Happy (mid) October! Even though I’ve never been a huge fan of Halloween (my childhood costumes rotated between lawyer, businessman, and French businessman, all of which were just me wearing a suit that was too big plus or minus my mom’s beret) I’m a sucker for a good chill, either in the form of a terrible/great horror movie or spooky game. I have a hard time hacking the super-scary-atmospheric stuff though—whenever I get too freaked out in a movie I can kind of stare into a corner and watch via peripheral vision but if I do that in a game I end up getting mauled by a zombie and then I just have to start over. In any case, I come bearing gifts of free indie horror delights and then some.
Magenta Skeleton isn’t so much horror as it is ambient exploration (which I might be a huge fan of), but it is at times both beautiful and unsettling. The way in which you (a magenta skeleton) appear on a shore facing another (magenta skeleton) holding a torch; the small boat in the background, a dismantled bridge of some sort. It heftily implies some sort of two-skeleton invasion, but in practice it’s about exploring a texture, as lo-fi rain falls down the slopes of a mountainous island and your electric-purple skele-legs carry you into the neon future. There’s no violence or real interaction, just this weird flash-fiction/prose-poem of an environment, and you are on it. (I recommend climbing up the hilly area to the left of the bridge.)
Michael Lutz recently released a new game made with Twine called the uncle who works for Nintendo, which is campfire-story-good. It’s based off that sort of childhood legend or falsehood: the friend who claims to have a family member who works in a high-powered job at a cool company. In elementary school, I knew a kid who reached compulsive liar status by claiming he was constantly winning Nintendo-based sweepstakes, and that he was soon to receive unlimited N64 controllers, in any color that he wanted, for the rest of his life.
In any case, you’re sleeping over at a friend’s house for the night. His uncle works at Nintendo, maybe. As you make your way through the night, a fantastic use of sound and warped memory narrative create a really unsettling space that still kind of freaks me out, but not in a chainsaw murderer way, more like a clown standing in the middle of an intersection at night but really far away kind of way. The danger isn’t imminent, but it’s still pretty weird. This isn’t to make light, however: there are some trigger warnings attached. Lutz prefaces it as “a horror framework to think about misogyny and emotional abuse and manipulation” especially w/r/t children, so be warned.
This led me to discovering an older game of Lutz’s: my father’s long, long legs. While Nintendo was branching and filled with a certain modern terror, Legs is a pretty straight-forward narrative that relies on some really lovely scripting later on the story to give the player a sort of flashlight that they must use to discover text. Again, this one’s unsettling without the jumps, a kind of slow burn that I just can’t resist. I hope you’ll find it to be similarly attractive, but if not, maybe we can freak each other out later by saying some weird stuff into a mirror in the dark.
Lastly, a sort of bonus. Emily Carroll is an artist who has for a long time been making some of my favorite comics. The reason I bring her up is that Lutz cites her as an inspiration (particularly the work she did on The Yahwg, a game which bears her beautiful art) and the atmospheres created by Lutz and Carroll are very much siblings. My favorite work of Carroll’s is definitely His Face all Red, but you can’t go wrong with Out of Skin or Margot’s Room. They’re all very carefully constructed and formatted for maximum dread, and the latter relies on a prefacing poem to guide the reader to click on specific parts of what appears to be a gruesome scene, not unlike a point and click game.
In any case, I hope you enjoy. I’m really pumped to see more and more of these sorts of experiments that toy with both structure and texture, as well as the idea of “play.” In some cases, I’m not sure play is even the right verb anymore, but for now, it’s as close as it feels like we can get as we talk about “games.” This isn’t to say they’re not games. I just think they might transcend the label, and that’s a really awesome feeling. In any case, grab some cider, turn off the lights, put on some headphones, and get spooked.
One of my earliest memories of playing video games: I’m sitting in my dad’s office playing Wolfenstein 3D and my grandfather walks in. He walks slowly and methodically; he’s elderly, but every time he drives it’s right there on his license plate: a purple heart from World War 2. I’ve just rounded a blocky corner and I know what’s ahead of me. Adolph Hitler shows up in some sort of robotic suit, his twin Gatling guns blazing. And I freeze: to not play is more difficult, a larger acknowledgement of the idea that I am portraying a caricature of my grandfather’s experience. In shame, I return fire until Hitler collapses into a bloody pulp. Silently, my grandfather walks away.
Last year, I played for the first time a game called Rage, which was actually developed by Id Software—the same company that worked to create Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, two early era games which helped popularize the first-person shooting-other-persons genre. I remember wading through several minutes of introduction until I finally sneaked into the rundown and dilapidated hotel a band of post-apocalyptic bandits had made their home. A shirtless bandit noticed me and charged. A shot rang out of my pistol, hit him in the face, and spread digital blood out in a skyward arc as his lifeless corpse fell to the ground. I quit and uninstalled the game a few minutes after.
Even though I grew up surrounded by increasingly devastating examples of a world of violence—digital Nazis, the theatrical release of Spawn, Columbine, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq—it wasn’t until that fake man’s head exploded at the behest of my mouse click that I felt ill about the genre, down to my core. Just months before had been the notorious Sandy Hook shooting, and as a country we were embroiled in a debate about gun control that was already quickly fading, just as every shooting since then has faded into this bleak tapestry of ill will, self-harm, and an inability on our part as a society to see these things as solvable problems. As though it will always and has always been too difficult to turn the mirror towards ourselves and ask, what, as a country, society, or group of people, we could do better.
This isn’t to say, as the NRA suggested after the Newtown Massacre, that videogames cause violence, but it’s hard to ignore that so much of the genre is branched out of the idea of the powerful, silent protagonist. His eyes are our eyes; his gun is our mouse. As though a monitor or television were a window into a universe where everything has been created to showcase destruction at the hand of the only person who has agency in a programmed existence: the consumer as player as protagonist. Like in movies and in television, we as audience members are asked to enjoy, engage, and sympathize with main characters as they perform astonishing acts of violence, either by watching or propelling the action forward with our controllers.
But: it’s all representative, maybe? When we shoot a fake man with a fake gun we are not engaging in real violence; the play violence does not spawn real violence. But, with each graphical update and each realistic sound effect, the genre moves further and further into a “more authentic” experience. Guns recoil authentically, bullets whiz by the headphone as they would the ear in actual war. Grenades disorient. Soon, Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets will make it so that a head turned on a couch will be a head turn on the digital battlefield, a red mist before it.
But is it the fidelity of the experience or the experience itself? It’s a question Lovely Planet seems poised to ask, but I’m not sure it’s actually asking. The description isn’t really hopeful on that count:
A First Person Shooter Gun Ballet set in a cutesy abstract world. Jump and shoot your way through five worlds full of treacherous enemies with your trusty semi-automatic!
Cutesy abstract world is right on, though. Where there might be tall grasses or trees to hide behind in some sort of world-conflict, Lovely Planet’s terrain is a flat, calming green punctuated by small stones and salmon-colored hearts that pop up like flowers. Fluffy white clouds and multi-colored balls dot the sky as you run past colorful spaceships and giant soda containers that erupt out of the ground. An anemic blue-and-yellow arm juts out of the screen, holding a semi-automatic broomstick with a star attached to it. The star spins and you fire equally-absurd bullets, which pierce the sky on their way to injure red blocks with angry faces that disappear in a puff of smoke.
If videogame violence is representation, Lovely Planet seems poised to take that to task, because even in this world of absurd landscapes that seems like a lo-fi Katamari Damacy, the action is still the same: point, shoot, destroy (or save, depending on how you view it). Ideally, it would be this message: that no matter how you dress it, gun violence is still gun violence and even the cutest setting in the world won’t change it. But instead of offering this as commentary, it offers it up as celebration: look how great this semi-automatic is. All distractions have been stripped away: there is only you, your gun, and these enemies which must perish.
It’s a shame, because the game is well-crafted. Hypocritically, I find the action on point, the speed of the game intoxicating, but even though I can stomach its cutesy celebration of violence, it’s never clear that there’s any intent at all. Is it proof of concept? Minimal artistic design as necessity? An exercise in restraint? Problematically, all it becomes is another shooter, another weird war game, albeit set in a place of floating islands and child-like expressions of joy and violence. It ultimately doesn’t matter what it looks like, because the symbolism is still there. It’s not doing anything different.
I’m not sure if I’m growing tired of it all because I’m getting older or games are. As a fledgling player with a fledgling medium, I was thrilled to experience the highs and lows of war through it and its comfort and safety of a screen, because, in this new and fresh interactivity, it was exhilarating. At the time, false war was one of the best ways to showcase the power of “the game,” a first-person perspective ideal for a computer screen, the pointing of a gun ideal for a mouse.
If games can be art—and they can—the genre needs to be ready to accept a change, for a shift where violence isn’t the predominant expression of the medium, be it via guns, fists, or even the jump of Mario’s boot. Yes, film functions as a propeller of art and also the action movie, but so much of that visual media is obsessed also with comedy and drama. But where action is a subset genre of film, action is inherent in a videogame because there must be some sense of challenge. (The alternative, historically, is puzzle.) But a film (or book, or poem, or painting) may be challenging on themes or subject matter alone. Games are only just recently discovering the latter’s place in interactivity—games like Gone Home, To the Moon, and Depression Quest.
I’m looking forward to the day when a shooter is a parody of a shooter, but Lovely Planet isn’t it. It’s not that it’s not smart enough, or “good” enough, but it’s just tired, the same, nothing we haven’t seen before wrapped up in a different paper (lovely though it may be). Guns can have their place, will always have their place in a medium that was once (and still may be) defined by them. But, in the wake of tragedy after tragedy—will that place ever be comfortable? I’m not sure. But each year, more and more games are more than happy to join the ranks of pretend violence, no matter the setting or period, and more and more people are happy to buy them. Lovely Planet just wants to be another gun game, and that’s not really its fault; it’s ours.
Several years ago a friend of mine was going through the intense heartbreak at the end of a lengthy relationship and I was younger and ill-equipped to offer the right kind of support, so we drove. In my heart I knew it was a terrible idea because gas prices had just reached their all-time high—a price that now, much later, feels downright reasonable. We lived in Texas, where you drive long enough in one direction and the landscape doesn’t change but the things that define it do: buildings and sidewalks turn to great expanses of trees, sky, and fences, which in the daylight you can look past to see cows grazing on burnt, unloved grass. I gave my friend the option of the four cardinal directions and we drove, as far as we could stomach, towards each individual arm on a compass, first west, then north, then east, then finally, south, back to where she lived.
I don’t remember picking up a hitchhiker but there she/he/it is, a presence in my car, asking me questions—like why was I driving—and prompting me to choose responses that float up over my windshield, remain even in the face of the wind as the car hits a 100 km. This is the steady ephemera of Glitchhikers, a driving simulator in the loosest sense. Hold forward to speed your car up, hold back to slow your car down. Once you let go of either you’ll return to the same pace, in the same way that letting go of the buttons that allow you to look left or right out of the windows will return your view to the center. You can switch lanes to avoid traffic, but there’s not much point; the only cars on the road with you tonight are tiny red taillights in the distance, which seem to ebb back and forth and always stay out of reach.
I remember taking a family road trip north to stay with my grandparents in Wisconsin and also visit college campuses for my brother, who would be out of high school soon. Nothing stands out about the experience except that in Arkansas, after driving on roads that weren’t even paved we arrived at a campus I’ve forgotten and he refused to get out of the car. At the time I wasn’t really old enough to consider the ramifications, but I didn’t really blame him; the lack of paved roads seemed to be at the time the ultimate evidence that this wasn’t a good place. My parents grew frustrated and we drove on, and his feet never touched ground in the state. Now, I wonder if subconsciously he was worried that if he left the car, he would never be able to go back home.
In Glitchhikers, a sign rolls past telling me it’s 49 kilometers to Phanteron, a place which I never really intended to go to. My first passenger disappeared just as quickly as they’d appeared, after talking briefly about drugs, driving, and the other kinds of topics that can feel utterly significant in the small talk that occurs on a highway after midnight. A new one is in my car, decidedly alien, from a place where a star exploded and destroyed her home, creating so much of the universe in the process. She’s pregnant, she says, and asks if I would drop her at the hospital. Not many of my species seemed willing to take her, she says. I speed up as fast as the game will allow me and the next time I look over, she’s gone, but I don’t remember passing a hospital. On the other hand, it’s late, and my eyelids grow heavier and stay closed longer with each passing blink.
I didn’t learn to drive until I was 18. At the DMV to get my learner’s permit the person behind the counter was aghast. He asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to just take the driver’s test and get it over with. I didn’t know how to drive, I told him. It wasn’t that hard, he said. Later, I would fail the parallel-parking portion of the driver’s exam, rolling my rear right tire over the surface of the curb as the woman sitting next to me sighed, checked a box, and told me to move on.
There are several different passengers in Glitchhikers—they seem to occur based on the responses you choose to their questions. Before one appeared in my car, I saw them sitting on the edge of a bridge above me as I drove under it, their legs dangling down and over the lip. We talked about suicide; how almost everybody who had attempted it regretted it, how it actually hurt more people than the person attempting it assumed. How easy it would be to drive straight into a concrete divider, or over a cliff, careening at high speeds. How something in this world, or within ourselves, always stopped us. Next, a small, goat-like ghost appeared as I passed what seemed like a canopy of dead trees. It hated its parents; it didn’t seem like it owed them anything. I agreed, and then it asked me why I was driving.
It’s easy to think of the car as the ultimate American symbol of freedom. So much of our legacy is entrenched in this idea of the highway, the vein that draws a line across the surface of the nation and leads to infinite places and nowheres. Even as the environmentalist in me loves Chicago’s public transportation, there’s that piece buried within the self that longs for the easy option of the car, the ability to drive until night turns to early morning and watch as the scenery around you speeds by and changes without consequence. I guess at some point deep within me I long for an easy illusion of progress, one where I only have to turn a key and press down on a pedal to feel as though I am exerting some change on my environment. Really though, when it comes down to it, I am trapped in the car, and the feeling is fleeting—I must always return to the point at which I began.
Glitchhikers is as much about choice as it is about a lack of choice. In dialogue with its eponymous passengers, you can choose from a handful of responses, which then go on to influence that conversation and which passengers occur next. But at the same time, the car here is not so much a symbol of freedom or choice as it is a vessel of inevitability, taking you forward on this unnamed highway until the game decides that it is time to end. Going faster or going slower doesn’t ultimately affect your journey; what does is how quickly you answer questions and click through responses. Your travel time is your reading speed. Eventually, after a stretch of alien, angular trees, a blocky city will approach in the distance, and a series of signs will warn you that the left-hand lane is for exiting only. No matter which lane you stay in, the game ends and your digital eyelids close, either in sleep, death, or something else.
Just like driving, Glitchhikers isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey. Even in the wake of similar questions from different passengers and a road that goes nowhere, it’s an intensely personal experience, one that begs the player to take part in difficult thoughts and conversations. The game isn’t so much a game as it is a setting, in the same way that a car is not necessarily a mode of transportation but a singular place in which to exist, even as the world around you changes and falls into the perimeter. And while both may be personal experiences, they’re by no means unique ones. One passenger—purple headed with a large, singular eye—explains to me the concept of “sonder,” or the realization that every other person around you is a fully conscious being with their own life, story, existence. The power of this statement isn’t so much reflected in the digital cars around you—which do not exist—nor in the actual, theoretical cars around while driving in reality. Instead, it feels more like a comment on the other people that might also play Glitchhikers, ponder the oddly deep questions presented to them by aliens, and consider, what it is to talk to strangers, and what it is to drive after midnight, both in here and out there. “Millions of distinct bacteria share your body,” the radio host quips at one point. “You’re never alone.”
Even though I write about games critically here and other places, sometimes as a player I find it easy to tune out and become one with a keyboard and mouse or controller and just sit and stare, as though I were watching The Expendables on repeat several hours a day, several days in a row. In that vein, I spent the past month playing terrible, huge-budget, blockbuster video games and not doing much else. I wanted to reboot myself and take a post to collectively detox by thinking about some stuff that was more artful, thought-provoking, and most importantly, free. As much as I could write full essays talking about each one, those would probably end up being longer than their respective experiences, so I think it’s preferable to say that if one interests you, check it out—let’s play our way out of The Expendables together.
I wrote about Increpare’s Activate the Three Artefacts and then Leave last month, but the dude is so wildly prolific that it’s hard not to always be thinking about at least one of his games. Universal History of Light came out in February and is already behind 3 newer games on his games page, but it’s a sticker. Basically you play as a seeing eye dog accompanying a student to a lecture about the effects of laser pointers on the brains of dogs, which cannot smell the point of light and are driven insane. The professor then shines their own laser pointer too close to the dog, who is then sent by insanity to a dystopian island filled with even more strangeness. Items acquired after that point include a carpet beater and a hoodie.
Whenever I get into a weird conversation with somebody else’s parents about how I write about video games, I inevitably end up telling them about a handful of the same games, like Gone Home or Proteus, both of which I’ve written about here before, in attempt to justify a hobby that seems to be filled with a lot of guns or grand theft auto or Pac-man. Another is Depression Quest, which is a text-styled game (built in Twine) that aims to promote awareness of depression, namely by putting the player into the shoes of somebody suffering from depression. As somebody who is no stranger to winter feelings and sun withdrawal, it’s an incredibly effective, stark, and brave portrayal that is tough to play but also a shining example of an interactive medium. Check it out. (N.b.—while it can be played for free, it is also offered on a pay-what-you-want basis with a portion donated to charity.)
I just finished binge-watching Twin Peaks on Netflix, and Catachresis tickles my fancy in the same exact way that the show did. If a younger David Lynch were somehow transported into our present and the only way he could deal with his weird feelings about unexpected but short-range time travel were to make browser games, Catachresis would probably be one of them (The developer cites Lost Highway as an inspiration). It puts you into the shoes of a paranormal investigator, or as the main character puts it, “ghost plumbers.” It’s both creepy and funny, and rendered in an art style that lets you know there’s not going to be a weird jump scare.
This is a game where the less said, the better. It starts out and you’re a frog on a lily pad aiming your tongue and eating bugs and fractions are popping up everywhere. It’s not actually edutainment, but the first few minutes do a really great job of pretending like it is. Get the turtle upgrade as soon as possible, and then move on to a variety of different segments (onet set to the soothing narration of a history show) that made people like the game so much that they pledged over 70 grand to a sequel on Kickstarter. (Seriously, if you ever play one video game in your life, play this one, and then reconsider that life decision and play the rest of these too.)
In Activate the Three Artefacts and then Leave, players are left without character; without avatar. Even in traditional first-person-shooters where the avatar is not necessarily shown at every opportunity, there’s a sense of the body: glimpses in mirrors that reveal a self, a gun peeking into view as an extension of the hand, or movement that is defined by running, walking, and jumping. Artefacts instead exists solely in a space designed for the player, the person at his or her computer. It strips away the artifice of a designed world, of character, of setting, or of plot, and instead, like a math problem, is a task designed for completion, one contained within its title.
It proves to be similar to a constructed toy: a Rubik’s cube, or a disentanglement puzzle (where two interlocked pieces must be made single). In simplicity, Artefacts is, like these, a parlor game: an object whose goal seems to be defined by its physical presence. With its goal laid bare, there is no universe at stake; there is no character needing rescue. There is only the player; there is only the object.
And it’s both maddening and relaxing at the same time. As far as games go, it’s relatively simple: the player moves at a slow, deliberate pace through three-dimensional space. Where in most first-person games one might walk or run, here you float in space, as though you were a calm, digital fly, surrounded only by an infinite, white space, its only inhabitant a massive globe of polygons. Move toward it and an entrance is revealed, a small hole not unlike the exhaust port on the Death Star. But instead of a large planet of pipes, metals, and clones, Artefacts’ planet is made entirely of whitespace and black lines, a simplicity that comes together to form a great construction of geometric off-shapes, their corners never really touching at right angles, their walls never really indistinguishable upon exploration.
This is the main conceit of the game: one’s eyes are practically useless, and it doesn’t really set in until too late. I had just entered the great orb when I turned around and realized that the entrance would need to be an exit, and the great expanse of outer-white had blended into the same white surfaces that made up the walls which now contained me. After a panicky five minutes of bumping into every surface available, I found it, but realized it did not matter—I had to continue deeper. Deeper through great halls of jagged edges filled with floating boxes, their edges seemingly impossible. But the player isn’t meant to navigate by sight; the player is meant to navigate by sound.
There’s a secret area in the game Limbo—a moody and atmospheric platformer defined by a stark, deadly world of children portrayed in blacks and grays—that is entirely dark. The only visual cues there are the two white orbs that are the bright, scared eyes of the protagonist. While in the majority of the game, the player guides him (and his eyes) safely away from obstacles such as sawblades or giant, nightmarish spiders by visuals—in the same way one plays a Mario game—this stage is entirely unseen. Here, to avoid a sawblade isn’t to jump over its sharp, rotating edges, it is to jump over its sound—the caustic, cutting hum as it moves from right to left across the stage. It’s a lovely twist that subverts the dominant strategy of not only the game, but the visual medium, and moves a different sense—hearing—to the forefront of the experience.
Artefacts accomplishes the same not by putting the player in the darkness, but by offering a world that features no real features. In the same way James Turrell’s pieces (such as Wide Out) play with perspective and a sense of space by subverting corners and joints, Artefacts does the same by offering so many of them. It’s not an absence of walls; it’s an abundance. And while sight is necessary to discover rooms and float about, getting lost isn’t just easy, it’s nigh unavoidable: the jaggy sphere is massive, continually unknown. You might recognize the same set piece, but there are no visual bearings.
There are, however, audial ones. Depending on where the player is in the great sphere, they’ll find themselves immersed in great pools of noise: statics, whites, pinks. It’s a quick and obvious realization that in order to navigate in any real way, one has to be paying attention with their ears more than their eyes: to distinguish between a pure white noise, or a white noise blended with a gentle static, or the same static on its own, tiny crackles forming a recognizable beat that echoes within the skull.
After you find an Artefact—a gently floating object that stands out easily among the geometric sphere-scape—light, calming hues of color finally pop into being, only if to let you know that you’ve activated it, that you’ve taken a step towards the completion. It might seem like the only friendly system in an otherwise nightmarish world, but it’s not. It’s the statics that want to help bring you home, navigate the quadrants of a great, imperceptible object whose joints are needles against the eye, against spatial perception. They fill in like voices aware that they aren’t saying anything, but still screaming as a constant landmark in a giant shape that seems to shift and catch you in a circle again and again. They’re this strange, white world’s equivalent of a street sign, or a friendly local pointing in the direction of a tourist attraction. Only here, you can’t just look; you need to listen.
Like most of Increpare’s games, Artefacts is free and available for a variety of platforms. Check it and them out here.