2013 Indie Game Roundup

December 30, 2013 · Print This Article

Post-holiday greetings! I hope you’re in a pleasant haze filled with too much food (and family). I wanted to take a post to highlight a handful of the awesome, independent games that came out earlier this year. They’re all very interesting in their own rights, but they all feature interesting mechanics or stories—things I considered outstanding, specifically in relation to some of their larger peers: the Call of Duties of the world. Most of them are also perfect for new gamers, or introductions into gaming, as most eschew the traditional difficulties or reflexes associated with the medium.

Gone Home
You’ll find Gone Home on nearly every “best of” list this year, and for good reason. Though I wrote about it earlier from a perspective of player/protagonist relationships, the game also shines for storytelling, sexual-identity exploration, and a 90’s Riot grrrl soundtrack. Trips around an empty house will find homemade cassette tapes, childhood drawings, and evidence of hidden and open family dramas. It’s an eye-opening exploration of what’s possible in a young medium, and well worth the praise it’s receiving.

Papers, Please
Papers, Please combines the retro visual-style of the original Nintendo with the social and political themes of a crumbling Eastern-European society. Self-described as a “dystopian document thriller,” Papers Please welcomes the player as a worker who has drawn the job of immigration inspector. By day, you process the documents of hopeful immigrants, poring over their passports, visas, and vitals to determine if they are allowed through. Stamping no can be heartbreaking; sometimes stamping yes can be, too. Part of the game is managing a desk full of reference materials, shuffling pictures, maps, text, and speed all at the same time. When you dive in, what surfaces are political plots, corruption, and a nightly mini-game where you must decide how to use your small funds to comfort your family: with medicine, food, or heat. Bleak house.

The Stanley Parable
While Gone Home was a first-person exploration of home life, The Stanley Parable is, at first, a first-person exploration of an empty office building. Today is different than yesterday, but it’s not clear why; it is—and isn’t—your job to figure out why. As you explore, the game unfolds easily into rumination on jobs, life, destiny, and games, all narrated by a velvety British voice that describes your every move. Follow his instructions, or set out on your own; the branching paths are many, and the outcomes satisfyingly different—or similar.

Antichamber
Antichamber is similar to so many war-like shooters in that one of its focal points is a gun. Antichamber’s gun, however, is one of creation, not destruction. Players must navigate a mostly-white world that features devious, mind-bending puzzles filled with impossible spaces, rooms, turns, and other spatial discrepancies that seem to occur when backs are turned. Learning to explore and navigate the illogical space is both nightmarish and Zen-like. At times, you feel trapped or hopeless; at others, filled with countless Eureka moments or realizations. Either way, it feels like a world to which Bill and Ted might have accidentally taken an unprepared Euclid in the middle of a proof. He won’t need that geometry here, anyway.

Proteus
When my mom visited town at the beginning of the month, I got her to sit down and play her first (ever) video game. It was Proteus, and even she enjoyed it. I previously wrote about the game’s exceptional relationship with the player, but truth be told, it excels for so many other reasons. She liked encountering the stone circles, a favorite formation of hers, but others would find it comforting for its soft sounds and soft edges that roll through different seasons on what feels like commentary on life, death, and existence. Proteus is filled with hidden machinations and the feeling that there’s something deeper below the surface. But at the end, the game itself is beautiful, even at its surface, and offers up something that is well worth the visit.

Starseed Pilgrim
Starseed Pilgrim would be a terrible dinner guest, mostly because it doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table. A brief mention of seeds and you’re on your way to discovering the intricate methods (and madness) of its intrinsic system. While Starseed Pilgrim would be easy to dismiss as shallow, the truth is anything but. Players who persevere will discover a challenging yet fair world that they will literally build, planting different seeds that create different sections. Most game reviews refuse to discuss games in-depth because of plot spoilers; Starseed Pilgrim reviewers were afraid of spoiling mechanics. They’re definitely worth the wait.




Week in Reivew: Worlding and Labor Day

September 2, 2013 · Print This Article

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This week in the podcast realm of Bad at Sports: I had the great opportunity to sit down and talk with Claire Doherty in Portland this last May. Doherty was a keynote speaker at Open Engagement where we met. She initiated Situations, where is is currently the Director, in 2003 following a ten-year period investigating new curatorial models beyond conventional exhibition-making at a range of art institutions including Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, Spike Island, Bristol and FACT (Foundation of Art and Creative Technology), Liverpool. Listen to our discussion about art in public space, alternative models for funding and curatorial practices here.

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Edition #16 came in this week with notes about the magnetic field of Roger’s Park galleries, the pilot episode of “Better Luck Next Time,” (a newlyweds-style game show for artistic duos), dispatches from ACRE, and noted recent popularity of the sahrong. That and much much more here.

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Paul King kicked things off on Monday with a vivid description of Protues, an a-typical, evocative video game:

To move past the title screen and into the game, you begin by clicking the silhouette of a distant island. After fading, the screen opens from a murky black into a gently disappearing elliptical shape, as though you were slowly opening your eyelids. You’ve awoken in what appears to be an endless ocean, a muted sea-green punctuated by the gentle lapping of white reflections. In the distance, you begin to make out the outline of a shrouded landmass. As you trudge towards it, the only anchor in the game’s ceaseless sea, you can practically feel the sunlight of the raincoat-yellow orb shining in the sky.

Everything in Proteus is rendered in a blocky, colorful style that should be familiar to everyone who’s ever seen an early pixelated video game. (Think the “ball” of pong, or the sharp edges of Mario.) But the style isn’t due to a lack of processing power or graphical method; instead, the world’s lack of texture translates into a picturesque canvas of flat colors, almost as though you were gazing directly into a visual interpretation of one of Brian Eno’s ambient tracks.

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This week, James Pepper Kelly submits The Greatest Proposal for hi-fiving high culture, via an imaginary embodiment of Judith H. Dobrzynski and James Durston:

Imagine that a writer named Judith H. Dobrzynski boards a plane. She’s ambivalent about her recent op-ed for the New York Times, “High Culture Goes Hands-On,” in which she mourned the loss of a classic, passive museum experience. The response was decent (63 comments and a spot on the “most-emailed” list), and the negative response didn’t go much beyond baseless ad hominems (“crank,” “elitist”). But real-world impact? Judy sighs. She tries not to think about institutions these days, their obsequious rush to digitize, crowdsource, and create a “fun experience” for all. Instead, she thinks about real change: about her upcoming fellowship at the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria, and how she helped influence the country’s new Holocaust restitution laws. Judy sinks back into her business class seat (being a Fellow has perks!), orders a tomato juice and relaxes, thinking of all the reading she’ll be able to catch up on in the air.

Image courtesy Chris Stain

Image courtesy Chris Stain

Juliana Driever interviewed Chris Stain who’s “characteristic large-scale murals evolved out of his practice as a graffiti writer, and stand today as a kind of contemporary nod to WPA-era portraiture, featuring the faces and plights of everyday people in all of their affecting, confrontational realism.” When asked about how graffiti has changed since the 80′s, and whether there is a difference between graffiti and street art, Stain replied:

In one sense it’s all art but there are different energies to what is known as “graffiti,” mostly lettering based primarily using aerosol paint, and “street art” which runs the gamut of various mediums. As for the letter-based movement, it has changed quite a bit since the 80’s. Technically, its reached levels unimagined back then through the help of all the newer spray paints on the market with lower pressure and cap options. The introduction of the internet helped styles develop more rapidly as it was easier to access photos from all over the world, get new ideas, and spark creativity.

"Self-Mythology" at Roman Susan. Work by Vincent Troia. Roman Susan is located at 1224 W. Loyola Ave. Reception Saturday, 7-10pm

“Self-Mythology” at Roman Susan. Work by Vincent Troia.
Roman Susan is located at 1224 W. Loyola Ave. Reception Saturday, 7-10pm

Top 4 Weekend Picks with love from Stephanie Burke!

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I reposted an interview with EXPO’s Stephanie Cristello, and Bad at Sports’ own, Richard Holland and Duncan MacKenzie. They discuss the upcoming newsprint publication Dana Bassett is spearheading, exactly how much gossip said paper will contain, and the interviews Bad at Sports will be conducting on site at the art fair:

Duncan MacKenzie and Richard Holland of Bad at Sports are two of the best in town to talk with about art. Known for their witty commentary and contemporary art talk platform Bad at Sports, they are most admired for their weekly podcasts and blog. The three of us sat down to discuss their involvement with EXPO/2013 – the recent venture of a newspaper that will be distributed throughout the fair spearheaded by What’s the T?columnist Dana Bassett entitled The EXPO Register, and the live interviews they will be fielding from their booth next to the /Dialogues stage. The lineup for this year’s panel is impressive, titled “One-on-One,” just one of many sports puns, MacKenzie and Holland will be in conversation with gallerists, directors, and curators, such as Solveig Øvstebø of the Renaissance Society, Elysia Borowy-Reeder of the MOCAD Detroit, and Director Charlie James, as well as artists William Powhida, José Lerma, and Sanford Biggers. While the details of these interviews are kept secret (you will just have to see them in person to find out), our conversation breaches the extent of Bad at Sports coverage at the fair, their plans for the paper, and MacKenzie and Holland’s bucket list – like an interview about interviews, or something along those lines.

Zachary Cahill, "Iridescent Mann."

Zach  Cahill, “Iridescent Mann.”

Monica Westin interviewed Zach Cahill about the third and final installment of  ”his epic USSA 2012 project,” presently on view at the Smart Museum and now called USSA 2012: Wellness Center: Idyllic—affair of the heart. In this interview Cahill composes as imaginary travel brochure for the USSA, flowers on facebook, and art mourning:

I mean I very much like the direct experience of being in front of an art work, but I enjoy being haunted by art works too…a visceral quality that occurs with the work of some of my favorite artists…they infect me and I can’t stop thinking about it…Ideally, I’d like my work to do both: give off an affecting sensation for the viewer and to haunt them after they walk away from it… my work wants to have its cake and eat to…. 

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And last but not least, I posted a series of upcoming opportunities including the call for Anchor Graphics’ Artist in Residency program at Columbia College. That and much more here.




Unique, But Familiar: the Personal Island of Proteus

August 26, 2013 · Print This Article

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Guest Post by Paul King

The sole page of Proteus’ help screen begins “Move with WASD. Look around with the mouse.”

No other controls exist, besides the space bar. Instead of offering a traditional jump, it commands the player’s avatar to sit, peacefully, for as long as they might. The help screen’s final instructions begin with what seems like half of a warning: “Each island is unique, but familiar.”

To move past the title screen and into the game, you begin by clicking the silhouette of a distant island. After fading, the screen opens from a murky black into a gently disappearing elliptical shape, as though you were slowly opening your eyelids. You’ve awoken in what appears to be an endless ocean, a muted sea-green punctuated by the gentle lapping of white reflections. In the distance, you begin to make out the outline of a shrouded landmass. As you trudge towards it, the only anchor in the game’s ceaseless sea, you can practically feel the sunlight of the raincoat-yellow orb shining in the sky.

Everything in Proteus is rendered in a blocky, colorful style that should be familiar to everyone who’s ever seen an early pixelated video game. (Think the “ball” of pong, or the sharp edges of Mario.) But the style isn’t due to a lack of processing power or graphical method; instead, the world’s lack of texture translates into a picturesque canvas of flat colors, almost as though you were gazing directly into a visual interpretation of one of Brian Eno’s ambient tracks.

As you climb onto the shores of your island and walk past the flat browns of tree trunks and across the rolling green hills dotted with single-color flowers and blocks representing dandelions, an ambient soundtrack erupts. These are the changing environs and characters, and your interactions with them feel as though they were entirely up to you.

When somebody completes any video game, they tend to have finished a universal experience. Though the person playing it might have preferred a different gun, or tactic, or motorcycle, their journey is usually one shared by all other players. Certain blockbuster titles, usually role-playing games, offer choice and varied game paths as a selling point. There, you might choose to be a thieving elf that sneaks through danger, or a devil-may-care warrior slaying all in your path. Ultimately, however, the same challenges are present.

Proteus doesn’t exactly offer a challenge. There are no tests of dexterity or hand-eye coordination; there is only your movement through and consideration of the world, your journey. Pass by a stone obelisk and hear a great deep bass noise burst and fade slowly into a background of crickets. Chase a frog and hear its hops become the staccato twang of a distant guitar, or reach a mountainous peak above a plateau of raining clouds and listen to an uplifting crescendo.

Some sound origins are obvious. The crickets cricket, and leaves fall like soft glass. Still, there are other tones I’m uncertain about. Perhaps it was my position on a specific hill, or maybe it was the shadow of a pink-tufted tree.  Proteus’ soundtrack—a constant soothing orchestration of hidden instruments—is only one of the complex machinations behind deceitfully simple visuals.

Each island in Proteus is procedurally generated. Algorithmically, one comes together in a way that is unique, but familiar, placed together by a machine, or equation.

At a certain point, the boxy sun sets and is replaced by the moon. Night arrives, marked by a deep blue and a subdued soundtrack. Slowly, the bright dots of the island’s airspace—be they fireflies, wisps, spots of cotton—swirl and gather, until finally, they culminate in a furious whirlwind at the center of a circle of stones. As you approach it, time speeds up. Clouds and stars race above you, the trees around you begin to shudder and dance. The music, now faster, eggs them on. Enter the circle and soon, the screen fades to white, almost as if signaling an end to your time on the island, a quiet release from the frenzied energy. But then island returns, rewarding a patient moment of darkness in the same way a morning welcomes those just stirring from sleep.

The colors have changed slightly, and the music with it. In the air before you dances a swarm of bees. Above you the calm sphere of the sun now has flaring tendrils, shining down harder than before. Vibrant collections of flowers have sprouted up since you walked into the mystical circle of stones and its swirling puffs.

Proteus-Summer

Usually when a game environment transforms, dangers arrive. Night might reveal prowling tigers, shambling zombies, or some spooky other. Proteus remains peaceful, instead signaling the end of its day and condensed season with frenetic motion. Though you act as a catalyst in the seasonal change by entering that swirling circle, you can’t help but feel a small component of a greater cycle;  a piece in an action that comes from a living, breathing land mass. The whole island, player included, enters a chrysalis and emerges anew.

Often, a game’s digital world exists solely as a static landscape with one-sided interaction. Usually, it is up to us as individual players to act as the experimental component or the dynamic instrument. But though we, as individuals in a programmed world, might be dynamic, we all fulfill the same role. We are the same cog that fits into a developer’s machine, makes it turn linearly through its universal paces. This tends to result in an identical experience for all who play the same game.

There are pieces of Proteus that hint at an identical experience. You awake in an ocean; you climb ashore a distant island; you swirl through the seasons. But since each island is procedurally generated, no two islands or games will ever truly be the same.

At a certain point during my night in Proteus, a white owl appeared in a tree, staring at me before taking off and flying to the next tree; later, I walked towards the crude ruins of a tower to find myself teleported to another crumbling monument.

Proteus-Owl

I learned later that others retelling their experiences on the game’s forums had not encountered the owl. Instead, one account was dominated by a dark figure that appeared after the night sky had turned red, only to run off, while making sure the player was following. Some played with constellations; some sat in solemn graveyards. While we had all played Proteus, it became clear that we did not share the same experiences; we all wandered through different worlds, encountering familiar aspects in a unique way.

The main difference between unique play in Proteus and role-playing games is agency. In a massive fantasy or space world, the player is given what appears to be wide path to play how they wish. They move through a static world and sculpt it in a pre-designed fashion. Ultimately, the developers of these games give players the gift of agency, the ability to move through that world and shape it.

This also forces the game to be reliant upon the player. Even if a game’s narrative is linear, it depends on the player to advance it. For example, a programmed character within a game may walk a programmed path, forever, until a player enters and engages its route. By interacting with that non-player character (NPC), the player has helped it fulfill its destiny, and furthered the action of the world. The expectation is that the world exists at the behest of the player, and the player is often imbued with the power of a god who may alter the world.

While Proteus as a game—and product— exists for the player, its world isn’t reliant upon a specific player experience. Because it isn’t static, differences occur, many and obviously, around the player. Because the world is produced dynamically, the player must act as a static element with practically no control. And though each player may in turn approach the game in an identical capacity, once the island is generated, it is a fresh, dynamic world each time, reducing the potential for a homogenized experience.

The largest contributor to this success is the way in which Proteus plays with music. The endless cacophony (both aural and visual) that permeates the atmosphere is so incredibly active. As a player explores, animals or flowers don’t change course like an NPC. Instead, they react naturally, not as though they were born for your experience, but almost as if the opposite were true. When you approach an area that produces a sine wave—be it a tree, a slope, or some other mystery—the feeling isn’t that Proteus or the object in Proteus has begun to play for you, but that the sound, or owl, or structure was always there, and you just happened, through a chance generation, to wander into it. Starting a game of Proteus is not like listening to a pre-recorded album, but like listening to the chaotic throng of generative music. And though you might begin and stop Proteus at will, there’s no guarantee that the island’s music will follow.

 

Paul King is a poet, writer, and video game enthusiast currently living in Chicago, IL. He grew up in Austin, TX and graduated from Bard College with a BA in Liberal and Written Arts.