The Cat That Got the Milk starts you off in a straight-lined, sight-seeing expedition and eases you into this wondrous, colorful cacophony of jutting geometric walls and claustrophobic corridors. You are a tiny shape in a sea of bigger shapes. You control movement in two directions. The game is fast-paced and brash. The transitions between levels happen quickly, and the delay between failing and restarting is almost nonexistent. Later in the game (about eight minutes), levels become challenging and demand repeated restarts. In The Cat That Got the Milk, there is no real opportunity to observe your environment as a static entity. You are constantly in motion, so your impression is of a thing that is alive.
In Burn, you are a phoenix, flying down an endless corridor towards death. Blue barrels slow you down, red barrels speed you up. Burn doesn’t limit controls to the same extent The Cat That Got the Milk does, as you can move in four directions, and you’re allowed three different power-ups. But the spirit is similar, and the lose condition is the same. When you stop, you fail. Burn quickly speeds up to a blistering pace, once you manage to get on a good run. In addition, it’s fairly difficult to stop completely because the corridor becomes easier to navigate as you start to slow down. The game encourages you to maintain motion. Drums increase to a fever-pitch when you reach top speeds and reduce to a solemn stomp as you slow your pace. There’s no score, per say, though a number keeps track of the distance you’ve traveled. But I didn’t really care about any numbers. The aesthetic is what pushed me to continue. I wanted to see the strange, alluring corridor rushing past. I wanted the drums to speed up again. I wanted to achieve perpetual motion. I wanted to describe the experience to you in dramatic, first-person statements. I’ll stop now.
Most games I play these days assume I want control of every aspect of the protagonist’s movement, but in this day and age, a bit of limitation is a wonderfully refreshing thing. In pretty much every Triple-A console game I can think of, I have to control the character and the camera simultaneously just to move around, and if I stop moving the sticks around, the protagonist stops moving as well. The Cat That Got the Milk and Burn assume some sense of motion regardless of player input, and they limit the player’s control. You would think that a game constantly in motion would have trouble bringing its aesthetic to the player’s attention. But in these two examples, I found that the aesthetic demanded my attention because it was so closely entwined with the gameplay. In both of the aforementioned games, you work against the game environments, in a kind of yin-and-yang fashion, to create a specific aesthetic experience that is much more powerful than it would have been if the mechanics allowed the player to stop moving.
These games remind us that obstructing certain elements of control augments the significance of the control the player does have, and constant motion forces the player to consider game aesthetic as something dynamic, rather than static. I find that I’m much more capable of taking in the architecture of neighborhood houses or the colors of changing seasons when I’m riding in the passenger seat than when I’m driving. By remaining in motion, but relinquishing control of every aspect of motion, you absorb your environment differently. In Burn and The Cat That Got the Milk, the environments hurl themselves at you. They are friendly obstacles–explicit aspects of gameplay. Screenshots have no chance of properly conveying the artistic dynamism of these games (nor do my own words). Go play.
Notes: The Cat That Got the Milk was done by Ollie Clarke, Jon Mann, Chris Randle and Helana Santos. You can buy souvenirs from them to show your support. Burn was created by Benn Lockyer, Sunny Koda and Jarrod Lowery for The Global Game Jam in one weekend, in response to this theme.