With the recent PC release, I’ve fallen back down the deep, unforgiving chasm that is Spelunky. Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic. I actually love Spelunky and barely need an excuse to play it again. My most recent return to the game coincides with a host of other modern roguelikes (or roguelike-likes, or rogue-lites, if you’re so inclined) that bring with them a philosophy of unapologetically challenging the player. It’s fascinating to me that these games are thriving alongside experiential games like Gone Home as well as broadly accessible blockbusters that are meant to entertain rather than challenge. With that in mind, I wanted to do a little armchair mass-psychoanalysis on why many of us are so entranced by roguelikes.
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No matter how culturally recognizable Mario or Sonic are among non-gamers, no matter how many games of Angry Birds I see played on public transportation, I still see shocked faces when I mention my interest in political games (or social impact games, serious games, whatever you want to call them). Part of this incredulity is the frivolous approach to games that most people take, sure. Conversely, part of this response is founded in how necessarily complex serious issues seem.
Environmental change? Gun violence? Urban poverty? These are big issues with many stakeholders and twice as many opinions. Plenty of people feel uncomfortable discussing these issues around a dinner table among friends. Is it a surprise the idea of games addressing big, systemic concerns, sounds laughable? As simple, playful things, how could games plumb such intricacies?
While I am a professed fan of large systems in games, sometimes it’s the simple things that make compelling and effective serious games. To that end, here are three recent examples of games that offer interesting perspectives through simple means.
The other day I did something I normally don’t do. I finished a game for a second time. It’s not that I want to be a rolling stone when it comes to games. It’s just that the odds (i.e., the realities of life) aren’t stacked in my favor. The potential number of hours that I can dedicate to games has drastically ebbed, and gone are the days when playing through Final Fantasy VI twice a year was a modest accomplishment. On the other end of the scarcity spectrum, I could quit my job for a year and still find myself surrounded by great games from 2012’s back catalog. Finally, it doesn’t help that games often demand a gargantuan time investment. Try to find a blockbuster action movie that lasts as long as an Uncharted campaign, for example. Dump 100 hours into DotA 2 and you’ll probably be just good enough to be considered “not bad.”
It’s a shame, since playing games multiple times is something I enjoy. I see things I missed the first time through and get a chance to reconsider my opinions. This opportunity for reevaluation means that when I do play games again they tend to fall into two categories: the ones I found either especially enjoyable or those that were less than enjoyable. Anything that provokes a response stronger than “meh” often gets another look, which is why I played through Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery again.
“Something will happen in 77 days.”
It started on July 9th, when the YouTube account “Pronunciation Book” took a sudden turn for the weird. What had originally been a channel dedicated to helping foreign language students pronounce English words correctly was now the source of a strange and expansive mystery. The unassuming source of linguistic tips was hiding something, and now without a disguise, it became a deeply compelling project for thousands of impromptu researchers, code crackers, and detectives.
This post contains spoilers for The Swapper.
In a recent interview on the Penny Arcade Report, Dan Teasdale explained his weariness with the preponderance of fantasy, science fiction, and retro game genres. I find his weariness with this “nerd triumverate” understandable, especially when it comes to sci-fi. Open up the iOS app store and you’ll find countless games about mining, fighting, or flying in space. On the blockbuster side of things, we’ve had Halo, Dead Space, Mass Effect, and numerous other operatic tales of galactic calamities. Maybe it’s time we put sci-fi in cryo stasis for a while?
But then there are games like The Swapper. The Swapper doesn’t have any gun battles, and it isn’t about interstellar war. And this actually works in its favor. By narrowing its scope, The Swapper is able to fully explore its game systems and the ethical implications they have within the game’s story.