Something strange happened to my e-mail recently while I was playing Michael Brough’s headfuck game Corrypt. The Electron Dance inbox seemed to glitch out and I ended up with several mails corrupted. Amongst the wreckage of shredded headers and splintered streams, I discovered one of corrupted mails bore a new attachment, named “vesper6.odt”. At first I thought it was a fictional piece – but I now believe this is a document that has slipped across from a parallel reality.
I present it to you now with hyperlinks relevant to this reality.
I’m trying to figure out whether Michael Brouge has sold out or whether he’s tricked his audience into a giant psychological experiment. Perhaps the sad truth is all games are experiments, from the earliest methods to keep the coins flowing into the slots to the contemporary buzz around “freemium” and the like. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s go back one year.
Michael Brouge created the game VESPER.5 for a Super Friendship Club game jam with the theme of “ritual” and it picked up plenty of attention, even becoming nominated in the IGF awards this year. The surprise of VESPER.5 is its simplicity. It's an explorer game with a twist. The player takes control of a monk who is allowed to explore the game’s pocket world and there is no apparent goal beyond that. The twist is the player is only afforded one move per day, between which the monk meditates. Completing the game can take months.
I didn’t really grasp the importance of the ritual but kept it up because I intended to see it through. I never expected to write about it because I didn’t extract anything meaningful from the game. I was taken by the idea that Brouge could force players into a slow, long-form experience but what that could mean eluded me. I was silly enough to assume I would be impervious to its effects; I was wrong.
The game became annoying. Every day, I had to wait for the monk to retrace his steps and that process became longer the deeper I got. Eventually I ran out of patience and just wanted it to end already. That day finally came and then: crap. From Twitter:
It is almost two weeks since I whittled VESPER.5 down to one final move. I still have one move left.
I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. It took a while, but I did find the strength eventually:
Tired and disaffected with the PC. So it was the perfect time to take the final step of VESPER.5. It is done. And now it is time to sleep.
Even today, there’s still plenty of talk about VESPER.5 and Polygon wrote about it in March. The game still has legs. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when Brouge confessed to me that a sequel had been in development since attending GDC this year.
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.
This is the second part of The Shooting Gallery trilogy. In the first part, Shooting Spirit, developers of 2D shooters described their interest in the form.
I adore Iain McLeod's giddy shooter Spheres of Chaos 2012. The game is a reworking of McLeod’s original Spheres of Chaos, which debuted on the Acorn Archimedes computer in 1992. It shares genetic ancestry with Asteroids (Atari, 1979) although that association is misleading. The key strategy in Asteroids is to stay in the centre of the screen, whereas this is not recommended in Spheres of Chaos 2012.
It's an echo of the arcade shooters from three decades ago, even sporting an attract mode showing a breakdown of the enemies and their point values. Most of the game's muffled audio seems to have emerged from an old, broken arcade cabinet and when the player rattles the pointy powerups with a stream of bullets, it sounds like the program is out of tune.
The game often overpowers the player's senses with vibrant patterns of colour rippling out from every explosion. But my favourite moment is when the player's craft is destroyed and spinning orange shrapnel explodes across the playfield, blotting everything out. Eugene Jarvis, the developer of Defender (Williams Electronics, 1980), commented in the Chicago Tribune that the explosion of the player's ship in Defender is the biggest because “no one wants to play a game where they slip and hit their head in their driveway and die”.
This is it, people, this is enormo-spoilers. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
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.
Richard Perrin's first-person exploration/puzzle game Kairo (available on Steam tomorrow) is a great example of environmental narrative taken to the extreme, because it tells a story eschewing words almost completely.
Yet after browsing reviews and impressions pieces, I discovered some players had trouble figuring out the story.
At The Border House, Michelle Ealey wrote: “After my first playthrough of Kairo, I was frustrated. I didn’t get it; I really didn’t know what had happened and why.”
John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun wrote that "your purpose in Kairo is never explained" and "quite what Kairo is about entirely eludes me".
And Andrew Plotkin: “If I were to level a charge, it would be that the game world never really coheres, beyond the visual level. An adventure can set up its narrative drive through discovered texts and journals (old gag though that is). Or it can build a narrative out of its artistic details, the discovered connections and implications hidden in the visual world. Or this structure can come from the gameplay itself -- the connections you discover between the puzzles and mechanisms that make up the game. By solving, you learn what it's for.”
I'm going to let you decide. In this image-heavy post, I'm going to take you through my deconstruction of Kairo's story, start to finish. This means spoilers, of course. Massive spoilers the size of the Death Star.
When they tell you that you are gorgeous and amazing, you wonder if it's not you at all but the butterfly effect. Maybe they have fallen in love with the synergy of a Zeitgeist moment and you are merely the object of misplaced affections. So you do something that looks backwards, something that tries to clone that superstar attention. We are all human.
The Aspiration remains one of the best pieces of writing you will find on Electron Dance. It is a detailed journal of my struggles in a game of Neptune's Pride, covering not just strategy but alien role-play and flirtation with a game-induced nervous breakdown. But once the series was done in 2011, the traffic did not stick around and for the rest of that year I could not shake off the feeling that I had slipped silently from internet wannabe to internet has-been.
I had some ideas for essays that extended The Aspiration and decided in 2011 Q4 to run a spin-off series. During the original series, The Aspiration had revealed they were heading for Earth so for the spin-off The Aspiration would finally reach Earth then hack Electron Dance. Also running it over Christmas might be a win in terms of traffic because most sites stop updates during the holidays. Thus The Xmaspiration was born. It sounded awesome, almost as awesome as alien vampires.
I attempted to hype it up before the series launched except... I created something monstrous. Something I lost control of. What I envisioned as a harmless bit of fun mutated into a full-blown ARG, an alternate reality game.
This is the story of that accidental ARG and how it destroyed Christmas.
In the last three years I have "discovered" two games.
The first was Nicolau Chaud's Marvel Brothel, which I unearthed on his Portuguese site after being pointed to his (at the time) better-known sociopath game Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer (best game ending of 2010) via Jordan Rivas. Somehow the game had been posted onto rpgmaker.net and never achieved escape velocity. I forwarded it to Kieron Gillen who was still at RPS at the time and it was soon all over the internet. Within days, Marvel issued a cease-and-desist order against rpgmaker.net and tried to kill the game; it still flourishes out there in the wild.
The second game I discovered was, of course, Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life. Cart Life had been posted onto the AGS forums in 2011 and achieved only limited success; the deluxe versions had sold out but little had been written about it. When I played the game, I didn't have an immediate epiphany like "this has IGF winner written all over it". I sat on it a couple of months while I wrote about Neptune's Pride and then put my thoughts together at the start of 2012. I had begun to realise that the game was special. I try to avoid hyperbole so you can imagine how immensely silly I felt when I titled the Cart Life article "Game of the Year".
Think of those ugly, malformed crystals you could grow with a kid's chemistry set at home but much bigger. How big? Think miles. And no one knew they were coming because one day they were simply there. As if they'd always been there, you know, like some dusty forgotten ornaments of the atmosphere.
I am nostalgic about those days, the last good days, because I like to think the fear of the unknown, of the uncertain future, was still tinged with optimism.
Someone had contaminated Slackjaw’s still.
Rather than killing many of his gang outright, those who had quaffed elixir from the poisoned still were now Weepers, quarantined in a makeshift gaol. The Bottle Street Gang was crippled, which was why Slackjaw turned to me for help. Something had happened in Dr. Galvani’s place and he didn’t have anyone available to follow it up.
Slackjaw was not aware that I was the one who had poisoned his still. Neither was he aware that his bodyguards were unconscious, sheltering under cobwebs in the darkest corners of the distillery.
I delivered revelation with my knife and wrote the truth across his chest. He gasped and staggered back, but I left him no time to respond. A second revelation proved too much for him and he collapsed to the floor.
As I took my leave, none of the gang members in the main hall noticed anything was wrong. Outside was a different story. The Weepers had escaped from their prison and, with surprising enthusiasm, had taken up the task of attacking and infecting their jailers.
The Bottle Street Gang profited from misery every day and terrorised the ordinary people of Dunwall. And so I killed them.