Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Four Freeware Games I enjoyed in June

In June, I wrote a piece that was meant to be a roundup of recent small/freeware games for a website. It was meant for an audience of people interested in the arts but unfamilliar with videogames, and I wrote it hoping I could perhaps bridge those two "camps", by demonstrating to people interested in arts, politics and culture how videogames are relevant, meaningful and very interesting! Unfortunately though, it never got published, and I was later informed that it wouldn't be at all. So I figured I may as well put this little slice of writing on my blog. Please Enjoy!

The World The Children Made - James Earl Cox III

I first came across James Earl Cox III when I found I’m a little teapot lingering on the gamejolt newly addeds. In the game, you hold a teapot with a stitched on mouth and eyes, and pour out tea until the room is filled. When you pour, the teapot starts to scream maniacally, amongst a loud and messy choir-chant of the children’s song. The game is jarring and somewhat uncomfortable, yet this is exactly how it succeeds in being funny and fun to interact with.  With games like Potato or Big Minta Bronson: A Vegetable Love Story, Toilet World, and “Snot City,” Cox is able to craft a particular form of absurdist comedy, that twists and muddles familiar imagery to create surreality in its settings.

But occasionally, James Earl Cox will create a “serious” work, or something that isn’t as eccentric but has more weight to its tone. In “The World The Children Made,” Cox portrays a vintage- futurist setting where we play as a housewife in a stereotypical nuclear family. They’ve just moved into a new house, and the husband has a new job, so the wife is left to stay at home and do what the social division of labour pusjedi women to do in the mid-20th Century. Now this isn’t exactly new ground, I would even say that the game’s very typical portrayal of gender and the family obscures important identity politics (mainly that this is a mostly white-American, suburban image of the family), but I’m interested in how well the game communicates the mundanity and misery of this woman’s life. Every day, we see her go through the same process of cooking meals, cleaning rooms and dealing with her children, most of which are done by the house itself (it’s a future house, see), but it’s also the weightlessness of these interactions, how trite and inconsequential they feel, as they’re actions done through instant one-button prompts.  Only the “nursery,” a simulation room meant for the children to play in, provides a small moment of escape and excitement for her, and it serves as the most visually flamboyant moments of the game.

As the weeks go by, the same tune plays over again. We see her grow distasteful of the house, as shown with her nighttime interactions with her husband (the only time they really get the chance to talk), but they don’t materialize for a long time. The World The Children Made is very slowly paced, but it manages to find a thematic core that makes it a worthwhile play, and it’s a welcome change of pace from James Earl Cox III.

The Pyramid Gate - Strangethink

I’ve been very into StrangeThink’s works lately. I first came across his games when I played Endless Crimes at the Cyberpunk Jam that a few months ago. There’s a very consistent style and tone that he crafts: a palette of energetic cyans and pinks, dronish ambient soundtracks, and very straightforward geometries that emphasize monuments and ominous singular structures.

 StrangeThink introduces “The Pyramid Gate” as trying to turn the player into “a superstitious pigeon.” There’s a hint of truth here; he uses strange, grating 3D sound clips to lure us into certain areas of the space, although very cautiously.  The Pyramid Gate really takes advantage of its low-resolution rendering, creating a space that feels unfamiliar, open but with a lurking hostility. The intense pixelation gives fluidity to the image, as pixels and colours swirl across the screen hypnotically, like a stream of water. While playing, I sat entranced, watching how the large pixels flashing on the top of the screen would flow downwards, forming more detail on the bottom half. The game's creation of an abstract horizon line between these forms of detail is important because it’s how the Pyramid Gate disorients the player. These structures become ominous and threatening from their resistance to visual clarity.

There are apparently puzzles to solve—codes that you enter into the pyramids that will make them shoot a laser light into the lava lamp sky. I'm not particularly sure if they're 'solvable'; even when it's implicated that they've been entered wrong, the game still progresses to its conclusion, and what registers as a 'wrong' sequence seems to change with every playthrough. But I'm more amused by this if anything. I've always enjoyed games that reject the impulse to manipulate systems to achieve winstates, in favour of something more abstract. By the end of my experience, I came our very impressed with The Pyramid Gate, and I'm excited for what StrangeThink brings to his future games.  

Car Park Dream – Rylie James Thomas

Car Park Dream stays close to a particular style found in very low-production freeware games that are made in the Unity Engine. Destroy Your Home, SKATEBOAR, One Duck, and the Box Simulator games hit a very particular comedic tone… how can I explain it? The thing about these games is they reject many of the presumptions of how a 3D game is supposed to perform on a technical level. They have messy and difficult physics, their sound mixing is off, and their graphical quality is incredibly low, with off-kilter shadows and low-polygon models. Yet this is what allows these games to create such interesting experiences! They’re messy and unpredictable, they carry an awkward energy, and there’s something funny about the odd, goofy nature of their worlds. By their very nature, they debunk and satirize the ideology of production value that dominates and moves discourse in mainstream videogame culture (Box Simulator is particular in this, as the game is an anti-comedy, rejecting the concept of the entertainment stimulant in general).

Car Park Dream, made for the Ludum Dare Jam with the theme “Beneath The Surface,” has us riding around in a toy car, or at least I believe it’s a toy car as I can’t actually tell from of the game’s lighting. Anyways, we ride around in these vast sand landscapes with large surrounding walls that blur the difference between feeling like you’re underground and feeling like you’re outside. I was thrown off by the sheer surreality of the game’s architectures; as I went further into these depths, I found the sand dunes harder to parse and maneuver.  I was reminded by the ShiverGaming title Dreamscape and Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic in how we start to feel trapped and isolated, as the environment becomes more difficult to understand. This all sounds quite ominous, but Car Park Dream, being true to the style, covers all of this with the title track of the 1991 arcade racing game OutRun, twisting the whole experience into an awkward, funny and exhilarating mess of tone and energy.

Molleindustria – To Build a Better Mousetrap

Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini is probably one of the most openly radical game developers in the social sphere you would call the “indie scene.” Creating situations concerning labour, corporatism, class and interventionism, his games carry themes that are deep in touch with a far-leftist politics. Now, Molleindustria games certainly aren’t the only ones interested in the toll that late capitalism has taken on our culture. Critics like Lana Polansky and myself have long argued there has been a trend of indie, freeware “art-games” that depict the social alienation that has been pervasive under neoliberal society, through depression, anxiety, and a general sense of disembodiment and malaise. But Pedercini is a lot more obvious about it. Perhaps too obvious, as he can fall into typicality and a generic depiction of work and life, failing to make any insightful or revelatory conclusions (I would say that Every Day The Same Dream applies here). But his games are still unique in their materialism, as they focus primarily on the ways we're implicated within production and labour. They're systemic critiques.

In To Build a Better Mousetrap, we’re put into the role of the capitalist-producer. Playing as a plain mouse with the privilege of the cat’s head, we buy labour power and then we extract that labour power to fulfill the sad toil of endless accumulation. Labour is split into physical manufacturing and “research and development,” and you can change how many workers you want in these sectors by drag and dropping the metaphorical mice around the trap. The physical workers create products and the R&D mice will tap attentively at their computers, creating knowledge that you can use to improve your product or automate your workforce. While playing, I tried to act as closely to a real producer-capitalist as I thought I could: I kept wages as low as possible, loading the majority of work responsibility to few and never responding to the mice's woes for higher pay. But of course, if the mice are dissatisfied they will either make faulty products or stop working all together, at which point I could either replace them with one of the desperate unemployed, give in to their wage demands, or replace them with automated workers (machines). Automation is usually the best option, but from my numerous attempts I can say that full automation is almost impossible, as the number of unemployed mice on the bottom is constantly growing, and when ignored they will bang on their ceiling like a tenant demanding you turn down your music--a piercing clap of hard metal. And as more of them become upset, you will lose the game to "insurrection," or worker revolt.

Now in a more expanded scenario we would see that this predicament is what the function of state violence is for, specifically the police state to intimidate or harm workers and the legislative state to justify such violence and keep dissents to minimum. And with "insurrection" being such a frequent failure state, and the State entity itself being omitted, we can argue that the game portrays workers/unions as the main hindrance to capitalist production, instead of revealing that the production process itself is contradictory and self-destructive. Yet this is what makes A Better Mousetrap so interesting to me, as we’re compelled to think about and consider the numerous ways we’re implicated and exploited in these large, seemingly endless structures. This makes the game sound cynical, but its presentation is friendly and its tone seems more interested in educating and enlightening, than making one feel powerless. In that way, I consider To Build a Better Mousetrap to be an important game, and along with the drone-themed drama Unmanned, to be one of Pedercini’s best.

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