Wot I Think: Experiment 12

By Nathan Grayson on July 29th, 2013 at 12:00 pm.

Terry Cavanagh. Jasper Byrne. Ian Snyder. Jack King-Spooner. Richard Perrin. Zaratustra. Michael Brough. Robert Yang. Alan Hazelden. Benn Powell. Jake Clover. TheBlackMask.

You have probably played games by all of these people. VVVVVV might ring a bell. Maybe Lone Survivor or Kairo. Or, if you’re really, really cool, Blues For Mittavinda. Etc, etc, etc. You get the idea. But now they’ve all congealed into a hivemind and made one giant, multi-stage/setting/genre melting pot of madness. Each developer had three days to make a contribution, and then the next creator picked up where the previous left off. Experiment 12 is insane. Experiment 12 is inconsistent. Experiment 12 is beautiful.

There are many madnesses. Cavanagh turns you into a weeping sack of malfunctioning organs, while King-Spooner, Snyder, Zaratustra, and Byrne put various decaying mental states under the magnifying glass – often through wildly distorted platforming mechanics. Sometimes you play as mentally decaying test subjects directly, platforming, adventuring, puzzle-solving, or blasting through everything from pixelated retroscapes to desolately dreary 3D islands. Other times, you’re only observing them, dispassionately gazing through a screen within your own screen – acting as though that really makes any difference.

In most of Experiment 12′s chapters, challenge isn’t really an issue. You can die, but only a couple games halt progress full-stop. Most opt to treat in-game life as a fate far worse than death, greeting failure with imagery of flesh and bone sloughing and snapping, helpless bodies crying out in anguish. And oh, the sounds that accompany these sights. Menacing rumbles, vein-rattling drones, divorced and disinterested keyboards typing away. Experiment 12 is all at once unsettlingly intimate with the human body and coldly clinical – like a doctor whose icy stethoscope singes your skin. I felt like it was constantly pushing my buttons just to see how I’d react.

Of those early, more overtly insane scenarios, I found Snyder’s especially interesting. It deals with many of the aforementioned themes while inhabiting a wildly abstract cube-based puzzler… that occasionally bursts into violently colorful 3D hallucinations. Stray too far from your cuboid prison’s walls and the entire thing begins convulsing into an amorphous, infinitely shifting mass. All the while, stark white letters pop up on an abyssal black background, the terrified ramblings of a failing mind.

It’s unabashedly obtuse, sure, but it’s that rare instance of a game where mechanics and feeling meet perfectly in the middle. I was losing control of my mind, and even simple tasks like movement took every ounce of my concentration. I needed something solid to grab ahold of, anything to keep me from unraveling.

Michael Brough’s physical and mental exploration of multiple personalities is a similarly coherent treat, with devious puzzles growing ever more complex each time a new, er, you joins the fray. Before long, you end up maneuvering a small army of individual bodies with a single input, each simultaneously working together and against each other in separate rooms – all in a confused attempt to solve singular, overarching puzzles. Naturally, your character’s dialogue breaks down more and more as time goes on. It really is brilliant – in an overwhelming, highly unsettling sort of way.

Later chapters delve into the equally ugly recesses of other elements of this nightmarish testing initiative. For example, its talking head leaders in the case of Perrin’s voyeuristic first-person adventure, a reporter who may or may not exist in the same continuity as everything else in TheBlackMask’s bit, and even an AI monitoring the whole operation in Hazelden’s ASCII labyrinth. The conspiracy is everywhere. Nothing is safe. Or maybe I’m just imagining all of it. Insanity really is the darndest thing.

Or at least, that’s how I read it. Really, a big part of Experiment 12′s appeal for me was attempting to pluck out key strands of DNA that bound the wildly disparate production together. Sometimes I relied on exceedingly clever mechanical and thematic callbacks to previous chapters, but other elements struck me as only loosely connected (which makes sense, given the way they were developed), and the rest of the “story” was, well, all in my head. But my interpretation – of story, of intention, of meaning – quickly took on a life of its own. I desperately wanted to make sense of the madness, even if it meant cracking my brain in half in the process. Come to think of it, maybe that’s its own sort of madness.

That said, a few of Experiment 12′s chapters aren’t “fun” in a traditional sense, and I can’t help but wonder if some of its brain-sizzling bizarro moments came from a desire to be weird for weirdness’ sake. Couple that with the inherent lack of length such quick vignettes conjure, and you’re left with a couple bits that feel less substantial and more like pure shock value. Some slices, meanwhile, are far weaker than others – with Yang and Powell’s especially failing to really gel with the theme and, in the case of the former, make much sense at all.

Despite that, however, the behemoth collaborative effort succeeds gloriously as a whole that gives you just enough to go on while simultaneously leaving so much space that your own battered mind can’t help but wander the gaps, pacing back-and-forth and muttering mad theories to no one in particular. It’s a truly fascinating thing.

Experiment 12 is so all-over-the-place that it’s very nearly impossible to discuss in a coherent fashion. It leapfrogs between genres like an escaped lab mutant barreling through traffic. It means nothing, it means a million tiny things to each of its creators, it means whatever you think it means. To be honest, I’ve gone back and forth between appreciating it and thinking it’s too full of itself for its own good, like, 20 times just during the process of writing this article. But I’m pretty sure I like it. Quite a bit, even. I can’t really think of another game collection that’s so consistently left me straddling a line somewhere between obsessive curiosity and lurching nausea. In a good way.

I never felt comfortable while playing Experiment 12. That’s probably both the best and worst thing I can say about it. The only truly consistent thing about my experience with it, I think, was the creeping sense of unease that emerged from subject matter, stifling atmosphere, and schizoid shifts in game mechanics. It’s got its fair share of issues in all of those areas, but the scope and diversity of this collection’s vision is immense, and some of the denser details will surprise you. And come on: it’s free. To skip this one would be an act of utter, well, madness.

You can download Experiment 12 right now.

, , , , , , , , , , .

30 Comments »

  1. mtomto says:

    I think I’ll be skipping this and take my chances with madness :)

  2. Flea says:

    I know graphics are not the single most important thing in a game, but soon we will all start bowing to a single monochromatic square on the screen and call it creative, inovative or whatever we call these games these days. Or we can just hide behind the “it means whatever you think it means” excuse, then you don’t even need a coherent story.

    And I’m sure the developers are a creative bunch, I used to play VVVVVV, but this is getting to a point of having three black dots on a completely white screen and calling it “Polar Bear Simulator”.

    • SooSiaal says:

      You forgot “artsy”, but yeah I agree.

    • Noburu says:

      I concur. I cant even bring myself to click the links. The provided screenshots churn my stomach and make me want to close my web browser.

      Retro graphics are once thing and I know graphics dont make the game, but FOR FUCKS SAKE make it not feel like sandpaper to my brain to look at.

    • Prolar Bear says:

      I’d play the hell outta a Polar Bear Simulator.

    • Jim9137 says:

      Not a huge fan of modern art (and specifically, anti-art), I presume?

      • Dances to Podcasts says:

        Creative, innovative, or whatever! http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/malevich/sup/malevich.black-square.jpg

        • Jim9137 says:

          Well, it’s a nice shade of black, and those undulations add character to the otherwise blank statement.

      • Flea says:

        Well I guess you could say I’m not a fan of art that feels like it’s making fun of people. Often if you say it’s not art, you are artistically retarded, even though you might be looking at a wooden stick glued to a piece of cardboard. Too many things qualify as art these days, it’s like there’s no criteria or any standards. “It means whatever you think it means”… yeah, right.

    • AlwaysRight says:

      Maybe not monochromatic, but ‘The Marriage’ by Rod Humble is a game about the interactions involved in a (straight) marriage. The characters are represented by a blue and a pink square.

      http://www.rodvik.com/rodgames/marriage.html

      (If anyone comments with the words ‘pretentious’ or ‘hipster’ you lose 1 respect point and must go to bed without your supper)

      • Flea says:

        I like how the description starts with: “This is a game that requires explanation”. No shit!

  3. Premium User Badge

    DrScuttles says:

    Experiment 12 is a curious beastie that manages to become something far more than the sum of its parts. Though it’s a bit rough in places and like Nathan points out, some of it just doesn’t quite work, it’s really worth spending the time exploring it. Provided you can tolerate ‘artsy bullshit’. And if you can’t, well, one chapter has everyone’s favourite paragon of videogame originality, zombies.

  4. faelnor says:

    I thought the whole package was of lower quality than what I expected. Visually, most of them are ugly as hell (chapters 10 and 11, oh my!) with a distinctive lack of direction or consistency. Art doesn’t always need fleshed-out aesthetics but it helps in most cases. Ugh…

    I appreciated, however, the games that tried to do something with –and expand– the previous experiments and general story, even if they were flawed as far as visuals and game mechanics went. In particular, I enjoyed chapters 4 (Zaratustra), 5 (Richard Perrin), 8 (Alan Hazelden) and 12 (Jasper Byrne) and to a lesser extent chapters 2 (Ian Snyder) and 6 (Michael Brough). Cavanagh’s opening is fine, too.

    In my opinion, Robert Yang’s experiment is too purposefully obtuse to be enjoyable, but looks interesting – it has potential. Benn Powell’s game grates because it is almost entirely detached from the other games, different on all levels including tone and narrative, so it takes you out of the whole experience. That being said, it is actually a pretty fun game and the only one of them I would play for an extended amount of time.
    The award of infamy goes Jack King-Spooner, who ticks all the boxes as far as shitty fucking art games tropes go – I don’t think someone trying to be ironic could make it better if they tried.

  5. Premium User Badge

    cpt_freakout says:

    Geocities: The Game

  6. Scumbag says:

    I’m not reading the article as I want to go into this cold, but my virus scanner is flagging this as naughty.
    Anyone else getting issues?

    • Premium User Badge

      DrScuttles says:

      Avast gave me problems with chapter 3, I recall. Think it was chapter 3.

  7. Kein says:

    This reminded me to replay Experiment 112.

  8. elsewhere says:

    I eat up bullshit art games like nobody’s biscuits, but this was awful

  9. misterT0AST says:

    I like my bullshit art games, but for some reason Jack King-Spooner’s game wasn’t even starting for me when I was pressing spacebar, all the others opened fine.
    And I couldn’t finish Jasper Byrne’s game, there was a door with 00:00 on it, and yet getting your timer to 0:00 didn’t open it. It might be a bug o it might be that I didn’t understand what I had to do.
    By the way if anyone finds these obnoxious or just doesn’t like this kind of artsy-partsy game, Michael Brough’s part is still pretty neat on its own. You might want to skip the rest.

    • zaphos says:

      For Jasper’s you need to get over 24:00 (which will cycle it around past 00:00 again) …

  10. trout says:

    Alan Hazelden. & Jake Clover both won hands down i think! a few of the others were infuriating, but overall, what a great experiment! good experience

  11. mikmanner says:

    ‘artsy bullshit’ is said a lot in these comments, it’s a shame. I thought it was all quite wonderful. As a collection it creates a pretty strong mood. It’s definitely not bullshit.

    • misterT0AST says:

      I didn’t mean in a BAD way. this is some of the best bullshit I have played all month.
      Why can’t we all just get along like civilized assholes?

      • Premium User Badge

        DrScuttles says:

        Same here. I think it’s more a case of pre-emptive defence against the sorts who get their knickers in a twist about whether Proteus is even a game. But it would be nice to just all get along and enjoy a wealth of experiences across the spectrum and try to only post positive comments or engage in healthy debate where that’s not possible.
        If this truly were bullshit, then I’m well into scat.

  12. meepmeep says:

    I really enjoyed chapters 5 & 6 of this. In all, it was variable but very interesting to play through, a good mix of styles.

  13. Tams80 says:

    I just didn’t get it at all. To me the whole thing was just a mix of tedious, confusing, difficult and boring games that almost all looked terrible.

  14. graspee says:

    This looks like a pretentious waste of time.

    The article isn’t much better: “Michael Brough’s physical and mental exploration of multiple personalities is a similarly coherent treat”

    I mean, seriously?

  15. Atskadan says:

    This is so incredibly, horribly, disgustingly edgy, pretentious, and “artsy”.
    There is no actual game substance – the games themselves are very shallow and follow only basic requirements for a ‘game’. What the selling point is here is really a ridiculous set of graphics, representations, and unexplained phenomena that makes it really unappealing.
    Why are so many games being created now as ‘art’, instead of actual games, winning their merit with the critics on how FUN it is to play.. not how symbolistic it is.

  16. Replication says:

    The whole thing just gave me the sense that they were all trying to one up each other, as to who could make the most pretentious pile of shit.