I like it when game designers walk through walls. When they take time to step back from the system under the hood and think about interface; the window that lets us peer into a micro-universe.
I thought I was done with Ludum Dare 23, but those damned Compo games keep sucking me back in. Lately, I’ve been haunting the upper half of the the innovation category. I like the jam entries too, but for the most part, the more feverishly realized Compos seem more in touch with that spirit of taking a familiar mechanic and really making it sing. My favorites always seem to emerge from the 48-hour time limit.
Let’s talk about Recluse. Your initial snapshot of this thing comes in a much smaller frame than you’re used to. The game window takes up a fraction of your computer screen, but you can just barely make out a small, bearded, bespectacled snail in a blocky violet room. The room is furnished with a computer and television. The area to the left is clearly walled off, but an alleged opening to the right shows promise.
You slither towards that opening, approaching the edge of the game window, but the environment doesn’t scroll. As you reach the edge, you continue to mash down on that arrow key, but the snail has stopped moving. And then he’s absurdly straining against the edge of the window. The screen flashes white, the environment expands and light pours into Snail’s humble nest. As you continue to play this game, you throw yourself against its edges, and the window keeps growing. And you want to see everything, so you keep playing. Achievement Unlocked: Broader Horizons. At first glance, this thing didn’t seem like much.
Milk! takes a similar, winky design approach. It sets you up with two small windows to drag and drop as a spaceship flies between them, mercifully pausing the action as you try to line things up properly. It’s A Tab is a miniscule puzzle game that plays out in the hence-the-name tab at the top of your internet browser. As soon as you figure this one out, you’ll be squinting, but you’ll be impressed. These games seem to enjoy drawing attention to the fact that they’re games. As you play them, they play on your own habitual gaming mechanisms: clicking a mouse, mashing a keyboard, looking at a window on a computer screen.
You could argue that the self-referential approach isn’t always particularly useful. In her write-up of Adam Cadre’s recently released work of interactive fiction, Endless, Nameless, Emily Short highlights a potential pitfall: “art that’s primarily about its own medium tends to feel a bit claustrophobic to me, in-joke-y, exclusive, and quick to show its age.” If a game spends too much time throwing its gameness in your face, then it’s not going to be important to anyone that isn’t already deeply embedded in its culture. There’s a fine line between being comfortable in your own shoes and excluding others who aren’t familiar with your shoes, or, uh…..you know what I mean.
Tiny Wor ds takes a more plugged in approach to blurring lines. When I booted it up in my browser, the title screen heckled me with a prompt: “Enter a Twitter search with 100+ results.” I failed a couple of times, then settled on “madmen.” I was rewarded with an unceremonious decent to the bottom of a tower of moving platforms, constructed from quotes and thought blips surrounding the AMC television series that has all the cocktails. The implied goal is to climb this tower of tweets, so I jumped between phrases that ranged from the mundane to the slightly less mundane to the languages I don’t understand. Now that’s a game with replay value. I had to wonder, what am I really doing here? Playing a game or reading a twitter feed? Still not sure, but it was awesome.
These entries remind me a bit of Hideo Kojima’s work in the Metal Gear franchise. Though some would point to Kojima’s infatuation with the cutscene as enough to dismiss him as nothing more than a game designer that wishes he were a filmmaker, I feel like Kojima’s penchant for reveling in the medium is a significant chunk of what makes his work so alluring. He’s willing to make you plug your controller into a different port just to win a boss fight. He loves to remind us of the weird conversations we’re having with our fickle machines.
So why don’t we see this kind of design more often in commercial games? Some well-placed nods at interface could allow developers to put a new shine on old mechanics without the monetary risk that comes with reinventing the wheel. Are such tactics nothing more than clever tricks? I think the real trick is using these ideas to tap into something broader. Like how Recluse is about games, but it’s also about escaping escapism and fighting the comforts of self-inflicted isolation. It’s about dismantling, or at least expanding, that box you put yourself in sometimes. It’s about walking through walls.