Lake of Roaches by thecatamites


What’s cool about thecatamites’ games is they are Lynchian in the sense that they confuse the surreal and the absurd and the mundane. In Lake of Roaches, your friend wakes you up and takes you downstairs. You’re on a fishing trip, and it’s time to fish. There are a ton of old people sitting in the hotel lobby, and none of them have eyes. “Hotel lobbies are outside all human time,” chimes your friend. You go outside, and the world sounds like static scraping against more static. Less audible is a constant, tiny roar that would sound like lapping water if it didn’t have this digital edge to it that makes it sound like insects crunching on something. The (roach) lake itself looks like static and has a tide that looks real, but sped up, waxing and waning way too fast. The landscape clutching the lake is bare, and NPCs shamble around oblivious, like things almost dead.

I bring up David Lynch because he is an auteur who really takes advantage of the fact that viewers must surrender to the screen in order to experience a film. This is why Lynch’s films are never boring, but it’s also why you have to psyche yourself up before watching one of them. Lake of Roaches exploits a similar sense of confinement. This is a fishing trip. The characters are supposed to be on vacation. Presumably, these two men have taken a trip in order to escape, yet the destination for their escapism feels oppressive. The camera glares down at our heroes Bill and Bob (one squat, one gangly, both with noses made of black boxes) from a sort-of-fixed Resident Evil-esque perch. Our heroes march and about-face in creepy unison, as the camera swerves nauseously. You can only move backwards or forwards because the left and right arrow keys are for turning. You feel confined because you have to grapple with the game for control of perspective. This sense of confinement is exacerbated by the layout of the world—narrow corridors, the camera jumps whenever you turn a corner. The game ends abruptly when you are dropped into a space from which there is no escape.

Thecatamites’ games are also Lynchian in a way that only games can be. Besides exploiting a tension between surrender and agency, what these games consider mundane are the things that are mundane about videogames—press X to receive some canned dialogue, try to get the camera to look in the direction you want, try to figure out which part of the world you can interact with. Consider the treatment of the justice system in Murder Dog IV: The Trial of the Murder Dog. A court room is a real-life mundane thing, mundane not because it has no significant consequences, but because of how slow, stupid, bureaucratic, inefficient the experience of a court room typically is, and pretty much everyone sitting in a court room already knows and expects it to be this way. Similarly, in videogames, it is normal to murder everyone in any given environment. In games, murder can be mundane. Thus Murder Dog, a character who murders everyone, is the perfect videogame soulmate for this mundane real world space.

For me, the most clear connection between Lynch and thecatamites is in the absurd formal treatment of the mundane, or the converse of that, the mundane formal treatment of the absurd. A Lynchian example of the former is the scene in Mulholland Drive in which the camera lingers on the elderly couple after Betty (Naomi Watts) is dropped off at the airport. This scene is so creepy! The elderly couple is in the back of a car, and both of them are smiling, which is a normal, human thing to do—usually not scary. But the camera remains focused on them for an extra few seconds, and the old folks just keep smiling, and the scene becomes terrifying. As this basic human action is drawn out, exaggerated, dragged on for too long, it ceases to be recognizably human. As a viewer, I start to wonder why I am being assaulted by this inexplicable mirth, and wonder begets anxiety begets fear.

Lake of Roaches sort of does the opposite; it takes something that is digitally mundane (i.e. static) and gives it a very specific, absurd, definition (i.e. lake of roaches). Then, the game uses language to suggest that fishing from a lake of roaches is the most normal thing in the world. In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, what is revealed to be most absurd is not the thing that is most apparently ridiculous—that a man has turned into a bug—but how the characters choose to respond to the situation. David Lynch uses the mundane/absurd technique to expose the viewer to his best guess at what Pure Evil looks like. Thecatamites uses the technique to talk about the frustrating, the bureaucratic, the everyday, the things some people take fishing trips to get away from.


Bullets and Blood Lords

(I recommend playing this before reading. Much of what makes this game effective is communicated through a series of pleasant surprises, and I would hate to spoil any of them.)

Sergeant Keith David copy

Tower of the Blood Lord is a hypertext game by Michael Lutz that appears, at first glance, to be a personable, straightforward parody of commercial military shooters, the most famous kind of gun game. Blood Lord’s mimicry is calculated and well-researched; it leaves no interface stone unturned. There are no graphics here, only words, but just like Call of Duty, the text consistently displays the distance, in meters, from your destination. There’s even a cutscene of sorts, which asks that you wait patiently as words appear at timed intervals. Blood Lord works as parody, but what makes it interesting is that it does not allow itself to be defined by the object it critiques. Its tracing of the gun-bro shooter formula is curious and sensitive. It explores, then explodes this formula in a fashion that is both personal and broadly perceptive.

To the extent that it draws inspiration from the Call of Duty franchise, Blood Lord reminds me of Spec Ops: The Line. I realize that in making this comparison I’m skirting dangerously close to apples-and-oranges territory. These works were created for different reasons under greatly different circumstances. Blood Lord is a small, personal text game made with a freeware toolkit called Twine. Spec Ops is a commercial shooter with explosions and twitch gunplay that wears its Heart of Darkness (via Apocalypse Now) references on its sleeve. In the case of Blood Lord, an artist created what he wanted. In the case of Spec Ops, a commercial publisher paid a good deal of money to make a game that, fingers crossed, would compete with Call of Duty; subsequently, a creative team spent a great deal of time and energy trying to turn Spec Ops into a sophisticated critique of war games.

Spec Ops has been called everything from a cheap farce to an important, mature work of art, and it has inspired the first (to my knowledge) book-length close reading of a single videogame. I’m not sure whether the volume of criticism Spec Ops has inspired suggests that we assume it is possible for a commercial game, produced under the conditions of the triple-A publishing model, to fulfill the promise of thoughtful, nuanced, even subversive critique, or if we just want this to be possible. Perhaps our longing for an expensive, smart shooter highlights an emptiness in our media consumption that is bigger than videogames. We’re not really looking for a commercial game that thoughtfully critiques war (we never really expected that) but one that thoughtfully critiques war as portrayed in videogames. This is probably a separate conversation.

Many of us want to believe that the media we consume can help us make real connections with other humans and change us in good and interesting ways. Blood Lord directly confronts this idealistic idea, while Spec Ops dutifully delivers an assembly line of familiar shooter tropes, framing them in an attempt to shame the player into thinking about the implications of virtual bullets. Daniel Golding writes that Bioshock: Infinite adopts “an aesthetics of ‘racism’ and ‘history’” in order to appear important and smart. Although Golding wrote favorably of Spec Ops, I borrow his phrase to suggest that Spec Ops makes a similar move in adopting an “aesthetics of critique” or an “aesthetics of meaningful violence.”

This aesthetics of critique is convention covered in fashionably subversive (and very expensive) wallpaper. In what might be its most subversive move, Spec Ops actually assuages our guilt over gliding through dull, derivative shooters! With a different coat of paint, this kind of game can help us feel more self-aware, more intellectual and help justify hours spent to the always-watching, ever-looming Dark Lord of High Culture. Spec Ops consistently deflects attention away from itself, towards the player, always outward, never inward. Spec Ops spends so much time trying to remind the player of her complicity, that it neglects to imagine what such a game could look like if it tried (or had the chance) to be something other than what it is.

Alternatively, Tower of the Blood Lord offers contrast and an escape from its portrayal of unimaginative escapism. Lutz frames Blood Lord as an account of “the time [he] played the first twenty minutes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” a description that might strike some as glib. Blood Lord’s ‘point,’ to some extent, is to point and say “look at how funny and artificial and perplexing this shooter-thing is when you examine the strange and confusing beauty of its component parts.” This, in itself, is a useful observation for a game to make, but Blood Lord moves past it to consider the implicit sense of identity that lies at the center of critique and informs our desire to find meaning in the artificial.

More committed to replicating its muse than it first appears, Blood Lord’s travelogue of a videogame military base is funny, but also imaginative, curious, often poetic. Blue hyperlinks represent every button on the player’s imagined controller. Appreciating that the game consistently provides access to all of these buttons leads to the surprising discovery that they genuinely affect progress. Because Blood Lord lacks conventional graphics, I wrongfully assumed the act of “crouching” was a textual illusion, included just for laughs. My assumption was that clicking “B” led to a dead-end link, which would encourage an imagined state of crouching, even though the game’s internal system would remain oblivious to any sense of crouching or standing. Turns out, I was truly crouched because crouching becomes necessary to move the narrative forward. This is one example of how the game presents what looks like a simulacrum of the surface-level, then surprises with its depth and commitment.

The perspective of the second person protagonist in Blood Lord is somewhere between player and fictional videogame character. The voice is not quite that of the imagined digital soldier but of an overly perceptive player attempting to maneuver, sometimes even inhabit that soldier, a persona that combines the player’s external position with her in-game self. This perspective considers the game as both illusion and reality. You observe a “sky.” Then, a “skybox.” Throughout the work, the relationship between player and puppet is puzzled over. By the end, the line (*chortles*) between them has been exploded or obfuscated.

Blood Lord‘s form encourages you to see the space you’re exploring and the buttons on your controller separately. It calls attention to the fact that the actions, or verbs, you are given in a videogame are irrelevant when divorced from their immediate context, but they’re always there anyway, like the opposite of phantom limbs. There’s this constant presence of a movement vocabulary that’s sometimes useful, but sometimes rendered entirely meaningless. All of the verbs are usually there, even though most games will take you places where you won’t need any of them.

Experiencing the predictable bombast of bloated gun games through the stripped down lens of a textual matrix is gratifying in itself. The tone of something like this is difficult to get right, but Blood Lord is so inquisitive in its dissection that it avoids coming across as hackneyed or heavy-handed. The surface level critique is sophisticated, and the eventual break from standard shooter vocabulary is nontrivial. The player is allowed to enjoy the fantasy of discovery, a fantasy often cultivated, unintentionally, by accidental glitches, systemic imperfections. This game celebrates the glitch by giving you something you weren’t looking for.

Blood Lord succeeds because it exists on its own terms. It thoughtfully considers the texture and architecture of the modern military shooter. It helps the player reimagine ‘Modern Warfare‘ as something else–something more meaningful. Blood Lord actually has something to say about the media we consume and the implications of consuming and creating more media. There’s a tangible nostalgia for unexplained videogame weirdness, and in many ways this game rejects the blasé faux-seriousness of ‘realistic’ shooters. Blood Lord has sincerity at its core, embedded in dry scrutiny. It creates boundaries in order to exploit and erase them. It presents a world soaked in blood, presumably spilled by a thousand groaning military shooters.

The Works of Michael Brough

Corrypt 2013-02-13 08-02-59-20

Michael Brough’s best works are not sprawling simulations that place a universe at your fingertips; nor are they more contained simulations that nonetheless remind you of your place in humanity; nor are they decorated narrative walkabouts. Brough’s best works are cerebral puzzles, untarnished by anything that might deserve to be called extra.

Most importantly, Brough’s best works satisfy the correct definition of “game.”

Before he was known for dynamic, clever short-form games, Brough spent many years toiling over a commercial title called Vertex Dispenser, a wickedly smart real-time strategy game that flaunts geometric art and strict difficulty. Vertex Dispenser is full of depth, imagination and ambition. If this were a site that promoted commercial games, I might say that Vertex Dispenser is criminally under-appreciated because it’s hard (what I’m saying is go buy it).

I bring up Vertex Dispenser because it’s a strategy game with a puzzle nestled inside of it. Brough has written on his blog that he doesn’t like solving puzzles because puzzles are inherently ephemeral and restrictive; you finish them, and then they’re gone. Brough clearly belongs on the designer end of the puzzle equation because he manages to make the player feel as if this isn’t the case. His puzzles are like minimalist paintings of math or architecture that you can tear apart. They are moving, but it’s not always clear why.

Corrypt is a puzzle that masquerades as something lesser than what it is. As you uncover its secrets, the entire system threatens to fall apart. Progress is intoxicating because the system lets you break it and then try and worm your way out of the thing you’ve broken, which draws attention to the inherent trappings of level design and encourages the player to usurp them.

Corrypt is really two games inside of one; it reveals that Brough’s idea of iteration is to make an established system more ridiculous and less predictable. This is not repetition. It is economical creativity. The thing that makes his puzzles brilliant looks something like an accident, a bug that didn’t get smoothed out, a premeditated glitchiness. The relatively innocent dungeon-crawler, Game Title, could only have been created so its deliberately broken version, Game Title: Lost Levels, could be conceived. The transition from playing Game Title to playing Lost Levels, which relies on mechanical exploitation of the former, is uncannily similar to the cranium-crushing dive Corrypt takes twenty-or-so minutes in.

While we’re on the subject of sequels or expansions or whatever, we would be remiss to shrug off Reverse Passage and Reverse Passage 2: Mother’s Edition as half-baked digs at that game where you walk in a straight line until you die. You know the one. It’s a METAPHOR for that thing we’re all trying to forget about when we play games (I’m kidding!). Reverse Passage beats Jason Rohrer at his own game, out-minimalizing Passage with less playtime, less variety, and zero movement animation. Reverse Passage suggests a clumsy lack of subtlety in the premise of games as Metaphors for Life

Just when you think Brough has exhausted an idea, he’ll swoop in and hit you in the face with the weird version. In Reverse Passage 2: Mother’s Edition, you “catch babies” to “avoid the time paradox” and “hold Z to feel emotions.” No really. The emotions in this game aren’t some cheap trick (well, they are); they’re actually implemented as an input, a button that you press. This is an absolutely ridiculous thing to do, of course. Whenever you “feel emotions,” characters and backdrop bleed together, obstructing your vision. Said emotions have zero consequence in terms of quantifiable feedback, but they make the game more difficult and more interesting.

Let me explain: as you progress, and the speed of infants flying towards your womb becomes more difficult to manage, you have less time to feel emotions. Your “feelings” quite literally interrupt the game and make it difficult to focus on what’s important. But wait a second, what IS important? Catching babies?  Avoiding the time paradox? Why should I dismiss arbitrary emotions for the sake of an arbitrary high score? Such lingering questions make the design philosophy of the Reverse Passage franchise difficult to pin down.

While we’re on the subject of games that are probably fucking with you, Number Quality relies on its disintegrating environment. Numbers are scattered on the screen, and you must collect them in order from zero to nine. The screen blurs at a rate that’s faster than you are, so it becomes necessary to memorize the position of each number. This game is hard, but its doppelganger, which reverses the design so that the screen gets clearer as you progress, is stupid hard. Ytiluaq Rebmun isn’t a symmetrical opposite in the strictest sense of the word because the numbers appear with clarity for a split second. You get a glimpse of a chance to try and memorize their positions before they become illegible. It’s an example of clumsy difficulty, which reminds us that any design can be molded into an exercise in futility.

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Kompendium is an entire album of local two-player games that expects you to stop wallowing in perpetual, lonely, single-player melancholy.

Brough’s earlier two-player effort, Chaos Penguin, predicts Kompendium in its emphasis on strategy over speed. Chaos Penguin limits the importance of quickness through turn-based play and spell-casting that relies on percentages. Kompendium, however, is more interested in the tension between real-time and turn-based play, and it uses this tension to combat the tyrannical authority of twitch reflex.

Each title on Kompendium flirts with chaos without abandoning order, a balance which makes for moments of earnest tension. At first, the games feel more cooperative than competitive as you and your opponent both try to learn the rules and make sense of the controls. As the games become familiar, competition gets more heated. Most of the time pacing is frantic, and suspense builds in the rare moments in which you wait for something to happen.

Almost every game features a dash of randomization that complicates the notion of predictable outcome. Glitch Tank undermines twitch reaction by shuffling its controls, so that overzealous haste makes you your own worst enemy. Chang Chang, a brilliant, fast-paced distillation of Chess, allows both players to move one randomly selected piece as many tiles as possible within a time limit. Each piece has a range of attack, as it would in chess, and if a piece is caught within the opponent’s range at the end of a turn, it’s removed. Exuberant Struggle makes you fight over randomly placed resources to spawn turrets, tanks, and bombs.

Some of the games encourage you to accumulate territory by persisting with whichever strategy happens to be working at the time. In Ora Et Labora, standing on different tiles spawns different units, and it’s possible to spawn an entire forest of deadly trees, then instruct that forest to skulk menacingly towards your unfortunate opponent. Capricious Atom forces each player to dodge flurries of bullets to claim buildings that affect the trajectory and properties of said bullets. March Eternal spits out units and resources with little regard for which ones you want or where you want them; your job is to collect resources and periodically demolish your opponent’s front line with a single swift keystroke. Hostile Pantograph rewards creative risk-taking; each player draws a maze while traversing the maze that the opponent has drawn.

Twilight Beacon and Zeta Forge both ask players to shoot squares, big and small, across the screen in hopes of breaking the opponent’s line. They reward carefully timed alternating between charged attacks and flurries. They offer choices between offensive and defensive approaches, between quality and quantity, and both delineate these strategies with simple geometry.

Considered as a body of work, Kompendium‘s minimalist aesthetic creates tension through productive uncertainty.

Kompendium isn’t Brough’s only game album. The abstract, unfinished Idiolect seems to have influenced the design of later puzzles, in that it explores the illusory nature of environments as well as the assumptions that a player makes about visual artifacts. Such themes become important to how design functions in later works like Corrypt and Lost Levels. Idiolect also introduces an exhilarating feedback method, which involves layering a more structured musical interlude over an ambient backdrop when the player touches the correct object. This happens in Hyperabuse Monolith as well as You and Your Motion, and it feels like a fruitful area of Brough’s thinking that has yet to be fully explored.

The Sense of Connectedness is the most fully realized work in Idiolect. With its ambiguous response to the player and cryptic narrative interruptions, Sense remains partially incomprehensible through to the end. It imparts an uncomfortable sensation that permeates the entire album.

You and Your Motion takes some garbled prose and attaches it to floating limb sculptures that you click on. Fire Up The Lemma Engines is similar to the first La La Land game in that the difficultly lies in figuring out what’s going on as you’re obstructed by layers of visual noise: Where is my cursor? What am I doing? Should I blink?  Accept the limitations of your own control and press onward. Conversely, Black Pyramid Script and Cryptoforest are tourist attractions: Look at the colors as black corridors open and close; move horizontally as your vision propels itself past neon trees.

This is the Dystopian Future asks you to redirect characters towards one another without letting them touch. A Simple Instruction twists in upon itself, as you affect its swirling patterns. In Cubic Computing Carcass, you glide through a space-maze of cubes in hopes of discovering keys to move forward. The Bristling Beard of Science is a nonsensical block puzzle that changes the score as you go. Knot-Pharmacard Subcondition J is explosive and thrilling, and I can’t really tell what’s going on. Noticing a pattern here? In Hyperabuse Monolith, your avatar doubles as mini-map; blue enemies pursue in frantic zigzags; red blocks ricochet. Excitement mounts. Everything multiplies. The screen fills.

If nothing else, Idiolect, in its ambiguity and visual experimentation, expresses an interest in scrutinizing existing assumptions about what makes good design. There’s a kind of beauty in projects that are allowed to remain unfinished.

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There’s been a recent wave of “design purity” in games that don’t really need stories because they satisfy us with the sturdiness of their systems. Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon comes to mind. I would say that Brough’s games fall into this camp. But while Hexagon asks its players to ritualize practice, twist their brains into unfamiliar shapes and develop a heightened responsiveness, Brough’s work encourages thoughtful deliberation.

One might be tempted to characterize his current visual style (which begins to distinguish itself in the tank exploration game, Ludoname) as a willingness to sacrifice aesthetic elegance for an elegance of design. Yet, there is something undeniably elegant about Brough’s brand of ugliness, an ugliness that is somehow pleasing to look at. Edge attributes this effect to a “pleasantly garish colour pallete.”

This ugliness is apt, since his games often employ a visual effect that looks like a glitch in order to surprise the player with a kind of revelation. Not all of Brough’s games, however, look like Game Title or Zaga 33. Babeltron 2010 is the most visually stunning typing game I’ve ever played; it presents you with an electrified tower of language and represents one of the few experiences in Brough’s portfolio that relies on visual flair.

Brough has also been known to dabble in cheeky thought experiments in the vein of Pippin Barr, and I heard you like videogames is one such experiment. It might be helpful to think of this game as one of those Russian doll things that you open up and there’s a smaller one inside, and it goes on forever: except videogames. Inside your computer screen there is another screen with which you can interact. Interacting allows you to move through this screen in which you will be presented with another screen and a handful of non-interactable objects. In this fashion, you may progress through infinite screens.

The only thing you can interact with is a videogame screen, yet doing so never allows you to do anything except this exact thing. The only reward is looking at static objects, like desks or shelves or trees, that randomly populate the margins of each level. The only verb you’re allowed is diving, deeper and deeper into a boring, meaningless rabbit hole.

Eventually, even the meaningless visual reward abandons you. Interacting with the screen creates a distinct sound, an encouraging beep. Once the screen is too small to see, you can keep playing forever by listening for the correct sound. When you get to this point, it doesn’t matter what the objects are anymore because you can’t see them; you’re just listening to beeps and pressing buttons. Congratulations, you have effectively reduced the game from almost nothing to even less of something. When you want to quit, you have to hit escape as many times as the number of screens you’ve passed through. How long you persevere is how long it takes to quit, so in a sense, you’re punished for persevering. I heard you like videogames is not so much a game as it is an endless reflection of what we do when we jump into another world just to escape the one we’re in.

Mysterious Sniper shares a similar attitude, though its tone is somewhat baffling. This game is funny because you’re supposed to be playing as a sniper, a character you would think generally operates on some level of premeditated expertise, but it’s disturbing because the sniper isn’t the only mysterious one, as the title suggests. Your target is also shrouded in mystery, presumably surrounded by innocent bystanders. The only way to get more information on your target is to kill something. After your first attempt, which is a wild guess that will probably be wrong, the game informs you that “the enemy is slow,” or “the enemy is short,” or “the enemy is blue.” Your potential target is narrowed, and you either get lucky or continue to knock off expendables. Mysterious Sniper scrutinizes the arbitrary goals we’re assigned when we play a game and asks how we might question or subvert those goals.

Zaga 33 is a rogue-like that chops off all statistical fluff, to an even greater extent than something like The Binding of Isaac. Enemies move in half-predictable patterns, and the player must choose to conserve items or use them quickly in order to figure out what they do. There’s hardly any fiction attached to Zaga 33, but its player-driven narrative benefits from the absence of an excess of numbers.

Cube Gallery is an interactive gallery in which the player tenuously participates. The environment shifts according to what you like looking at most, reminding us that there’s another kind of purity in mechanics-light design.

Even the titles that don’t work that well in practice have exuberance. Glutton Quest, a sidescroller that’s stupidly hard and nearly incomprehensible, is interesting because it’s interested in stupidity. Its narrative prose could have been pulled from Idiocracy, and you have to fight a giant teapot called “Chaos Kettle.” Movement is delightfully clumsy, and your secondary weapon is a magnetic rope that allows you to propel yourself across an entire level, frying enemies along the way. Smestorpod Infestation is a shmup that asks you to maintain a power grid as the screen scrolls upward. Deathlight is an absurd, creepy, frustrating Lovecraftian rowing simulation. Feline Feeling has intentionally unwieldy controls because, well, a mouse is difficult to catch, even if you’re a cat. Resistance Revolution is like Dyad with less drugs. Grand Vampire Chase has a really good chomping sound effect. What was I talking about?

Vesper.5 is more idea than game, yet this form makes the idea visible in such a way that feeds the imagination. What a simple premise: there’s one level, and you get one move per day. Vesper.5 suggests that we would appreciate games more if we weren’t allowed to play them whenever we want. On the one hand, this is a trick that can only work once. On the other hand, it’s a trick that games have already been performing, desperately, in commercial, free-to-play models.

Vesper.5 asks: What happens when the ability to play a game becomes its most important mechanic? What if all games were to allure us by restricting our access? Would we reward them by calling them Art? Or punish them by calling them Entertainment? In some sense, the implications of Vesper 5 strike me as eerily oppressive, as if I’m a child who needs structured limitations, yet limits are what games are made of.

In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin’s father gives his son a watch, calls it the mausoleum of all hope and desire and says: “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” Vesper.5 says I will take both more of your time and less of your time. Vesper.5 laughs at the prospect of additional hours because it operates not in hours, but in seconds, yet it also operates in days. Vesper.5 curls up even as it stretches, reminding us of our strained, dysfunctional relationship with time.

(Newer versions of Corrypt, Zaga 33, and Glitch Tank are available for purchase on iOS. O is a two-player touch-screen sport available for iPad.)

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Without Money How Were the Nobles to Survive?

La La Land (2006) is a series of five short games by Matt Aldridge with recurring themes and a consistent protagonist. Of the series, Anna Anthropy has written: “in the way that static might draw attention to the pauses in a phone conversation, la la land emphasizes those vast between-spaces in the dialogue between player and game.” Anthropy’s description eloquently explains why these games defy explanation. They accent pieces of interaction we’re not used to talking about with words. In some ways, the games practically play themselves, though probably not in the exact ways you’re thinking.

La La Land 1 is the opposite of what most would think of as a “first level” or introduction. It greets you with confusion and apprehension, jagged geometry and dark, visual noise. The screen is hard to look at. The sound is made up of chords played backwards and low, guttural vocals in a fake language on a broken record player. You control a cute, grey, cat with an open, red mouth and lopsided ears. Of this cat there are many copies onscreen at any given time. A large, numerical score audaciously punctuates the chaotic backdrop, laughable in its contrasting clarity. This number spastically jumps around on the screen, tracking your progress as you fetch lighting-bolt-like collectables. It serves as a comforting, familiar trope, reminding you of progress and grounding your participation in the confusion. Because even as you are thrown into the unfamiliar you are still jumping, performing an act of familiarity, a thing that’s like a handshake in the videogame space. The game, however, is content to limit this familiarity. You can’t jump to higher surfaces, and your character spawns at random elevations.

The cooperative understanding that normally unites player and system is notably absent. This game feels like it’s fighting you, and it feels broken, but in a very intentional way, as if selectively comprehending a small percentage of your input for its own manipulative purposes. Rewards are glimpses of videogame logic, scattered in the noise. The sensation is that the system enjoys messing with you but is not entirely in control of itself. Considered as an introduction, One immediately sets the series apart. Instead of attempting to instruct or govern the player’s approach, it concentrates on evoking a desired mood. Out of the entire series, this game is the longest. The most frustrating. The most abstract.

Two is shorter and more direct. Greeted by onscreen text and a hulking, swaggering “poor fishhead in need of money,”  you learn that your cat protagonist is called Biggt. Shooting and jumping abilities are gone. All you can do is walk left or right. In the adjacent screen, you encounter two more fishheads, marked as nobility by their formal attire and fancy wine glasses. The fishhead nobles sit at either end of a long, wooden table, jerking spastically, as Biggt’s doppelganger stands in the middle of the room crying yellow tears. An amorphous pile of yellow that must be gold waits patiently in the lower left corner of the screen. As you take gold from the nobles’ pile and deliver it to the poor fishhead in the next room, the nobles’ glasses fill up with tears, and the poor fishhead says thanks but demands more. An onscreen monetary value tracks your progress. The music sounds something like what self-help, eco-poetry must sound like, recited, accompanied by soft, electric organ riffs.

In this satirical Robin Hood fetch quest, dialogue is strangely spelled and punctuated: “Look at the shini JEWEL i bougt thanks a lot,” the poor fishhead exclaims. Unlike the previous game, Two presents little in the way of challenge. Curiously, it’s the only game that comes packaged with explicit instructions. In the game folder, a facetious “readme” file reads: “left for left right for right.” Though the art remains harsh and scribbley, characters and backgrounds are more clearly discernible than they were in One. Clear themes of exploitation and greed emerge, but I think this game is less concerned with larger economic or political issues and more concerned with one character’s struggles to function underneath an exploitative authority umbrella. Two marks the start of a narrative thread in which Biggt’s internal constraints are exacerbated by cold, manipulative, external forces.

Three recalls the dark palette of the first game, but its screen is much less busy. Biggt’s open, red mouth has been replaced by rows of scratchy teeth. In his room, Biggt complains of having to eat oranges every day: “there has to be something MORE.” On the left side of the screen sits an amorphous pile of orange that must be oranges. As you venture outdoors, Biggt encounters a tree with a fallen coconut at its base. The game prompts: press “up” to eat. When you oblige, Biggt’s teeth fall out. Further on, there’s an apple, still clinging to its branch. One of the fishhead nobles loiters behind the apple tree, wearing a maniacal, toothy grin. The game prompts: press “up” to reach for the apple. When you oblige, Biggt’s arms fall off. Biggt suddenly becomes overwhelmed with hunger. The only thing to do is return to the first screen and the oranges that Biggt can no longer eat.

This game punishes you (and Biggt) for trying to participate, just as it asks you to do only one thing and nothing else. A wounded exploration of social anxiety and failure, Three sees upward mobility as a pipe dream. The saddest thing about Three is that the fear that causes Biggt to stay in his room and eat oranges everyday is justified when he ventures out into the world. There are no instructions for this game in the accompanying readme. Just a message: “if you feel like you need to talk to someone about your problems, my e-mail adress is thanks.

In Four, Biggt wears a chef’s hat and stirs a pot, having presumably resolved to prepare, for others, the food that he can no longer eat. The game’s initial screen presents a simple platforming puzzle, more reminiscent of the typical videogame scenario than anything we’ve seen up to this point. After you complete the puzzle, Biggt’s newest employer, a fishhead noble, shows up and barks orders at Biggt to serve the guests. When you press the arrow keys, Biggt walks out of his body. One screen over, Spirit Biggt is greeted by a woman screaming “what have you done?!” on loop until you walk against her repeatedly. Then, she departs, and Spirit Biggt flies to the moon in a heart-shaped spaceship. On the moon, Biggt encounters another Biggt-like creature with long, blonde hair. When you move towards her, Biggt is pushed away by the unseen. A monstrous manifestation of Biggt’s head appears, and you flee until you reach Biggt’s bed, which transports him back down to earth. Four shares much in common with Three in that it describes an attempt to escape. The escape in Four appears more spiritual than corporeal. Love eludes Biggt. When he flees the physical body, a demon follows. Like in Three, Biggt’s efforts to operate outside of imposed reality prove disastrous and terrifying.

Five’s title screen is festive, filled with confetti and upbeat music. The game’s story begins “5 days ago” with Biggt in bed. This Biggt has teeth and wears a tidy, black suit. Biggt’s room is sparsely decorated with only a bed and a door. Biggt ventures outside to discover a multitude of idle, identical fishhead citizens. Press “down,” and Biggt throws a Bible. When Biggt’s aim is true, the fishheads catch the Bibles and fall asleep, completing a transaction. Onscreen numbers climb as Biggt sells more Bibles. Once you satisfy Biggt’s food budget, you can access his bed at the far right side of the screen, and the day ends. Each day, Biggt wakes, and you repeat the ritual. Every day, Biggt’s market becomes more saturated, as more fishheads start their day already asleep. On the next to last day, all fishheads are asleep. On the final day, the background blurs, and Biggt is suddenly old and bearded, rolling in a wheelchair at a slow crawl as a cheery, anti-evolution chorale plays in the background.

The final game is pitched as a celebration but only offers bleak futility. The pinnacle of Biggt’s journey is a lie. He peddles promises that put people to sleep. Biggt’s attempt to exist within some semblance of normalcy produces maddening mechanical exercise that leads to a dead end, a boring ballet just as discouraging as the failures that came before. The career transition from under-appreciated cook to Bible salescat provides little in the way of change or redemption. Biggt subsists for a while, but does not live, and then, Biggt dies.

Videogames often reach for the whimsical or irreverent, but rarely do they embrace the outright nonsensical. La La Land considers the overlap between disturbing and amusing and demoralizing. It flirts with the unintelligible, as it enforces a narrative thread. While One establishes tone, both Three and Four present escape narratives in which Biggt tries and fails to usurp oppressive reality. Two and Five portray Biggt’s unsuccessful efforts to find place and meaning in society.

What strange, heart-breaking meditations on life, poverty, anxiety, loneliness. And how wonderful, that such a jarring collage of interactive imagery can communicate such an unexpected kind of subtlety.

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Cart Life: A Second Look

On one of my last nights in town, I was heading to a bar with my girlfriend. My year-long stint in the flat, stretched metropolis that is Tulsa, Oklahoma was drawing to a close. I would soon flee the daily grind at Starbucks and return to school in Alabama, putting many miles between myself and my love, leaving what had become a familiar sort of aimlessness in pursuit of a less familiar sort of aimlessness. Her car had just broken down, perhaps in rebellion against the hot, thirsty air. She had a paper due the next day. I had just said something stupid. We both needed a drink.

When we got to the pub and began to talk and drink with some of her friends from graduate school, tensions vaporized and floated into the blackness. Everyone was cool, and the conversation eventually turned to games. Someone asked me what my favorite game was, and I found myself answering Cart Life. No one had heard of it, so I tried to explain. I was rewarded with some polite listening, then a pretty honest assessment of my explanation from one of the group:

“That doesn’t sound at all interesting.”

The comment was not mean-spirited, but honest and jovial. I disagreed, and I tried to explain why. I was a few beers in, probably not in the best condition to explain such a weird game and caught off-guard that anyone was actually willing to listen to what I had to say about it. I realize now that I should have taken a different approach because the above statement really gets to the heart of what Cart Life is and why it succeeds.

Cart Life doesn’t sound very interesting if you try and explain it to someone because it’s not something you can experience vicariously. Unlike most critically acclaimed videogames, Cart Life doesn’t sound any bigger than it actually is. It calls itself a “retail simulation for windows.” It champions routine like the bulbous blockbuster touts its “latest feature.” Sure, all games harness the mundane, to an extent, because no matter what game you’re playing, it eventually turns into repetitive, mechanical activity. But tedium is the black sheep of game design. It’s something that most games try to hide. Unlike every other game ever, Cart Life doesn’t try to dress up as something more exciting.

I want to revisit Cart Life because when I first wrote about it, I did it a disservice. I gushed, but in gushing I spent too much time considering what Cart Life is about and not enough time thinking about what makes it work. There are still many voices clamoring that games need to be more than fun, but there’s not much consensus on what it is they need to be (as if they really needed to be anything other than what they already are). Few would present tedium and sameness as brilliant pillars of game design, and I can’t think of any other game that so audaciously preaches the tenets of banality. A friend saw me playing Cart Life the other day and compared it to Clerks after a few seconds of observation. It’s absurd, but almost perfect. Cart Life is a grittier Clerks, realized in interactive form.

Except it’s entirely different. Clerks also focuses on the mundane, but Cart Life’s is an active, frenetic kind of banality. Cart Life doesn’t stop at boring. It understands that the mundane can be both exhilarating and boring at the same time. Working Melanie’s coffee stand is exciting because of the feverish pace and relentless progression of time, but it’s boring because game actions are interpreted as multi-tiered processes. Cart Life, unlike every other game ever, doesn’t believe a single keystroke adequately represents a significant action. The act of pouring a cup of coffee is broken down into its component mental and physical parts: 1) Remember what the customer ordered.  2) Make small talk.  3) Make correct change. An intense empathy emerges from these methodical motions, and it’s a specific kind of empathy that can only emerge from a game.

You get to the point where you repeat a task so many times that it’s muscle memory, like breathing, and you could probably still improve, but your improvement would be negligible. You’ve plateaued, and this thing you keep doing everyday may not be the most important or impressive thing in the world, but at least you’re performing some discernible service, fitting into society in some way, fulfilling some expectation, maybe improving someone’s day, and while you’re doing it at least, you forget about other important things and feel like everything might be ok and some things could even be beautiful.

Which is why Cart Life never made me feel depressed. Quite the opposite. Before Cart Life, I never considered the idea that a game could inflict such a subtle emotion that so many games strive for but miss because they’re oblivious to it. It’s a focused, active comfort that’s a little bit sad, but more determined than sad. The game doesn’t turn away from this sensation, and it doesn’t try to call it good or bad. It simply presents it as a part of the human condition.

Expressing the mundane realities of bureaucracy is something games could be good at, possibly better at than anything else. There’s a sequence in Cart Life in which you wait at the courthouse for a number to be called, even though there’s no line. You’re wasting precious time that you don’t have and you’ll never get back. The only thing more real than that scene is reality. We spend our time standing in lines that aren’t there. In Cart Life, time doesn’t stop until the end of the day when you jump in the shower and think about profit and loss. Appreciating the game’s nuance requires real sacrifice, and with real sacrifice comes real reward.

Melanie, a single mother, struggles to start a new business and gain custody of her child. Andrus, an immigrant, scrounges for his first rent check, subsisting on hotdogs and cigarettes. The stories are affecting, but they resonate because they could be about anyone, and the mechanical system that supports them is everyone. We all master a sequence of steps within the constraints of our problems. We are united in apprehensive repetition. When you finish a day’s work of Cart Life’s grueling mechanisms, the absence of activity is palpable. Melanie’s family doesn’t talk much. Andrus’ cat talks even less. You don’t have the time or energy to explore. There’s not much to do but go home, pass out, rinse and repeat. The characters are made of the things they have to get up and do every day. Empathy swims in Melanie’s coffee cup, nestled within the folds of Andrus’ newspapers.

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