Seiklus: The Wonder of the New screenshot

Seiklus

Game released: 2003

Developer: Clysm

Production: Independent

Platforms: Windows

Price: FREE

Get it from: TIGdb
Jordan Magnuson's picture

Steve Gaynor recently posted a very good article on his blog about play, and the purpose of games. I am tempted to quote the whole thing, but I will just pull out this piece:

As we dig into a new gameworld and begin to fill its boundaries with our understanding, we relive the experiences of youthful play. We explore unknown spaces as we did the woods behind our houses, or the vacant lots at the far ends of our neighborhoods. We hunt in hidden corners for treasures, and collect them in our pockets.

In a lot of ways, this paragraph could have been written specifically about Seiklus. In fact, Gaynor’s whole article could have been written specifically about Seiklus, because what Gaynor wants video games to do is exactly what Seiklus wants to do: “offer us fresh worlds from which to derive the reinvigorating, electrifying wonder of the new.” Read more »

Academic Paper Revisited, Episode 1: Attack of That Darned Question! screenshot
Jordan Magnuson's picture

A paper I wrote in 2005 for an undergraduate Aesthetics class, in which I examine that clichéd question: can video games be art? The question is addressed here specifically in the context of art history and art theory. To that end I briefly analyze video games from the perspectives of mimetic theory, formalism, art as play, deconstructionism, art as political platform, the Artworld theory, and the theory of aesthetic experience. The style is necessarily academic, and I hope that my reader will not hold that against me.

It is perhaps obvious, but should be noted that my views have changed somewhat in the four years that have passed since I wrote this. I still think it serves as a decent launching point from which to think about games and art, however, especially in the broader context of art theory. And that is why I have bothered to transpose it.

The paper begins thusly:

It’s 2:00 A.M. Saturday morning, January 29th, 2005. Artist/Entrepreneur/Game Designer Derek Yu sits on the floor of his San Francisco apartment with a paintbrush in one hand and a joystick in the other; I’m halfway across the country conducting an interview via Microsoft Messenger. “Why make games?” echoes Derek, “Because to make a game is to create a world. More so than a book, a painting, or a movie, a game is something where the creator has complete control over the rules. And for a creative person, you can’t ask for a better opportunity.”

It’s 2:00 A.M. and my senses are starting to fade—did someone just compare making video games to painting and writing? I have to go to bed.

Ten hours of blissful sleep later and the interview feels like a dream: video games are video games, art is art, and that is that—all is right with the world. For two weeks. At which time an innocent friend tells me about Sanitarium, a “serious” computer adventure game that I just have to play. The game engages me, frightens me, and leaves me in emotional tatters—at which point I recall Derek’s words. Could this game be art? Surely not, but perhaps I should look into the possibility—just in case.

And now my world comes crashing down. Upon “looking into it” I find that far from being alone, Derek is only one of many people who seem to be on a veritable crusade to validate video games as art objects. I find websites dedicated to game art, museums featuring “art games,” and academic papers discussing video game aesthetics… what in the world is going on? Read more »

Canabalt: A One Button Miracle screenshot

Canabalt

Game released: 2009

Developer: Adam Atomic

Production: Independent

Platforms: Browser, iPhone

Price: FREE

Get it from: Developer's Website
Jordan Magnuson's picture

Canabalt is pure genius, and possibly the best Flash game I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. It is a true single button game, in that you use a single button to play, period: there are a lot of “arrow keys + one button” games out there, but this isn’t one of them. You control a protagonist in an urban dystopia who is attempting to make “a daring escape.” From what we are not told, but if you observe the backdrop closely you can make an educated guess or two. The running happens without your input: all you need do is press “x” to jump from one building to another: offices to rooftop, rooftop to crane.

This game is a beautiful thing to watch, and my single complaint for its designers is the lack of a recording/replay option. The first thing you’ll notice here is the atmosphere: with a few shades of gray and some delicate pixel work Adam Atomic and Danny B have created the Blade Runner of Flash games. Academia has conditioned me to feel dirty for comparing a canon film to something made in Flash, but I’m not going to back down: considering its scope, context, and medium, Canabalt does what Blade Runner did for its own context and medium. It is a stark, atmospheric, posthuman platformer. Read more »

Living Adventure: Spelunky vs. Fate of Atlantis screenshot
Jordan Magnuson's picture

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

Game released: 1992

Developer: LucasArts

Production: Commercial

Platforms: DOS, Mac OS 9, Wii, Windows

Price: $5.00

Get it from: Steam

Spelunky

Game released: 2009

Developer: Derek Yu

Production: Independent

Platforms: Windows

Price: FREE

Get it from: Official Website

Who doesn’t dream of donning a fedora and leather jacket, grabbing a 10-foot, 12-plait bullwhip, and diving into the nearest cave in search of treasure, danger, and adventure? Who doesn’t want to look like an Average Joe on the outside, but secretly be a professor of archeology on the inside, and even more secretly be a globetrotting daredevil?

There are a bunch of games out there that let you do the whip-wielding archeologist thing, but most of them aren’t that great. Two very good ones though, are Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, released by LucasArts in 1992, and Spelunky, released by Derek Yu seventeen years later (that’s 2009, for the mathematically challenged).

The fascinating thing about these two games is that they are quite similar in terms of theme and mood: both do a fantastic job of imparting that sense of earth-encrusted derring-do—both make me feel like an armchair Indiana Jones—and yet the mechanics that make the games tick are very, very different. Fate of Atlantis is a classic point-and-click adventure game, filled with puzzles and featuring a well-developed but mostly linear plot; Spelunky, by contrast, is a an action-platformer-roguelike with procedural level generation, whose player-created story arcs are less defined, and never go the same way twice.

As I recently finished playing through Fate of Atlantis for the second time, after fourteen years away (you can download the game for $5 from Steam now, which is great), I was struck that these games, with their similar themes yet different mechanics, present a great opportunity to compare and contrast two breeds of interactive experience. Read more »

Shadow of the Colossus: It's a Poem  screenshot

Shadow of the Colossus

Game released: 2005

Developer: Team Ico

Production: Commercial

Platforms: PlayStation 2

Price: $19.00

Get it from: Amazon
Jordan Magnuson's picture

My life is flashing before me, and I wonder if I will get down from here alive. “Here” being the back of this behemoth of all ancient beasts, this blue whale monster of the air. Like an elephant senses a fly it has become aware of my presence, and it is writhing to shake me lose: I am an inconvenience, a tickle, an insect that it would rather be free of. And so I cling to my life by the hairs of its back, and pray for the strength to hold on. The world spins around me, and I wonder at my power, and my weakness: the fact that I have in my hands the means to end this creature for all time—though it does not know—and the fact that, if it does not stop spinning, my body will be crushed against a desert rock within the space of three seconds. I wonder what has become of Agro. Dear friend; she will miss me.

Such moments as these are not uncommon while playing Shadow of the Colossus, a game released in 2005 by the same people who made Ico. And what I mean when I say this is not that such moments in their factuality are not uncommon—not that you often die, or often fight large creatures—but that such moments of epic poetry are not uncommon. Shadow of the Colossus, more than any game I’ve ever played, brought me close to Tolkien and Beowulf and Sagas of Icelanders: the game is a setting, a feeling, a long waterfall of tumbling verse. Read more »

SCMRPG: Time to Pick up the Gun screenshot

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Game released: 2005

Developer: Danny Ledonne

Production: Independent

Platforms: Windows

Price: FREE

Get it from: Official Website
Jordan Magnuson's picture

When it was released without fanfare in 2005, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was met with near-universal shock, horror, disbelief. News of the patchwork game spread slowly at first, and then like wildfire, fueling anti-video game crusades near and wide. CNN said the game was part of a subculture that worshiped terrorists; PC World labeled it one of the ten worst games of all time. “My god!” cried parents, journalists, and senators, “Jack Thompson was right all along: video games come from the devil direct!” How else can you explain such glorification of violence? Such worship of bad guys?

What nobody bothered to do was play the game.

I won’t lie: SCMRPG is a difficult game to play, for multiple reasons; for some—like the parents of the deceased—I suspect it would be impossible to play. The game puts you in the shoes of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on April 20, 1999, the day they shot and killed twelve high school students, one teacher, and themselves. It is an RPG in old-school style, featuring homemade sound and graphics, and real pictures of the boys, their schoolmates, and the event. What makes this work very differently from a biography, or a film—even ones written from the perspective of the killers—is that in SCMRPG you are the killers: you must go to the school, you must load the weapons, you must shoot. This, I think, is one of the reasons that this game met with far more resistance than a book or film from the perspective of the shooters ever would have done. The other reason is that as a culture we despise computer games, and never consider that one might exist to make a point, to be thoughtful, to breed discussion, introspection, reform. Read more »

Life in a Bottle screenshot

Passage

Game released: 2007

Developer: Jason Rohrer

Production: Independent

Platforms: Linux, Mac OS X, Windows

Price: FREE

Get it from: TIGdb
Jordan Magnuson's picture

Passage is a very short art game about life and death and the passage of time. It is intended to be played before you read anything about it, so I would highly recommend that you download and play the game if you have not yet done so. It will take you about five minutes, and is very much worth the time.

Since Rohrer summarizes the game well, I won’t waste time rephrasing:

Passage represents life’s challenges with a maze. The screen geometry only allows you to view a narrow slice of this maze at any given moment. You can see quite a distance out in front of you (and, later in life, behind you), but you can’t see anything to the north or south. You may see a reward up ahead but not be able to see a clear path to it. In fact, after a bit of exploration, you may discover that a seemingly nearby reward is in fact unreachable.

Approaching the Game

Like most art games, Passage has met with a variety of reactions. Because it has become particularly famous, those reactions have been especially strong. Many people have found the game to be quite profound, while many others have turned up their noses at Rohrer and this effort, claiming it is pretentious at best, and a piece of dog poo at worst (well, actually, that’s not the worst). Read more »

Seven Minutes of Confusion screenshot

Seven Minutes

Game released: 2009

Developer: Virtanen Games

Production: Independent

Platforms: Windows

Price: FREE

Get it from: TIGdb
Jordan Magnuson's picture

Seven Minutes is a very short existential platformer. Part of the goodness of the game comes from not knowing anything about it before you play, so if you haven’t tried it yet I’d recommend downloading it first, and reading this review after; the game, true to its title, will take you exactly seven minutes to play.

All games are metaphorical to some extent, but Seven Minutes is blatantly so, representing you, who are specifically said to be human, as a small black square (with eyes) on the screen. This square presumably represents your mind or spirit, during your last seven minutes of life. You touch a flame against the warnings of what appears to be a higher spiritual being represented in the form of a talking head, and you then have seven minutes to explore the game world however you choose; a world which is not generally as it appears. The talking head follows you throughout, telling you constantly to turn back. Read more »

Ico: What Will I do for an NPC? screenshot

Ico

Game released: 2001

Developer: Team Ico

Production: Commercial

Platforms: PlayStation 2

Price: Out of print

Get it from: Ebay
Jordan Magnuson's picture

I’m always looking back to find good games that I missed playing at their time of release. In this case I recently got access to a Playstation 2 for the first time, and decided to take advantage. Ico, a minimalistic, puzzle-based, action-adventure game created in Japan in 2001, is an astonishingly fresh experience, and a contender for the single best computer game I have played to date.

In the game, you play the title character, a young boy born with horns who is imprisoned in an ancient castle as a sacrifice. It is granted that you must escape, but what really makes this game a beautiful work is the interaction you have with a captive girl you find locked in a cage at the start of the game. Yorda speaks an unknown language, and is in the castle for unknown reasons; she shines, and as soon as you release her shadowy creatures are after her. The relationship you build with Yorda as the game’s story unfolds, developed entirely through body language and character action, is an astonishing achievement, and unprecedented in my computer gaming experience. There are so many good things about this game, that I will have to back up. Read more »

These Simple Delights screenshot

When Pigs Fly

Game released: 2009

Developer: Anna Anthropy

Production: Independent

Platforms: Browser

Price: FREE

Get it from: Newgrounds
Jordan Magnuson's picture

When Pigs Fly is a devilishly hard little flash platformer of 50 screens. A poor little pink pig has fallen into a cavern while on her morning stroll, and to escape she “wills herself to grow a pair of big, feathery wings.” But can she learn to fly? That’s where you come in: the wings are fragile, and the barest graze of a stalactite can mean disaster.

WPF is a perfect example of a game that is more than the sum of its parts. It has a charm and likeability factor that just can’t be explained by analyzing the individual pieces that make it up. Ultimately, it is the handcrafted nature of the thing that won it over to my heart: the graphics aren’t stunning, but they are beautifully hand-rendered in retro style; the sound and music have a similar appeal, and you can feel Anthropy’s thoughtful hand on the levels. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the game is that overall it is a joyous experience, despite the fact that it is wretchedly hard! Games 100 times the scope of this little beauty could learn a lot from it.

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