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Punk’s Not Dead: To Be Someone

very often incomprehensible

This article is a day late. But you know what? Don’t care. Simply do not care. A fuck: I could not give. That’s punk of me, isn’t it? Please say so, because I need validation for my constant efforts. NO WAIT. I don’t.

Ah, but validation we have received in the form of scathing satire from rival publications. Basically, Kill Screen have acknowledged the presence of a ‘punk experiment’ on a large scale and even made their own (terrible, terrible) game on a small scale to demonstrate that it’s possible for everyone to participate in said experiment. Isn’t that nice? NO, READER. They are taking the mickey out of us. All ten of us.

The aforementioned game, Horse in the Paint, is one in which you click a button and watch a photograph of a horse drifting past you. And that’s it. Lads and ladettes, we cannot allow such mockeries to be made of our, er, mockeries. This means war. Thermo-nuclear war.


We could calmly and serenely address this issue once and for all by asking a simple question:

“Oh no, are our games shite?”

The answer, of course, is yes. A lot of them are. We can talk a lot of nonsense about how that’s sort of the point but it doesn’t really mask the fact that many of these games are rushed, buggy, short-lived, throwaway and very often incomprehensible. On the rare occasion they are even unplayable. How do you justify making games with so many glaring problems without sounding like a Grade A bullshitter? Indeed, without actually being a Grade A bullshitter.

I think in order to progress as a genre (is it a genre?) punk needs to recognise that any detractor who says “Yeah, but these games are naff” has actually got a point. The point being that punk games by definition are often made by people lacking the conventional set of skills required. Often they can’t code, can’t draw, can’t play music. At least not in the traditional sense. Next to the high gloss of the mainstream games industry they are always going to seem rough and undernourished. Then again, Shane McGowan’s vocals are rough and undernourished next to the voice of Kirsty MacColl. That very contrast can do a punk upstarts a lot of favours but it won’t get you the whole way. For that, you need brute-minded, suicidal self-confidence. Only the correct amount of testicular capital can get you started but once you’re on your way – well, you can only get better, right? Jesus, listen to me, I sound like a self-help book. “Confidence will carry you to the mountain of merit. The dynamite of belief will make a passage of prosperity, through which the freight train of triumph can pass (remembering of course to charge the passengers of prosperity with the ultra-high-priced tickets of tenacity).” I could go on.

Unfortunately, it’s this act of confidence which gives the detractors a point to make. Inevitably, every game is going to be called rubbish by someone. Punk game makers brashly incorporate their own lack of ‘skill’ into that, so they are doubly likely to fall victim to The Critical Scowl. I’m very conscious of the fact that telling lots of people to make a game (make a game, by the way) will result in some pretty crappy things to get made. But the truth is I don’t care. The alternative is to let a bunch of ideas to go unrealised, to let Shane McGowan’s brilliant, disgusting banshee wail of a voice go unheard.

I wrote to RunMan and Deepak Fights Robots creator Tom Sennett for this week’s column (full interview below) and one thing he said to me stuck out like a nailgun wound to the palm. I asked him why his art is so child-like and simple, suggesting it might be the only way he knows how. He said, “I embrace my limitations and turn them into strengths, as all artists and all people should strive to do.” And then, in a blast of confidence, he said: “I know how to fucking draw, man.”


RPS: Quick! Tell us who you are and what general philosophy you adhere to! And also tell us about games. You’ve made some games, right?

Tom: Well I’m Tom Sennett. I’m the best game maker alive, and I’m glad you’ve decided to feature me in this series on punk games, because I also happen to be the most punk game maker alive.

Did you know I am so punk I flipped off a room full of people after they gave me an award for a video game I made? And, even more to the point, that this turn of events barely even registered with the gaming press? That, to me, embodies the essence of punk - not giving a fuck, and living in obscurity.

Also, I could tell you something about my games, but most of the people reading this haven’t played them and probably won’t bother, because I am too god-damned underground. And because they’re not on Steam. But take that up with Gabe Newell.

RPS: All your games are super colourful and have a hand-drawn look. Lots of smiley faces and child-like background art. Is there something you like about this look, or is it just the only way you can make the art?

Tom: Yeah, it’s pretty much impossible to whip up anything more sophisticated than crude squiggly lines and primary colors unless you have a team of like a dozen artists with art degrees who are all getting paid, though probably not enough considering all the insane overtime they work. Or something. I don’t know, I don’t fuck with the games industry.
I embrace my limitations and turn them into strengths, as all artists and all people should strive to do. I know how to fucking draw, man.

RPS: Many of the games also use decades old music. Do you see that as a good way to get classic music in a game without breaking copyright, or is it a genuine love of Louis Armstrong and Robert Johnson?

Tom: I do not understand why you would phrase this question with an ‘or’.

RPS: Would you call yourself a ‘coder’ or a game maker?

Tom: I hate coding. It’s a laborious, unwieldy means to an end for all but the most low-level tasks. Writing code remains one of the highest hurdles for people looking to make games, and a personal annoyance to me, and even though things are getting better, games have a long way to go before their creation is as accessible as it could be and should be.
So no. I’m not a coder, or an artist, or a designer. I make games. By whatever means necessary.

RPS: I played Co-ordinate Quest back in the day. It was a fun way of making a team communicate and work together or share knowledge. Did anything else come of that idea? Are you planning to do anything like that again?

Tom: That game got shelved for bureaucratic reasons, but many of those ideas will end up in future games of mine. I just started working on a new multiplayer game, and I hope to do more down the line.

RPS: A lot of indie or punk games clearly pay homage to their ancestors, like Deepak does with Bubble Bobble and a smattering of platformers. Do you think the indie crowd could afford to step away from that and try going their own way a little more? Or is it okay to show your influences proudly?

Tom: I think it’s ridiculous to try to hide your influences. Anything you have to say has been said a million times before, and you’ve probably heard it a thousand times yourself. Some people think that’s depressing, but I think it’s awesome, to know that none of us are in this thing alone, that somebody else has gone through whatever you have. But even if you’re saying something that’s been said, no one has said it in your particular voice, so you can’t avoid being unique either.

All the games I riff off of represent, in my head at least, the things I love about playing games: raw, simple, deep fun that anybody can understand and enjoy. Those are the kinds of games I want to make and want to see other people making.

But you can’t put that classic shit on a pedestal. When I go back and play Bubble Bobble nowadays there’s a lot about it that pisses me off - stuff that never bothered me as a kid, that’s just in there to pad out the game and force you to cough up more quarters. I have this problem with pretty much any game I attempt to play these days, old or otherwise - I find them bloated with filler content, obscured by poor usability, and constrained by rigid, anachronistic conventions.

Our job as indie developers is to blow all this shit up, to tear games down to the basics and rebuild them leaner and meaner. Look at the design decisions made by developers of the past and question every single one. If you like the way somebody did something, acknowledge it and make it your own. If you don’t, get rid of it.

Most of the conventional wisdom in game design is bunk and needs to be thrown out completely, but creators also need to remember why they started playing games in the first place - I found something special in Bubble Bobble when I played it as a kid, and if I can recreate that experience, with all the bullshit stripped away, well then maybe I can enjoy it again. Or better yet, get my friends to understand why I sunk so many hours into games growing up.

You’ve got to recognize your influences to improve upon them.

RPS: I ask everyone this but do you think there’s room for many more bedroom developers? Or is it a scene that’s getting a bit saturated?

Tom: The more people making games the better, really. The only way we can push the form forward is with something other than a legion of straight white upper-middle class Western males re-making Mario and Sonic over and over.

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About the Author
Brendan Caldwell avatar

Brendan Caldwell

Former Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.