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Live Free, Play Hard: I Need To Get The Water Pumps Working For Caligula

click on a beautiful painting

Post-apocalyptic adventure games. 1001 shards of a kiss. Magical police station.

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The Rebirth | The Reaper by Francisco Gonzalez | Ben Chandler

Post-apocalyptic point and click adventure games, described as "two mini-vignettes which form part of a greater whole." Strong vignettes, hinting at a far vaster world. I want to play that world, but for now, these are excellent introductions.

The Rebirth is a dark little tale. Looks like an ordinary day at the office for a haughty CEO, but turns out a war has been waged for many years, and the windows have blast screens just in case.

It sets the stage for The Reaper, which is bleakly gorgeous (emerald crystals hanging from ruin rafters...the way vials distort your character's movement as you walk past...) I'm still gushing over the broken glass UI with a shard of radioactive green for a cursor.

This is a bad time to be alive, something I gather in tantalizing details. The first puzzle is scaring away a crow because your character fears something called the Reaper is using them as spies. I have to get the water pumps working for someone named Caligula. You click on a beautiful painting and get an uncaring “I don’t want that old thing.”


Two objects (for the first and second game respectively) are kinda pixel hunty: clicking around to find the bottle opener (next to the bottles), and the blotch of dark on the ground that represents the crank (near the panel).


a kiss by Dan Waber

The structure is this: wandering a maze of poetry, coming to a cracked mirror wall offering a fractured reflection of your current surroundings, and you're back in the kiss.

“This is a story that unfurls in many directions at once.”

I never would have realized how many directions that meant unless Leon Arnott had mentioned it was made up of 1001 pages of Twine.



!!! (click for large)

The fluid hypertextuality of Twine is perfect for creating this vast web of words: a kiss exploded into a thousand and one shards.

Most amazingly of all, the shards are fascinatingly explicit, not filler. The inner dialogue of skunks, "lipsticky glissness...her sparkleskin", the idea of a cookie jar breaking, her pet name for the ticklish part of a rib cage.

It’s so hard to express all the little things that make up our lives. How often do we lack the language for it, having being taught to speak in common with others, but not to name our own insides? That Dan Waber was able to describe all these splintered memories in such abundance is a feat, and most of all, a hell of a love letter.




 Time Squid by Lazy Brain Games

I am a squid.

My job is to reach the goal as fast as I can without hitting any obstacles, and it's scored like golf.

Levels are 4 seconds long, designed for a single unbroken burst of motion. They're messy with spikes, rockets, and crabs. But Time Squid never felt frustrating for me, because you instantly respawn, leaning into the arrow keys, not so much planning the levels out as feeling them--desperate dashes and gut impulses. This is reflex candy.

When I run around, I leave a trail in the sand. Whee! Ten minutes later, I realize this is more than a fun graphical effect, it's so I can see my prior paths and avoid past failures (the speckled blasts in the sand where I died).

And as a game designer I appreciate how the menu system consists of moving the squid, same as the gameplay (fuck coding menus, especially in Gamemaker).




WRRRMZ! by Ian Snyder

I don’t care about the puzzles. The feel alone is good enough for me, so stretchy and reactive. It feels really good. You're a stretchy, cute worm! The worm makes sounds! UBHWUHBWWOOO! It says things! Cute things!

The mushrooms! They make vibrant plucking sounds when you wrap around them. They glow soothing blue at your touch. Light up all the mushrooms while getting the snakes head in the hole and you win.


Memory of Earth by euske

The sheer hilarious pathos of Earth hurtling through space trying to evade white cubes as memories, banal as the dregs of a random Google Image search, fly past you. Earth is also bleeding.

Every time you get hit, you shrink (presumably because whole continents were shorn away and millions of souls were cast into the icy void of space), becoming more maneuverable with each sacrifice.



Blocks & Lots by Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, Rosten Woo, Dr. Pop, Jared Sain

The politics of urban development, or Sim City with a conscience, focused purely on zoning and policies.

Consuelo Luego wants affordable housing or rent control, Everett Mann doesn’t like factories close to his apartment building. So you redraw zones, trying to make everyone happy.

The designers made it as a board game first of all, and the translation to videogame turned it into a puzzle. Of course, when making a game about actual housing situations that affect real people, there’s the risk of pat solutions. On the website they say, “Presenting simplified 'magical' affordable housing or green manufacturing zones suggests to the player that the problem is much easier to solve than it is.”

So to hint at that outside complexity, they made the Solve a Conflict button, where you can connect two characters and start a dialogue. From there you can look at various solutions, like limiting the height of apartments. Most importantly, some of these options will permanently affect characters or eliminate zones.

What do our simulations say about our politics? Like Patricia Hernandez said previously in her excellent article on Sim City, in reference to a scenario dealing with crime and poverty in Detroit:

“Where are race and class, two of the crucial aspects in that situation? Not even present in the game code, that's where.”

She also points out how the designers named the filename “snro.666". Detroit is a real city with real problems, one that recently had to file for the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. It’s easier to call a place Hell than to examine the complexities underlying negative conditions.

We don't have to simulate everything, but we should be aware of how our politics affect our simulations. We grew up with games where plopping down a police station magically lowered crime, but looking at the real world, police contribute to crime in all kinds of ways. With the quota system, where no crime exists, it must be manufactured. For example, New York’s stop and frisk policy has been documented as stopping more young black men in a year than exist in the entire city.

Suddenly that magical police station doesn’t look so simple anymore.

Blocks & Lots is a pragmatic game. It’s hard to avoid upsetting or harming someone. And that's the way it should be.

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