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The RPS Advent Calendar 2018, Dec 18th

Five finger discount

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Alright gang, it’s time to crash through door number 18. You know the drill: steal everything that isn’t nailed down. Heck, steal some of the things that are nailed down. Steal the walls and floors. Steal everything.

It’s Jazztronauts!

Alice: Jazztronauts sends us ram-raiding Steam Workshop levels in an interdimensional tram to steal furniture, fixtures, fittings, trash, and even walls at the behest of cats who live in a dimensional nexus of a bar. Now that’s a video game premise.

The true wonder of this mod for Garry’s Mod is that, aside from the hub and a bit of story framing, the whole game draws from maps and characters uploaded to the Steam Workshop for other purposes. A giant telly in the bar flicks through random levels, showing only the name and thumbnail, then when we like one we lock it in, hop aboard the tram, and head down the windy road between worlds, downloading the level automatically.

When we arrive, it’s time to steal. Whacking certain types of bits in the level with our baton will summon magical scientsits to suck it up and whizz it away. Tables, chairs, crates, lights, lamp posts, trees, plants, food, trash, vending machines, rocks, telephones, doors, microwaves, kettles, sofas… depending on how the level is built, we can steal all sorts of things. Eventually we can buy upgrades to even steal walls, ripping them out with a groaning shudder to reveal the pink and cat-filled glimmering raw fabric of the universe. This is: 1) great fun; 2) all sorts of daft; 3) a delightful ripping-apart of the reality of games.

Jazztronauts revels in how fake this all is. A ‘Mewseum’ in the hub teaches the basics of how Source levels are built, teaching what we can and can’t steal, and houses a menagerie of the NPCs we yoink. Video game levels are fake as heck, and Jazztronauts wants us to tear them apart. We get tools to steal more, steal faster, and warp through walls. The paper-thin reality is shredded but peeking behind the scenes only makes it more delightful, getting to explore places we weren’t meant to see.

While the cats can be a bit sarky about some levels, Jazztronauts delights in how damn weird player-made levels can be, the range of things players want to see – and the range of skill they have to make them. As a fan of mod readme files, I’ve hugely enjoyed ram-raiding random levels. Cities built for roleplaying modes, Counter-Strike levels, recreations of real-world houses and schools, test levels, bugged levels, race tracks, RTS maps, places from Star Wars and Harry Potter and Spongebob Squarepants, waterparks, playgrounds whose purposes I cannot fathom… I adore this way of flicking through the Workshop.

Flashes of other players’ reactions appear too, with Jazztronauts drawing random comments off a map’s Workshop page to appear on monitors in the bar and adorn the side of the tram. I laugh every time I see someone furious, baffled, spamming creepypasta stories that I must read to the end or I will DIE, or mourning the closure of a swimming pool.

Jazztronauts also captures that classic “How do I make this damn thing work…” often felt when trying to play mods and custom levels. While it’ll download the level automatically, the map won’t necessarily come with all the resources you need, sometimes leading to pink and black checker textures on a surface or a model replaced with the word “ERROR” in metre-high red letters. In Jazztronauts, this doesn’t ruin a level, just makes it more psychedelic and strange.

Perhaps you’ll visit famed magician school Hogwarts and return home with only scrap wood, some fruit, and several hundred error messages.

Oh, yes, I didn’t mention all that. When we’re done with a level, having collected randomly-spawned gems and stolen our fill, we call the tram to pick us up. It will punch a hole in the level, smashing through dynamically in a way that still makes me smile. Then, back at the bar, we get to pull a lever and have our haul totted up as it rains from a chute like the boobie prize on a game show. This, obviously, is great.

And I shouldn’t forget that the framing of these crimes is wonderful. The writing is sharp and funny, the cats varied and delightful, and I’ll always chat with everyone (yes, it’s kinda a visual novel sorta thing too) when I return to the bar.

And it’s ridiculous shenanigans when playing cooperatively with pals.

Jazztronauts reveals the artifice of video games in a fun and clever way while celebrating the enthusiasm and absurdity of people who build things for them. Video games are wonderful and daft and so are we all.

Looking to open another door? Head back to the RPS Advent Calendar 2018.

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