I’m not a fan of #screenshotsaturday. Even though the indie underground looks down at the mainstream's sexual obsession with photorealistic graphics, developers still smear images of game prototypes across Twitter every Saturday. I tune out the hashtag because I don’t want to fall in love with the game implied by a screenshot. I can’t actually buy the game I imagine it to be.
Still, even the most cynical grumpsters amongst us are not immune to screenshot seduction. I spotted a glimpse of Myriad (Erlend Grefsrud, 2013) on Twitter a couple of months ago which probably looked something like this:
After that, I hunted down a video of the game in action. After that, I sent Grefsrud an e-mail. Well, less an e-mail. More of a demand or threat. Hand over a copy of your game. Or else.
Myriad is a 2D shooter-in-progress. Beyond that I find it a little difficult to describe. Grefsrud's intention was for Myriad to be “a purely systemic game with no narrative trappings whatsoever” and he followed this line to its conclusion, creating something I would label austere rather than minimalist. Aside from the basic controls for firing and grabbing, there's not a whit of explanation or hint of a tutorial. There’s no patronising the patrons.
Last month, Duncan Fyfe wrote about the royal lineage of “0451 games” that includes titles such as System Shock (Looking Glass Studios, 1994), Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) and Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013). Asked about what makes a game an 0451 game, Gone Home designer Steve Gaynor replied:
“...I feel like all of those games are about trusting the player, in a really meaningful way. Saying we're going to make a world that stands on its own, and that you're a part of, and that you're visiting and interacting with, but that doesn't cater to you, that trusts you to be curious enough and invested enough to navigate it and be interested in it and figure it out and be a part of it because of your inherent interest in exploring that space. And not because of extrinsic rewards or awesome cutscenes or all these things that are made to motivate the player to play the game in this heavy-handed way, but instead are hands off and an invitation for you to invest yourself.”
Gaynor was describing story-heavy worlds but this design ethos of stepping away to let the player educate themselves and explore is now more common. Proteus (Ed Key & David Kanaga, 2013), The Swapper (Facepalm Games, 2013), Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) and Mirrormoon EP (Santa Ragione, 2013) are all games that do not cajole players into expected behaviours. We often refer to tutorials as treating players “like a child” but a parent who treated their child in this way – smothering them with rules and never letting them know failure – would be considered a bad parent. A lot of games are really bad parents.
It takes several passes to figure out Myriad’s little puzzle. The first-time player is likely to approach the game as a pure shooter and ignore the grab button. It doesn’t take long for the game to overwhelm the player and, with only one life, that means game over. After a few more attempts, the player will figure out that grabbing enemies and worlds is vital to ensuring longevity and the game becomes a more dense experience overall. It takes longer to figure out the upgrades and score multipliers, familiar conventions of the 2D shooter, because Grefsrud has obfuscated them.
Grefsrud wanted to boil the game down to pure mechanics and even toyed with dispensing with words and numbers altogether. An element of this extreme approach remains in the distorted, barely readable font in the game. But even if the game is only its mechanics, there is no such thing as an absence of style. Japanese retail company Muji, whose full name means “no brand quality goods” declares that the customer will “find no excessive prices, just simple, sound products you can afford, so simple in fact, they don't even carry a brand name.” Except Muji is a thirty-year old brand and its products carry such cachet that they can no longer be considered inexpensive. There is no such thing as “no brand” and Myriad acknowledges this.
Myriad was exhibited at the Eurogamer Expo last month and I was concerned whether the crowds would figure it out. When I interviewed Grefsrud at the Expo, I made a point of asking about the response to the game. He said, “Most of the time people are actually interested, they want to understand what the hell is going on.” Those players who persisted, even in the boisterous environment of the Expo, started to dig it.
Still, our urge to interpret the game through the lens of a 2D shooter means the funky font might hinder Myriad’s acceptance. It may well be a game that wants to be treated purely in terms of its mechanics, but all that unreadable text sends a mixed message to the player. Why bother communicating at all if you don’t want to communicate anything? When the dialogue between developer and player becomes corrupted, the player may think the developer just didn’t care. They may perceive hostility.
I heard someone describe Myriad as looking pretentious, which struck me as a little harsh.
At one point during the Expo I found myself caught up in a conversation about the big, mainstream games of the show. These were the kind of people the show was made for. They don’t write for web sites. They don’t make games. They don’t even play indie games. I had the pleasure of listening to their observations on Titanfall (Respawn Entertainment), Call of Duty: Ghosts (Infinity Ward) and Dying Light (Techland) – and it was like listening to a foreign language, a language I used to know.
Just a few years ago, I bought almost exclusively mainstream releases, the kind of thing that you bought in a box. These days I’m so far down the indie rabbit hole that it takes all my strength not to dismiss big-budget titles out of hand. I can find an abstract 2D shooter like Myriad gripping yet the crafted, detailed world of linear FPS Metro: 2033 (4A Games, 2010) leaves me scrabbling for something – anything – to say.
Being party to that conversation in a foreign language didn’t make me feel special or elitist. It made me realise I was incomplete, that my mainstream education had been jettisoned into space. It’s easy for that feeling to solidify into prejudice, a hollow justification for a lack of knowledge. Just because I am unable to identify the value in a game, it doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Mainstream is important to a lot of people and Robert Yang also mentioned in Marginalia that “AAA is our R&D division; they invest in research and technology”.
I’m fortunate to have readers who laugh at me when I am surprised to see split-screen co-op on a PC and drag me out of my rabbit hole. If you avoid a game because it looks pretentious, I hope you’ve got someone to drag you out of yours.