I’ve been posting some pretty heavy stuff lately so, to get myself grounded back into what I love the most, I thought I should write about some altgames (artgames, small indie games, tiny experiences?) that had a meaningful effect on me lately. I have a million things to do, a super busy week, but I can’t hold back on these. They’re all beautiful and offer something unique, or special.
I couldn’t recommend them enough!
Last night I finally played SkateRPG, and wow I love it. It’s this beautiful combination of a strong personal voice from the solo-dev that made it, a unique kinda glorious trainwrecks-like design style (in a good way), and is filled with interesting, strange, and wacky characters.
I love the tone that SkateRPG sets. It’s rich with this very grounding social commentary. For example, there’s a graffiti artist that’s working on a wall. If you talk to them you get caught up in a rant about mainstream art.
A lot of the writing is strongly anti-capitalist, underground, and (my favorite) critical of American culture. It’s one of those games that you need to hold onto once you do find them because of that no-holes-barred honesty.
Why SkateRPG means this to me…
When I lived outside of America (in the many places I guess I ended up calling home), all this especially affecting the Balkans, there was this sense that Americanization was moving in and just slowly eating everything. You couldn’t escape it. Because of the cultural scars left from the war there was a subliminal sense of shame. Kind of a brokenness in many of the people that lost everything. “The West” was just viewed as better… kind of having “won” in some ways. I remember, during the conflict, how Americans were making movies about what happening (the ethnic cleansing, and all that). Fancy journalists came in to watch and document (For example: recommended reading “Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco“). Western news talked about it… The movies got critical acclaim and nominations, the books won prestigious sounding awards or made some careers, the fancy journalists made even bigger names for themselves… It also felt so exploitative… then they forgot. Attention moved on. The scars stayed.
After that, it seemed like the culture that everyone wanted was America. I guess, in terms of identity, and reducing a very complicated bunch of history to a simple sentence… There kind of was nothing left? A strange mixture of broken pride where calling someone “American” was an insult, but also something people wanted.
Then you move here, and it seems like America continues to consume whatever is left of where you were from. I think this country digests people slowly. Consuming the culture. Keeping the sell-able parts that are desirable (like spicy food, music), and rejecting the rest. You feel ashamed of your accent, of your food, the weird music, you don’t speak of where you came from… Ironically you yourself may not talk about “the conflict” because then it’s too triggering for the Americans. It’s best left to be consumed from the safe distance of the news, the novels, and the award winning movies.
I grew up with lots of discussions (complaining) about “The West” (among refugee friends mostly) and what that may mean for the future. Ok, this is getting ranty, I know, but reading the comments for Balkan Beat Box’s Balkumbia on Youtube there’s one that jumped out at me…
It kind of made me homesick a little? For a space that no longer exists?
Cultural “pride” back there is a very weird and loaded thing. I don’t think there’s much left for me back there, but wow… when you find work from artists in this particular space, from cultures outside of the US, that really confront topics like gentrification, Americentrism, capitalism (for real, not just as a trendy talking point)… it sure is meaningful. This is what SkateRPG is to me. It’s grounding, skeptical, with a strong attitude and tone that ends up being pretty impactful.
SkateRPG is about skating. You collect tricks by learning them from the silly inhabitants of the world it places you in. There’s a monetary system to it too, and you can purchase things. You wander around and talk to people. There’s smaller mission-like things you can do… What I really like about it too is some of the very arbitrary design decisions about it. Like there’s one home (the door is left open) that you could go into. It stops you and asks if you really want to go into someone’s home uninvited. If you choose “yes” then it’s game over. I kinda enjoyed that. The silly little arbitrary design tangents that end up bearing with them meaning.
The quirky characters that the world is full of are my favorite. They’re all a bunch of weirdos with square heads, alien bodies, giant bug-like beans??
There’s a lot to this game. I’m still playing it. I couldn’t recommend it more tho. For $2.00 USD it’s a steal!
SkateRPG has an English version available that’s aptly called “SKATERPG – Gringo Edition.exe”.
Yesterday I stumbled on this incredible gem on itch.io… Riba is a small, atmospheric, metaphoric experience about fishing for your grandmother’s bones. You recover these touching memories of someone who lost themselves to an illness.
Even though it’s a very short, simple game, there’s a lot to it in terms of how it creates this impactful meaning through the metaphor of the interactions it allows.
There’s a little bare patch of land in the corner where you can pick (drag and drop) flowers, mushrooms, leaves… and place them around the bones you collect. It offers this space of reverence for what is lost. The little bittersweet pieces of someone that’s no longer with you, but it gives you these memories you can tangibly keep… pick up… place… offer respect to. It’s beautiful. The music is just as melancholic.
You don’t actually find bones right away. You also catch fish, which I think is interesting. For a fishing game, the fish are treated as almost a nuisance. Like they get in the way of what you really want to find.
Riba is a very short game. I think you get just seven bones, because (after that) all I started getting are fish. The simplicity of it is what makes it special. I’m really appreciative to the people who made this, that shared this part of themselves. It’s touching.
Riba reminds me a lot of Constacia… speaking to shortness and that maybe making a game long, elaborate, or too fleshed out, can ruin these small experiences.
I like bringing up Constacia as an example because it’s a perfect vignette piece. In it you ascend this never-ending staircase by typing “perseverance”… you type the word over and over and over again, and are rewarded with a little banter between the characters about persevering. It’s almost sarcasm, self-commentary, self-aware, type of design. I like it because, if it were any more complex (with loops, and magic circles, levels…) I don’t think it would be the same experience. It’s impactful because it’s small. It’s a little message. It says what it needs to say, and you really get the point.
These small things may be easy to brush off as “what? this is not a game? what’s the point even??” but I think that’s where the importance of them gets lost to the culture of games.
The beauty is in the metaphor of interaction. The thing you are being asked to do gets you to be very reflective by performing the action. The words are passing. The message is not explained to you. It becomes clear as you are engaging with it.
Things like this are very poetic.
One last game that I think is a wonderful example of the poetry of interaction is Maskless, by Kultisti.
Maskless is kind of in the same vein as Yume Nikki. It’s a poetic piece about fitting in, following your own path, rejecting objective reality… It’s actually really complex in what you could take away from it. It’s hard to describe but the game kind of puts you through this poetic journey where you wander from one space to the other. You talk to those you meet. There’s instances where you interact, and the interaction (whatever it lets you do) reinforces the metaphor that you are placed in.
Maskless is a beautiful and personal piece. It’s short, but I found it just as meaningful.
Quite a while ago I wrote about games as found objects and virtual relics. Basically when you lose a game, and find it again… the way games are not just a self-contained experience but the way they themselves are a digital object with a history… I explore things like this often in my work. Cyberpet Graveyard presents itself as a cursed object, in the form of an abandoned CD-ROM project. Or another wonderful example is the Haunted PS1 Demo Disc, which is a fictional collection of horror games made by a lot of devs.
When games present themselves as part of some bigger mysterious history, as something of a cursed object… It’s one of my favorite things.
mk creature.zip is exactly this! It’s amazing.
To quote from the itch page…
“Hello my dear friend,
I found a strange game on my computer a few days ago. I have tried to find out how it works but have failed in all my attempts. I hope you have more luck than I have. Please tell me if you can figure it out, because I think it’s driving me C????R????Å????Z?????????. I’m sure the guide holds the key to solving it, but if not, you can always have some fun with the sinuous movements of the strange creatures that live in this game. I hope you enjoy it.
There’s absolutely not explanation on what it really is. The presentation is the allure. There’s this fictional mystery hovering over it.
When you run it, it’s basically this bizarre creature creator. The UI is purely alien. You get the impression that there’s some kind of structure to it, but can’t read the language.
As you interact with it, you slowly learn how to use it. It made the state of being confused very fun.
The instructions are equally as bizarre, but weirdly informative. They’re a series of illustrations just kind of alluding to how mk creature.zip works. You have to actually start tinkering with this alien puzzle to figure it out.
I loved this. It really illustrates how UI can reinforce mystery, or story. How the digital thing you are running is so much like an object that you must understand. It’s like the confusion you first get when you decide to learn a new art program, or game making software, and there’s this horror-level sense of being overwhelmed with this digital environment that you’re placed in… mk creature.zip captures this well.
The creature you make with it is probably just as confusing and amusing as the UI. It’s weird, floppy, jiggly, kinda unsettling, but weirdly cute. By some accident of understanding what you are doing, you can tweet what you make in it.
It’s fun to be confused!
Ok, that was the fifth of my official altgame recommendations. I’m about to trail off talking about what I think about the design behind Celeste… because I’m playing it again…
Before I do that tho…
Another, smaller find, not very relevant to anything here, but that I still enjoyed was InfiniteBliss3D.
There’s not much to it. You wander around an infinitely generated Windows XP bliss background. The icons make sounds. The ambience is calming.
This is one of those games that you project on a wall and chill out to. If you have a projector, this is worth doing.
A friend mentioned that games like Celeste are like songs… Those games that are well rounded, well designed, and focused on that “magic circle”. I really liked that comment.
If you think about it, it kind of gives you a unique perspective on designing such games.
Your favorite pop song has that one consistent catchy loop to it. It might change, but that thing you love about it is persistent. I don’t know… thinking of games like Celeste this way makes me want to design another game-like-game. I really like it when you approach talking about these games with different metaphors because it gives you a fresh perspective on why people like them.
I think it’s interesting how games like these are enjoyed by people who have some kind of game literacy. My mom cannot play something like Celeste. She doesn’t play games, so doesn’t really understand the language of interacting with them. Commonly agreed on interactions like, you should move right. You should jump over these things. You should do this set of moves to get the avatar to travel through the world… but there’s a point when the language becomes more than “just a game”. It’s not just a way to win at something anymore… I hope this makes sense, I’ll try…
I really like how Celeste has this subliminal metaphor hovering behind it, moving a body through this space, and the way it subtly changes up the interaction makes it meaningful. For example, the way you first encounter your mirror self, and then your mirror self mimics your movement. You have to be very aware of what you last did, otherwise you run into your mirror self and die.
I think things like this are actually really brilliant because they take this type of mechanical language and manage to impart meaning to it, as you interact with this structured “loop”.
When you write out the concept of “you must pay attention to your journey through this space to avoid your past self”, it gets kind of deep. It’s something I enjoy about game design: Interaction is a language, and language imparts meaning.
You can have these more loosely designed metaphoric experiences (like many that I mentioned here), or you can have this mechanically designed metaphoric experience (like Celeste). Both end up communicating something pretty emotional once you start interacting with them. As a passive observer it might not look like much. I’m just fishing for bones and arranging them, or I’m just jumping around a map with some purple sprite chasing me… but as someone that is focused on what the experience is tasking me to do, it gets really personal.
Either way, that’s my food for thought. I started playing Celeste again, on my own. It used to be the game I play when I visit friends, but since The Global Pandemic, I can’t do that so I’m begrudgingly playing it on my own. I really like it. All these games have given me “design things” to think about.
Ok, that said… here are two more that are really sweet…
Thanks for reading. Please check all these out! They’re worth the time.