Massively multiplayer alien invasion simulator. Magical artifact tester. You are the worst NPC.
The Entertainment by Cardboard Computer
One of Cardboard Computer’s previous short games, Limits & Demonstrations, imagined a fictitious museum exhibit. The Entertainment imagines a play written by a made-up playwright.
These games turn the language of aesthetic into art itself–the solemnity of museum placards, the cultural performance of artistic critiques–these things that place themselves a layer above art subsumed into the art itself.
You are one of the actors, and the script calls for you to merely observe drunkenly, as a barfly–a role that neatly justifies your random glances around the room (slyly referred to as that “tepid pantomime”, in the words of the newspaper critic), and grounds you as part of the game’s fiction, not an omniscient Player with a capital P.
The effect is to jar you from a sterile camera perspective to the dusty floor of the student theater, changed from voyeur to subject, caught between audience and actors, effectively an NPC–a rare position for a game to place you in. But it isn’t boring, because looking is so artfully done.
See, text is advanced by looking at things. Text interaction in games often feels clunky to me–unspooling pages frozen in part of the screen. When you look at things in The Entertainment, text appears, and you advance the text simply by staring (clicking speeds it up). It feels natural.
Through this act of examination I realized I was not the aforementioned disembodied player perspective, but that I was just another actor, playing a drunkard. So I thought to myself: if I am playing a patron, I must be sitting somewhere. I look down and the darkness of my supposed omniscience clears, revealing a table covered in newspaper and shot glasses.
I was lead to this moment and this understanding by the in-game fiction, an epiphany that revealed what was in front of my eyes the whole time. The Entertainment did this with a stationary observer incapable of physically manipulating anything in their environment, instead playing with my internal realizations. Felt like a magic trick.
Plant Cat: First Blossom by flashygoodness, Pongball, potato-tan, Kenju, Pix3M
A platformer with comforting Game Boy-style graphics and a system where you plant vines to make your way through the level. Nostalgia aside (is it really aside? do I truly know myself?), the cute music and monochrome levels are innately relaxing, soothing my brain as I grow vines to navigate through levels full of wasps, bunnies, and turnips.
The vine grows vertically. If it hits a platform, it grows horizontally, tracing the edge of the platform. If it hits a living thing, it stops, trapping them inside its flower.
I carefully avoided touching bunnies for a long time until I realized they were harmless, and that they were in fact terrified of me. I’d been using them as vine fodder for a while so it makes sense. Suddenly the cute presentation took on a chilling undertone. How many bunnies must I vine to reach my goal? Is it worth it? Deep Moral Decisions 2013.
Star Leaf by Spencer Hewlett and Mushbuh
A surreal adventure game with an Earthbound feel, in which you stroll around lands suspended in vibrantly patterned voids, chat with the friendly inhabitants, and kill the non-friendly inhabitants.
The gameplay is a ~delightfully~ grab-bag experience. Just when Star Leaf seems like it’s going to settle into something familiar, it gets bored and quirks in another direction. I really like the fly companion whose primary role is to hang out and emit adorable little symbols.
Zero Hour by Andi McClure
A one-move massively multiplayer parser game. A collaborative global reaction to alien invasion. Love it.
Bubsy the Bobcat in “Rip Van Bubsy” Starring Bubsy by thecatamites
Wow this Bubsy comeback is strong! Last week we had Arcane Kid’s Bubsy 3d: Bubsy visits the James Turrell Retrospective, now we have Bubsy the Bobcat in “Rip Van Bubsy” Starring Bubsy! (never mind that this game is a couple years old…asynchronous comeback!)
My favorite part is how the backgrounds are all drawn on paper towel and you can see the author’s bed behind them strewn with other paper towels. The marker and paper towel art style has a uniform crudeness that lends itself to the drifting plot, the world rearranging itself like fog before you know it.
Adventurer’s Consumer Guide by Øyvind Thorsby
Perhaps better known as the creator of webcomic Hitmen for Destiny, Øyvind Thorsby brings us a parser game where you test out magical items for a company that specializes in adventurer’s gear–an orb that vanishes anything it touches, a sword that vibrates when it detects evil, and a cloak of invisibility, among other things. What could possibly go wrong.
Noyb discovered it through Emily Short’s post on underplayed interactive fiction games where she describes it as “One of my favorite games that not very many people seem to have played. An unabashed puzzlefest, but a highly enjoyable one: not too linear, with several interesting objects that have multiple uses.”
There are so many amusing ways to fail in this game. I especially love the usefulness of the monster manual.
There is a walkthrough here.
Walkthroughs are interesting things. Some may feel that games should stand on their own and not require external materials to make sense of. Others love poring through manuals and guides, whether it be multi-ton paper tomes, glossy Prima strategy guides (these were a big deal to me as a kid, especially if I couldn’t afford the game itself (stares longingly at tourist brochure for Hyrule Cruises)), or massive GameFAQs word-monoliths decorated with ASCII sculptures.
I think both can be interesting. I appreciate the neatness of a game that naturally imparts itself to the player, but I also appreciate fun external materials. I’m thinking of those Infocom feelies full of artifacts and debris, or Crypt World and Goblet Grotto’s hand-made manuals.
But I’m fascinated by purely didactic materials too, because the exhausting pages of a GameFAQs article say so much about how huge a game’s inner world can be. We think of creation as outward expansion. Taking up space. Electronic games turn inward, spinning tightly wound ecosystems of data, universes written on grains of rice.