Category Archives: Long Form

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.

Kompendium 2013-02-13 08-08-26-20

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.

VESPER5 2013-02-13 08-18-48-99

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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Guidance Gate: Your Gateway to Guidance

This is the second of an undetermined number of level design essays on the freeware version of Nigoro’s La Mulana (2005). The first is here. I’m not really concerned about spoilers, so if you are, well, you know what to do.

Guidance Gate: Was there ever so brutal a teacher with such an unassuming name? Last week, we established that the surface of La Mulana teaches timing and momentum. Now, we will learn to pace ourselves and mistrust certainties.

A sweeping, 8-bit flourish plays the first time you enter the ruins and never again, so perk those ears up. This fleeting instrumental introduction might be your last comfort for some time.

Two rooms in, paths begin to twist and branch. Keep heading east and you’ll eventually emerge amongst waterfalls where drowning is imminent. Alternately, a ladder leads to a maze of precipitous drops and traps, downward spirals branching east or west. To the west lies a land of sleeping giants. To the east you’ll find pyramids and circus cats. There are already more rooms than you can hold in your head. La Mulana argues mastery should never be confined to a single area; that progression and expertise hinge on memorizing connections and navigating spaces.

You will be punished for hasty exploration. Plunge forward through the sprawling, labyrinthine levels, and you won’t necessarily die right away, but you’ll feel overwhelmed by the claustrophobic unfamiliar. Failing to see the patterns for the noise, your eyes will whine for reason. La Mulana does not rely on invisible barriers to keep you in check.

Pictured at the top of this post is a room with many spikes, spikes that suspiciously line the bottom of the screen. This trap seems to plead for volunteers. That awkward, engraved structure in the center of the room reeks of secrecy. Listen close, and you might hear the skeletons whisper: Those spikes, they aren’t real, just non-interactive dressings and pixel paint, just like so many bricks and torches that color these ruins. Ignore the spikes, be courageous, drop down, trigger the switch, claim your reward.

The skeletons and spikes advise you to question that which you’ve come to accept as established truth, a lesson later reinforced by pig enemies with kamikaze diagonal assaults. The best way to defend against such an attack is to stand right next to the enemy, ignoring the careful instincts you’ve developed up to this point. La Mulana challenges habits ingrained by all those other games you’ve played. How many times have you been told to avoid spikes? Sure, La Mulana isn’t the first game to think up such tricks, but this is only the beginning, and it’s just starting to set the tone. Over the course of this journey, expect to develop a talent for spotting the invisible elephant in the room.

In this puzzle, you’re supposed to attack each piece of a suit of armor in a certain order. Pretty straightforward, but wrongful strikes invite divine retribution–lightning bolts that drain your health. Find the skeleton one screen over, who has memorized the solution to this puzzle. Said solution is not well-hidden, but its placement sends a clear message: Assume the answer is not in your head or in the same room as the puzzle you’re trying to solve. Avoid blind trial and error. Whereas the spike puzzle teaches courage, the armor puzzle preaches caution. Examine, question, prod your environment, but refrain from reckless assault. Punishment stays consistent throughout the game, as lighting strikes every time you attack a seal you haven’t yet unlocked. In this way, the game establishes a vocabulary of objects you’re not allowed to touch and expects you to follow suit.

La Mulana is slow to instruct, but quick to punish. Should we consider this a flaw? Is unbridled obscurity a design weakness? There are many who would rather watch somebody else play La Mulana than play it themselves. Is this a bad thing? You could make a convincing argument that obscurity is worse than oversimplification.

A lack of explicit instruction does have its perks, though, one of which is a hidden community component. I’ve been justifying my use of the “Let’s Play” videos as a strange form of multiplayer, or perhaps even conversation. I find myself returning to this video series not just for instruction, but for comfort and camaraderie. The ruins are lonely and unforgiving. They offer little comfort. But comfort arrives in the form of some dude on the internet, stumbling over the same puzzles, emitting nasally outbursts as he forgets what he’s doing and dies miserably. The views on his videos hover in the mid-twenty-thousands. It seems many would agree there’s no shame in consulting a guide on something like La Mulana. It just comes with the territory.

Also, “obscure” and “difficult” are terms that fail to grasp the scope of La Mulana. While Flight to Freedom showed me that illiteracy can be harnessed as a game mechanic to elicit a sense of vulnerability, La Mulana takes this idea further by denoting literacy and observation as separate peripherals. You have to earn the right to look around, and then, separately, earn the right to interpret your observations.

I can’t remember the last game I played that inspired me to regularly consult a manual. La Mulana’s manual is an interesting text in itself, since it’s not just a technical, dry affair. It offers cautionary advice, evocative artwork, beginner strategies and narrative exposition. You might say most game manuals contain such things, but most of that information is useless repetition. I used to think a game that encourages use of a manual does so through bad design. Portal doesn’t need a manual. But perhaps manuals, in many cases, have been rendered useless by flabby, burdensome tutorials. You don’t need a manual if the game bangs you over the head with HELPFUL INSTRUCTIONS until you don’t want to play anymore. La Mulana is one of the few cases I can think of in which the design warrants a manual not because it’s bad, but precisely because it’s good.

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Skimming the Surface in La Mulana

Once I believed that games like Nigoro’s La Mulana are all about innate skill and twitch reflexes. Now I’m convinced the demands of such games are primarily psychological. Granted, established videogame vocabulary is an important barrier of entry, but perhaps more important is sheer force of will and a simple willingness to sign up. Like Dwarf Fortress, La Mulana expects and rewards devotion. It embraces the obscure and the difficult. It asks you to learn a set of skills completely, backwards and forwards, like you would a close friend or potential love interest. It wants you to fight the queasy apprehension mortality plants in our bellies, to resist the voice that tells us we must play, see, watch, read, hear everything, but there’s so little time. La Mulana wants you to slow down. It isn’t needy. It doesn’t crave your approval. If you’re not willing to make time for La Mulana, then it isn’t interested in you.

So let’s borrow some time and look at level design.

La Mulana drops you off in a village with a sharp, retro color palette, full of wild greens and foreboding blue-blacks. The game quickly establishes that it’s not the sort of side-scrolling love letter that makes you travel in one direction. It’s the other kind. Ghostly translucent villagers pace with pots on their heads. A pink child gleefully sprints the width of the screen. You can go right, or you can go left.

La Mulana teaches without tutorials. It will devise devious tricks for you later, but your first lessons are straightforward. You’ll learn that pots drop coins, just as soon as you take the initiative to break some pots. Shortly thereafter, you’ll unmask exactly three coin-holding pots in the entire jungle. The first sits one screen to your immediate left. The second waits another two screens over. The third lies back to the far right, up a few ladders, at the edge of some rapids that whisper like amplified static.

Pots drop coins in tens, so you’ve now got thirty coins in your possession. A glance at the village shops reveals that’s enough to buy almost nothing. A map costs exactly thirty coins. For twenty coin, you can afford a tool that resembles a firearm and bears the ambiguous label of “hand-scanner.” Another ten will buy you a floppy disk thing called a “Game Master.” Two mysterious objects are better than one boring map, you wisely reason, so you forgo the map and head for the bargain bin. A quick scan of the manual tells you what your new toys can do: save the game, read signs and examine corpses.

The coins you collected in the jungle don’t respawn like they do in the ruins, so their number resonates. La Mulana expects you to spend the coin before you enter the ruins, providing you with just enough currency to purchase a handful of modern amenities most games take for granted. La Mulana reduces literacy and observation to peripheral objects and makes you an active participant in narrative exposition. Reading and looking around are abilities you have to earn, just like opening locked doors or throwing knives or breathing underwater. But these tools appear early enough so they accompany you for the majority of the game. La Mulana’s gods are harsh, but not cruel.

The screen above teaches you two of La Mulana’s most important lessons: momentum and anticipation. The area contains four different levels of elevation, each one split by gaps. The small gap in the bottom left is narrow enough to encourage you to jump straight up, adjusting your momentum in mid-air. La Mulana is unlike Mighty Jill Off, in that a jump of this kind is atypical. The heavy controls make it difficult and impractical to adjust from a static position once you’re in the air, but you need to learn that this is possible, and sometimes necessary, to get through later puzzles. While the gaps teach you to move, those slithering sky-blue snakes school you in the art of war. Like many other enemies in the game, they speed up when they get close. Your whip attack, like your jump, is slow and deliberate. You’ll have to sneak up behind the snakes or anticipate their moment of acceleration and time your strike. Frantic button-mashing won’t suffice. The auditory cues help with timing, as well, as the harsh swoosh of an empty strike vividly contrasts the muffled explosion of an attack that connects.

The above entrance to the ruins offers advanced lessons. The arrangement of the bird enemies forces you to consider every mechanism in the attack motion. As you climb the ladder and reach a horizontal plane equal to the bird at your far right, the bird is gonna pull a GIRP and dive bomb ur leprechaun-lookin avatar. Meanwhile, the above bird shuffles slightly to the left, leisurely blocking your ascent. As the far right bird approaches, you feel a sense of urgency. You want to get off that ladder, but the lethargic guardian above blocks the way. You can’t jump from the ladder and you don’t want to climb down, so your only option is to experiment with the whip. You could try to intercept the attack, but the bird moves too quickly. After a few tries and some blind thrashing, you might notice a vertical wind-up that precedes the usual horizontal whip motion. By placing yourself at the top of the ladder and facing to the left, you can easily dispatch the above bird simply by striking at nothingness, then climb to safety just as the other bird reaches the ladder. The birds teach you that every part of the whip motion is relevant. You can’t directly swing upward, but you can use the pre-attack animation as an indirect, vertical attack.

After dispatching those foul fowls, you can concentrate on breaching the entrance. If you’re anything like me, your first attempt will prove unsuccessful. Since the gap between the middle platform and the space next to the front column is so narrow, you might be inclined to simply fall forward. But the game doesn’t allow you to adjust momentum while falling. Even if you just need to move slightly forward to reach a lower platform, you have to start with upward momentum. This lesson in videogame logic affects leaping trajectory for the rest of the game. Falling is helplessness. Forward movement is only allowed if you jump first. Avoid careless plunges.

The jungle on the surface presents temporary boundaries to entice you with promises of further exploration. To the far left of the map lurks a hulking blue giant that you can dispatch after obtaining a certain item. To the far right flow rapids that drain your health. Visual cues, like the old man’s hut next to the giant and a bird suspiciously hovering above the rapids, hint at secrets that can only be uncovered by plunging the depths.

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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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Odd Pacifism And Visceral Rewards in Iji

This is the first half of a two-part series on Daniel Remar’s Iji (2008), a game I’ve wanted to dig into for a while. I’m playing violent and pacifist runs simultaneously. I’m not all the way through yet (just hit Sector 8). I’ll aim for a broader contextualization in this  week’s post, then dig deeper next week, once I’ve (hopefully) seen everything there is to see.

Iji was released as freeware in 2008, one year after 2K Boston and Ken Levine released Bioshock. For a while, Bioshock was the conversation. Clint Hocking, who read Rapture as a manifestation of the shortcomings of Randian Objectivism, invoked the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance,” citing an inconsistency between Bioshock’s constricting overarching plot and the player’s “choice” to spurn or spare the slug-brained Little Sisters. Basically, ludonarrative dissonance is when plot says one thing, and gameplay says another. Or more specifically, when the unchangeable story says one thing, and the dynamic, player-affected narrative says another. Years later, Hocking’s phrase still creeps around the conversation, and Iji reminds me of Bioshock in a number of ways.

Let me count the ways. Bioshock and Iji both have two distinct approaches to weaponry. The first is introduced in the early game and is more traditional, in the vein of shotguns and assault rifles. The second, which consists of Bioshock‘s plasmids and Iji‘s Komato weaponry, is mystical and futuristic, informed by science fiction and genetic engineering gone wrong. Both games allow the player to be either ruthless or merciful, though in different contexts. Iji allows you to progress without killing anyone, while Bioshock dehumanizes everyone in Rapture with the exception of the Little Sisters, whom you can slay or save. In both games, some of the most interesting narrative bites are optional and peripheral. And finally, Bioshock proclaimed itself a spiritual successor to the System Shock series, while Remar cited System Shock 2 as his most important influence.

If there’s any ludonarrative dissonance in Iji, it’s in the fact that you spend much of the game improving skills that largely contribute to soaking up or dishing out damage, even as you’re given the option to completely opt out of all violence. But just like Bioshock, Iji makes violence feel good. And just like in Bioshock, the visceral reward of a shotgun’s exceptionally designed feedback mechanism often overshadows high-minded narrative arcs or  environmental portrayals of dystopian philosophies. There’s not much use in philosophizing about the reduction of perfectly capable humanoids to clumsy bits of flesh, but man, sometimes that stuff just works.

In Iji, like in Bioshock, you master the hardware of your enemies. There’s no real human weaponry. Your skill in a weapon set is labeled as either Tasen or Komato, the two offending alien races. If you take a combative approach, you’re essentially choosing which enemy to emulate (or you can choose to emulate both of them). Either way, through violence, you become the enemy. The music is absurdly effective, as it compliments the militaristic play-through with sick, driving kicks and dirty, industrial metal riffs.

There’s been some talk lately about how violence in games can feel really good, but then make you feel bad, irritable, maybe even a bit dirty, afterwards. Most reviews of Max Payne 3 are laced with this sentiment, though it’s allowed to surface in varying degrees. It’s probably at its most unabashed in Tom Bissell’s piece:

Let’s also not kid ourselves about what happens even to a sane, well-adjusted person after an entire day of watching faces get shredded by bullets. I played Max Payne 3 in two long sittings. After the end of my first sitting, which lasted around six hours, I went to a dinner party with my girlfriend. I was, she reports, “mouthy” and “agitated” during our dinner, and she wondered what had gotten into me. What had gotten into me was that I was shooting people in the face all afternoon.

Bloodlust seems to be an inherent part of the design in a game like Max Payne 3. The player is manipulated, yet complicit, in the slaughter. This is the arrangement you accept when you fire up your console. There’s something of a critical backlash going on against this particular type of engagement that probably ties into the shooter saturation that plagues the triple-A industry. Michael Abbot is somewhat optimistic about the current state of affairs, arguing that it’s “High Noon for shooters,” and the genre is on its way out of fashion. Of the smattering of E3 articles I’ve seen, the ones that aren’t justifiably condemning the event’ s pervasive misogyny are expressing a sense of exhaustion and disillusionment with the dull, desensitized state of the triple-A hemisphere.

Iji‘s not like Max Payne 3, and it’s not just because of a graphical discrepancy. Shooting is the most viscerally rewarding part of the game, but you’re allowed, even encouraged, to not shoot. The action is there, but you can sprint past it without ever pulling the trigger. And though Iji does make violence feel good, walking right past it can inexplicably feel just as good. Many games begrudgingly allow for a pacifist run, but Iji‘s architecture actually supports a peaceful play style. The sloping, angular level design alternates between straight ledges and smooth diagonals, elegant in the way it allows you to avoid combat without breaking the game. Other characters, with the exception of a few, can’t jump or hop down, so their attack is limited to the elevation on which they’re standing. This means that if you can get to a platform that’s a bit above or below your enemies, they can’t touch you.

Iji‘s pacifism is a strange beast. Neither crafty nor stealthy, it’s frantic. Curiously, the more peaceful approach makes for a faster paced experience that’s less contemplative. The plot is colored by bits of background information, revealed in text logs scattered throughout the levels. But combat isn’t courteous. It doesn’t stop and wait for you to catch up on your reading. As a pacifist, since you can’t clear a room, you’ll have to either opt out of a lot of narrative exposition or end up on the wrong end of a plasma cannon. The choice between violence and nonviolence is less tank or stealth, more platformer or shooter. The odyssey of the pacifist is a frenzied ballet of jumping, crouching and sprinting.

I’ve been nursing my violent and pacifist runs side by side, one level at a time. I’ll take in a new environment by killing everything in my path. Then, I’ll revisit, leaving all of the level’s inhabitants untouched. Switching back and forth between my two saves is sort of like watching Tony Soprano eat pizza with his kid and apologize for his anger management issues in one scene, then pump bullets into some young twenty-something in another. Playing Iji in this way creates a kind of dissonance that’s different from the one Clint Hocking talks about. My two Ijis are dichotomies that make sense to me within the context of the game’s universe, just like Tony Soprano makes sense, once you slip into his world.

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