In his epic Dark Souls Diaries series, Matt “Steerpike” Sakey wrote about a key moment when he felt guilty for killing an NPC he had intended to save. Sakey didn’t have long to mourn. Rather than leave him to wallow in his misery, one commenter told him there was actually nothing he could do. Don’t feel bad about it.
Player guilt is so easily destroyed, it seems, if we learn everything is a foregone conclusion. We are fascinated by what lies behind the curtain and the fear that the game might be making a fool of us, exploiting us through an illusion of agency. No one wants to be Stanley of The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013), the developer’s puppet.
We crave the weight of consequence yet revel in its destruction. How do we make sense of this contradiction?
This is the concluding part of No Alternative, the first part was posted yesterday.
What if someone wanted to market a hypothetical “non-game”? Channels for marketing and distribution have matured for games but are there any channels for publicising or selling “non-games”? Are developers being coerced into calling their works games for commercial reasons?
A couple of years ago in an essay called A Theoretical War, I touched on the Holy War over the meaning of the word ‘game’. The war has not gone away. Each time some ‘alternative’ release reaches across the divide – such as when Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2013) or Depression Quest (Zoe Quinn, 2013) hits Steam – there’s an outbreak of unpleasantness. This battle to control ‘game’ even has a parody Twitter account, TheGamePolice.
Outside of the mainstream, there’s a strong belief that no one needs to define or control what gets to be called a game. Everything can be a game. But let’s put aside a technical discussion on definitions. The word ‘game’, in popular culture, has connotations. It is a complicated word that means different things to different people.
Last year, Darius Kazemi published a slideshow called Fuck Videogames in which he suggested not everyone needs to make ‘games’. He admitted he had dropped the term himself, pitching his own work under the banner of ‘weird internet stuff’.
Here’s a question for you. Are there problems with calling everything a game? Here’s another. Are there developers who would rather not call their software a game? I consulted Kazemi, Ed Key (Proteus), Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn (Tale of Tales) and Dan Pinchbeck (The Chinese Room) on whether we need an alternative.
One day soon, my son is going to ask why we never park the truck in Euro Truck Simulator 2 (SCS Software, 2012) and I will explain, nay confess, that it is because it is bloody difficult. Having to get the truck into a precise position, like boarding a wagon for the Eurotunnel Freight Shuttle at Folkestone, freaks me out.
Oh, I've tried therapy. One night, while Little HM was asleep, I practised parking a trailer, determined my son would see his father reverse a truck without a hitch. And, in this parental fantasy, he would be inspired and grow up to do great things in the world.
Fortunately, the meat of ETS2 is driving and Little HM has always pushed for the longer jobs. He wants to take on a job that's too long for our driver to do in a single stretch and has to find somewhere to "sleep" in the game. At this point, the jobs available to us are not that long and we can drive from start to finish without stopping for fuel or rest.
A couple of weeks ago, we didn't have much too time to spend on the PC and we chose a job delivering coal from Luxembourg to Verona. I thought we’d be done in about twenty minutes or so.
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
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 the first part of The Shooting Gallery trilogy.
Cinema and literature have shown they can weather the storm of time: The African Queen can make contemporary audiences laugh, Nosferatu is still disturbing and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice remains a favourite. But videogames are cursed. The cutting edge corrodes with frightening speed and the once-pioneering designs of yesteryear give way to frustration when compared to leaner, smarter modern work.
But sometimes this zeal for the new bites off more than it chew. The text adventure reportedly died a long time ago – but there’s still a thriving interactive fiction community. The industry also tried calling time on the point-and-click adventure – but take one look at Wadjet Eye Games, for example, and we’ll see it’s still possible to build a viable business with the point-and-click. Just because a particular form has dropped out of the mainstream favour, it doesn’t mean it is dead, antiquated or has nothing more to offer.
The 2D shooter experienced a similar fall from grace and yet, like the point-and-click, continues to enjoy a commercial life. However, unlike adventures which are story-driven, the 2D shooter has earned less critical attention. A shooter is a shooter, it seems, end of story. This seems ridiculous when faced with successes such as Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and Everyday Shooter, or even efforts to sketch out new territory like Leave Home. Vlambeer made a big splash with the intensive Super Crate Box and their aerial combat shooter Luftrausers is on the horizon.
Before I began writing about videogames, I had dismissed the 2D shooter as “passé”. Today, I am a passionate advocate for the shoot 'em up. But what is so fascinating about the 2D shooter? Let’s ask some shmup developers like Rob Fearon, Kenta Cho, Matt James, Charlie Knight, Jonathan Mak and Stephen Cakebread that question.
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.