Archive for January, 2009

I Was In the War

iwitw1I Was In the War, by Bisse, is a nearly perfect example of everything that I think of as characterizing PC games in the 21st century: an indie effort with minimalist graphics, completable in a single play session, written in three hours by an insane Swede as part of a competition and posted on the web for free download. It’s also one of the funniest action games I’ve ever played, and I think it’s worth looking at why.

It’s got a off-kitler and deliberately stupid style reminiscent of You Are A Chef!, but the key thing is that there is no separation between joke and gameplay. The basic mechanics are themselves absurd. Aside from jumping over enemies, which isn’t always possible, the only way you can evade damage is by switching to the other side of the ground, where upside-down enemies await you. Also, your health is represented by your sprite’s size — getting hit makes you smaller, while going for a long time without getting hit makes you swell up until you’re towering over your foes, which, unfortunately, just makes it easier for them to hit you. That’s a fairly interesting mechanic for automatically balancing difficulty, but it’s also completely ridiculous. (According to Rowan Atkinson, things being the wrong size is one of the three basic types of sight gag.)

Moreover, the introduction of new enemies plays out like a series of jokes. When a new type of enemy is due to appear, a warning scrolls along the line representing the ground. The player is given enough time to digest the announcement and wonder what form “tanks” or “guerillas” might take and how they’ll affect you, and in most cases the answer is absurd and unexpected.

Action games often have a problem being funny. Adventure games have an easier time of it, because they can present jokes as puzzles, thus forcing the player’s attention onto them. But, with a few exceptions (like Katamari Damacy), action games seldom try to integrate humor with the action itself the way IWITW does. I’m thinking in particular of the likes of Earthworm Jim: as much as I enjoyed it when I played it, it seemed like most of the ideas for levels were based on how wacky they’d seem when you read about them in the manual, rather than how they’d seem when you actually played them. There’s also the approach of trying to make a game into a comedy by slapping jokes into cutscenes and dialogue, which at least means you get jokes while you’re playing, but they’re basically orthogonal to the game itself. I think of MDK2 as a good example of this, which is strange, because the original MDK is a good example of the integrated-humor approach I’m applauding here, with its powerups that sprout legs and run away when you approach them and the like. The difference: the original MDK wasn’t a talkie. It basically had no choice but to put its humor into the game itself. MDK2 hired an improv group to do voice-acting for its cutscenes, but it’s ultimately weaker for it.

In the end, the whole game of IWITW has a punch line, and it’s a pretty stupid one. But the real humor is in the telling. Which is true of any joke.

Year Two and Revelations

So, the second year of this blog ends with another unplanned month-long outage. It’s been a pretty dismal year for the blog, with only 14 games knocked off the Stack, if I count correctly. I haven’t even finished the Orange Box yet. This is in large part because of the demands of my new job. (The first month-long outage basically coincided with my the first month of employ.) Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great job, miles better than the one I left to take it. But there have been long hours and tight deadlines, on top of a killer commute. It’s nearly an hour and a half each way by bus, which, unless I switch to a portable system, doesn’t leave a lot of time for gaming. Or, to be more accurate, it leaves a certain amount of time for gaming, but not nearly enough time to both game and write about it. I’ve really got to find quarters closer to the office, but not having a lot of time also means not having a lot of time to look for a new apartment.

And so the Oath has backfired: in order to avoid the obligation of blog, I’ve been playing games that aren’t on the Stack. But I’m not giving up. Now that the most recent tight deadline has passed, I’m going to try to ease myself back into this by writing up some non-stack games.

As for what’s remaining on the Stack, I think it’s about time I made my secret files public. There are two ways to view it. First, at some point in 2008, I discovered Backloggery through a link to this blog from a comment thread. Backloggery is a site devoted to people doing exactly the same thing as me, except with less commentary. I had always assumed that when I wanted to put my list online I was going to have to find or create my own HTML interface to it. Seeing that someone else had done the work already, I entered my entire list, and have maintained it ever since.

I found this solution unsatisfying, though, because it didn’t categorize things the way I wanted them. Backloggery sorts by platform, but not by genre. Their list of game statuses includes several degrees of finishedness (“Beaten”, “Completed”, “Mastered”), but only one unfinished status; I had been tracking only one degree of completion, but had several kinds of non-completion (“untried”, “played partway”, “was unable to complete due to unresolved technical problems”).

Then Gunther Schmidl started his own game backlog blog and showed me what I should have done in the first place: just upload the spreadsheet to Google Documents and make it world-readable. So I’ve done that too. My Backloggery page is here and the Google spreadsheet is here.

You may notice that the Google document has 301 rows, while the Backloggery reports only 299 games unfinished. I always spend a moment confused when I look at them. Well, the spreadsheet has an extra row because of the column headers, while Backloggery is missing Pokémon from the “Unfinished” list: by their standards I’ve beaten it and it would be dishonest of me to list it otherwise. I should try to contact some of the other backloggers with Pokémon on their lists to try to arrange trades. It’s probably my only hope of finding any. (Craigslist was a bust.)

At any rate, that means we currently stand at exactly 300 games listed, which is a satisfyingly round number to start the new year on. Not that this number is really all that meaningful: I’ve got 8 points to spend (that’s $80 worth of new games by the terms of the Oath, which can go quite a long way these days), and there are a number of games whose stack status is iffy. Does Team Fortress 2 count? I did buy it, but only because it came with the Orange Box. I suppose I’ll write it up when I get around to trying it, but it’s not in the list right now. What about Peggle Extreme, also from the OB? I don’t think so: it’s really just a demo, not a full game. Or The Next Tetris — a puzzling thing to be on the Stack, perhaps, as it’s not the sort of game that’s finishable, but it has a finishable component, which is what I’m counting for Stack purposes. Except I can’t for the life of me remember if I ever finished it or not. So it’s on the list just in case.

I’m sure that there are other things on the list that will provoke questions, or at least raise eyebrows. That’s why I was so reluctant to publish the list. Anyway, expect another post tomorrow (I’ve already started writing it), and happy new year.

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