The latest art game that’s bubbled out of the internet soup onto my lap is Alexander Ocias’ Loved via Rock, Paper Shotgun, which I… Liked. It’s a little Flash piece about a cold, dysfunctional relationship that is just the right side of disturbing. The game itself is not that difficult – after a couple of playthroughs it no longer serves up a challenge. (If you just fiddle around with it rather than master it, you’re bound to find the jumping and instadeath frustrating.)
In the end it boils down to a simple binary choice on the part of the player, much like Bioshock’s Kiss/Eat Baby “moral dilemma”, although the choice in Loved is not quite as pitch black and angelic white.
But peel away the narrative and graphical novelties and examine what you have left. Loved makes no change to the pot boiler platformer approach: jump, avoid spikes, avoid floating spikes. This isn’t a world away from what I dubbed anti-games, vehicles that are barely a game, offering a story where your actions only control the speed of the pages being turned – or possibly directing which page you end up on. It has added nothing to the Activity component of the game equation, concentrating entirely on the channelling Emotion through story and aesthetic. Like Heir. Like Mighty Jill Off. Like…
Throw yourself into the barbs
There are plenty of examples with more sophisticated elements. Consider the school of platformers based on the idea that the universe is a tool within the player’s control: Eversion (now on sale on Steam), Shift, the bizarre and unsettling Time Fcuk (you might also argue that Specter Spelunker Shrinks belongs in this category). IGF 2010 winner Continuity is a clever sliding tile puzzle that wears the clothes of a platformer. VVVVVV is perhaps the epitome of the genre, carrying just one mechanic as far as it will go. But let’s not forget Braid, the quintessential bloody excellent spin on the world-weary platformer.
The platformer structure goes all the way back to Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981) although personally I think the nerve-racking Space Panic (Universal, 1980) laid some of the foundations – and Chris Crawford agrees with me, so there. I still like the platformer model, but what I find interesting is that the counterculture of art games has, at its heart, a willingness to be different, to fight for original ideas. A growing section of gamers have turned their attentions indie-ward as a result, with everyone having their own favourite art game fetish.
And yet we now have 1,001 different ways to play a platformer.
Travel the lower path
So, Loved did something for me, but why? What did I enjoy? I liked its voice. I liked its harsh ambience. I liked the simplicity of its function. I liked the perversity that the game’s apparent disinterest in my welfare made me determined to play through to the end; perhaps a cleverer statement of masochistic love than Mighty Jill Off.
Loved, like other games before it, tells me that if a decent story or strange experience is absorbing, I can overlook a lack of gaming ambition. A narrative, emotional ambition can be enough.
Why is that? And is it really a good thing to encourage developers to churn out the same tired old mechanics with just an artistic spin to differentiate them? Discuss.