Video games are worth loving, but loving them comes with shame. Not passing regret or social embarrassment, but a sharp-edged physical guilt: the hunch-backed, raw-fingered, burning-eyed pain that comes at the sad and greasy end of an all-night binge. You have ostentatiously, really viciously wasted your life; you might as well have been masturbating for the last nine hours—your hands, at least, would feel better.
Waste is not a byproduct—it’s the point: playing video games is a revolt against life. All art forms, even the polite ones, are escapist in that each answers some fundamental objection to the world and its limits. Novels let you know, granting access to inner lives and narrative arcs otherwise hidden and guessed at. Films let you see, permitting you to stare at the world and its inhabitants as long and as hard and as many times as you want. The gratification provided by video games is particularly sweet because the objection that drives them is more urgent. What they offer is purpose (see “Cave Painting,” Issue 9). To play them is to live in a world with knowable rules and achievable goals: to ask, Dear God, what should I do with my life? And be greeted with a tutorial, a pre-mission briefing, and a shot at a high score.
As games have become easier to make, a faction of independent designers has arrived to challenge the monopoly of the multi-million-dollar blockbusters. More artists than programmers, more programmers than businessmen, these designers give their work away for free. Their games are released as ad-supported flash files, or posted for download in internet forums, or occasionally even installed awkwardly in art galleries. Many of them participate in odd little game-making competitions—36 hours to make a game on the theme of boredom, say—and the results, at their best, display an extraordinary kind of rough-edged, short-form formal inventiveness.
The plenitude of tasks in such massive time-holes as Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption, and, worst of all, World of Warcraft, is terrifying. The far smaller worlds presented in these games offer the same mix of pleasures: the puerile, soul-sucking joys of repetition and pseudo-accomplishment, of watching meaningless numbers slowly rise, and also the more lasting joys of exploration and self-discipline. But with their primitivist surfaces and self-conscious improvisations, homemade games offer a clearer view of what gaming actually is. WoW can kill you; with indies, you’re just a tourist in the void.
Hue Shift is an especially pure example: you are a colored square, sliding endlessly back and forth across series of red, green and blue platforms. You can jump, and you can switch colors—you must be blue to land on blue platforms, red to land on red, etc. That’s all: jumping and color-matching, trying to get as high up as possible.
To forsake the real world for this three-color nothingness for even five minutes, let alone the several compulsive hours it took me to get my square up above 3000, um, height-units, is fucking insane, not to mention somewhat crippling. The eye- and wrist-strain that greet such an achievement are only fair, the body’s proper response to this kind of wanton deathward hurdle. But the instant joy of the game, the peace of knowing what to do and that it can be done, is beautiful in the way that only pointless things can be—like middle school crushes, or fashion. Screw life.
Of all the indie developers, the fey and prolific Swede known as Cactus is probably the best, and his new game Norrland is in some ways his most accomplished. It is a fantastic looking game, an unsettling mixture of 8-bit sprites, ghostly afterimages, and fake film scratches. You are a Norrlander, a sort of Swedish redneck, out on a hunting trip. In between shooting various animals (an act attended by terrifying digital shrieks) you take care of various bodily needs: you eat, defecate, drink beer, swat mosquitoes, masturbate, sleep. You sleep every minute or two, and each nap occasions a bizarre and often violent dream: you are being forced to dance; you are a baby swimming under the sea, surrounded by vague, monstrous beings; you are driving a car, which you will crash; you are a bird flying over a city flooded with lava; you are playing Russian Roulette; you are stabbing yourself in the head. The dreams are the highpoint of the game, funny and beautiful and worrisome, with a subtle graphical precision—when you wake up, your bird-self flashes into higher resolution, revealing a set of demonic teeth.
The game builds toward a climax of compulsive self-loathing and self-destruction, which, although marred by a mawkish and over-obvious final tableau (you hang yourself from a tree), is just the kind of idiosyncratic nastiness that video games could use more of. Norrland is a rarity in a form dominated by macho flattery and semiliterate sloppiness: an uncompromised whole, precise in its aesthetic, unsparing in its characterization, strange and beautiful.
It is also a terrible game. It is relentlessly linear, and the tasks it presents are simplistic and without consequence; most have only one result, and involve only one or two buttons. To drink, you pound the Z key. To shit, you pound the Z key. You shoot without aiming. The only task in the entire game that requires more than two buttons is reloading. Though there are obvious thematic justifications for making the game extravagantly rote and pointless—it is, after all, a depiction of a man leading a violently empty existence—one can’t help but miss the possibilities for actual physical engagement that the game abjures.
One Button Arthur
One Button Arthur is silly and derivative beyond the limits of tolerability, but it does take up a few of the unique possibilities of video gaming with a satisfying thoroughness. Its setting is so tired it’s barely perceptible (knight, sword, castle, monsters); the graphics are blandly cartoonish, if generally intelligible; I’m pretty sure it has sounds but I can’t remember them. This is about as far from Norrland as one can get, farther even than Hue Shift, which at least had a jagged purity to its color-blocks and pounding music.
And yet, like its predecessor One Button Bob, with which it is essentially identical apart from its medieval conceit, One Button Arthur is a thing of real joy and invention. As the dullardly title implies, your control over Arthur is limited to a single computer key. In each tiny level of the game the meaning of that key is redefined: in some levels it makes Arthur jump, in others swing his sword, in others walk forward, or pause, or turn, or enter doorways. This is the game’s only trick, but it is a good one. Most of gaming is present—puzzle-solving, platforming, fighting, even boss battles—and yet it’s always one button. To have one’s agency funneled through so narrow a conduit and yet remain is a strange and fascinating experience, and an oddly comforting one: Even this one finger, this is me.
One Button Arthur is a drastically compressed, and for that reason joltingly clear and immediate, rendition of video gaming’s most fundamental capabilities. Its dumb-luck intensity reaches parts of our minds and bodies generally untouched by aesthetic experience. It takes our fingers and our eyes and the lowest parts of our brains—object-recognition, pattern-matching, fear and repetition—and returns them to us, newly strange and perceptible.
One Step Back
This arty little platformer aims higher and hits lower. Its flaws are both technical and conceptual. To begin with, it only sort of works. The controls are glitchy and inconsistent, and one of the later levels can inadvertently be
rendered unbeatable depending on which of three equally simple routes one chooses in order to complete an earlier level—a problem exacerbated by the absence of a save system.
Worse is the game’s attempt at meaning. It begins well enough, with a novel twist on the burgeoning time-manipulation subgenre (cf. Braid, Time Donkey, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, the brilliantly pure Cursor*10): as you move through a level, a series of replicas of your character appear one by one through the same door you used to enter and mimic your previous actions exactly. If you touch a replica, you die, and the close confines of the rudimentary 2-D levels force you into a sort of staggered dance with yourself. You pause and let yourself pass; you jump, so that later you may pass under. The replicas have small lines extending in front of them to indicate their immediate path, and they only move when you do; standing still essentially pauses the game. You pick your way in fits and starts through this swarm of clones, a mindless, malevolent diagram of the last ninety seconds of your life. The result, in its few flawless moments, is a cool, finicky tension that is worth experiencing.
Sadly, those moments are slathered in a grand attempt at significance. Tinkly piano plays, and bad poetry about “escaping your past” fades into view. These efforts are truly terrible, and in a limp, earnest manner that is sadly typical of small independent games (or, really, small independent anythings, as far as I can see). Depressing in a bad way.
It feels a little gross to prefer something as unapologetically juvenile as Teppoman 2 to a creation as high-minded and sincere as One Step Back, but there it is. The latest game from prolific Japanese designer and scatological GIF artist Ikiki, Teppoman 2 features a diminutive, pantless, caped commando in 2-D side-scrolling combat with a series of equally pantsless, though generally capeless, enemies. The rewards are lumpy bunches of black bananas. It is not quite Ikiki’s best work—it has neither the fiddly viciousness of his pantsless ninja game, Nikujin, nor the sly grace of his pantsless mace-wielder game, Tekkyuuman—but it’s close.
Ikiki’s games are awful in all the best ways, and brilliant exactly where they need to be. Their graphics are brightly slapdash, their narratives are either nonexistent or unintelligible, and their music is gleefully inane MIDI. Teppoman 2’s design takes the classic Mario skeleton of running and jumping, across and between, and loads it with more cartoon shotguns and stabbings. It also adds a number of perverse embellishments to the controls: unexplained gliding abilities, infinite belly flops, skidding backflips that somehow reach higher than normal jumps.
The pleasure comes in bending to Teppoman’s lunatic logic—in entering a radical communion with the game and its designer. Their requirements are memorized and fulfilled; you defeat them by making their nature yours. Stupid but fair: a better god than ours.