Tag Archives: games

My name is wind and feather

Games!

I’ve spoken about my love of Catherynne Valente’s writing before, but I’ve never really encountered anything comparable in a game. Until now, that is. The Book of Living Magic‘s writing is perhaps a bit more surreal and whimsical than Valente’s, but it resides in the same fairy-tale/folkloric space, and has that same combination of imagination and compassion that I find irresistible. The flaws I can see are that it’s a bit too short, and the fonts used don’t really match the gorgeous crayon graphics – a stylish cartoon font would have worked better, or even if they’d created a custom font to match the graphics. These are small nits to pick though. It’s a flash game, so you’ve got no excuse; play it now.

There’s another game set in the same world, The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge, which I’ve not played yet, but if it’s anything like The Book of Living Magic it’ll definitely be worth checking out. And the developer is apparently working on a full-length, commercial game set in the same Lands of Dream. On the basis of this game, that’s going to be something pretty special.

And to toot my own horn, you might want to take a look at No Longer Subject to Judicial Review, a short web game I made for the Super Friendship Club‘s inaugral Justice Pageant. I’m quite proud of how it turned out, and it seems to have got some decent word-of-mouth (it got picked up by the indiegames blog and pc gamer, though sadly not RPS, the one place I actually submitted it to). According to google analytics, visitors to the giant bear tracks site rose by over 3000%(!) as a result.

Anyway, it’s a kind of whodunnit-style detective game, where the only information you get about the case is via newspaper articles. I was trying to say something about the notion of justice espoused by the British media and mainstream politicians, only I’m not sure how well that comes across. The endings are deliberately ambiguous – you see the results of your actions (i.e. what happens to the person you convicted), but the game doesn’t tell you whether or not you actually convicted the right person. Something that really surprised me though was the way quite a few people read particular endings as the right ones – they seemed to need to create a kind of narrative closure for themselves even though it doesn’t exist in the game.

Which actually leads me on to the most recent book I read: Scarlett Thomas’ Our Tragic Universe. I’ve always loved Thomas’ writing, but The End of Mr. Y had left me slightly cold, and I’d been dragging my feet a little getting round to her latest book. More fool me. Our Tragic Universe is a wonderful book, full of ideas and compassion (hmm, starting to see a pattern in my reading habits?), and I devoured it within the space of a couple of days.

The central idea is that of storyless stories; stories that don’t follow traditional western narrative rules, that aren’t interested in the Hero’s Journey. These are stories where things don’t really get resolved, obstacles aren’t overcome, and lessons aren’t learned. One of the examples in the book is the story of the fox and the tiger (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s a well-known Chinese folk tale):

A tiger came upon a fox, and was about to eat it, until the fox cried, “Wait! How dare you eat me? Don’t you know I am the most feared creature in the forest?”

The tiger looked at the fox quizzically.

“Just follow me for a mile and watch all the other creatures tremble at the sight of me.”

So the tiger followed the fox through the forest, and everywhere they went, the other animals saw the tiger behind the fox and ran and hid.

At the end of the mile the tiger concluded that the fox was the most feared creature in the forest, and both fox and tiger went their separate ways.

(that’s also the plot of the Gruffalo, isn’t it?)

Thomas also posits that these storyless stories are what realist writing is aiming for. We tend to ascribe narratives to life to make it easier to understand, but reality doesn’t really behave like a narrative; things happen, and there are consequences, but there’s rarely any real resolution. The whole book seems to be about the tension between wanting to create comprehensible narratives and wanting to strip the narrative out in favour of a more realistic, honest style of writing. And I think the book’s main plot could be just as easily read as the kind of narrative it critiques, as it could be read as a storyless story.

It was a bit of a weird sensation reading it just after finishing Judicial Review though, as I quickly came to the conclusion that my game was almost exactly the kind of storyless story Thomas was writing about. It’s not the first time something like this has happened to me; do you ever get the impression the universe is trying to tell you something?

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Zen Running

I just spent 40 minutes completing the Gall Blaster level on Bit.Trip Runner…

Note: this is not the Gall Blaster level. I took a screenshot of the wrong level...

…yet not once did I get frustrated, or want to give up. Despite my many clumsy failures, all the times I crashed into walls or fell down holes, I never got fed up of trying. And when I eventually completed it, I didn’t just reach the finish line in one piece. I 100%-ed it. I got all the gold bars, hit all the crosses, and I bounced across the finish line like a rainbow powered pogo stick. I don’t know of any other game where I would be willing to spend so much time on a single level only to not just beat it, but get a perfect score out of it (on the first complete try).

It’s the music, of course. Bit.Trip Runner is easily the best music game I’ve ever played. Everything about the game is informed by music. Every obstacle, every pickup and jumppad, is quantised to the music. Even without the feedback of hitting the crosses, or falling down a pit, you know when you’re doing well because every button press is in time with the music. And brilliantly, this extends to the design of the levels too. Every level is full of repeating patterns – bounce up these steps, hit the jump-pad, duck under the pipe, then do it again – structured like a great piece of music.

But the key thing, the whole reason that I’m willing to spend 40 minutes on a single level in this game, is that the music never stops. When you hit an obstacle and get zapped back to the start of the level, the music doesn’t pause or break. It carries on, barely even acknowledging anything’s happened. This is a game which makes you feel incredible when you complete a level – bouncing across the finish line with your rainbow cape trailing behind you – yet completing the level is almost beside the point. For a game as hard as this, it’s remarkably easy to fall into a zen state where failures just don’t matter. It’s the experience that counts, not the outcome.


A few Precursors anecdotes

Having bought Precursors on Saturday, I feel the need to share some anecdotes:

  • It took me the better part of 4 days to download the game, because Beamdog seem to be a bit rubbish. Presumably they’ll fix their download client soon?
  • I never knew my father, but apparently he was killed when a frozen mammoth fell out of a thawing glacier onto his head.
  • Upon leaving the starting town: a man ran past me panicking and disappeared into thin air; at the same time a dune buggy flew over a hill, crashed into a rock and exploded; three bandits appeared from nowhere and killed me. This was all watched by a cattle herder who just stood there as the buggy exploded and the bandits killed me and a couple of his cow-things.
  • There is a religion in the game that believes every person is just a character in a computer game, existing solely for the benefit of The Player. The stated goal of this religion is to make contact with The Player and convince them to never finish the game, so they may live forever.

I really like this game. Buggy and broken and funny and chaotic. Really enjoying myself.


Driving in a straight line forever

I love racing games. I love games with a real sense of speed, the feeling of rubber forced down onto tarmac, the knowledge that the slightest twitch or lapse in concentration could send you spinning off the road in a second. But my love seems to be a bit different to other people’s because the thing is, more than anything, I love driving in a straight line.

This can probably be traced back to the first racing game I remember ever playing: Vrooooooommmmm! (I swear, this is the name I knew it by – it seems the reality is altogether more prosaic).

(image via Lemon Amiga)

Like pretty much all my games back then, my copy of Vrooooooommmmm! came via my friend Graeme, whose brother had copied it from one of his friends, who had copied it from someone else etc. etc. (because back then we were all dirty thieving bastards). And like so many of our games, Vrooooooommmmm! came with a trainer, letting you toggle all sorts of options to make the game easier. Of those options, there was only ever one I cared about – the option that removed all the corners from the circuits, turning them into bizarre Möbius strips where you repeatedly passed the start line without ever changing direction. I spent hours on those corner-less roads, fire button held down, making only the slightest of adjustments to avoid the painfully slow computer cars. Neeowmmm! Neeowmmm! Neeowmmm! Fun times.

For obvious reasons I guess, I’ve never found another game that really let me indulge in my passion for corner-less racing games, but recently I have found something that comes close.

My car’s called ‘the flash’.

Fuel is, in so many ways, a flawed game. A vast (seriously, it’s enormous) open world which never lets you get out of your car and instead tries to force you to take part in tedious races full of obstacles, huge vertical drops should you make a mistake, and relentless, fiddly corners. But. That ‘open world’ bit’s the key. Because in Fuel’s world there are motorways. Motorways that go for miles without the slightest hint of a corner. And when they do finally, grudgingly concede that maybe it’s time to change direction, they do so in long, graceful curves that don’t require you to slow down in the slightest.

The stroke of genius to Fuel’s motorways is that every now and then the tarmac’s relentless forward march is broken up. Not with a clumsily placed broken down lorry, or an infuriating hair-pin bend, but with a ramp. A ramp that, thanks to the arrow-straight road and lack of obstacles, you get to take at full speed. Every time I hit one of these I revert to my 9-year old Amiga-playing self, uttering wheeeee! in a high-pitched voice.

wheeeeeeeee!

The one downside to Fuel’s endless straight roads is the game’s dogmatic dedication to (basically) realistic physics. It doesn’t take long to hit your car’s maximum speed on these roads, and driving at a constant speed just isn’t that exciting. If I ever make a driving game it will have no such restriction. No corners, no maximum speed. Just endless acceleration. And when you hit one of those ramps, at a high enough speed, your car will fly so high, it’ll go into orbit. That’s how you make a racing game. It’s not about cornering, or traction. It’s not about tramping round a circuit in a better time than the other drivers. It’s about going so fast the world turns into a blur and the slightest bump rockets you off into outer space.


If they were any good…

Sorry, another short wee post. I just had to make a note of this fantastic comment on RPS before I forgot it forever:

I think a good argument for the power of story-in-games is how involved we get in them despite them being shallow and awful.

Games are amazing. Just imagine what they’d be like if they were any good.


Good things I experienced this year

Some of the various things this year that moved me the most.

Music:

rockettothesky: Medea

Easily the album that meant the most to me this year, though I’m struggling to put into words why that is. It’s partly her use of greek mythology, maybe. Or it’s her voice. Or the curiously ethereal music. It inspired a game (I stole a couple of lyrics to build the story around).

See also.

Broadcast & the Focus Group: Investigate Witch Cults of the radio age.

I’ve been a bit slow to really get excited by hauntology, but this is pretty special. Ghost music from a future that never came.

See also.

Richard Skelton: Landings

I’d been aware of Richard Skelton for a while, but every time I went to his website it seemed all his releases were out of stock. This is the recent reprint of the music and writings he (I think) started Sustain-Release with. It’s a gorgeous thing – a large paperback book and a CD wrapped in really high quality paper. All tangled up with memories of his late wife and rooted in the Pennines. It reminds me heavily of Alan Garner; the landscape and the ghosts.

Warpaint: The Fool

Definitely the best thing Craig’s ever introduced me to. The video above maybe explains part of the appeal – the way it hints at far more than it ever gives away – but for me it was that gig at stereo that really won me over. And I’m sure it was a once in a lifetime thing. Getting to see a band who are just on the cusp of breaking through is pretty special.

Sonically it’s the bass that really makes the album for me. The dreamy vocals, light-touch drums and textural guitars are pretty great, but the bass just continually surprises me. I’ve never heard anything like it, and it turns these dreamy pop songs into something far more exciting, more vital than you’d ever expect.

Books:

Alan Garner: Thursbitch, The Owl Service

Having read Elidor and the two Brisingamen books as a teenager, I finally got round to checking out some of his more critically-acclaimed books (Red Shift as well as these two) this year. I started with The Owl Service, and he instantly became one of my favourite authors. It’s the spare poetry in his prose:

he is hurt too much she wants to be flowers and you make her owls and she is at the hunting

…it just sends chills down my spine. The way he uses the landscape to channel ghosts and loves. And good as The Owl Service is, I think Thursbitch probably took a greater hold on my imagination. The sense of place is just so strong. And it heavily inspired my own work this year.

Jeff Vandermeer: City of Saints & Madmen

Vandermeer’s city of Ambergris is easily the most vivid, entrancing (fictional) location I visited this year. His incredible descriptions of fungi, graycaps, an underground world feared and little-understood just captured my imagination completely for a good couple of months. The first book’s the best, I think. Shriek’s very good too, but I found Finch a disappointment; it gave too much away, told all of the graycaps’ secrets. And in doing so, it made them normal, understandable. What made the first two books so remarkable was that there were no explanations, only conjectures. Finch more or less threw that approach out the window. It failed in the same way that, in seeking to explain the universe, science generally only succeeds in making it more mundane. City of Saints & Madmen also inspired a game.

Octavia E. Butler: Seed to Harvest (the Patternmaster series)

I came across Butler in an article on Janelle Monae, which drew Butler in for similarly being a black, feminist, science fiction author. I love feminist science fiction, so tracked this down. It’s a collection of the four Patternmaster stories, but the one which really blew me away was the first book: Wild Seed. It’s an account of two immortals, a man and a woman, and it’s the most powerful depiction of domestic abuse I’ve ever experienced. The sense of being utterly trapped, of having no way out, is completely suffocating. And a perfect example of the kind of thing feminist science fiction can do so well.

Catherynne Valente: The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden

A gorgeous collection of stories within stories within stories… I’ve got In the Cities of Coin and Spice waiting for me on the bookshelf, and can’t wait to open it.

Games:

Minecraft

(this series of videos is hilarious, and largely representative of how a typical minecraft game will go, well, until things get weird, anyway) Most people’s game of the year, and for good reason. RPS’ group write-up is as good a place as any to start. Some pictures of my main single player world:

VVVVVV

The most perfectly-crafted, outright beautiful platformer I played all year. I’m getting increasingly tired of all the rote metroidvanias the indie scene seems determined to produce, but this was something else. And the music!

Fuel

Not a good game, exactly, but according to Steam, I’ve played this more than any game other than Plants vs. Zombies. The racing’s kind of fiddly, and the music’s rubbish, but that enormous expanse of continent you get to drive around in just kept calling me back. It’s a game that seems to constantly hint at something incredible, but never quite musters the confidence to fulfil it’s ambitions.  Limited as it is though, I’ve driven so many miles in this game…

Crawl Stone Soup

I’m utterly terrible at this, but it’s my current roguelike of choice. I’m playing a Spriggan Enchanter because that’s meant to be the easiest race/class to win with, but I’m lucky if I even make it to the Ecumenical Temple in most games.