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Wot I Think: Experiment 12

The (Indie) Stars Align

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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.

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Nathan Grayson

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