November 23, 2010. Quintin Smith posts about a free browser game called The Infinite Ocean on Rock Paper Shotgun. I plan to dabble with it but stay for the duration. Jonas Kyratzes is easy to find in Google, easier than Mr. Mxyzptlk. I hammer him into my RSS feeds and lurk in his comments.
Today. You can still play The Infinite Ocean if you haven't already. But what made it so special?
It's not technical direction nor mechanical innovation; you might call it a point-and-click although it shares genetic material with the Room Escape genre. Ocean is a good example of what Kyratzes would label “narrative as a mechanic”. The real game is not the one you see on the surface, figuring out passwords and exploring the environment. The real game is in your head, sifting through the fragments of story and assembling the whole.
The player starts out with zero information. The protagonist doesn't know who he/she is, where he/she is or what has happened. Why are the walls adorned with nihilistic messages? Why are they telling you toXXXX
Michael Brough: oh dear, "Go make a great game, and then everything will line up for you, assuming you've got half a brain." - really?
Adam Atomic: thats a surprising paraphrasing!
Michael Brough: it's a literal quote, man.
XXXXnavigate this strange, surreal space, you're showered with documents and computer logs and the story unfolds in shreds, narrative confetti blowing through the dead, grey rooms. I found the technique here of exploring the past through logs to work as well as it did in System Shock 2; see Doom 3 and Bioshock for examples where it does not. This is a game where an AI researcher has had enough of Skynet jokes. These little asides bring life to the characters instead of making them pegs to stick globs of plot on.
What would an Isaac Asimov novel look like in game form? The Infinite Ocean is pretty close. Scientists are the heroes of the piece and they certainly do not go all FPS to solve problems a la certain other games I could mention. Science is presented as a modern way of thinking rather than a way to get from technology A to technology B.
But wait, I have another Asimov connection for you. One of Asimov's most popular characters was R Daneel Olivaw, a humaniform robot who assisted human detective Elijah Baley. The emotionless Olivaw is all about the logic, the ideal Dr. Watson foil for Baley. But there's a moment in The Robots of Dawn where Baley, who is no great fan of robots, forgets himself and hugs Olivaw; Olivaw hugs back, because it is required of him. Humanity falls in love with technology and that technology may not love them back – but it will take care of them. The development of The Infinite Ocean's artificial sentience SGDS mirrorsXXXX
Sophie Houlden: man, I really don't think I've seen a division amongst indies as strong as I have this week. no sign of healing either.
XXXXisn't perfect, though. I found the military a little cartoonish, who use phrases amongst themselves like "an important step in the war against terror and evil." I could accept such phrasing in a military dictatorship, but the game evokes a Western democracy; I wouldn't imagine communications between a general and HQ being laced with such language. The military personality seemed more suited to films like D.A.R.Y.L. and Short Circuit than a meditation on making an "artificial soul". Black hat, white hat.
Putting that aside, the most important problem to solve is exactly who you are amongst this cast of characters, if any of them. Figuring out the answer to that problem, solving this overarching mechanic, solves the entire game. Absolutely everything then makes sense. I had no identifiable moment of epiphany, but experienced something like a slow descent into the truth of the game. But it is key to understanding the final scenes whereXXXX
XXXXsurprised that not everyone figured out this important puzzle-piece such as Penumbra and Ir/rational writer Tom Jubert who wrote of it: "Deconstructing the philosophy of one of the most intelligent, intricately constructed examples of interactive art available has been a mission and a half." You might reach the end of this game, but that doesn't mean you've solved it.
Kyratzes said in the comments on RPS: “The danger, as I see it, is that if the writer talks too much about their intent, people will refrain from digging into the game and trying to figure out what it means.” I'd go further than this, though. I'd argue that talking about the ending ruins the game'sXXXX
Errant Signal: But I think as budgets rise even among small titles, we’re going to see the gap widen between the two types of indie developers – those who can afford to treat their passion like a business and those who can’t, those who see money spent on their game as an act of investment and those who see it as an act of fiscal irresponsibility, those who see games as a career and those who see it as a calling. And while everyone wants to be in the former group, it’s important not to declare the latter group illegitimate or undeserving.
Alright, that's enough.
Last week was a bizarre week. I don't think Steam intended the Greenlight service to cleave the indie scene in two, their experimental platform weaponized. While indies may have started out discussing whether $100 shuts out a class of developers, they were eventually talking about who were bona fide indie developers – a.k.a. people would could find that $100 whatever the fuck happened – and those who were not.
This has been bubbling away beneath the surface for some time. Indies recoil in horror as Jonathan Blow is hailed gaming's true messiah in the New Atlantic. Anger, rage, gnashing of teeth when Phil Fish is allowed to enter the IGF twice and win both times for the same game that hadn't yet been released. What appears to be respect for short-form and niche games that don't make much money might actually be begrudging tolerance of freeware. Some see every little Flash game and jam prototype as noise: Steam is where you go for the beautiful symphonies away from the cacophony.
There's a shocking scene in Roman Polanski's Chinatown where Jack Nicholson tries to slap the truth out of Faye Dunaway and she alternates her answer with each blow – sister, daughter, sister, daughter. Surely both answers cannot be true. Everyone is an artist? You are what you earn? Greenlight slaps the indie scene: artist, business, artist, business...
So when Jonas Kyratzes wrote an article about the $100 Greenlight fee he was, in fact, inviting an angry mob to come to his comments and try to kick him in the head. Some asserted that developers like Jonas should throw in the towel if they weren't making enough money to pay the fee.
The Infinite Ocean is my personal favourite of Jonas' games but it was browser-based freeware and I never paid a penny for the experience. Instead of letting the grim drama playing out over blogs and Twitter continue to upset me, I asked Jonas a hypothetical question. How much, I asked, might he have sold The Infinite Ocean for? He told me.
Last night, I sent him the money and finally paid him for his game.