I went to a Lunarcade event over the weekend: an "experimental and independent games circus" around the theme of exploration.
I got to do my own bit of exploring getting to the venue; Serial Space is tucked away down a little side street, and the space itself is situated in a way that almost seems like you're intruding until you find the actual doorway.
It was also the first time I've walked south of Central station from my apartment in the two months I've been here; it's one thing to see a route on a map and another to understand that route in the context of the city.
This is where a bridging paragraph would go, seamlessly leading the subject to my opinions of the games themselves. Because I haven't written anything besides code comments in about six months, I'm just going to jump straight into it.
"Take long walks at the seaside, thinking about love. Meet a stranger. Go to the café, sit and drink wine and talk. And then you are silent. And you start longing for the sea."
You're alone on a beach. You press down to close your eyes. Sometimes, if you walk far enough, you start to see the hint of a grid in the sky. I was reminded of this scene in Neuromancer where Case's heart stops and he's trapped for days by an AI in an immaculately reconstructed beach.
On their dev blog ToT make their "virtual world" explanation quite plain. I think this works better here than the forced "game as virtual reality simulation" aspect of something like Assassin's Creed, but I can't help feeling like it's emotionally manipulative: nothing says "SEPARATION AND LONELINESS" like the vast emptiness of space.
The second part of this alpha was much less successful for me. You're having a conversation in a café, except all you can do is drink your wine, smoke your cigarrette, and say canned, alternatively bleak and banal sentences to each other in french. I'm not familiar with the work of Marguerite Duras (an apparent source of inspiration), so maybe there's something I'm missing here, but I didn't feel any kind of connection with this other person: You can't even see their face, virtual or otherwise.
(This might have been confounded by the state of the build; I understand that the intention is that two people meet anonymously through the game on the internet, but this conversation was by necessity single-player only).
Maybe that's good enough, though - I think there's something just as emotionally resonant in a person on a spacestation having a holodeck conversation with a simulation as with another person on another holodeck thousands of lightyears away.
Memory of a Broken Dimension
Memory of a Broken Dimension starts with one of the coolest "corrupt system terminal" implementations I've seen in a while. Once you actually get into the game proper you're in this strange, monochrome, fragmented world. The aesthetic is amazing, and the sound and visuals tie together in a bit of sensory overload that's overwhelming at first. You have no idea what anything means or what you're meant to be doing, but you don't care because it looks amazing.
They had the game projected onto a wall, and I had a lot of fun watching people interacting with this and trying to figure it out. I spent a good while trying to understand it myself: the primary mechanic seemed to hinge on making platforms resolve out of the clouds of fragments in each room by standing in the right place and clicking the mouse while looking in the right direction.
As you piece together your understanding of the space, and how the areas interconnect, your developing understanding of the space is reflected by the platforms solidifying around you. This, on its own, is pretty cool. I just wish there was a bit more feedback around the mechanics.
Inspired by one of the stories in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, in Robert Yang's Zobeide you chase a woman through a city. Disclosure: I follow Yang's blog, so I'd already tried an earlier prototype of the main mechanic in Zobeide and it wasn't surprising to me. I'd be interested to know what kind of effect this had on players coming at it blind.
There's a great moment in the opening seconds of the game as the instructions hang before you on the screen; you're instructed to use your left mouse button to grab the woman. The fact that this option exists compels you to action: she's standing right over there! But of course, she runs off, into the city, faster than you.
I think there's something interesting in this on its own: we're trained in games to take non-diegetic instruction (that is, things that exist outside of the gameworld, like being told to press space to jump) as truth without question. There are a fair number of games that subvert things like mission objectives, but fewer still that mess with your idea of what is possible in the game itself.
Anyway, I'm not sure if this was the intention, but in my playthrough the woman immediately clipped through the first wall she came across and disappeared. Working your way through the city to the lighthouse that beckons in the distance is it's own fun, though.
It's implied from this quote
This particular adaptation is a massively single player game where players collaboratively "build" a city, explore it, and imbue it with desire.
that my interaction with the city had some permanent effect on the global state. If this is the case, then that is awesome. I just wonder what will happen once the city fills up.
Thirty Flights of Loving
Robert Yang calls Thirty Flights of Loving "...one of the most important games made in the last decade", and I'm inclined to agree. Taken together with Chung's previous work, Gravity Bone (which apparently isn't incredible enough to deserve its own page), they represent some of the most interesting explorations of storytelling and narrative in first-person games that I've seen.
In his artist's statement, Chung cites self-imposed limitations as helping to encourage "unique solutions". Thirty Flights of Loving is an experiment in storytelling that "eschew[s] traditional storytelling methods". There's no dialogue, no informative blocks of text, no ui, and one of the only things you can do aside from open doors is slowly peel an orange and then eat it.
It is the most amazing thing. I can't even talk about it for fear of ruining it for you. Maybe once it gets a wider release I'll post about this one again. In the meantime, download Gravity Bone and play it again.
But before you do that, here's a tragic anecdote. I watched someone "finish" Thirty Flights of Loving, put down their headphones and walk away. It took everything I had not to yell "WAIT! You're missing the whole extra scene with the museum exhibition about Bernoulli's Principle!"
Trip, Dear Esther, and Lifeless Planet
I've spent enough time raving about the other games so it feels mean to give these ones short shrift, but Trip and Dear Esther are both available now and so you don't need to come to Sydney to try them.
Lifeless planet is still in alpha, but I found the lack of warning around deaths to be quite frustrating. Maybe I've grown soft, but games that don't warn you that that tree is going to kill you and eat you if you walk over to it just seem broken to me. Seemed pretty promising otherwise.
Dear Esther seems to be a game you either love or hate; I don't hate it, so I must be in the love camp. The main reason I didn't spend that much time with it was that I knew I could buy it on Steam; the short time I spent with it definitely justified that future purchase. Great production values on the narration.
Trip seems to want to pick a fight with me about what counts as a game and what's just "interactive". I'm not sure about it. I loved the visuals and especially the music, but then there's an "inventory" mechanic where you can collect little sprite-y trinkets?