Monthly Archives: July 2012

Structured Aimlessness in Foam

Foam has been persistently loitering in my conscious memory for the past couple of weeks or so. In my first sitting, I played about half-way through and got stuck. I put Foam down with the intention of returning, but I’ve been putting it off to make time for other things.

I never stopped brooding about it, though, and I couldn’t figure out why. Yeah, it looks weird. In fact, no other game looks like it. That’s an impressive feat in its own right. But I’ve played weird-looking games before–games like Space Funeral and Yume Nikki–and moved on quickly. Something made Foam stick.

Lately, I’ve felt conflicted about this scrutiny I’ve started placing on games. Foam, especially, is so unassuming about how interesting it is that picking it apart feels wrong. Sometimes, “What makes this interesting?” feels like the wrong question to ask, like I’m missing the point or something. Art defies explanation. It just is what it is. Words stumble and stutter to communicate the appeal of something like Foam.

Here’s what the author, Stwelin, said about his game:

I am so lazy about making games, there was a thread made about it. This is my first game. Dear god, what have I done?

He knows that he can’t explain what Foam is, so he doesn’t even try, opting to let the game speak for itself. Smart guy.

Foam makes a quiet, but confident introduction. Its empty soundscape and Microsoft Painterly aesthetic calmly ushers you into a dark dream. Trees, birds and door-frames have a sloppy sense of geometry.

Really, you just walk from place to place, but the game system strikes the perfect balance between aimlessness and purpose, between wandering and searching for something. Restricted areas are sometimes guarded by locked doors, more often by weird, squeaky creatures that could be mushrooms or aliens or teacups. Foam operates like a minimalist, walk-about, Zelda game. Areas shut you out then welcome you in interesting ways.

Foam makes prominent use of negative space in its audio and aesthetic. The game opens with some sparse effects, and the soundscape gradually fills in as you explore further. Visually, the amount of black, open space on screen enforces a tone of retro anti-realism, but not in a typical, cutesy, pixelated way. The empty space reminds me of old-school JRPGs. In interior rooms, like inns or weapon shops, the tiles would only take up a small portion of the entire screen, leaving the surrounding space black. Usually, modern games like Bastion fill this kind of space with distant, foggy landscapes.

The black space and the tilted, top-down camera view work together to make Foam’s world feel constricted yet open-ended, like a labyrinth. The space lends melancholy accents to otherwise mundane dressings. Sometimes, the surrounding darkness cements the path forward. Others, it makes you feel like you’re walking around in nothing. Foam feels unfinished, but in such a way that you would never want it to be finished because it feels so undeniably whole in its unfinished state.

Foam’s sounds sing of structured aimlessness. A music track for an area usually consists of a few short phrases, looping endlessly without much space in between. The phrases avoid becoming repetitive by blurring the line between music and noise.

Each area is structured sort of like an interior room, so you never really know if you’re indoors or outside. Things that look like windows hover over stuff that looks like grass. To complete objectives and reach new areas, you discover alternate physical forms, scattered throughout the environment. You become fire and mushrooms and eggs. You learn your environment completely without the cramped sensation of forcing your brain to memorize a test.

In your short time with Foam, you will come to know certain landmarks so well, simply entering unfamiliar territory invokes powerful tension. Transitioning from focused, meditative stupor to the jarring experience of the uncharted and alien defines the game’s pacing. Though the player shifts forms frequently, most of the environment remains consistent throughout the experience, so any subtle changes have great and lasting impact. In addition, Foam sometimes unabashedly breaks its own rules and contradicts established perspectives.

Robert Yang recently wrote about a browser game called March, a “first person art-platformer,” by Mindful XP. Yang argues that March lacks confidence, since the game resorts to text to communicate themes already made apparent by its “fog, color, and spatial distance.” Despite the game’s shortcomings, he recommends March because of its “strong sense of ‘voice.‘”

Yang’s description of March implies we can forgive shortcomings if we get a “strong sense of voice” in return. “Voice” is difficult to pin down, but I know Foam’s got it in spades. It’s a game I don’t feel like I’ll ever forget. A lot of folks in the comments over at Free Indie Games advise taking notes or drawing maps, but I enjoyed wandering, waiting for the environment to petrify as muscle memory.

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Parsing Interaction in Emily Short’s Bee

“Sooner or later you’re going to lose,” Bee announces.

Losing I can handle. I love a good forced failure. It’s this “you” business that’s giving me trouble.

“You are a junior spelling champion. Your parents have been teaching you at home since you were four. You’ve never wasted a moment in a conventional classroom.”

Hmm, nice to meet me. That’s who this “you” is supposed to be, right? Call me a narcissist, but I think this story is about me. This text will take me somewhere else, where I’ll impose my presence by making important decisions. Got it.

But sometimes it doesn’t really feel like Bee is about me. I’m not really playing the protagonist, per se, but living vicariously through her thought spasms, forcing myself to think with another brain. That’s not me begging moms to take me back to the salon for another expensive haircut. It’s someone else.

The you in Bee is smart. She’s training for a national spelling bee. She’s home-schooled. Her family is religious and conservative. Her thoughts are interesting. Her sister is funny.

Not halfway through the second page, I had already mapped out the ‘best’ way to approach this work. I would avoid any plot choices involving spelling practice. For dodging such dull endeavors, Bee would reward me with a more interesting story. By ignoring the part that you theoretically can’t win, I would win. For me, the opening sentence had immediately painted Bee‘s game system as an exercise in futility. I’m going to lose, so I should obviously avoid playing. Why doom this poor girl to pursue expertise in a fruitless exercise? And as an added bonus, I could make some high-minded commentary on the tenuous intersection between games and story. Inevitably, I would muse, the most gamified approach leaves you with the least compelling narrative.

Except here’s something: I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about. I don’t know what to make of interactive fiction. I only discovered it recently because of its uncertain participation in the independent videogame space, by way of the very same Emily Short’s write-up of a disturbing title called The Baron. Though I was disquieted and intrigued by The Baron, I didn’t immediately hunt down every piece of interactive prose I could download. I moved on. Lately though, the more I consider how this type of text operates, the more confused and fascinated I become with the process. I know something about games, and I know something about literature, but of this thing that straddles the line between the two, I know nothing.

But I’m trying to learn.

Murky protagonist characterization is an issue that videogames understand. Most main characters lead double lives as murderous psychopaths and pretty-nice-guys (once you get to know them). Because of this confusion, I often resort to “you” when I try to write about the experience of playing a videogame. First-person feels right in the past tense, when I’m relating my own interpretive process or narrating an unexpected anecdote. Then, there’s the third-person player, which often feels too distant and makes sentences stumble. You is a nice compromise between the two. For whatever reason, it feels the most natural. Interactive fiction lives in this twilight zone, the in-between space of the second person present.

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

Text adventures, like the aptly named Adventure, were highly influential in the gaming sphere when they arrived in the mid-70s. Today, they serve a devoted, niche community. In a recent interview on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Adam Cadre (Photopia and Endless, Nameless) said he doesn’t enjoy playing IF because he finds the process “exhausting.” It seems absurd that someone who writes interactive stories can’t stand playing them, but I understand Cadre’s complaint. Traditional, parser-based IF involves typing commands into a prompt. The parser, which resembles a limited search engine, decides whether or not the computer comprehends typed commands like “go north” or “stroke moon” or “use spellbook on gerbil.” Parser-based IF can be frustrating because it’s impossible to make airtight, and if a work lacks polish or players prove uncooperative, the fragile fourth wall frequently topples.

Now, many interfaces exist to tell interactive tales, though parser-based IF probably still shares the most overlap with games. The trial and error conversation between player and parser elicits a strange sense of exploration. As with most videogames, you’re barred access from a bulk of the content until you achieve a certain interface mastery. IF juggernaut Andrew Plotkin, who has called interactive fiction “the first *hit* videogame genre,” champions the parser as the fundamental mechanic of IF. According to Plotkin, it “draws the player *into* the game world in a distinct and powerful manner. You can’t skim the text or skimp on imagining the situation, because the situation is your only guide to what to try next.” In other words, a text adventure without a parser isn’t really IF, but something else entirely.

Bee is not parser-based IF, nor is it simply a plugged-in, choose-your-own-adventure story. Short wrote Bee on the Varytale platform, which operatessomewhere on the spectrum between stateful CYOA (like Choice of Games) and quality-based narrative (like Echo Bazaar).” Stories developed on Varytale let you navigate their text through a labyrinth of links, while the system tracks a handful of conditions that may or may not be displayed. Your options depend on prior choices, so you can’t go to the salon with Mrs. Barron unless you’ve visited her home, and you can’t practice Arabic loan words before you’ve gotten down the basics of synonyms and phonetics. The Varytale format fits Short like a glove. It highlights her confident command of interactive interface without hamstringing her crisp, lucid prose.

My spellophobic playthrough ended quickly. I didn’t get anywhere near the national competition. My shameful badge was that of the lowly “local spelling champion.” But at least I had lived!

Initially, I made many stereotypical assumptions about the characters in Bee. I assumed there’s no way this girl wants to spend most of her time with spelling flash cards. Her parents are clearly using the bee competition to stroke their egos and show off in front of their claustrophobic homeschooling community.

The thing is, you hardly spend any of your time spelling anything in Short’s narratives. Bee is more interested in language as an idea rather than a mechanical exercise. “Practice” largely entails imagining places that words can take you. Spelling is transcendental. Spelling is escapism. The character’s love of language simultaneously serves as game system and character trait. It allows her to travel to exotic locales, to feel worldly and cultured. Lying face down on the carpet, smothered by oppressive loneliness, this girl bathes herself in words. For her, spelling isn’t just another family ritual or prayer at the frigid altar of Practicality. It is her ritual. Her coping mechanism. Her antidote for loneliness. Her sense of self.

Bee is engrossing because it never resorts to explicit, over-the-top, “beady-eyed religious fundamentalist” characterizations. The weirdness of the narrator’s environment reveals itself with subtlety. The characters’ religious fundamentalism is a matter-of-fact, even endearing, part of their complex personalities, preventing them from being reduced to one-note caricatures. The parents are devout, controlling and paranoid, but never cruel. The annoying but beloved younger sister is allowed, if not always encouraged, to be strange and to draw pictures of strange things.

Most of my assumptions about Bee were wrong. In my second run, I spent more time with Latin and German roots, and the story rewarded me with more opportunities for social exploration. Participating in the game system’s linguistic universe contributed to the longevity of the narrative and, for the most part, this system deftly reconciles the conflict of interest between experience and productivity.

But just as role-playing the diligent competitive speller bought more time, it led to repetition. Passages began to show up multiple times, and I ended up skimming, searching for something I hadn’t already read. I’m torn over whether or not to call this element a flaw. Though the repetition removed me from the experience, it also contributed to the story’s verisimilitude. After all, you, I and this girl live repetitive lives. We arm ourselves for an unpredictable world with artificial schedules and base new behaviors on past experiences. We want to know what to expect, though we think we crave novelty. To some extent, we all take refuge in the arms of our routines. Bee offers us “new things” but reminds us of the psychological roots common to humanity.

(I saw Bee at Free Indie Games)

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Why Ambiguity Matters

The only feedback Mighty Jill Off offers is that drug my brain gives me for learning new patterns. The screen shuns easy numerical incentives like coins. There’s an unobtrusive timer ticking away under the hood, quietly tracking my progress. But I don’t know about that until after I’ve scaled the tower, and I find out thirty minutes have passed. A more skilled player might breeze through Anna Anthropy’s unsympathetic platformer in ten minutes or less. Either way, you’re likely to spend each second so utterly engrossed that time will retire from your conscious mind, much like the television that softly murmurs in the next room. All you do in this game is jump. The mechanic is borrowed from an arcade platformer called Bomb Jack. It’s a slow, floaty kind of leap that allows you to cut off upward ascension and hover through the air. Mighty Jill Off is not so much about its fundamental action, but the process through which the player comes to know this action completely. It’s a game about S&M. It’s a game about game design. It’s a game about ambiguity.

Most well-funded commercial endeavors strive to avoid ambiguity at all costs. Many a game reveals everything it has to offer in some front-loaded, mind-numbing, text-heavy tutorial. For me, this is something like shoving children aside and opening their presents for them. It undermines those initial, sacred moments of exploring a shiny new playspace. Too many triple-A endeavors end up dull, derivative and unimaginative, and I think a lack of ambiguity is to blame.

In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anthropy argues that ambiguity is one of the things videogames are best at. It’s a significant part of what the “video” in videogame is good for:

In digital games, the computer keeps the rules. The computer tracks all the numbers. Digital games therefore have much greater control over what information the players have access to, making videogames capable of much greater ambiguity than board or card games. (52)

The experience of playing a videogame is one that is developed in a fog. We don’t want to know about velocity, acceleration or collision angles. We just want to save the princess. Fueled by secrets, videogames challenge and direct us with carefully paced revelations.

In her analysis of Super Mario Bros., Anthropy suggests that ambiguity means more than just unseen algorithmic dance parties. It’s also about teasing out mechanical subtleties. After catching up on my freeware, I’ve been playing Max Payne 3. It’s a sleek, smart game that has left me with an unsatisfied feeling, despite its merits. I think it’s that feeling that Jim Rossignol calls “hollow.” For one, Max Payne 3 is a game in which you do the same thing over and over again for twelve hours. This in itself is not a problem, but new challenges do little to demand alternate strategies. In between Max’s admittedly endearing quips, there is only the player’s grim, dogged, stupid persistence. Max has issues, but there’s no way he hates himself quite as much as I hate that next wave of persistent bullet punching bags. Too soon, my experimentation with the impressive dodge-shoot mechanic was foregone in favor of a safer, less interesting turtle-shell strategy: snappin’ in and out of cover, pickin ’em off one by one.

By ambiguity, I don’t just mean “what the fuck was Braid about?(Editor’s note: The answer to this question can be found here.) Ambiguity in videogames doesn’t have to be about confusion. The best games, like Portal, have an exhaustive understanding of the manipulative, lab-rat relationship between player and game author. Precise, tight design goes hand in hand with ambiguity. Jumping is a single action that can be executed and challenged in infinite ways. The player affects momentum. Momentum affects the trajectory of a leaping Mario. Obstacles like Bowser tell Mario where to leap. When such a mechanic is properly cultivated, mastery doesn’t just require sharp reflexes. It demands nuanced analysis.

Mods like Brutal Mario are compelling because fresh interpretations of a well-worn mechanic can lead to interesting results. A well-crafted game system constantly asks you to reevaluate your abilities. At the beginning of Super Mario Bros., Mario has all the capacity for jumping he will ever have, but if he never leaves the first level, none of it matters. The mechanic and the obstacle course are co-dependent. My problem with Max Payne 3 is that greater difficulty arrives not in the form of variety but in more numerous and resilient bullet sponges. The game’s primary mechanic allows for ambiguity, but its system favors repetition.

This point of repetition is perhaps best illustrated by a zoomed in, slow motion camera that watches you pump bullets into the last enemy standing, long after that enemy has ceased to be artificially alive. This bullet cam mode, or whatever, is puzzling. It distills the relatively complex act of aiming and shooting down to a bloody button-mashing affair. I understand the basic primal appeal in this, and I willfully participated even when ammo was scarce. What weirded me out is that Max is self-consciously self-aware to the point that it’s almost annoying. He’s always drinking and frowning at social injustice with his dark witticisms and talking about how he’s so pathetic and amoral. But after Max finishes telling me how fucked up everything is and clears the room of bad guys, we take a load off by spitting bullets into one final, unfortunate corpse before moving on. Max clearly loathes what he’s become, but it’s not like we just shoot the place up and get on with it. The camera slows down, zooms in, and we relish in the red dance. It’s as if the game is parodying its own exhausting, yet irresistible, lack of subtlety. There’s a sense that Rockstar shares in some of Max’s humor and self-awareness but doesn’t do anything but nod dismissively and chuckle at my persistence.

Conversely, Mighty Jill Off is an acute exploration of the sadomasochistic game author/player relationship. The game commands the player to pursue a single mechanic until its potential is all but exhausted. Thematic resonance is constantly reinforced by the player’s willingness to commit to failure for the sake of mastery and master. With each level, the player gleans understanding of what it means to jump. The game asks you to forget about choice, as we often think of it in games, by reminding you of the submissive role that you chose by participating in the first place. It achieves all of this without resorting to easier, Skinnerian tactics like power-ups. The only reward is adrenaline-fueled vertical ascension. Mighty Jill Off shows that failure lends substance to success, and nuanced repetition can be the entire point, rather than a substitute for dynamic level design.

Note: Mighty Jill Off is currently part of the Recession Bundle, which includes six freeware games and two commercial games for a $1 minimum. Donating at least $5 unlocks an additional game. The Recession Bundle is open until Friday, 7/20.

The Videogame Intertext

Christopher Whitman’s Run reminded me of one of my college classes. That class was called Romance. The Romance we read in this class was not harlequin, but the chivalric kind, popularized as tales of knights and maidens, later satirized by Cervantes in Don Quixote. We got into Arthurian legend, Ariosto, Shakespeare and Tolkien. We discovered that a romance is kind of like an epic but different, in that it focuses more on the developments and consequences of individual characters, while epic worries over the fate of nation-states (i.e. Homer’s Iliad).

We studied the Romance genre through the lens of intertextuality, which is one of those made-up academic words, coined by a lady named Julia Kristeva. Like any theoretical term, it has its flaws, but it changed the way I think about literature and other media. In our class, we studied it to mean that every text, whether consciously or unconsciously, informs and affects every other text.

The idea is that a single text cannot be an island. It does not have inherent, static meaning, but its meaning is constantly molded by other textual hands. One piece of literature is but a single thread in a sprawling tapestry. For me, this idea sort of clarified my own study of literature. It seemed to be what allusion, metaphor, simile, etc. were all getting at, and it allowed me to use close reading to make broad statements.

Intertextuality can be observed by tracing archetypes. Once you start looking at symbols and characters that have been around for a while, it’s easy to see connections between every text. George R. R. Martin’s Brienne of Tarth is informed by Spenser’s Britomart, regardless of whether or not Martin read Faerie Queene (he probably did) and consciously decided to draw from it. The knight is an archetype that is turned on its head by the female knight, Britomart, and the female knight archetype is usurped by the physically unattractive Brienne. Britomart is just as famous for her beauty as she is for her prowess in combat. Brienne has no such luck.

Dungeons & Dragons, and arguably most RPGs, are pretty much numbers games, traced by archetypes and colored by player personalities. Intertextuality could be a useful way of looking at videogames, since a game is such a strange fusion of artistic forms that sometimes selfishly compete with one another and sometimes work together in harmony. It’s a confused, but rich, intertext.

Lately, I’ve been playing Audiosurf, a game that is more directly shaped by other media. When you fire up Audiosurf, you’re asked to select a song from your own music library, and the game responds by generating a racetrack based on certain patterns it recognizes in the music. I say racetrack, but it’s more like a roller coaster that makes you solve puzzles. As you glide along the track, you try to arrange blocks so that their colors match up. The track and background reflect a song’s basic tone. Tempo is reflected in the speed of your ship. The blocks lightly mirror a dominant beat or riff. The National’s Sorrow plays like a steady, dark odyssey into a black hole, while Bloodbuzz Ohio is a malfunctioning merry-go-round, mirroring queasy percussion and tense swells that feel homesick but sick of home.

Run tells the story of an outsider who visits a village and presents himself as Christ-like savior. He grants the villagers a false sun, which allows them to grow crops in their previously fruitless fields. As player, you are that outsider, looking in on a primitive land through a digital magnifying glass made of primitive videogame verbs. You manipulate the villagers, as your avatar is manipulated by the in-game text. Run tells the story of you playing it: an intruder looking in, rearranging, meddling, promising salvation.

I read Run as an explicit commentary on a videogame intertext. It builds its system on walls of other iconic videogame systems. To play Run is to transition between different types of games, while interacting with a textual narrative.

Most of the narrative exposition in Run occurs in a platforming segment, where words form the scaffolding that supports the player’s running and jumping. Some words lie dormant. Some move horizontally or vertically. Some disappear when you step on them. Others form stairs. Repetition is implemented so that certain types of words serve predictable functions, establishing a mechanical consistency between prose and play. The phrase “He arrived” slides from left to right and allows you to cross a large gap. The text leverages you towards progress.

You transition from this prose platforming segment into something that looks and sounds decidedly more retro. It’s a Snake clone, stacked on top of another simple platformer. Both systems must be considered simultaneously in order to advance, and they affect each other as you attempt to navigate them. Further stacking occurs later, as Space Invaders and Gorillas variations are added. In this way, Run uses retro, iconic games as its language. It compartmentalizes established systems into sets of mechanics within its own system.

As you progress further, a farming sim asks you to till fields, plant and harvest crops within a time limit. When the timer expires, the amount of food you have harvested must match or exceed the number of villagers. Else, some of your people will starve, and you will be left with fewer workers to plant crops in the next stage. While the platforming and retro sections of Run allow you to try again if you fail, the farming sim is not so forgiving. If you run out of villagers, the game ends.

Run is intertextuality realized in videogame form, and it manages to successfully convey an affecting tone, if not a consistently coherent narrative. On her blog, Anna Anthropy applauds Run‘s use of “collage” and argues that it implies a curious irony:

“there are some enormous human experiences – farming, for example – from which most of us have become so alienated that we only relate to it in a detached, abstracted, incentivized videogame form.”

We farm so that we may eat so that we may live. But Run makes it impossible to successfully harvest enough food to keep everyone alive. It’s not that its digital inhabitants are incapable of putting in the work. They are constantly overwhelmed by shadows of their inevitable demise and discouraged by the rays of a false sun, their disingenuous savior.

Note: The entire game is available to play for free in your browser here. For a few dollars, you can purchase a downloadable copy, which allows you to play fullscreen and save your progress. I found Run on Free Indie Games

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Stupid Violence

This is the second of a two-part series on Daniel Remar’s Iji (2008). The first entry is here.

I care about Iji because of her story, and I care about Iji in spite of her story. At times, I found myself removed from the experience because of the game’s writing. The way Iji constantly talks to her brother (whom she always calls “bro”) in this vulnerable, eager-to-please, little-sister fashion, even after she’s just butchered dozens of the finest alien warriors. It doesn’t really suit her. In spite of her impressive capabilities, Iji’s know-it-all older brother, Dan, is always there to keep her head in the right place. When they talk, my mind wanders. When a cutscene throws tedious exposition at me, interrupts to tell me things that I could discover for myself in the game world, I skim. I admire Iji’s narrative ambitions, but I found myself getting hung up on the details.

Yes, Iji has its flaws. But there are things it does really well. Once you’re no longer immersed in its fantasy, it pushes you farther and farther away until your perspective is no longer that of the hero adventurer, but that of a bird flying over a maze. It asks you to look through and past its narrative dressings to the ludic tales beneath. It reminds you of why you really want to play this type of game: to explore and discover; to jump and dodge and shoot; to do things that are absurd and stupid; to pick something apart and learn all of its secrets. Inexplicably, once I picked Iji apart, I found myself even more willing to buy into the fantasy. By pushing me away, Iji pulled me back in.

Like Pixel’s Cave Story, Iji presents an enemy that executes genocide. And like Cave Story, Iji prevents its themes from becoming overwrought by tantalizing the player with a videogame vocabulary of exploration: There’s a ledge just out of reach, decorated with glowing power-ups, leading to unseen territory. You could pass it by, but it’s kind of driving you crazy. You recall that the gun you just found produces splash damage that hurls you backwards. It occurs to you that if you fire a rocket blast into the wall while standing next to it, you might be able to reach that ledge.

The game frequently entices you with invitations to use its own rules against it. Intentionally jumping into a rocket in order to reach an unreachable platform defies the logic (Don’t get hit by rockets or you’ll eventually die.) of the fantasy world Iji is trying to sell. Iji knows this, and it encourages you to do it anyway because it wants you to explore every nook. All games offer “break points” because every game is made up of smoke and mirrors that impress us until the illusion breaks. But many games resist this break point, or wrongfully assume that the player won’t test it. Iji is not like this. It’s funny. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It comes from the school that says “please break me.”

An in-game log describes a cruel game that the aliens play.

Author: Komato Recreational Unit
Subject: Rocket Jumping
The pioneers of rocket jumping were not exactly volunteering for the job – Komato raid parties simply found it hysterically funny to see how far a Tasen could fly when hit by their heaviest weapons. As usual, someone with the idea that ANYTHING can be turned into a game came up with the rules that still form the basis of modern Rocket jumping. Like Hyper Turret Game or Ultra Minefield Run And Seek, the game is easy to learn.

You come across this log, read it, and later realize that this is an instruction for reaching restricted areas.You have stumbled across the tutorial for a part of the game that isn’t mandatory. It’s easy to overlook, buried beneath some silly text that rambles on: Due to the heavy (and very expensive) armor used, the contestant can usually walk away without any lethal injuries…..It is widely considered that the inventors of Rocket jumping were as brave as they were stupid, but Komato Recreational Unit would not endorse such a statement.

It occurs to you that Remar has meticulously, painstakingly fawned over every aspect of this game. These moments of levity are what make you willing to buy the yarn that he’s spinning.

In my last playthrough, I was attempting to collect all of the supercharges, which would allow me to max out most of Iji’s skills. To get the supercharge in one of the sectors, you have to use a Tasen shredder, the game’s only vehicle, to build up enough speed so you can jump long gaps. The problem for me was that I was also trying to maintain a pacifist run by keeping my kill count at zero, and if you run into a soldier with the shredder, it kills them instantly. I figured out that if I jumped off the shredder right before I reached the gap, the game wouldn’t blame me for the ensuing deaths that were merely a screen away. Then, I could grab another shredder and propel myself safely across.

Playing the game like this completely removed me from thinking about the Tasen or Komato as living beings, as the fantasy demands. Through the sheer absurdity of the situation, it forces you to think of them as predictable equations or algorithms. Shredding Iji‘s narrative to pieces exposes a new layer of engagement. This is something I wouldn’t have discovered, had the game not encouraged me. It’s nice that the story is there because if it weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to tear it apart.

In the last post, I said that people are getting tired of violence. Maybe more specifically, they’re getting tired of a certain type of violence. Iji doesn’t preach. It doesn’t make you feel particularly good about taking the high road, walking the path of the pacifist. This road makes the game faster, but more difficult and less rewarding in some ways. Iji knows why it’s fun, and it knows what I’m there for. There’s no real narrative reward in sparing the Komato, though you’re ironically awarded the most powerful weapon in the game for keeping your kill count at zero. But in the pacifist’s playthrough, violence is effectively reduced to absurdity. I only vanquished enemies by dropping bugs on them or invading their personal space as they pummeled us both with explosives. I only used my rocket launcher to reveal hidden paths and painfully launch myself towards impractical ledges. In Iji, violence is stupid, and it’s a better game for it.

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