêves Élastiques Avec Mille Insectes Nommés Georges (DREAMING, or french for “elastic dreams with a thousand insects named george”) was created in 2008, using crowdsourced art. Each scene has a vastly different art style, strung together by cartoon Dietrich (Squinky) Squinkifer themself wondering between them. The game opens with Squinky voicing their disillusionment with dreaming, disappointment that they dream of falling instead of flying. They rationalize that it’s because they’re a pessimist – or perhaps a realist. Scenes in the game are short and succinct, varying from heartwarming encounters with old friends, a breakup, the surreal, and even discomforting attacks on work, individual appearance, and videogames. At the end of our short journey Squinky’s voice returns and tells us their dreams aren’t normally this interesting, asking why they can’t be – what’s wrong with them. Then it flashes to Fin, and the game closes itself.

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On Jedi Knight III

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy is an action game exploring the growth of jedi and jedi power. The player creates their own avatar and becomes an apprentice to the jedi academy. A friend, rival, and co-apprentice is Rosh Penin, a competitive dork who gets in the way of training and missions. The protagonist is often passive aggressive toward Rosh, as a written character instead of being a cipher, and is less forgiving than I wanted. Rosh in his brash arrogance begins to be mystified by the power of the dark side. As a friend, it comes down to the apprentice to fight and try to stop him from joining the antagonists. Rosh is saved by the dark jedi, so the matter is yet to be resolved.

A distress signal comes through as Rosh is supposedly being held captive. When found he’s sorry, scared, and reaches out for help. The apprentice leaps to a different conclusion, wary of Rosh, all existing tensions between the two coming to an ugly point. It feels like he’s setting up a trap. While he begs for life, the story splits into two. The latent anger and unforgiving ways can be overcome, Rosh can be forgiven and accepted again. Or become blind with rage.

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