May. 27, 2009 - Issue #710: Messages Matter
Infinite Lives: Ignore the mega-mainstream
Apologies to last week's readers who may have tuned in this time around
lured by the promise of "a heaping helping of magical fairy princesses";
there is no such helping, heaping or otherwise. I had the best intentions of
delivering some choice adventures of sorcerous distaff royalty from the other
realm, but a few clicks down through the pink and glittering hell-corridors
that might lead to such content and I started having something like an
allergic reaction. I dare you to gaze upon the cerise-encrusted portals of,
for example, the unfortunately named "titter.com" games-for-girls site and
not be similarly repelled.
So, no fairy princesses this week. No, I'm just going to continue as planned, spring-cleaning out all the unplayed downloads whose .zip packages clutter my desktop like so many unhatched eggs.
One of the best things about indie/amateur/hobby/fan/garage game development, once you let its irrepressible worldwide waves of creativity wash over you, is that it frees you from frustration at the general state of "mainstream" big-budget videogames. I no longer have to (but still do, because it's fun) gnash my teeth and whine about "formula" and "dumbing-down" and "samey nonsense that was boring 10 years ago" because I know that shit's being taken care of in the underground, and maybe it'll bubble up but if it doesn't who cares? It's like music: you don't look to the Top 40 for cutting-edge explorations of what recorded sound might accomplish. You look on your smart friends' iPods.
And so it goes. Neither the Triple-A blockbuster megagame publishers nor the mass-appeal crack dealers of the casual-game factories will ever in a million years produce a minimalist, monochromatic hybrid roguelike RPG/bullet-hell shooter, and yet here it is, in the form of Lancer-X's freeware Meritous (asceai.net/meritous). Explore tunnels and chambers as per a dungeon game, taking out hordes of creeps with your one-button Psi Blast, gathering crystalline XP for three-pronged RPG advancement. Once you hit its rhythms it's zone gaming at its finest, dodging insane swarms of projectiles in shooter style while working the hypnotic cycle of charge-release-recharge on your one weapon. Fun times, and an interesting investigation of some ways in which the "action RPG" chimera might be more pleasantly hybridized.
Investigation is what it's all about. Take Daniel Benmergui's Today I Die (ludomancy.com/games/today), which explores an interesting angle: where and how might poetry and game design intersect and interact? As with many experimental games, Today I Die expresses itself through the process of discovering its rules and mechanisms: the more I tell you here, the less effective it will be when you play it. And you should play it, if not for its slightly over-emo emotional content then at least for what it says about how gameplay and text might be more meaningfully bound together.
Of course, it's not all forward-thinking and games-as-thesis; a lot of
what goes down in the underground is pure nostalgia styles, creators grinding
on ancient forms like the point-and-click graphical adventure game. This
genre used to be big business, and geek culture is still alive with the
echoes of Maniac Mansion, King's Quest, Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, but
exploration of this particular mine—still rich with ore!—is
largely in the hands of independent wildcat prospectors. That's where we get
things like Brain Hotel (otterarchives.com/brainhotel) from Ron "AAlgar" Watt
and Pinhead Games.
Based on Watt's "Tales of the Odd" comics, Brain Hotel is classic point-and-click—LOOK at everything, TALK to everyone, TAKE everything that's not nailed down and solve them puzzles!—and it's a good example of what the graphic-adventure genre does best: deliver gags. As a bitter courier driver who finds himself sent to a hotel playing host to a super-villain convention, players must not only get the job done but, you know, foil a nefarious plot as clones, clerks, megalomaniacal conventioneers and one heartbroken robot stand in your way. It's brief, and anyone with any adventure-game experience will ace the simple puzzles, but there's some fun and funny stuff packed into its lo-fi graphics and fully voiced dialogue.
So, yeah, don't worry about the mega-mainstream if you're looking for good, weird, interesting stuff; just cast your line out into blogs like Jay Is Games (jayisgames.com), Play This Thing! (playthisthing.com) and the Independent Gaming Source (tigsource.com) and pull out daily treasures. Maybe—just maybe—you'll find your magical fairy princess, after all. V
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