This month’s reading from The Greate Historie of Computer Game Purchafses in the Yeare 2016 (page 569 in your hymnal):
1/26/16, The Witness is gifted to me and I play it immediately. Wrote it up at the time.
2/11/16, freebie on GOG:
• Consortium (2014): Interdimensional Games (Vancouver, BC) [8 hours]
Extraordinarily weird experience! Free-roam murder mystery on a Star Trek super-jet in an alternate reality future, into which you the actual player are ostensibly being Source Code/Quantum Leap-ed BY THIS GAME. I say lots of things feel like dreams, but this really feels like a dream: Mazey exaggeration of an indoors-while-outdoors environment. Loose story logic and slippery identity/self-awareness issues juxtaposed with “pay close attention” whodunit. Social chitchat uncanny valley. Past-future-present mishmosh. Incongruous bursts of horror and/or orchestral grandeur within a placid context. I could go on! It’s going to stick with me even though it’s clunky and buggy. It had that special, vague pressure that I feel in my dreams: not actual fear but some even more basic emotion that contributes to it and is rarely experienced by itself in waking life. Primal uncertainty, like what I imagine a dog feels in a new place.
2/15/16, “Humble Ubisoft Bundle”: $1 gets me the three games on the lowest tier. Can’t remember why I did this! I think it was pure compulsion. $1.
• Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (2013): Techland (Ostrów Wielkopolski, Poland) [12 hours]
A rail shooter without rails, which is a neat idea in theory; a little silly in practice. For the first half hour I took it to be an FPS-adventure like Half-Life, but so infuriating and repetitive that I was on the point of quitting. Then I realized that contrary to all the 3D freedom it offered, it actually wanted to be treated like a classic shooting gallery game (for example, this one that I played at a friend’s house in 1989). After that it basically won me over in spite of myself. “Headshots” in games make me wince, but apparently not so much that I won’t do them a thousand times in a row. The scenery was very pretty, and the whack-a-mole gameplay felt nicely old-fashioned; the combination of rich environment and simple arcade business became a pleasure, despite the carnage. “Why does Kevin Roberts have friends and a storyline?”
• Grow Home (2015): Ubisoft Reflections (Newcastle, England) [3 hours]
Quirky but monotonous game about making a floppy little polygonal robot climb a growing polygonal beanstalk all the way to the polygonal heavens by alternating his suction cup-py hands, human fly style. One shimmering endless chord-o’-wonder is all you get for music, and gameplay to match. It’s supposed to be “relaxing” and “cute” and “magical.” I’ll grant that it gives a feeling, but I found the feeling to be mostly lonely and empty, and it was distinctly un-relaxing to worry that the finicky little robot might lose his grip at any time and fall from the stratosphere to his death, undoing many minutes of progress. (Which happened repeatedly.) I like the dreamy spirit of sunlit simplicity and spatial exploration, but why did it have to be this space? Also it made my thumbs hurt from clinging on for dear life the whole time.
• Rayman Origins (2011): Ubisoft Montpellier (Castelnau-le-Lez, France) [16 hours]
Cartoon platformer with fabulously smooth animation and responsiveness. A real pleasure to watch it zoink and boink on the screen. I think Donkey Kong Country Returns still stands as my favorite in this genre, but this is a very strong showing indeed. Impeccable technically, and clearly made with loving care. Some very good musical tracks, too. I’ve always thought the “Rayman” character looked moronic — and I stand by that — so I would never have sought this out. Really glad to have come into it by bundle! I found it quite cheering to play. If occasionally a bit agitatingly hard.
Meanwhile, 5/10/20, i.e. right now:
• Delores: A Thimbleweed Park Mini-Adventure (2020): Terrible Toybox [3 hours]
Bare-minimum tech prototype, using assets from Thimbleweed Park, given away for free because free is the only acceptable price for such a thing. I played it out of goodwill and curiosity. Not sure I’m thrilled about the new engine here prototyped — right-clicking for context menus feels like hanging out with Bill Gates, distinctly unwhimsical! — or the fact that this not-really-a-game ate up three hours when it really only deserved one. But whatever: I appreciate anything people are making and offering up while sheltering in place, especially people who did such honorable service to my childhood.
Back to the log.
6/8/16: GOG gives away System Shock 2 for free, to entice people into stress-testing the new GOG client. So I click.
• System Shock 2 (1999): Irrational Games (Boston, MA) and Looking Glass Studios (Cambridge, MA) [played for 1 hour]
This is a tremendously influential classic, and I certainly like imagining myself having played it — literacy points! — but having already crawled my way through all of Bioshock, to which this is the direct precursor, I just don’t think I have it in me. My standard complaint: all of the unnecessary systems are exhausting. (As per the title.) RPG mechanics are spiritually contrary to the obvious aesthetic strengths of 3D computer games, which are sensory, spatial, ambient. I don’t want to be asked to think about the algorithms behind that experience; that just breaks the precious illusion!
I’m making up a terminology right now — “transparent” vs. “opaque” games:
“Transparent” games — games where the player interacts rationally with a ruleset that very crudely models reality in terms of some game-specific abstract tokens (e.g. any board game). “Opaque” games — games where the player interacts instinctively with a graphical representation of reality, governed by an extremely complex underlying “ruleset” — i.e. program — which is never explicitly disclosed (e.g. any action video game). I’m okay with both kinds of game! But they don’t mix well.
6/9/16: I buy The Vanishing of Ethan Carter during the Summer Sale at GOG for $4.99. Already played and logged it. However, a gimmick of the sale is that any purchase also unlocks a substantial freebie:
• Spelunky (2008/2012): Mossmouth (= Derek Yu), et al. (San Francisco, CA) [played for 3 hours so far]
Another tremendously influential classic. I put in a little time with the original free version years ago but this commercial upgrade is the one that counts. It’s a forever-game, one that I might play a little from time to time but that I have no intention of ever getting good enough to “finish,” so I’m just logging it now.
Fascinating to dabble with this sort of thing, but I’m not sure I can endorse it. The proponents of self-randomizing games talk passionately about the joys of having nothing to memorize or truly conquer, only an inexhaustible system within which to become increasingly fluent — “literate,” I saw one person calling it, which is an apt term. My qualm is that a single video game isn’t an appropriate object for “literacy,” and “literacy” isn’t an appropriate standard for a video game to demand.
“Literacy” in the real world is attained in relation to entire cultural bodies, not to individual works. That seems to me a distinction worth maintaining. A sense of proportion matters. There’s a danger in setting yourself up as a Torah to be studied for a lifetime rather than gracefully accepting that you’re a mere novel to be read once — the danger being that you entrap people into wasting their lives “studying” a non-existent discipline. (Or alternately that you don’t, and they don’t read your book at all.) From my period of fascination with Finnegans Wake a few years back, I recall what H.G. Wells wrote to James Joyce: “Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”
Yes, becoming literate (in the literal sense) is a joy, but that’s because it gives you access to something beyond just the primer you learned from: namely, the spiritual content of the whole vast expanse of human literature. Whereas games that demand “literacy” are essentially offering you access to nothing beyond themselves, 1) because they’re mere works, not cultures, and 2) because that process of attaining mastery is their whole spiritual content.
I can respect that Spelunky and its ilk offer a experience of actually getting better at something, which in contrast to the utter lie of RPGs (“you leveled up! you’re stronger now!”) feels downright invigorating. But that experience can be offered far more efficiently than in the 100+ hours this game demands.
6/16/16: “Humble Staff Picks Bundle: Hamble” for $1 gets me three games, one of which I genuinely and specifically wanted, so this is allowed.
• 1001 Spikes (2011/2014): 8bit Fanatics (= Samu Wosada) (Chiba?, Japan) & Nicalis (Santa Ana, CA) [played for 8 hours]
Speak of the devil! Here’s a game with the exact same skin as Spelunky — “STANDARD HAT AND WHIP GUY and the PLUNDER OF IMPLAUSIBLE TEMPLES” — and a game that, like Spelunky, demands that you do things that you won’t be able to do without practicing 100 times. But unlike Spelunky, the things here are tiny, discrete, fixed challenges, and each attempt lasts only a few seconds, so you can watch yourself go from incompetence to competence to victory in 15 minutes. And then, after you’ve done that enough times, you can comfortably reach the revelation that you’ve had your fill of that experience, and move on to other things. This is a very fine take on “retro,” and also the most satisfying example I’ve seen of the “hilariously merciless / try, try again” school of level design (sometimes stupidly called “masocore”). I enjoyed it quite a bit and I also enjoyed stopping.
• Absolute Drift (2015): Funselektor Labs (= Dune Casu) (Vancouver, BC) [played for .5 hours]
Not having seen The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, I hadn’t fully internalized the fact that drifting — i.e. skidding sideways — is a full-fledged thing, with its own whole sport and community and fandom and specially-built cars and a whole genre of video game, etcetera and more etcetera. I find this absolutely befuddling, just as I would find it befuddling to learn that “walking in high heels that wobble so much that you almost fall over, but then not actually falling over” was a sport. Absolute Drift‘s contract with the player seems to be that the player already loves “drifting” so damn much that they really just want a game to command them to do it constantly, in an extremely spare environment, for hours, so that they can answer “yes sir! whatever you say sir!” and then start drifting. Far be it from me to step on anyone else’s fun, but man oh man this is not mine. Also I’m bad at it.
• Snakebird (2015): Noumenon Games (Karlshamn, Sweden) [12 hours]
This is the one I genuinely and specifically wanted, and guess what: I know myself well! This is great. 53 puzzles, good cheer, serious difficulty. The package is beautifully presented, excellently edited, and utterly without padding. Exemplary! As with all the best puzzle games, the premise is compact — “the classic snake game, but with gravity” — and then everything flows from there. Like I said about Baba Is You: the game becomes a self-guided tour of the most interesting properties of the system. I was very proud of myself for taking only about six hours to zip through the 46 regular puzzles; then somewhat less proud of myself for needing another six hours to battle the seven extra-hard puzzles at the end.
The iOS version gives you the first few for free. Go for it.