Back in 2005 Rod Humble came out with The Marriage which has since become the card up the sleeve of everyone in the Are Games Art? debate as an out and out art game. He did the blog circuit and wrote something or other on The Escapist about it. The draw was the use of formal game rules as a tool of representation, which he detailed over here, making it one of the weightiest examples of conceptual art in video games.
That was a few years ago and whether games can be art or not is old news. Of course they can be; you’d be hard-pressed finding anyone in the industry saying otherwise these days. Art Games, News Games, Serious Games. The independent game industry is swimming in genres and games that are trying to legitimise the medium, and it’s fraught with the potential to make valuable artistic statements in strikingly new and engaging ways.
But there is a dark cloud, a shadowy gorilla that we’ve refused to acknowledge: A lot of Art Games suck. For every talented game Auteur of our generation there are the leagues of screaming idiots waving their Computer Science degrees around, continuously spamming Gambit’s mail pool with that bit of concept art they once drew where they replaced Chung Li’s face with Ayn Rand; A lifetime's collection of weird brother-in-laws rattling on about how the world needs a game about the plight of Esperanto speakers or something just as nebulously poignant. Art Games often get slack for ideas that don’t seem as well-rounded as they probably should be. Braid’s bizarre Atom bomb/broken romance idea that Blow refuses to explain, most of Tale of Tales’ work. The modern Art Game feels like the products of a flawed critical standard in an industry that laud ideas, any ideas, more than well-developed artistic talent. An industry that perpetuates the philosophy that on a long enough bell curve even unintelligible ideas look impressive when you're comparing them to Wet.
And with that in mind here’s Coil.
Coil is an example of a game that is quite interesting for as many legitimate reasons as it is for just being almost pointlessly incomprehensible.
This is the 2009 IGF nominee for Innovation by designer Edmund McMillen, the guy that did Super Meat Boy. It's a short flash game made up of six mini-games that are all held together by an ongoing prose story which carries on between every segment and it looks like this:
It’s fitted in a kind of slow and sombre style, full of dark organic artwork and a kind of broken music box soundtrack.
The gameplay is filled with a number of interesting bits. There are no actual instructions given at any point in the game, so discovering what exactly you’re meant to be doing each level, let alone what controls you’re meant to use, is part of the appeal. You’re essentially dealing with a set of traditional minigames throughout, from shooters to basic puzzle games. However without instructions the aim of discovery in the game becomes the primary aspect of gameplay and that really helps invigorate the fairly bog-standard minigame tropes you’re working under. In fact for many of the levels it took me a good five or ten minutes per level before I recognised what sort of game I was even playing. Beyond that the resonating aspect of the game is the atmosphere throughout which feels incredibly foreboding as if you’re committing some kind of terrible act when you successfully make it through each level.
It’s also has this thing in it:
WTF ARE YOU
This is McMillen's self-described experimental, autobiographical art game. More than the gameplay itself, the focus turns to the symbolism and plot that’s been integrated into the game. The storyline, from what I can tell, is a metaphor for rape when it’s not about a sperm that turns into some sort of flying alien squid. At least I think that's what’s happening. Where the prose seems to suggest a woman hitting the bottom, the visuals invoke the story of sperm that shoot each other in the face with weird sperm arrows.
The interpretive difficulty of the game is no fault of the prosey story woven through out. In fact that’s only reason I have any clue of what's happening at all; the language in the game is the best figurative tool McMillen has to work with. Unfortunately for him I’m not sure that’s something you’d want in an interactive, visual game when the visual cues the game gives you feel impossible to even begin to interpret.
Without the short story tacked on throughout the actual premise of the game is so impenetrable it feels like McMillen is guarding it like a fucking Templar secret. I noticed that particularly once I hit level four and the aim appeared to be to manoeuvre a giant sperm thing by repeatedly clicking on a picture of a spleen.
There's a thin line in the world of art between quite interesting and deceptively rubbish and Coil sits somewhere between the two. The consensus has been that the genre is just too affected, hell even Anthony Burch thought The Path should tone it down a notch. But I don’t think pretension is really an adequate critique in this situation. Pretension is the kind of thing that needs to be reserved only for Vice parties or guys who brew their own hemp lager, not the sort of people who can script in Python. What makes a bad Art Game isn't necessarily the designer with delusions of grandeur; it's that Art Games become exempt from criticism on the basis that the baffling and indecipherable might just be art.
Havisham smells like hot banana and secretes rare biofuels. If you rub her right she can run your car a block just by collecting dew from behind her knees. She’s a gentle pink siren and she wants you to know how hard her love can be: Your nose touching the tip of her nose, your hands exploring her every lump as you stare into her eyes until you become so sexually aroused you are literally levered off of her body.
Havisham wants you to lay your eggs in her, then she’ll recharge and refuel on the liquid in your spine.
Morrissey and Havisham are star crossed lovers, crossed mostly because Havisham is fucking out of her mind while Morrissey’s heart beats only for the sound of passable but largely rubbish mid-eighties rock. It’s a complicated relationship and like any 90lbs schoolboy in his position Morrissey treats their hideous, unemployed, unhappy, unloving love with the scared eyes of a large lost deer, bolting between the two giant passing vans of Havisham’s hammy thighs.
As I explained back here somewhere their house is a handsome combination of a room with a guitar in it, a bar and a toilet-kitchen with beds I would later delete as part of a sinister test to see how many phone-ordered babies it would take to break Morrissey down.
The house that love built
I posited that he’d turn to the drink in a matter of days, hoping it would turn in to a slightly interesting simulation commentary about Simclass situations undermining Simtalent and how it effects the Simwill-to-live or something but instead he just spent most of his time outside in a park, taking hour after hour to perfect his guitar skills while slowly starving to death. Unemployed and generally useless he spent most of his time pissing about in town where I couldn’t be bothered to scroll around looking for him. After a day and a half of him trying to avoid Havisham, his SimAtrophy finally kicked in and I found Morrissey a couple of blocks away passed out on a bench and drenched in his own stinking fluids, just like a real New Wave star.
In the meantime, Havisham had already begun to accumulate her spawn over the phone, along with the free maternity leave cash the game provides when Sims start churning out kids. Luckily Sim Government laws are lax enough to not bother enforcing any sort of adoption check-up that might look into if she’s melting their babyskin into lamp covers. When the adoption agency shows up to the door with a basket in hand Havisham just entices them with the womanly charms of someone who injects frogurt into their ankles and no questions are asked.
Because the Havisham/Morrissey cash flow was put largely into the purposes of buying those outdoor flamingo things I never got around to buying basinets so Havisham lovingly assembled all of her new babies like a chicken finger platter all over the floor.
The adoption service came by on an hourly basis until their carpets looked like a bioluminescent ocean floor with babies growing out of it like stinging fronds and I had to move out most of the furniture to make room. Then the game stopped letting me order babies.
Evening sets on Sims 3.
After pressing something in Build Mode Havisham and Morrissey’s dole bunker now opens out onto a spectacular view of lawn jutting out through SpaceTime from a cosmic forge in their front yard. Thanks to the truly amazing customisation options now their patio pond towers like a giant weird finger over the neighbourhood, keeping silent watch over the nine baby Nigerians.
Baby JohnMaddenXXL gets left in the specialty leaking shower room
Like the devil himself Havisham has many faces, but the most prominent one is unconscious on the floor. Since getting babies she pretty much spends the rest of the game passed out after gorging herself into a wintery slumber on one of the plates of food left on the ground at some point.
Havisham’s deep outdoor hibernation is peppered with occasionally waking up from her induced coma to spend time making a Geocities shrine for the actor who played Andrew on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".
Unlike Havisham Morrissey less Faye-Dunaway-shrieking-about-wire-hanger
He hasn’t touched his guitar in days. He does not sleep. Morrissey wanders the moors of his offspring and takes five hours trying to get from the fridge to the shitter while avoiding the stacks of plates and newspapers that have been accumulating like a defensive border made from bits of stuff found in an olympic vomitorium. The ground is crusty with newspaper that hasn’t been recycled since they bought a TV.
His vital signs have plummetted and he hasn’t been able to eat since the kids created a human wall by sleeping in front of the fridge until I finally just deleted it when it got to the point that nothing was happening and I was bored. Havisham never complained about it because she was mostly passed out on a sidewalk around this point but I guess food matters because the fuzz ended up coming to the door about the kids.
Soon after the Nigerian babies managed to get whisked away into some sort of portal bathysphere by an adoption agent played by Lionel Richie. Apparently when they reach toddler stage you’re meant to feed them and not tab out mid-game. Then with only salad made weeks earlier to sustain them Havisham and Morrissey died. It was a bit sad because they were fairly pitiful looking by the end of it but to be fair they were mostly assholes.
Silence now covers their house like a large, boring blanket. Morrissey’s tombstone sits next to his untouched guitar as a totally natural and not pre-thought visual metaphor. The game lasted about two actual days and in the end didn’t really prove anything other than the poignant “children make you die” conclusion. And the added footnote that having kids in Sims 3 essentially will negate any original characteristics you’ve given your Sim in its creation; turning your sim in to nothing more than a miserable, slowly dying bot, forced to go through its pitiful life picking up stinky babies as their clockwork winds down. Just like real life.
Adventure games stem from a proud tradition of trying to rub a steel pipe against a courgette and watching as they fail to actually combine in to anything. Fun or not the puzzles were rubbish; a kind of special synergy of inventory trial-and-error and baffling Rube Goldberg logic. Open the door by pasting bits of film tape on to a midge, melt down a Shetland pony into pixie glue then use it as custard, that sort of thing.
Yet back at its very height, LucasArts, Sierra, and even Adventure Soft were still managing to churn out some of the most enjoyable games of the decade. These were the kind of games that boasted classic Tim Schafer dialogue along with some of the most dynamic and memorable characters of any game era: The Guybrush Threepwood’s and Sam and Max’s that defined a generation of gaming and burrowed themselves into the heart of anyone who had one.
The whole genre is a weird oil and water mix of the brilliant and the tedious. But no matter how much you loved them the puzzles were still rubbish. Even back when games could be solved largely by sweeping your cursor over the entire surface area of your screen it would take an aptitude for wading through ten minutes worth of 2D junk just to find that one lizard rune. And there you are in 1993, up at 3am with the slight cologne of flat Pepsi on you from hours of basting next to your CPU, just trying to look up a walkthrough that’s not written entirely in Korean.
Time Gentlemen, Please, however, is made by the kind of people who clearly know and understand the headaches of the genre. This has to be one of the only adventure games that sticks to the traditional absurdist guts while having entirely logical puzzles. Imagine that, point and click puzzles based on actual relative sense. Consider this an exercise in reducing frustrations by going against the grain and allowing user-friendly puzzles and a robust little hint system hidden within character banter. Try not to swallow your tongue in baffled glee.
Writer/designers Ben Ward and Dan Marshall penned this as a sequel to last year’s award winning AGS adventure Ben There, Dan That. BTDT is free to download so you can give it a go, although Time Gents still ostensibly functions as a stand-alone game. Both are clearly labours of love. You might actually recognise Dan’s name from his PC Zone column How To Make A Game which described the development of an independent release from the ground up. For the record, being an indie designer is hard. Some generations have their Nam, indie designers have bills and pink eye which is mostly as bad. So when you’re looking at Time Gentlemen, Please you’re seeing a game that was made by two guys who clearly have inherited nothing but a love for and wealth of knowledge of adventure games after decades of play.
The story is a bit of Day of the Tentacle mixed in with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Ben There, Dan That introduced Ben and Dan as a couple of time travelling layabouts in an expansive world of mid-nineties allusions and references to bad TV. Following up on BTDT’s plotline is Time Gents’ extremely savvy 21st century homage that harkens back to the early traditions of point-and-clicks in a way that only true slacker connoisseurs could manage. This is the story of two Brits travelling through time and accidently influencing history to churn out WWII-era robot AI and Nazi dinosaurs.
It even feels like the kind of thing you’d cook up back when you were at uni, a sort of back-to-basics throwback to the days of armchair programming, and that’s because it essentially is. This is a game made by gamers for gamers. And needless to say, dinosaurs and Nazis are things all games should fucking require. It’s testament to the kind of instinctive reflex Ben and Dan have toward the internet culture of twenty-something gamers; the type of people who are fully willing to accept the awesomeness-to-Nazis gaming ratio that instantly makes any game a good 10% better than most. That might seem like a pretty nebulous point to make but the reality that Ben and Dan know their audience bloody well is the real strength of this game.
Time Gents is a compact adventure game that takes you through a six decently-sized puzzles over the course of about 8 hours. By the opening you’re given a chance to run through fairly simplistic controls before you’re thrown in to the pulp of the game. It’s a standard left-click action system that allows you to interact with the environment, however what differentiates this from most is how integrally tied every action is to the game’s massive reservoir of comedy dialogue. That really is the meat and bones of it all. Even though the game does requires the slow-going experimentation of any classic adventure games it also engages in an ongoing and highly meta running-commentary throughout that pokes fun at the model of gameplay it has adapted. This happens with both Ben and Dan acknowledging every piece of nebulous game logic in extended dialogue between the characters. So when by the first real puzzle you’ve fallen in to a rough industrial basement, within minutes you’re already ankle-deep in allusions which were custom-made for the jaded and nostalgic. “I’ll keep an eye out for any more hand panels, lightswitches or Chuckie Eggs for you,” Dan will say. You’ll get stuck trying to figure out how to pry a nail out of a board and get slapped with the mildly sardonic “I’d better use something out of my INVENTORY!” When you are left to deal with the usual tropes of old school gaming it inevitably becomes part of an overarching, self-flagellating joke.
When it’s not skating on blatant memories from the nineties it’s turning out puzzles that are new variations on old themes. From taking a page out of Monkey Island and laying out multiple-choice dialogue puzzles to trying to collect objects off of mice that dart in and out of walls. You’re dealing with standard puzzle constructs but using different methods to figure them out. The characters will talk about what’s happening around them in depth and so solving puzzles in Time Gents seems less based on random luck while flinging objects at other objects and more to do with paying attention to the characters and what they’re chatting away about.
The amount of writing that must have gone on before this game came together is truly fucking boggling, because there is as much dialogue as there are object combinations to click through. Instead of leaving you sweating blood as you spend twenty minutes trying to use a key as a spanner, they’ve stored up pages of those self-deprecating lines that double as both a running commentary for nearly every possible user-action and a genius little hint system for when you hit what seems a stunningly perplexing task. It’s a 180 degree turn-around from the days of stilted, canned responses regurgitating the same “You can’t do that” response even when you’re an iota away from successfully solving a puzzle. Ben and Dan on the other hand will hint you through it with smirking lines to the effect of “That looked like it nearly worked; I did an animation thing with my hands”. In fact it’s worth spending a good quarter of the game simply clicking through things just to see the enormous amount of work put in to the writing of it.
There’s not much you can actively dislike about the game but to be fair it’s always easy to excuse independent games for slight foibles. Yeah, the animation is a bit weird sometimes. The character animation in particular has a sort of odd staccato quality that comes off like you’re staring at your cousin’s Flash experiment. Try and ignore the mouths when they’re talking. Yeah, the audio is pretty non-existent. There’s a running soundtrack throughout but audio effects are at a real minimum and there’s no voice-acting to speak of. But those are pretty mindless criticisms, especially for this style of game. Any of those foibles end up seeming like genuine non-issues as a whole just because they underline that quirky, shaky-handed LucasArts style they’re trying to command. What did grind me a bit was the actual style of humour. Some reviewers called it absurdist or surreal and technically it is. But that’s really part and parcel of the comedy adventure game genre. A lot of the actual punch-lines that were written into the puzzles ended up just coming across as cheap gags that played like forgotten Ren and Stimpy B-sides. Take for example a side-character dead after getting shot in the cock, followed with a little animation of blood filling his nappy, or a task to get a mouse to fuck a dead mouse corpse. It’s comedy but it’s often sloppy comedy.
Even then Ben and Dan are still the kind of indie game designers that represent the impossible dream of being players first, designers second, all while actually being quite good. They’re the novelty comedy mallet that can both delicately extract the DNA out of the best parts of LucasArts’ then annihilate the classic gameplay pains out of the genre. And beyond that there really are few companies these days who attempt to carry on with the genre. Retro-styled adventure games are a spectacularly lonely niche and Time Gentlemen, Please offers a modernised variation of everything you adored about the point-and-click dynasty once dominated by the likes of Tim Schafer. And that torch has ostensibly has been passed straight down to Ben and Dan.
In the middle of June I started the episodic Sim epic Havisham and Morrissey, first introducing the story’s sulking kitchen boy, Morrissey. Morrissey was the struggling Northern artist-cum-father of about twelve Kenyans adopted over the phone, as part of a DEEP and IN DEPTH look into VERY REAL and A BIT RACIST Simulated class fatalism. Today I introduce Havisham.
Havisham is Morrissey’s horrorwife.
Havisham is like what you would get if you crossed The Penguin with a sticky theatre curtain from Nevada rockabilly club, or like Beth Ditto if she had a flaccid cock hanging from her face. Her personality traits were essentially meant to make her the worst person imaginable: a sort of venomous, black eyed widowmaker who is too lazy to cook actual meals so she just eats fly-laden leftovers that were never thrown out because I forgot to buy a sink. She briefly worked as a cook when I accidentally clicked something.
As far as I can tell, once your sim has a job, at any point that you manage to get a baby you’re automatically given a weekly allowance as some kind of child care policy worked in to the game. Also part of the EA child rearing policy is that baby-ordering is run through the same service as pizza delivery and that all babies are BLACK.
Out of Africa
Other useful true-facts:
Unlike in real life or in that bit in Trainspotting, Sim babies are never dead or slightly off. The game forces you to be responsible for weird immortal doll things that, as it turns out, don't even fucking eat food unless you gavage them. In fact you could probably lock one up in a room until its toddler years and they only seem to come out of it lightly unhinged as evidenced by a previous game where I tried this and he just grew up to be actor Steve Buscemi:
Having given Havisham the personality points of Lazy and Hates Children Morrissey was put in the position of responsibility of taking care of the babies while Havisham continued to pursue her own personal interests which include A Chair and Buying Babies. This basically would work against the character programming in the game from when I first made Morrissey to only be interested in arts-oriented goals. In fact even though Havisham was programmed to hate babies her character automatically coos and picks up the nearest horrible, dead eyed Victorian doll-faced adoptee she’d see when it would begin to cry. So regardless of how the character’s traits were formulated all Sims are identical in how they react tenderly to the endless deathpit of baby screams. What resulted was a pointless treadmill of coddling and forcefeeding weird immortal highlander babies over 18 hour stretches, pushed by the game's inherent pro-baby protocols and resulting in mass tragedy.
Tune in next time for...When there is actual plot exposition
With my finger firmly on the pulse of the Internet I’ve started my very first Twitter account only nine months after Dog Whisperer Cesar Millar - So now you can watch me fail to regularly update another one of my accounts. I had hoped to make a sort of fictional concept piece but was having trouble coming up with anything really decent so amuchmoreexotic suggested I run with the first idea I come up with. This led to my rubbish opus MolyneuxBrain. MolyneuxBrain is the heartwrenching story of world famous Peter Molyneux whose brain is haunted by a ghost. It is narrated by Molyneux' brainghost and follows their George-and-Lennie-esque relationship. Later on his brain will become haunted by other ghosts who enter in through his pons medulla (which doubles as a doorway to the dead, naturally). This will lead to a GHOST WAR. Stay tuned!
Continuing my theme of being at least two years behind Internet trends here’s a video of Yahtzee’s television show pilot.
Game Damage is one of those ideas that was probably quite good to begin with but was conceived during a horrible lapse of judgment. The end result of the show seems to more or less be two Australians and a Brit competing to see who is the most wrigglingly awkward while trying not to look as if they've been preserved in a veneer of their own sweat. It’s probably one of the most unsettling review programmes I’ve ever watched just because of that; they all look like some sort of House of Mirrors cross between Me and Lloyd Christmas dipped in shellac:
It's the kind of set up that was likely meant to be a response to programmes like Electric Playground who had discovered the rubbish material-to-wankable host ratio pretty early on in the game. EP made more or less of a career from parading Jade Raymond's uncanny valley face around enough times to distract everyone else from the kilos of mindless next-gen rhetoric they'd pile into their scripts. Game Damage on the other hand is the kind of thing that you or I would make if we had the sort of hubris necessary to bill a television show about Australians doing sketches from a rented couch.
The show's wildcard is Internet-famous Yahtzee who's unfortunate fatal flaw in person is that he's a cock. It's a bit of a weird twist considering Zero Punctuation was always a perfect example of how to pull off Angry Nerdo comedy without seeming like the sort of person who was slightly unhinged. It's like one of those moments where you realise Lou Ferrigno has started shopping at Tesco and he's one of you after all, only that Yahtzee takes it one step further: bypassing the cache of minor Internet celebrity by dressing as if he's part of some kind of pantomime re-cast of The Maltese Falcon and speaking as if he's never heard actual human language before.
Game Damage is like watching Yahtzee attempting to win a talent show by impersonating Yahtzee; punctuating every word with weird over-pronounced sarcastic Yahtzeeisms. Most people don't actually talk the way they write but human-Yahtzee recites every line in an eery Yahtzee character-voice. Sadly he's not even funny cock. He just wafts of angry proto-aspergers nerd cock, like stumbling into a sealed room operated by The Lone Gunmen just as "Ringo" Langly begins yelling something about the original BSG being more 'pure' and then starts calling you a queer. Some of his purebred comedy lines include overly pronounced gems like:
"Rated PG for PRETENTIOUS GIT" and "Peter Molyneux should shut his big fat GOB for once"
If you're not already pissing over your flaccid cock in laughter then maybe watching someone in a Master Chief costume aimlessly wander through a market for about eight minutes worth of film will do you in. Crack a grin as he spends 15 entire seconds pretending to eat crisps through a mask, guffaw as he tries to buy a cheeseburger but comedically forgot his wallet in his other awful bargain costume. Feel your ribs literally split through your skin as you buckle over and die when tries on a sun dress. Bask in the unending Benny Hill-like music loop.
Taste the warm rush of saliva when you quickly realise at 1:18 in the video that Yug literally wants to fuck Yahtzee*
*If you can be bothered to make that into a gif for me then I might get you a super secret reward prize, but I probably won't.