Category Archives: Short Form

Lake of Roaches by thecatamites

fishing

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.

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 full_cream_cheese@hotmail.com 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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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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