My friends Rob, Dave and I used to joke about the contrast between the detailed box art on the old Atari 2600 games’ packaging and what appeared on the screen once you popped the cartridge into the console unit. We’d spin elaborate riffs based on the instruction manual: “You are blue dot. Make blue dot touch yellow dot. Note: yellow dot is utopia.”
So why would independent game developers return to what could be argued are cruder versions of today’s offerings? Gamers today demand that each new release delivers greater and greater degrees of photo realism, more natural representations of body movement and facial modeling. The obvious answer is that it’s (relatively) easier for a single designer to code a finished game by ignoring the expectations of one of the heavyweight releases produced by a team of tens if not hundreds of employees.
The truth is that there are a growing number of independents who are reacting to the deficiencies of those ballyhooed money makers that dominate the shelves of the big box stores like Best Buy. Just like Alfred Hitchcock’s observations on how the advent of sound in motion pictures proved to actually undercut cinema’s strengths, the developers are interested in what kind of experiences can be conveyed uniquely using the medium of video games.
One of those aforementioned deficiencies is narrative. Everyone seems to agree that the integration of story into modern games can deepen the experience, but no one seems to be quite happy with the resulting shotgun marriage. Like Gregor Mendel in his monastery garden, developers tend to graft story onto the game code in the hope that a viable hybrid offspring will emerge. The result however is something akin to playing table tennis while reading a book. Even if the book is about a table tennis match, it’s difficult to will yourself to believe that they constitute a single experience.
Instead of integrating the two, a number of independents are cultivating great results by ignoring cosmetic enhancements and focusing on the essence of their chosen medium. If you want a narrative, why not game it into existence? Hence, StoryTeller by Dan Benmergui is a narrative machine that allows instant realignment of roles and relationships based on the fiddling of the player.
Many variations are possible by simply aligning the characters into position in the first two tiers. Because the ability to influence all stages of the story is so immediate a response to the user’s manipulation it isn’t immediately obvious that the backdrop is static. It’s a nice witty commentary on how infrangible a genre can be, yet still reveals that drama in even the simplest form played out within its confines can be moving regardless. Benmergui shows just how powerful an iconic gravestone or heart icon can be.
Interestingly, while Benmergui’s sprites are pixelated approximations of early computer game animation, his games rely not on control schemes fondly remembered by nerds like myself, but on the kinds of actions found in standard desktop navigation, word processing and spreadsheet formatting: drag and drop, screenshots and cut and paste. The latter two operations constitute the means for interacting with another of Benmergui’s offerings called I Wish I Were the Moon. Like StoryTeller its strength results from rewarding the user for “playing around.” Many of the big budget titles subject the player to the strictures of meters and irreversible decision making that forces conservative reactions and bean counting interactivity.
Jason Rohrer’s games Passages and Gravitation on the other hand offer the kind of control schemes familiar to PC gamers of the Eighties VGA era and activities reminiscent of Nintendo platformers.
What kind of narrative is to be found traversing mazes or hopping upwards toward an intangible but expected prize at the top of a series of tiers? Well, I’ll let you find out for yourself, but suffice to say, both might be the only examples I can think of where an emotional reaction arises not because the game has ended, but because of the realization that it hasn’t.