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.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday was an odd game for me. I can’t outright dismiss iNK Stories’ rendition of the titular Iranian Revolution (in which the Shah was overthrown and ultimately replaced with a theocratic republic). In fact, I have absolutely no desire to do so. Yet as I continued to play 1979 Revolution, my problems with it piled up to the point where I could no longer ignore them. To be more specific, the game finds itself caught between its desire to inform the player of these events and its desire to craft a compelling story from them. Although it chooses to solve this problem by relaying information to the player through narrative, 1979 Revolution would ultimately be better served presenting itself as more of a documentary. The solution it opts for ultimately creates several other problems it’s unable to solve.
SC2VN: The eSports Visual Novel may belong to a class of games I can’t yet meaningfully analyze. As experienced as I am with visual novels, that experience doesn’t amount to much in the face of such unfamiliar subject matter. The closest experience I have with eSports is watching AGDQ speedruns on YouTube, and that’s a tenuous connection, at best. But that doesn’t mean the game was completely without value for me. In fact, it may have been my ignorance about eSports that let me see the value in Team Eleven Eleven’s visual novel in the first place. The game’s enthusiasm for competitive gaming not only helps it convey the appeal to eSports, but it also extends an open hand to newcomers. In other words, it’s a perfect introduction to eSports for somebody like me.
Although Narcissu isn’t the first visual novel to come from Stage Nana (that honor belongs to the obscure Summer Album), it’s definitely the first visual novel that drew people’s attention to the doujin group. So popular was this melancholy narrative about two terminally ill youths that it spawned a sequel just two years later. Or, rather, a prequel: Narcissu Side 2nd. Its narrative is a layered one; one that shares a curious relationship with its predecessor. For as much as it echoes the first game, so much of what it does also works outside that game’s original scope. Moreover, I see that tension as speaking toward a compatibilist drive at the heart of Side 2nd. The game doesn’t want to abandon or overwrite everything its predecessor has to say. It just hopes to acknowledge those things that had fallen out of its sight.