This post is about stuff that’s been on my mind lately. I had some game recommendations that I wanted to write about, and then I suppose it grew into more…
Recently I’ve started playing more AAA open world games because it’s been helping me cope with self-isolation. Stuff like GTA 5 and the new Spider Man game (the Miles Morales one).
I don’t really have much to say about these games, and would rather not give them more attention than they need because they are AAA and enough people talk about them… BUT what I find interesting about them is how invisible the open world in them is when you’re “properly” playing them.
(I talked about that more extensively in my Walking Sims blog post here, if you’re interested… either way…)
For example, the new Spider Man game has absolutely stunning scenery. I want to be left alone to explore the world. The space lets you feel free, but the actual primary mode of playing it (fighting enemies) makes everything so invisible.
I fixate more on the “go here!” goals in the map, the red spots that show up when enemies are nearby, the tips that show up on the screen, the numbers in the HUD, the prompts that appear, all those numbers from combos… so many numbers and icons and prompts… I forget the world… Basically I feel like most of the fun happens by watching the UI.
The actual world and the journey through it is so invisible to me. It’s kinda a mood that I’ve been observing a lot because I’ve been playing more of them.
I played the Spider Man game through to the end. Completed everything.
Interacting with its world isn’t at the front of my memory if I was to recall it. The combos and stuff I unlocked is.
Playing these things feels like there are a lot of really expensive, almost unrelated pieces, that get glued together to form this experience.
I think another interesting example to use too is No Man’s Sky.
I adore No Man’s Sky. I play it a lot.
I also think it’s a good example to look at when you think of how “game” often fights with everything else in the carefully created world.
No Man’s Sky is open world. You can explore forever. The primary mode of interacting with all the world’s, however, is mining resources, watching numbers go up, watching status bars go down as you mine, watching the prompts and bars in the UI… I find it really interesting that you have so much you could do, but in the end you hoard resources.
Maybe I’m the only one that thinks this game would be better if it wasn’t a game.
The way you interact kinda ends up as an unintentional commentary on colonialism. You go from one pristine untouched environment to the next, wreck the landscape by mining the trees and rocks, build a base, and then go to the next world to do the same. It’s funny to me because I feel like a parasite, rather than an explorer.
I love No Man’s Sky, but the way I remember it isn’t really the exploration of amazing environments, it’s the consumption.
So I lose the world. The journey is in the backdrop. I don’t really appreciate the worlds because the game has another agenda. It’s wants me to progress. The world is lost to progress… (I guess the real world is too, so in the end maybe it IS a realistic space sim.)
I’m asked to consume. That seems to be the pattern in all these.
I’m bringing this up because I don’t think AAA games really know what they are anymore. They are these giant, manufactured, optimized for profit, experiences that everyone should care about, but somehow it’s hard to keep caring.
The exploitation surrounding them (just as an industry) seems to have unmade what these games even are anymore.
The emergence of the FPS genre with titles like Doom, Quake, Blood, Rise of the Triad, turned into Half Life 2 (a friend of mine criticized it as being too much of a “tech demo” turned into a game, and I feel like that’s fair), turned into bigger and bigger systems that just don’t seem fun anymore.
Engaging with them is about as time consuming as you can get. Maybe too many people are involved in making them. Maybe things are just too big… I’m wondering how an experience like Doom, which just made sense for that time period, could have birthed something like the current first person disaster in games that everyone is talking about.
What are games anymore? Why should anyone care?
I don’t think people look back at older games so much because of “just nostalgia”. I think maybe, as a generalization, games lost a lot on the way to becoming a “serious” medium and industry.
I played GTA V’s story mode again, and I still feel about it the way I did when I wrote about it last time.
It’s such a beautiful game world, but I have to play it on mute because the dialogue between characters talking about their dicks, making misogynistic jokes, and just the overall “banter” that I’m expected to listen to, makes it hard to play.
When I have people around, and they can hear the dialogue, I get embarrassed. It’s not “tough” or “gritty” to me as much as it is just immature. The funny thing about it is that you can play it on mute, and it kind of doesn’t make any difference to the overall experience.
In many ways I feel like this game is the game industry in a nutshell. There’s some great things going on with the overall environment, but you have to “look away”, mute, or otherwise ignore, all the blatantly gross stuff about it.
Mainstream games are weird. They are pretentiously broken things that everyone seems to be talking about but often don’t deserve to be talked about (not at the amount that they are).
I find it amazing that a AAA game doesn’t even have to be good, but they still dominate the discourse for weeks on end.
I don’t hate them. I’m just tired of how they can enjoy every possible take you could possibly have about a thing, wile also being phenomenally unremarkable.
Indie does so much for games, but it doesn’t even get a fraction of the credit it deserves. I think that any accolade you give to AAA, indie has done way before it, in a more interesting way.
It’s worth bringing up again that the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality raised $8,149,804.66 for charity. That’s a lot of $5 purchases. It’s a lot of developers that came together to donate some 1,391 games to it.
The Be A Better Cyberpunk bundle is currently running at $54,923.07, which will go to all the participants in the bundle. That’s a lot for a bunch of small indies you might otherwise have passed over.
The current Shorter Games With Worse Graphics Bundle has made $4,719.69 with the goal just raised because the success outdid expectations.
'The Shorter Games With Worse Graphics Bundle' is now live! This is a collection of 32 games from 25 different independent developers; this thread gives a sample of all of them! #indiedev #indiegames #altgames #itchiohttps://t.co/aOfbD9tyod pic.twitter.com/nQMfqlN7CH
— get The Shorter Games With Worse Graphics Bundle (@DeveloperDamien) December 20, 2020
I bring this up because I think these are some fairly substantial numbers (for very small independent creators), and they were made possible because of everyone coming together to make that happen.
Horror games on itch seem to be growing in popularity. I’m watching things like the Haunted PS1 Demo Discs, or other collections, and wondering if maybe devs coming together to “make this thing” is a sustainable answer.
We can’t pull off the grand spectacle of AAA, but together we can make some really interesting stuff that does make an impression. Generally, people seem to view these bundles as more worth paying for.
Itch bundles have raised A LOT for charity. This was being done long before The Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. They wouldn’t be raising so much if they were really so small, inconsequential, “just hobbyist”, or “all the other words we use to talk about that space”… Maybe they are worthy of more conversation…
I found DreamDisc the other day and it inspired me to want to write about these games again.
The itch page describes it as “dream collection transposed into readable disco format”. It’s the type of thing you can easily download knowing that it won’t be a huge investment.
It’s worth doing too. It’s a small looping journey through these abstract low-fi spaces, where you just take in the space that you find yourself in. I appreciated it for how much of a strange relic open to your interpretation it is.
Games like this can be viewed as photographs. Something really abstracted, no context given, that you wander through.
I loved the look of it too.
What makes these games special is the way they embrace the brokenness, distortion, journey from place to place that is lost to us during play… the way they work with how dysfunctional, pointless, or ridiculous games can be…
I love it when you play something and the game is almost self-aware of the shortcomings of the medium (see Utopias by AAA).
There’s this developing aspect to smaller “alt” indie games that I’ve started noticing lately. It’s kinda a very unique take on the broken low-fi console era aesthetic. I view it as a “look” that seems to be emerging out of the older alt-games that centered around glitch aesthetic (like CURTAIN).
It’s something that I feel is specifically unique to this part of the game space, and the way it’s developing (especially toward horror) is really fascinating to me.
For example, I stumbled on The Snow of Basidia today. It’s “a N64 styled horror game set in an idyllic Hyrule-esque fantasy land” (source).
It’s intriguing that devs take these aesthetics and qualities of these older games, that often had little or nothing to do with horror, and turn them into horror experiences.
It kind of makes me think that, behind the perfectly crafted worlds in games, no matter what era, are menacing qualities.
It seems like an easy connection to make once you start looking at the worlds in games this way.
Younger me remembers playing PC games like Tomb Raider, or Quake 2, or Rise Of The Triad, and there were aspects to all these games that were always kinda scary, even if scary wasn’t the intention. The tone just kinda naturally loomed in the distance.
Recalling all this from memory from when I first played it, when it came out… Tomb Raider 2 had a level called Barkhang Monastery, that had all these monks walking around. It was probably the only level where there were friendly non-enemy characters. If you accidentally shot one, or inflicted any damage, they would ALL turn on you and then just attack you on principle whenever you encountered one. If you managed not to harm any of them, the monks would stay peaceful. For some reason this level scared the living shit out of me. I hated being put in the dark places in that game. Even if there were no ghosts or haunting spirits around, the environments always felt haunted.
A lot of early games made me feel like that. I think, lying behind the distortions of early 3D, the pixelated textures, there’s something intrinsically eerie about them.
They just look cursed.
Ok, so… I made some points, set up the theme… here are some game recommendations! It’s why I set out to write this, but then ended up rambling.
One game that I REALLY want to put on a pedestal right now, for how it’s… all of what I just described is Juice Galaxy (formerly Juice World)
It’s an indescribable experience that just drops you in the middle of something and you… go with it.
It’s things like this that bring back that “awe” (for a lack of a better word) that I had when playing these older games. They are these strange spaces, with weird ways of interacting with them, and you try to understand what it means to you. Worth mentioning is that the first Tomb Raider had an Atlantis level (the fourteenth level) and it was entirely made of flesh. I remember how it seemed to come out of nowhere. The game just stopped making sense, which was a pretty big thing already because Tomb Raider was a really new type of game for that time (the way you played it), so it already took a lot of effort to understand. Did it have to make sense? The way it didn’t make sense was terrifying. The way games want you to understand them, while being inexplicable weird simulations is why I love them.
You need to try Juice Galaxy. It’s captures this mood really well.
Much like Out of This World had a frightening tone to it (when I first played it it scared me), The Eternal Castle feels really similar. It’s an absolutely beautiful game. Maybe the “scary mood” that hovers in the back is not intentional, but it has that otherworldly almost terrifying tone. I don’t think it would be the same with any other art style. The pallet, pixel art, animation, and lack of detail, is what makes it so evocative.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment in my opinion. Out of all my recommendations so far it’s also the most “game like” game here.
Noita is described as a “magical action rogue-lite set in a world where every pixel is physically simulated”. It’s a singular game, that’s hard to describe while trying to do it justice.
The world in Noita evokes mystery. It’s beautiful to look at, and the way you interact with the environments is precarious for how everything reacts to literally anything you can think of doing. It has that otherwordly horror tone looming over it. Maybe “horror” is too strong of a word, but it brings out that same awe I used to have in games. It’s a very environment focused game where you’re encouraged to be aware of everything because of how dangerous it is.
When it was at Fantastic Arcade years ago, it was the game that everyone seemed to be talking about when asked “what’s your favorite game here”. It’s very memorable.
There are so many examples like the above. Itch.io and GameJolt are treasure troves of unique games and game-like things that will surprise you. I feel like I fall in love with games all over again when I dive in and take advantage of the randomize feature. Occasionally you find that one gem that really sticks with you.
…I suppose I should come to a close here, but here are a few more recommendations of varying length and quality.
“The painful adventure of a salamander through different worlds as the unknown pushes you forward.”
To Dawn and Back
“To Dawn and Back is a non-violent surrealist art-horror game inspired by visual novels and immersive sims. With more than 20 unique dreams determined by your actions and more than a dozen unique characters, I hope it is an adventure that will stay with you when you step away from the screen. ”
“Iketsuki is an atmospheric platforming game set in the final hours of a dying world.”
“are you strong enough? venture where only the strongest come out alive… into the muscle world.
delve into its secrets with the power of muscle
redeem yourself through exercise
The subliminal horror mood in such games resonates with me a lot lately. I love how that style, tone, and aesthetic exploration is evolving.
The game industry itself can be horror, subliminal or obvious horror seems to be the most honest way to engage with games.
It’s the things that are weird, different, small, unusual, and niche that are exciting here. Caught under the shadow of large pretentious discourse about the latest AAA game are these tiny things that have a lot to offer. They make being here worth it, if you can tune out the noise of being here.
Indie games continue to grow, in the background, as something you either have to acknowledge or work really hard on invalidating. Either way, they continue to be a source of hope.