You need to give Covetous a quick drive round the block.

Covetous is an entry into Mini Ludum Dare 20 by Austin Breed. I recently pulled it off Laura Michet‘s Twitter feed but it’s just turned up on Rock Paper Shotgun as well. I’m not going to spoil the experience if you haven’t dabbled with it yet. This is your spoiler space.

You are now leaving spoiler space. Game on.

Everyone who gets Covetous finds it disturbing. Why does it work?

Another art game, an anti-game if you will, with no real game other than moving an avatar around a bit. It’s a piece of pie to beat, devoid of challenge – and that is where the unnerving magic of Covetous lies.

There is absolutely nothing to stop you consuming the body of your living brother, to rip your own existence out of his. You eat pieces of him as if you were just plucking fruit from a tree, which paints your actions as attacks against a defenceless individual. This is what gets under your skin, as you shift and quiver and bloat beneath your brother’s.

We often assume that challenge is necessary in games and that without it, there is nothing to conquer, nothing to achieve. But challenge is a prop in the sense that it justifies our actions, whether it be mowing down legions of Combine or dismembering necromorphs.

Under the right conditions, taking away that prop can leave the player confused and distressed, as your actions are no longer defined by convenient walls of challenge.

Are there other examples in gaming history where challenge is removed to deliberately upset the player? Pray tell me in the comments below.

Update 30 July: I had a brief discussion with Austin over e-mail and asked whether he’d considered, during development, introducing any challenges to Covetous. Austin strives for minimalism and so the answer was no: “They would just end up being distractions. The game didn’t have anything to do with how good the parasite was at killing and eating, it was about his very simple motive to eat.” More of Austin’s work is available on his site.

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8 thoughts on “The Prop

  1. Okay. So. I like context, and I like to pigeonhole things, so the burning question I got from the game was this: Who/what am I playing as? A modern-day Cain allegory? A cancerous tumor on legs? One of the facehugger parasites from Alien? Or, hell, all three? I’m pretty sure people like AustinBreed hate people like me, but I had to ask.

    None of that is related to your own question, which is clearly operating on a higher plane than any of my own. I don’t have an answer for you, but you’ve given me much to think about.

  2. No, hang on; I played it again. You are given a challenge at the very end, in the form of kill or be killed. And where there’s a challenge, you have the option of not playing that game, thus sparing your brother’s life. It’s like Bioshock redux–nobody’s forcing you to do anything immoral, but you eagerly leap at the chance to perform every depraved act you can when it’s presented as a challenge.

    You bastard.

  3. I killed him. Have not actually replayed it to see the second ending.

    Anyway, in this post you’ve expressed very well an attitude I’ve often had trouble trying to articulate: lots of people are all hung up on the importance of difficulty and challenge in games, when, I think, challenge doesn’t always add anything at all. There’s no inherent value to being good at games. If you can do something arresting and unusual by leaving challenge out entirely, that’s marvelous. Anyone with a firm attitude towards what games are/can be/should be can go wallow in a hole, thanks, and that includes a lot of indie devs who make their stuff so valuelessly difficult simply because they think difficulty is somehow ‘pure.’

    Anyway, there are plenty of meaningful games with little or no challenge. I’ve never before seen one so explicitly make the ‘ease’ of the experience part of the message, though.

  4. @Veret: I tended to think of the protagonist as one of those “vanishing twins” who abort during pregnancy and are absorbed by the surviving twin. Except in this case, we get revenge, Cronenberg body horror style. I was aware of the quicktime event challenge finale, where you could decide not to win, but my main reaction to the game was revulsion at the ease with which I ate my brother.

    @LMichet: I think I was surprised myself, as I’m critical of the art game movement that likes to produce things which… aren’t games in any sense, more like interactive art which would seem a better name for them. But I was impressed with the extreme negative emotions generated by, well, doing nothing. Took me a week to work out why.

  5. I’d have to add that the speed at which you grow stronger makes the lack of challenge even more disturbing. Most games let you get stronger, but slow down the speed of progression as you go (and even then, you’re fighting against an enemy that gets stronger). On the other hand, you eat your brother at an alarmingly fast pace as you advance.

    It really feels like a slaughter when something/someone defenceless becomes, in a manner of speaking, even more defenceless.

  6. I let him live… because I completely failed to understand what I was supposed to be doing on the last screen. There’s challenge after all!

  7. Matt, it’s always nice to discover people are dusting off the archives and having a poke around. Every now and then I notice someone new is reading The Aspiration, for example.

    (You’re right in that the end decision is so “fast” that perhaps it doesn’t work very well. On the other hand, I don’t think that is what makes the game special.)

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