This is an incomprehensible essay about Ted Lauterbach's complex and surreal puzzle-plaformer suteF. Spoilers within.
A: The Abyss
The first level of suteF is called “Move Right”.
In 2011, I thought suteF was fabulous. Two years on, maybe I’m going to change my mind. Have games aged so quickly? Now we're in an age where getting hyped about another puzzle platformer is an illness to be cured. So, ugh, look at this game wearing its tutorial on its sleeve. I am getting flashbacks of One And One Story: “Once again, I remembered I must not fall from too high.”
My little guy has coughed up a little blood but I send him over to the right side of the screen without much hesitation. I like that he’s a little plump compared to the average game protagonist. The level ends.
Then I get offered a tutorial ghost who seems intent on teaching me what to do. However the level after that, the ghost, “Bob”, is intent on showing me where he comes from. He dashes out from
Cards on the table time, folks. Here’s the question for the big prize. What is the 2D shooter about?
Well done! It is indeed about the shooting of stuff but let's peel back the outer layer of this onion. I also want to discard some of the games where the primary mechanic is navigating obstacles rather than shooting, such as Scramble (Konami, 1981) and Zaxxon (Sega, 1982). When we take the genre as a whole, we notice that shooters usually require players to destroy as much as possible.
Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) lays out five ranks of aliens which march across the screen and taking the occasional decisive step towards the ground. If a single alien makes it to the bottom, the game is over. Aside from the distracting saucers, the player must blast everything.
Something more recent? In arena shooter Death Ray Manta (Rob Fearon, 2012) the player must dispatch every green bunny and pink robot to proceed to the next Manta stage. Even something like Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, 2007), where each level only lasts as long as the background track, encourages the player to wipe out as much as possible for the purpose of acquiring extra lives and creating safe space.
I'm reminded of this short exchange from Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994):
Mathilda: Léon, what exactly do you do for a living?
Mathilda: You mean you're a hit man?
What is the 2D shooter about? It’s about cleaning.
Note: If you're interested in 100% guaranteed spoilers and analysis, you best take a look at the next article, Faith of the Pilgrim.
It's another Fight Club game, like At A Distance. A game you can't talk about. A game it's even dangerous to acknowledge the existence of. Don't go spoiling it y'hear. Don't go causing no bother, now.
“Hey, have you played–”
“FECKING SPOILED NOW INNIT WHY DONCHA JUST TELL ME WHO KILLED LAURA PALMER AND THROW KEYSER SOZE INTO THE FECKING BUNDLE”
No one wants to spoil a good half of Starseed Pilgrim, which is about learning and discovery. Just half, mind you. The other half, which is just as important, is mastery.
Those reviewers brave enough to take on the task of communicating something about the game without, well, communicating something about the game become linguistic contortionists. Adam Smith tries on “Starseed Pilgrim throws its abstractions into the player’s face like a glass of cold water,” and Chris Priestman offers “a game that parallels the act of scribing, but replaces the words with symphonic gardening,” Phill Cameron suggests the “revelations cascade with the speed of a glacier” while the game “smirks and inverts”. John Teti hopes to motivate you with “Dirt is only boring until you plant some seeds. Then it becomes an experience.”
Don't worry, I'm going to end up performing the same kind of trick as these fine fellows. I'm going to share my experience of Starseed Pilgrim without explaining anything whatsoever.
Let me tell you about the five stages of Starseed Pilgrim.
I had finished writing a mail to Ed Key, the developer of Proteus, and the pointer hovered over the Send button. I proofread the mail a couple of times and everything looked good. It was time to click the button.
But I hesitated. Even though the wording was perfect, something was wrong. Doubting myself, I leaned away from the monitor and nudged the pointer off Send.
It did not take me long to realise the stupidity of what I was about to do. Twenty minutes in the making, I deleted the mail in less than a second.
This is a story about confession.
If you wanted to piss off literary critics in 1967, you probably should have written an essay called ‘Death of the Author’ like Roland Barthes did. The author, he maintained, is irrelevant to understanding a text. Those critics who want to wring the truth out of the author, to unlock the One True Meaning, are lazy cretins. Producing art is only half the job; it is the audience who breathe meaning into it.
This idea has not gone unchallenged over the years although it is now commonplace for patrons to figure out their own interpretation of a work of art. In videogames too. Aram Zucker-Scharff wrote a piece in July called Indie Devs vs New Games Journalism: “As a result, a critique from the reviewer’s experience will always be far stronger than an attempt at interpreting the developer’s ideas. Let the text stand alone.”
There was discussion about Cardboard Computer’s Ruins over on Tap-Repeatedly about intent versus whatever shit went on inside the player's head. Gregg B let his rage fly with this barbed anecdote:
I love subtlety but there’s a fine line between reading things that aren’t there and identifying things that are there by design. The former I really hate, mainly because at uni I did an animation short which, looking back was utterly pretentious but there was meaning in it and I stood in a presentation and explained what it all meant. I nearly failed. Another lady on my course — my arch nemesis — filmed water going down a fucking plug hole and said in her presentation “It’s open to interpretation” and she passed with rainbows, stars and miles and miles of smiles. I’m not bitter at all.
Calm down Gregg and have a nice cup of jasmine tea. While we’re waiting for the flavour to diffuse, I want to chat about the author, the artwork and whether these things are as separate as we like to imagine.
In this episode of Dialogue Tree, Eric Brasure interviews Ben Abraham, co-founder of Critical Distance and ex-curator of This Week in Videogame Blogging. In this interview, Ben discusses founding Critical Distance, the curation process, inclusivity, transparency, the pressure to write quickly about new games and a whole lot more.
(Originally broadcast July 23, 2012 through Second Quest.)
02:00 “We had this conversation in an IRC chat room over a few weeks...”
03:10 “No one really had the... temerity, I guess, to put their hand up.”
05:50 “[Michael Abbott] was only really able to do that because he was on sabbatical for a year.”
09:50 “Some kind of institutional support has been really key in the really prolific game critics...”
14:50 “I mean, it blew my mind.”
15:50 “It can be really isolating, I think, just toiling away, writing stuff and having it be read by almost nobody...”
17:55 “...because it meant that whenever anyone disagreed with me it became quite personal.”
20:30 “I got really, really sick of it. I'll be completely honest, I never want to do another one ever again.”
22:45 “We've had our share of controversies over the years.”
23:30 “It looked just like another dudebro club.”
30:50 “We love linking to new pieces about old games.”
38:00 “...a lot of critics who have picked up the tools and started playing with them...”
41:20 “It's really interesting that a sports site has included lots of videogames writing as well.”
Download the podcast MP3 or play it right here in your browser:
- Featured music: Bearsuit - "Hey Charlie, Hey Chuck"
- Critical Distance
- Michael Abbott's The Brainy Gamer
- Eric Brasure talks to Michael Abbott (Dialogue Tree)
- Michael Walbridge's The Game Anthropologist (GameSetWatch)
- Nightmare Mode
- Eric Swain on Critical Distance transparency (cites rejection of an Electron Dance article)
- Robert Yang (Radiator)
- Jim Rossignol's game development studio Big Robot
- "The Lester Bangs of Video Games" Chuck Klosterman, Esquire 2006
Arkane Studios' Dishonored skidded onto the scene last week, a game that echoes Looking Glass Studios' seminal Thief although sports skill upgrades a la Deus Ex. Inevitably there was both great praise ("awesome") and great disappointment ("short").
Over on Minnesota Daily, Simon Benarroch wrote how Dishonored lets us down because it doesn't encourage the player to take advantage of all the skills and items on offer. An interesting argument in itself, one I've considered before with other games; what good are all these wonderful toys if players do not use them?
But Benarroch then confuses the situation:
It wanted so badly for you to have all the options all the time that you never really had to stop and think. Because you can do everything exactly the way you want to, it becomes clear once again that you aren't really creating your own narrative, but playing someone else's.
Because you can play exactly the way you want to, you aren't creating your own narrative.
I've spent five hours on Dishonored so far and only just started the second mission of the game. I’m being Thief-style thorough and will definitely not finish in the standard ten hours, a figure derided as “too short”. So I admit I’m not approaching this topic from the perspective of experience.
Nonetheless, my reaction to Benarroch's essay was this: What?
The following article is about Nicolau Chaud's sex game Polymorphous Perversity; it is most definitely NSFW, contains spoilers through to the game's ending and discusses sexual violence.
Proceed with caution.
Since then, we've traded observations and thoughts on game design and the nature of development. Nonetheless, having a great back catalogue saves no developer from the box-office bomb or the magnum opus that pisses off the fans. With the months ticking by, I was anxious about the ongoing development of your sex game Polymorphous Perversity, passing from the realms of hobby project to obsession. The more hype the project received, the more likely it would disappoint.
I know you've been anxious to hear my thoughts, so I'll start with this: you set yourself up to fail.
In a personal essay, Jenn Frank used 90s simulation Creatures to talk about her disconnection from motherhood – both physical and mental. It's worth your time if you haven't read it already and I'm not here to rip into her article – but I do want to pick up on one point.
There's an implication nestled in the final lines that her experience with Creatures tells her what she would be like as a mother. And zing! went my abstraction alarm.
Let me tell you a story.
After I purchased Cell: Emergence from Desura, it didn't work. After reverifying the files and relaunching the game a few times, I fell back on that old chestnut: asking the developer for help.
It was Deus Ex writer Sheldon Pacotti that came back to me, looking for more details. However, I'd already used my programmer skills to diagnose the problem: it looked like the Desura package hadn't installed some key libraries which I was able to rectify myself. From this, Sheldon was able to patch up the build and my support request morphed into a conversation about the game itself.
And, well, because I am cheeky, I just couldn't resist... I asked if he would be interested in doing an interview.
So here it is, a new Electron Dance podcast! In this 50-minute interview, Sheldon discusses a range of topics. How did he come to be in the games business? Is he a writer or a developer? How did the cellular automata engine evolve? Where are we headed with our increasingly electronic lifestyle? Who does he look up to in the games business?