My brain aches with the pulsing throb of a piece of think-meat that has been sorely overtaxed in the last 36 hours. It’s not that I’ve been contemplating the great mysteries of our time, I’ve just been playing an awful lot of computer games. Nearly 300. You see, I wanted to take a proper look at the Pirate Kart and I was ploughing through the list quite happily, finding plenty that I only had to spend a minute with and others that I knew I’d be writing about. But then, as if I were a character plucked from the mind of Hermann Hesse, I was struck by the scale of the task at hand and a deep sense of angst overwhelmed me. My faithful manservant DuPont administered smelling salts and brandy, and hours later I dictated this madness to him.
Have you already downloaded the Kart and played some of the games? It's free and contains over 300, some of which are polished things of beauty like Snakes of Avalon, some of which are little more than a splash screen. You'll find my thoughts on a few of the games after the preamble that immediately follows and my favourites at the end of the post. If you don't have it already, grab the Kart now. There will almost certainly be something to please you inside.
The front-end can sort the games in various ways, including random, which is what I decided to do since I was likely to burn myself out before the end and I didn’t want to snub a game purely for having the exciting title of Xylophone Mastermind, or Ziggurat Abseil Pilot. A quick disclaimer: neither of those games is actually included. Although there is an entry called Piss Christ: The Game(s). My problem intensified, however. A random sequence wasn't enough. How could I skip past a game simply because it was called My Game? Yes, it didn’t grab me in the same way as an Intense Staring Simulator or a Shit Snake, but perhaps it would be a self-effacing deconstruction of the nature of ‘game’ and the concept of identity and ownership.
It wasn’t. Or, wait, now that I think about it, maybe it was? But even if it was, which it probably wasn’t, it was also a joke. And therein lies the most important point I’m going to make about the Pirate Kart: it isn’t taking itself seriously. At a time when the output of the indie community can seem increasingly dour and reflective, it’s a pleasure to see something of this sort, a collection of anarchic glee. That’s not to say the Pirate Kart doesn’t contain any deep-thinking but it’s an acknowledgement that a great deal of it consists of jokes about bodily fluids, and miniature commentaries on the apparent seriousness of the scene. It's a collection that includes parodies of Passage and The Path, but not the originals.
As I made my way through the games, I was reminded of the shareware discs I used to play on my first PC, and before that on my trusty Amiga and Atari ST. I never knew where they came from, my dad probably got hold of them from some dodgy guy he worked with, but they didn’t contain instructions, descriptions or lists. Just a folder of files, every one of which made something odd and potentially wonderful appear on the screen.
Often they were impenetrable, as are some of the things in the Pirate Kart, but it was worth trawling through them all because there was always some gold among the confusion and demoscene psychedelia. I still remember being preposterously pleased by Alley Cat and it was on one of those ancient forms of media that I first stumbled across Jeff Minter, who seems a benevolent, bearded forefather to many of the indies doing good work today.
The Pirate Kart has taken me back to that time. It’s evidence of a boundless creativity, of delights and detritus stored on the hard drives of creators, and in that sense it’s almost like a gallery, exhibiting unfinished or lesser known works by artists capable of more polish, of more complete work, but incapable of not taking the opportunity to share the produce of their minds and talents. It’s evidence of the jams in which games are produced on demand, over short periods of time, and, more than anything, it’s evidence that there’s so much being built, abandoned, rejigged and attempted on these PCs of ours.
It’s also proof that bodily emissions continue to be popular comedic themes.
I should probably talk about some games, shouldn’t I? Bear in mind that the frazzled remnants of my critical faculties are not attempting to suggest these are the only games I’d suggest playing, or even the ones to make a beeline for. I’d highly recommend use of random selection, skipping merrily between games. But then consider these thoughts and the games that have inspired them.
There shall be loose links between clusters of games, although some don’t fit neatly with anything else, so I’ll stick them on their own. First of all then, three threadbare games set in space, two of which put you in control of astronomical bodies and one of which I thought did until I repeatedly failed after a few seconds, and then figured out what I was supposed to be doing.
Make Me a Moon by Leon Arnott first, which is as simple as a tale of planetary realignment could possibly be. You are a planet. Feels good, doesn't it? Problem is, you're a very lonely planet and there's only one solution to loneliness. MOONS! So when a bit of rock speeds by, instead of giving it the cold continent, capture it in your orbit and keep it happily wobbling around you like a drunken friend. Then try to harness more and more and more, until they collide with each other, dying instantly, or collide with you, killing you instantly. That's all there is to it and it won't take long to play, but every second probably represents a year, or something. So it's actually bloody epic.
Then there's Mitch The Meteor by Kyle Dwyer, which is a lot like Make Me A Moon if it wasn't about capturing moons, but was about being a meteor and throwing parts of yourself at planets in order to wipe out as many species as meteorly possible. Dodge solar flares, collect debris, fire debris at populated planets. It's quite possible that you'll kill more entities playing Mitch than you have in your entire previous gaming career.
Last in space is The Great Star Fusion, also by the Prolific Leon Arnott, as I shall now call him. Playthroughs last seconds, a minute if you're doing really well, and there's something addictive about it. I didn't know who or what I was controlling at first, I just knew that everything span when I pressed the cursors, so I assumed I was some sort of sentient rotator, without even knowing what that might be. Turns out I was a little thing that had to survive as long as possible while speeding around the outside of an imploding star. My highscore is terrible and shall never be known.
The Great Star Fusion's game of avoidance leads me into Lava Bricks by Jonathan Whiting, which provided me with a jetpack and was thereby instantly on my good side. Then it tried to dump me in lava, which I wasn't quite as happy about. It's a simple physics challenge - blocks fall from above and must be used to construct a slowly sinking platform in order to avoid a burning death. Turns out jetpacks need to be recharged every few seconds.
Four tiny action titles next. Another from the omnipresent Prolific Leon Arnott in the form of Disc Gunner, which is notable for containing no enemies (maybe later? I really didn't get far) and tasking me with not killing myself. I killed myself a lot and was particularly delighted when I realised my ricocheting death-discs bounced quite jauntily when deflected off slopes.
Perception, by way of Andrew Nissen's brain, is, according to my notes, "a mad spinny platformer". It's not though, my notes are lying. It is a platformer, but it doesn't constantly spin like a washing machine, instead the level rotates through 90 degrees, forcing a rethink of controls every now and again. It is about disorientation and I was certainly disorientated. As my increasingly manic sentences may divulge, I am still not entirely recombobulated.
As with many of these games, Cut Here! was made in 48 hours, this one for a Ludum Dare competition. Developed by Tim Garbos, it's beautiful and rather experimental, seeing a top-hatted robot/snowman slice scenery apart with what may well be a laser cutting device. And then there's Leonardo Millan's Fate of Mankind, which is a Metroidvania game crossed with Upgrade Complete.
Watch as my attempt to organise my thoughts collapses and I stick three games together simply because have a top-down perspective. Here they are: Danger! Take! by Mike Meyer and Sake Express + Pro Wrestling by Zak Ayles. The first starts like a parody of Zelda but swiftly develops into a clever puzzle game, with infinite blobular Link-a-likes working together, controlled in unison, accidentally stabbing each other in the back. Like most of the thing here, it's small but it's a neat proof of concept that became complex enough to make me curse. Zak's game is about punching pandas and its fist-swinging controls were impossible for me to perfect, meaning it was actually a game about pandas punching me.
Last of the top-down trio is Soze by David Williamson, which literally takes either 30 seconds or 60 seconds to play. The screen is filled with suspicious characters one of whom is evil and a liar. Clicking on a person interrogates them, leading them to give one piece of information about the culprit you're after and through a process of information you try to work out which one he/she is. Simple, right? It's harder than it sounds given the strict time limits, but like so many others here, it's interesting to think of it as part of something bigger.
Bodily fluids next then. Well, solids and fluids. Number one is Wee, a game about being peed on and peeing on in return. Except I didn't actually manage to get my revenge, so it was twenty minutes I spent trying to clamber up the side of trees while someone pissed all over me. I hesitate to say this, but the streaming arcs of golden urine are a sight to behold. It's by Leon Arnott. Of course it is. He's prolific. Number two comes from Alan Hazelden via the bowels of a snake and then goes back into the snake's mouth. It's Shit Snake, which is a lot like every other version of Snake except this snake eats his own poo. That is all.
There are a few games based on Pong in the Kart and I've picked the two strangest. Generic Turn-based Video Tennis Game by Owen Grieve is exactly what it says - a turn-based take on Pong, which actually makes a huge amount of sense. It's all about positioning at the moment your opponent strikes the cuboid ball rather than shimmying back and forth. Pi Pong by Kelsey Higham is altogether different and I'm only mentioning it because I realised it's the longest Quick Time Event I've ever seen. Try it and see.
Now I'm down to picking three particular contributors whose work I enjoyed. Richard Perrin is making Kairo but he found time to contribute two games here. Inside Job is an impressive stealth game, which lets you peek inside the thoughts of the guards blocking your path. It has a great visual style, with blocky berets very much on display, and is one of my favourite games in the Kart.
Benn Powell had two entries that I spent some time with. I've seen The Last Survivor before, it's a puzzle-platformer with minimalist graphics and contains an apologetic narrator, which is something more games should try. "Sorry you can't jump over that six inch high wall, but we didn't put anything behind it, so...pretend you're wearing concrete shoes? Sorry." Benn also includes Where Am I?, which takes place in a dark maze that must be navigated by bumping into walls to reveal their shape. Once again, it's minimalist but very effective.
Then there's Terry Cavanagh, he of the Vs. Three games from him here: Hero's Adventure queries the low-level animal killing we've all found ourselves wrapped up in so many times. Phobiaphobiaphobia is a sad and strange piece of interactive fiction, of a sort, that is unsurprisingly about fear. And Graveyard Graveyard Revolution is about grieving and mourning at a loved one's tomb until you too join them in death's cold embrace. Ha ha. No it isn't. It's about capering and jigging on peoples' graves in time to some rousing Irish music.
Finally, my two favourite games from the collection. One that a lot of people have already been crowing about is Grave Robbers, by Adam Saltsman. There's a good reason for that - it's brilliant. The screen contains a plethora of traps, each linked to a letter on your keyboard, and you must stop pesky intruders from robbing the treasure from a grave. They come in hordes, these robbers, and things quickly become overwhelming, but it's hugely addictive.
My personal favourite, however, is CrimeZone by Stephen Murphy, creator of the glorious Space Funeral. It's one of the ones I would have skipped if I was picking purely off titles. A cartoon adventure game that initially seems to be about piss and murder, CrimeZone is actually a quite stunningly clever piece of storytelling. Shifting perspectives, looping narratives, repeated but altered experiences and a scene with wrestling cops that reminded me of Flann O'Brien. "You are ALL OF THE COPS" is now my favourite computer game quote of the year. Play this if nothing else, so that I can deliriously cheer its triumphs with you.
Actually, just go and play some of them, any of them. Share experiences and suggestions in the comments. Have fun. Don't play all 300. It hurts.