Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Chrono Compendium Post (also: Jason Rohrer)

Today, when I went to check on traffic to silentellipsis.com, I noticed a sudden spike in the numbers, and subsequently that many of these new users were coming from chronocompendium.com. Sure enough, my game, The Rise of Magus, had been mentioned on the front page of the site.

As I mentioned before (and as has been reported across the internet at this point), the main project for the site got shut down by a cease and desist order from SquareEnix about a month ago (in fact, it was posted on the very same day I intended to submit The Rise of Magus to be posted on their site), so I'd expected that in the immediate aftermath my game probably wasn't going to get much mention. I appreciate the fact that my game was eventually brought up (and in a positive light). Maybe now I'll get more feedback from people on it and feel compelled to add a couple bonus features that I didn't get around to.


In other news, I've been playing Jason Rohrer's games lately. He's essentially a crazy independent programmer making an earnest attempt at using games as an artistic medium of expression, and for what they are, they're very good.

Primrose is a very good puzzle game, though it lacks any implicit narrative that would give it the same impact as some of his other games. The game that struck me most was Passage, and Gravitation was also a fascinating game. Between didn't impress me as much, and I'll describe why below - these games largely depend for their effect on the player not knowing what it is they're supposed to expect, so I'm going to avoid describing them as much as possible prior to my spoiler warning tag:

SPOILER WARNING (for the remainder of the post)

Ok, so now that we're past the spoiler warning, I'll spoil your ability to properly experience the games I mentioned above.

Passage is a game that presents itself as being about perception and time. The game has a set time limit, and as it progresses, your apparent position on the screen shifts (while the room moves under you as you walk around), and you are only able to clearly see that portions of the screen closest to your current appear position. This is interesting, and it's kind of touching just to see your character grow old (possibly with a partner, possibly not), but I say that this is how it "presents itself" because I think what's really interesting is the implicit subject matter: games.

Passage includes a number in the upper right that grows as you move right and as you find stars hidden in treasure chests. It also allows you to explore freely, has maze-like sections, and presents new environments as you move right. Gamers will naturally take the number in the upper-right to be your score, but it's immediately unclear that getting a high score is actually your objective. It might instead be to make as much progress right as possible, attempting to reach an unknown "destination", or it might simply be to explore the maze-like areas in the hopes of finding something interesting.

Since you only have a few minutes to play the game before your character grows old and die, you cannot do everything in one playthrough, and each time you play the game you might play it very differently. This, it seems to me, is the real point - when presented with a set of rules and a virtual environment, our nature is to find a goal and strive for it, and Passage leaves your own psychology bare as you play it.

Gravitation is very similar, this time in platformer format. You begin in a room which you can only see a small portion of, and when you "warm up" you can leap straight out of the room and up to untold heights. Eventually, however, you will start to feel "cold" again and feel your power drain out of you (and sight limit itself) - you can gain boosts of warmth by collecting stars, but you'll soon find that you get cold faster and faster afterwards until you cannot progress. At this point, you can wait forself to slowly heat up, or head back down to the beginning to stand by the fire. If you go down, you will find blocks of ice that have appeared, and you can score "points" and warm up faster by pushing them into the fire. Once you're warm, you can continue exploring above yourself.

Here's the interesting part. I started realizing as I played that collecting stars wasn't actually increasing my score, and at some point I realized that the stars, which fell after being collected, were actually becoming the blocks of ice at the bottom of the level. That is, these items that we are used to associating with bonus points (or temporary invincibility) are being subverted, and now both help and hinder my progress. For that matter, it's not clear that I am making progress, because nothing ever indicated to me that I'm supposed to be climbing up - it just seems like the correct course of action.

The experience of having your own assumptions about what it means to be playing a game brought into question was really quite exceptional. So I decided to ask my friend to play the next game in the list, Between, with me (it's mandatory multiplayer). This game presents you with the ability to spawn blocks of three colors, and the ability to travel to different "worlds" by either going to sleep (the S key) or waking up (the W key), which circle around. There's a tower that can apparently be constructed out of your blocks in each world, but after minor progress you will see that the tower requires colors you cannot make. Then, when waking one day, you find these blocks you could not have made yourself, that allow you to continue building, and they are signs of another, who you cannot see.

This is the intended concept of the game, clearly, but it simply didn't work for me. The reasons for this are fairly simple. Firstly, it didn't work because I knew that thre was another person involved...the game is multiplayer by fiat! As such the "revelation" that there was someone else affecting my game was instead a sense of "is there any other way we can interact?" followed by a resounding "no." Secondly, the objective is too clear. Now, this is possibly the only game that I will ever accuse of having an objective that's "too clear", but it's true in this case. As I mentioned, what was interesting about the last two games was the fact that the objective was obscured, and you were never sure what counted as progress. Now, I have a very clear objective before me, but the consequence is the sheer amount of work needed to complete it is also clear, and I spent most of that time recognizing that I probably would get nothing for the effort in the end - and I was right. I completed the tower and nothing happened.

I'm not sure what exactly could have been done to make Between work better. I think it is an interesting idea, but ultimately one that probably cannot be properly made into a game. If nothing else, in a game this simple it's impossible to convince me that blocks appearing is proof of "another" because the game could simply be producing the blocks for me - in a world whose rules I don't already fully know, I cannot possibly know that those rules are being broken.

In any case, that's enough for now, I recommend trying the games out if you don't already feel spoiled (and you should, there was a reason I put that warning up there!).

-Silent Ellipsis


the network said...

Fun, fun. I'm glad they finally posted it.

Passage is a nice one. It's definitely good that someone makes games like that. But while the atmosphere is nice, I'm not really sure it's quite as novel as one might think. There are plenty of "pointless games", or games in which the point isn't sufficiently compelling, that cause us to come up with our own idea of goals. I'm reminded of the way a certain person played Oblivion, making it his life goal to steal everything from everywhere. I don't think tricking the player into thinking there's a point for a little while really enhances the lesson all that much. Then again, it's subversive, and fun, and that's probably good enough.

Ellipsis said...

True. Then again, in Oblivion when you steal stuff you get the stuff, and it often results in your being more powerful. In fact, in the case of Oblivion, it actually awards you experience for stealing things, and has an entire thieves guild story arc the length of a normal game.

So the game did give me some encouragement.