When you’re in a long distance relationship with another person, how do you maintain that relationship? How can you be sure the other person feels what you think they feel for you? Can their words be enough, or will they always leave something to be desired? And who exactly do you have a relationship with? Does the other person only exist as an idea in your mind, or are they something more than that? Would things be any different if the two of you met face to face? Perhaps most important of all, does any of this even matter?
When writing about games that consist only of boss battles, the general rule is that one presents those games as intense, difficult struggles. Titan Souls has been variously described as “comparably difficult” to Ori and Bloodborne, “a stiff challenge[…]to lose yourself in”, and as a game “requires patience, a keen eye, reflexes and skill – and the ability to accept that you will die a lot”. Furi has received a similar treatment.
However, I believe this rule misunderstands what draws people to games like these in the first place. Their appeal lies not in their ability to challenge us, but in their ability to ease our minds. Their heavily goal-driven nature gives us clarity and purpose we might otherwise struggle to find on our own. Moreover, with our minds set upon a single task we’ve devoted our entire being to, that task comes to occupy all our immediate thoughts, clouding out others that might prove too burdensome. What are these creatures, why do I fight them, what impact will their death have on the world – if these questions exist within the game, then I only consider them outside the fights that define it. Within those fights, my mind is set on defeating the enemy before me.
Lieve Oma (Dutch for “Dear Grandma”) strikes me as the kind of game that would be hastily dismissed as “not a video game.” I say “hastily” because claims like these tell us more about the narrow range of experiences many enthusiast circles value than they do the nature of the medium at large. They’re convenient in that they justify our refusal to engage with these games by saying the ideas they explore and the conclusions they arrive at don’t hold any relevance to us. The irony, of course, is that Lieve Oma never strays too far from the fundamental mindset underpinning most popular video games. Play is centered on the self and its unfettered ability to sate its own desires; that self is forced to act within tightly defined boundaries it isn’t able to question; and the basic premise represents an escapist fantasy. Lieve Oma shows no interest in critiquing these points.
Again, though, I don’t see the value in dismissing the game out of hand. Its strengths lie not in critique, but in requalification; preserving the use of a specific convention, but removing the attitudes typically associated with it so that we might value that convention along a different axis. For example, as eager as the game is to present itself as a game, it’s just as eager to pose nuanced questions about what a game is. Likewise, escapism takes on an entirely different meaning: not one of denying problems through an appeal to power, but of emotional comfort that prepares one for the world on their own terms.
Experimental games in the commercial space have put themselves in a strange position for a number of years. They may promote themselves as questioning the assumptions we take for granted or exploring a subject matter that games typically don’t explore, but because these games force themselves into formats we typically associate with games, there’s always a limit on what they’re capable of accomplishing. It’s a respectability thing, I suspect; fearing that nobody will take what you’re doing seriously unless it can be openly recognized as a game. Sometimes that works out, like with Little Inferno’s scathing commentary on the futility capitalist consumption. Other times, you get 1979 Revolution: Black Friday awkwardly trying to fit its interpretation of the Iranian Revolution into a Telltale-esque format.
Unfortunately, OneShot fits into the latter of these two categories. Originally released as an RPGMaker 2003 game a couple of years ago, OneShot follows a young girl named Niko on her quest to restore light to a dying world. It confronts the possibility that this world is already beyond saving and then asks how we might continue to lead our lives in the face of its perhaps-unavoidable descent into ruin. This game is by no means the first to probe into questions like these, but the answers it provides are infused with enough warmth, hope and humanity that the world feels as though it has meaning even if Niko doesn’t succeed in her quest. Or at least it would if OneShot were presented in any other way. However, the game’s unconscious desire for legitimacy as a game drags it down in ways it can’t hope to recover from.
Over the past couple of years, there’s been a trend of small independent game artists eschewing traditional standards for video games in favor of something more artistic and experimental. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: altgames. These kinds of games forgo the premises we’ve come to expect from video games and choose to explore entirely different subject matter. And instead of taking it upon themselves to explain and inform the player of every element in their design, they just as trust the player to accept things as they are and to come up with their own interpretation of the events that follow.
Where does Fingerbones fit into all this? I really don’t know where. Looking at the game, it’s clear that Fingerbones wants to be part of this growing movement, or at least that it was adjacent to it. It was first released two years ago, right around the time altgames were picking up momentum, and it employs enough of the group’s tricks that I feel comfortable grouping it alongside those other games. I just wish Fingerbones understood the movement’s strengths, or at the very least, its own strengths. Unfortunately, those strengths lie buried beneath a mountain of indecision, all but ensuring the game can only reach a fraction of its potential.
System Shock 2 is going to be a difficult game to write about. This has nothing to do with its popularity (there’s still a lot to be said about this game), but because there’s just so much to talk about. System Shock 2 is such a dense, multifaceted game that picking one point of discussion feels impossible. Nonetheless, I’ll give it a shot. What stands out about System Shock 2 for me (IE what I think the game devotes most of its energy to) is its deep interrogation of the biology/machine divide. These are already common motifs in science fiction, and although System Shock 2 hedges closely to its source material, it carries the discussion into unexpected new territory.
Recent years have seen video games being criticized for how poorly they discuss human sexuality. A lot of those critiques focus on how games depict sex (usually in a voyeuristic fashion that loses a lot of nuance), but it’s also important to consider what games choose to focus on when it comes to sex. That’s why I was so interested in Lucky Me, Lucky You, the latest visual novel from Ebi-hime (writer of The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns and Strawberry Vinegar). The only other time you see pornography directly depicted in games is when some Shadow Moses guard is reading it, but here we have a game that discusses pornography upfront. Unfortunately, it’s far from the nuanced take on pornography I was expecting. Rather than discuss the topic with any sense of tact, Lucky Me, Lucky You instead makes needlessly judgmental and untenable statements about its worth.
If you were to read most of the video game criticism that’s been published in recent years, you’d come away with the impression that video games abound in social ignorance. Some games exhibit a level of political awareness and merely fail to acknowledge a potential issue, and many others deny the problem in the first place by suggesting they exist in a political vacuum. Now I’m not here to argue that these games don’t exist. Rather, I want to point alternatives; games whose strengths lie in their hyper-awareness of the issues at play. Games like Jet Set Radio. While the game’s most appealing feature has always been its zealous energy, what sets Jet Set Radio apart is that its energy is not the product of social ignorance. If anything, the game is all too aware of how capitalist ideals structure our lives, which is why it suggests transcending them by turning life into a radical performance. Given how stylishly Jet Set Radio renders those performances, it’s hard not to be swayed by the game’s arguments.
If you’re anything like me, then years of watching television (The Simpsons, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) have given you a precise image of what a bar looks like. Dark, glum, miserable; it’s the kind of place where those who have hit rock bottom go to drown their sorrows one glass at a time. It’s also the type of image you won’t find in VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action. In fact, not only does Sukeban Games’ latest release do everything in its power to distance itself from that image, the strategies it uses to achieve that goal are what make it such a distinctive experience in the first place. Through its vibrant cast and intelligent approach to game design, VA-11 Hall-A brings a hopeful warmth to a world in dire need of it.
The general conception of adventure games, much like JRPGs, is that they’re enjoyed primarily for their narrative value. Yet unlike JRPGs, I get the feeling that people are more ready to defend adventure games on ludic grounds. “They’re not just about the story”, they’ll tell you. “They’re also about working out the internal logic the world runs on, and then using that understanding to conquer whatever challenges the story throws your way.” Conveniently, this explanation slots well into the historical narratives the gaming community has created around the genre. It explains why the genre died during the late 90s (because games like Gabriel Knight 3 relied on arbitrary logic that made for unfair challenges), and why it rose from its own ashes about a decade later (either because games like Machinarium reined in the genre’s excesses or because games like The Walking Dead obviated the need for puzzles at all).
Still, this reasoning relies on a set of assumptions about adventure games that I don’t think would hold up that well in practice. By grounding the genre in pure logic, we assume it operates like a set of dominos, even though a lot of games are too free form and open to exploration to fit that model. This is where Sam & Max: The Devil’s Toybox comes into play. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary adventure game: here are some puzzles, here are some pieces, get to work putting it all together. But the more you play it, the more you realize just how much the game questions adventure game form. While its experiments never outright contradict or negate that generic framework, it still does a lot to complicate it, getting us to ask questions like, “How does this genre function?” and “What’s my role in all this?” For a certain amount of time, at least.