This month we’re celebrating FIVE YEARS of Electron Dance!
Welcome, welcome all. Today I present the most definitive of lists, the one you’ve waited five years for.
This is the nine most popular posts on Electron Dance.
The only time I’ve used the phrase “Game of the Year” was when I bled words over my discovery of Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011).
I pushed hard to get the ball rolling. I spent two weeks on Cart Life. Then I did a podcast interview with Hofmeier. Then I begged Adam Smith at RPS to take a look, even though the game was really buggy, but he was blown away as well. Then Doug Wilson (Sportfriends) became a fan and wanted to get in touch with Hofmeier. I guess this was the start of Hofmeier’s induction into indie developer circles.
The game still hadn’t got much attention almost a year after I’d written about it. I’m not sure who exactly persuaded Hofmeier to submit Cart Life to the IGF but after it was submitted to the IGF, everything changed. Cart Life began to turn up everywhere.
Looking back, I guess I can take some credit for “discovering” Cart Life? Other people were playing it before I found it and it had already been written about, albeit well outside of the usual videogame outlets. But I don’t think Hofmeier would have submitted to the IGF (a year late!) had it not appeared on Electron Dance, which means in a parallel universe where I hadn’t posted about it, Cart Life would remain undiscovered.
I have grown out of my “games are the highest form of art” phase, where we constantly plug the drug of interactivity as outdoing every other passive artistic medium. I’m more pragmatic and increasingly wary of hyperbole as covering up how limited our achievements are. “Where is The Citizen Kane of Gaming?” is a question that truly speaks to my animal side, for I want to strike the person asking the question square in the nose. But within that nestles the seed of doubt that perhaps gaming isn’t going to be as profound as we all think.
When all the heavy-duty writing and thinkpieces are in thrall to AAA titles like Battlefield: Hardline, Beyond: Two Souls and Metal Gear Solid (the nth sequel), that’s probably all anyone is really going to see in videogames. But you write about big titles to make a little money – being the first to write about Cart Life isn’t going to win you a gig at the New York Times. (I’m not looking for a job at the NYT, thanks for asking.)
I’m also ambivalent towards calling anything a game, which is why I wrote No Alternative in the first place, wondering if the choice of terminology was more about capturing audience and getting into commercial channels. Despite that, the “is it a game” question really drives me nuts because what I’m really hearing is “why waste my attention with this bilge?”
And it gets my goat when people happily piddle all over the artsy end of the market. The ossification of “walking simulators” into an actual, recognized category struck a nerve. Is that the best we can do? Is that the only thing that defines these titles?
Walking is not why people play titles such as Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2008) or Bernband (Tom van den Boogaart, 2014). I told the story of the secret box to argue that “walking simulators” had entirely missed the point and to demonstrate that not every new term had to be negative and reductive. It gathered more interest than I expected and even the game Verde Station (Duelboot, 2014) then labelled itself as a “secret box”.
If there’s one annoying thing about being an “old man” in videogames, it’s having memory. It’s difficult to get excited about the next iteration of the shooter because it’s always just an iteration. When the new GTA comes out, you realise that’s effectively the same model as always just with a few extra side missions, navigational devices blah blah blah.
I had wanted to write about Mercenary (Novagen, 1985) for a long time and when I got into it, I realised that Mercenary was a different breed of open world: it wasn’t obsessed with violence or mayhem which is what usually passes for “open world” today. While games like Minecraft (Mojang, 2011) and Miasmata (IonFX, 2012) offer some light relief, they still obsess about fear and danger. I can imagine a modern gamer thinking “well if you get rid of all that stuff, where’s the game?” but Mercenary proved it was possible to achieve: not just once, but three times because there were two sequels.
I guess I wrote “too much” about the game because few people read parts two and three, but I hope the word got out there. We lost this kind of game. Rob Fearon later wrote of his disappointment that Elite (David Braben & Ian Bell, 1984) became synonymous with the history of the open world rather than Mercenary.
In my reality, the majority is never right. The majority usually thinks something is right because it’s easy to consume and understand, therefore all the nuance has been crushed underfoot and fed to termites. I find it difficult to trust the majority. So when an image of Watch Dogs (Ubisoft Montreal, 2014) goes viral and becomes “everything wrong with videogames” my spidey-sense tingles.
I’ve bashed the innovation-averse focus of AAA over the years and I certainly don’t high-five the process of putting people through the crunch grinder for these games. But I have admiration for the incredibly dense products that the big studios put out, probably similar to the way I can be amazed by the pyramids of Egypt but turn a blind eye to their origins involving slavery and abuse.
I don’t know if I want to spend the rest of my life complaining about misplaced pixels in a multi-million dollar product when said products reflect innumerable lessons of craft developed through decades of videogame successes and failures. I mean, all that polish, it’s incredible, right?
Vault the Grave wasn’t really about getting hung up on small mistakes in games, but actually a swipe at the negativity of the gaming audience. As Bruce Lee once said in Enter the Dragon: don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.
Many of the big successful essays start with the smallest of ambitions. No one gave enough attention to what Kairo (Locked Door Puzzle, 2012) had pulled off, one of the few games to tell a story entirely through visuals. (I lied, there are two pieces of text in the entire game, the infamous “secret ending” aside.) The problem was no one seemed to get the story. I thought someone had to write this wrong and I was man enough for the task.
Somehow it turned into an enormously long guide of every narrative beat in Kairo. I was kicking myself a little, because I was sure this was the kind of indulgent post that would only be of interest to a small audience.
What I did not realise is that being the only guide to Kairo’s story meant the article became a mandatory visit for Kairo players. This article still receives visitors every week and I get the occasional e-mail to discuss alternative Kairo theories.
Writing doesn’t erupt onto the page fully-formed. It’s like throwing paint at a wall and seeing what sticks, blending colours and making shapes from the chaos. Often you find these great hulking voids where you realise you haven’t done your homework.
I wanted to write about a simple theory I’d been kicking around, that we more often appreciate game story in terms of its narrative possibility space, despite citing our personal adventure through the game. Exposure to Twine convinced me it was worth putting down on paper.
But I was also convinced that someone must have been exploring these ideas previously and bought a copy of Aspen Earseth’s Cybertext purely as background material for this short article. When I came to actually write it up, more and more ideas came flooding in and I realised I couldn’t just stop with a dose of cold theory.
The problem being: a technical breakdown of story misses out the ethereal magic that the story interface provides, whether that interface be a book, a movie or a game. Watching a YouTube of Dear Esther is not the same as navigating the island yourself personally. So while I was building up to concepts of “narrative superposition” and “collaborative reading”, I needed to highlight that this view sidelined some crucial issues.
Anyway, after I spent weeks working on this frankly overlong article, I expected it to sink beneath the waves without a trace. Ha, ha. No chance.
There are things I’d like to change. The appeal to hypertext is misguided, although the exact fix is unclear. Hypertext is an approximation of most game stories. Mathematically, the presence of a single variable means the hypertext model is no longer an exact fit. Although every game story appears to be a “branching structure”, many of those branches are being generated based on older decisions. However, the principle of narrative superposition still holds, because what is difficult to model as hypertext is not difficult for the human brain to grok.
I decided early on that if Electron Dance was ever going to be interesting I had to make every article have a point beyond a buying guide. I eventually killed off the humble review with 925 on Cryostasis being my last formal review but this left me with the eternal problem of looking for my angle.
It had been known for a while that Brazilian developer Nicolau Chaud was working on a sex-themed RPG Polymorphous Perversity. Jordan Rivas had broken the news and it left me with nothing to write about: he’d covered everything that needed to be said. I checked on its progress intermittently and Chaud was in contact regularly back then.
I assumed everyone who had written about this wacky sex game would have been following its progress. I noticed that Chaud was not particularly enjoying his research; spending all that time knee deep in other people’s unusual fetishes was getting under Chaud’s skin.
And there it was: my angle. I was just surprised no one had picked up on it after Polymorphous Perversity had been splashed all over the blogosphere. Perhaps my first lesson that a brief splurge of PR means little in the long game.
We couldn’t talk about Starseed Pilgrim (Droqen, 2012).
No, we couldn’t.
The thing is, in the not talking about Starseed Pilgrim, people weren’t talking about Starseed Pilgrim.
That was the problem. People didn’t talk about it in all the wrong ways. They talked about how they couldn’t talk about it, instead of not talking about it in a way that made you feel they were telling you something about it. I know, right?
So, I had two goals. First, to write a parody of a review that can’t talk about a game. Second, to actually impart the full experience of Starseed Pilgrim without spoiling anything. Because if you haven’t finished that game, you don’t know shit about it. IN YOUR FACE, REVIEWERS.
And somehow it worked. It was miles more popular than the massive spoiler-drenched analysis I followed up with two weeks later.
UPDATE! You can now watch The Five Stages of Starseed Pilgrim: The Movie!
It’s hard to be a discoverer of hidden gems. There are so many eyes scouring forums and game jams like searchlights that you’re unlikely to be the first one to plant the flag on the New Sensation. But occasionally, it happens. Cart Life was my second major discovery. My first was bigger. It was so big, the game was swiftly taken down with a DMCA request.
I was researching the background of Nicolau Chaud, the author of mini-sensation serial killer simulator Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer (2010) and discovered he’d put out an RPG called Marvel Brothel (2009). And it was real with proper mechanics and everything.
Finding something like this, it’s pure gold. I alerted Rock Paper Shotgun – who kindly linked me back – and the game just blew up after that. And within a week it was taken down for trademark infringement.
Mechanically, Marvel Brothel is a game about managing resources. But it’s got a dark sense of humour and is utterly unpornographic. It is a game that ends with an orgy to save the world.
The post on Marvel Brothel has seen 30,000 views since it was published. This is three times more than anything else on this top nine. It’s also the only article across the site that has received a negative comment. And the one article that made somebody think I was a woman.
Without a doubt, “969 on Marvel Brothel” truly deserves it’s number one status.