Gish on Mac

One nice thing about the Steam Play initiative (Valve’s nascent cross-platform support) is that it makes it very easy for me to find out when games I’ve purchased become available for the Mac. This is an important thing to know for those games that don’t work right on my PC. Just the other day, I noticed that several of my indie bundle games had been quietly ported while my attention was elsewhere. My first instinct was to finally try And Yet It Moves, which I haven’t yet been able to get to run on my Windows machine at all, but I can’t get it to run on my Mac either: the download is eternally stuck at 99%, and attempts to run it anyway yield silly errors about the servers being busy. So instead I gave Gish another shot. I might as well; I’ve bought it in a bundle at least one more time since my last attempt, for something like five times total by now.

You may recall that the last time I played this game, it was crashing on me frequently enough that I figured out how to exploit the crashes to aid my progress. Without that help, the game is in a sense easier. I hold myself to lower standards, not seeking every secret or every coin, just trying to get through the levels as fast as possible. The first world breezes by when approached like this. It’s quite freeing; I get to do all the acrobatic stuff that I mentioned back in my first post — which, it turns out, I still remember how to do.

Which is fortunate, because it isn’t at all obvious, and this game has a pretty steep learning curve. In a recent online discussion, someone asked “Did anyone actually like Gish?” — to which the answer is obviously yes, because it won some awards, but it definitely doesn’t give the player the sense of immediate power and ease of movement that most platformers strive for, and that probably turns a lot of people off. Another discussion I recall pointed out how Mario 64 engages the player by making it look like Mario is really enjoying himself, running around and leaping into the air and shouting “Woohoo!”, to the point that it almost seems a shame to put the controller down and deprive him of his thrills. Gish enjoys himself too, opens his mouth wide in a wicked toothy smile when he’s fast and airborne, but it takes a degree of mastery to reach that point.

One thing I keep forgetting: one of the developers on Gish was Edmund McMillen, who went on to create Super Meat Boy. SMB is also too difficult for a lot of people (possibly including me, although I haven’t given up on it yet), but for opposite reasons: moving around in ordinary environments is almost too easy, with the result that you leap into sawblades all the time. At any rate, I give him credit for exploring extremely different points within the possibility space of the platformer genre, even if both of these games are at heart glorified Mario imitations.

Killer 7: What is Weird?

What makes a game weird?

Killer 7 has weird stuff going on in it, to be sure. But so do a lot of games. Is an assassin who transforms into someone else every time he passes in front of a video camera any stranger than a plumber who kills evil turtles by jumping on them? Isn’t it weird for a hero to periodically take breaks to smash every crate in the vicinity? If Killer 7 is noticeably strange, it’s because the designers chose to make its strangeness noticeable. I think I can identify some of the techniques they used to accomplish this.

First, the very notion of weirdness only exists in contrast to an expected normality. Smashing crates is normal enough in certain genres of game to not produce this contrast, and the likes of the Mario games exist in their own cartoon space, disconnected enough from reality that it defines its own norms. Killer 7 juxtaposes its internal madness with more conventional material — I won’t say “realistic”, because it’s not, but stuff adhering to genre norms. I’ve already described the contrast between the gameplay and an anime-styled cutscene, but it starts much earlier than that. The first two members of your team that you get a chance to see look like they stepped out of a crime movie: a cool, seen-it-all professional, a brassy, confident hitman. (The characters are communicated largely through body language, something the game excels in.) The initial cutscene, for all its stylization, supports this with its images of Garcian Smith clandestinely receiving a package from his contact. Having established this much context, then, the game proceeds to get weird.

Secondly, weirdness is uncomfortable. It teases the parts of the mind that try to fit things into familiar patterns. So I posit that increasing the sense of mental discomfort can increase the sense of the weird. This is a point I’m not entirely convinced of, but discomfort of various sorts is certainly something Killer 7 exploits, for whatever reason. There’s moral discomfort: one of the recurring NPCs is the ghost of Travis, the first person the player character killed, who makes things worse by being helpful even in death, your one consistent source of good information. Travis also casts doubt on your goals, informing you in the second mission how the man you’re trying to kill is the only thing preventing the world government from annihilating Japan. There’s bodily discomfort: a rather oogy cutscene at the beginning of mission 2 shows Harman Smith, an old man in a wheelchair, being slapped around by his maid, for reasons I have yet to see explained, except for some slight implication that it’s part of her duties. There’s discomfort at the gradually dawning realization that the Killer 7, which looked so cool in the beginning, is composed mostly of freaks and lunatics — and that they may be the best hope for their fallen world.

Thirdly, relating to the above, it seems weirder if you don’t understand what’s going on. Call it the David Lynch principle. Of course, in order for this to be effective, you have to know that you don’t understand what’s going on. Killer 7 cultivates this knowledge, giving you repeated motifs like the whole TV thing, or a particular severed head that keeps showing up in different places, as clear symbols of stuff that’s clearly important that you don’t understand yet. That maid that I mentioned: She shows up in Harman’s room, which is strangely accessible through doors in each level. Sometimes she’s in uniform, in which case she’ll save the game for you on request (using the television in the room, natch). Sometimes she’s in her street clothes, in which case she won’t help you at all. In that cutscene I mentioned, where she’s beating Harman up, she’s in street clothes at first, but instantly changes to the maid’s uniform when Garcian Smith turns out the lights. This seemed like a revelation: Aha! A consistent pattern! This applies to all the instances of Harman’s Room: she’s in uniform only if the room is dark! I understand now! Except that actually I don’t understand at all. The moment of revelation just throws the incomprehensible nonsense into relief.

All of the above applies even more strongly in Silent Hill 2. No wonder they’re both on Yahtzee’s list.


In a some ways, Braid is 2008’s Portal. Like Portal, it’s a puzzle-platformer that’s a critical hit despite being completable in a matter of a few hours (and despite being a puzzle game, for that matter), but in both cases, this is because there’s so little repetition and filler. Also like Portal, it’s a game based around grasping the unintuitive consequences of one simple idea. In Braid, that idea is control of time.

In other words, it’s the same underlying concept as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But PoP:TSoT was an action game, and thus had a reason to limit the use of time-control capabilities, lest it make the action too easy. Braid is a puzzle game, and lets you rewind as much as you want. Ironically, this means that Braid can contain action sequences far more intense than any you find in PoP. There are bits toward the end where I was constantly doing fractional-second rewinds in order to get things just right. It’s crazy how fast you get used to that. But when you think about it, playing a conventional action game also involves frequent irregularities in the flow of game-time, in the form of quickloads and reversions to save points, and the player usually isn’t bothered by this. The difference here is just a matter of degree.

Mind you, PoP‘s rewind system wasn’t very well-suited for puzzles: it let you go back in time and change stuff, but only in the simplest and most consequence-free way. To make puzzles, you need variations on the theme. The first and simplest variation in Braid is that some objects aren’t affected by your rewinding, and keep on moving forward. The freakiest variation — and my favorite — is the series of levels where the flow of time for everything other than the player character is a function of your position: move rightward and time advances, move leftward and it rewinds. Notably, this really throws a monkey wrench into the ingrained habits of 2D platforming. You can’t just stand there and wait for things to get into the right position for you, and in particular, if something is in your way, you can’t wait for it to move. It won’t move until you do.

If you take away the temporal weirdification, it’s a 2D platformer with mechanics that greatly resemble Super Mario Brothers, and the game runs with that, giving us monsters blatantly modeled on goombas and piranha plants, a princess who’s eternally “in another castle”, and so forth. SMB references seem to have become to indie games what Winsor McCay references are to indie cartoons: a way for the artist to establish cred by showing an appreciation for the true classics of the medium or whatever. Braid plays around with the princess premise in its between-levels text, first making it mundane, portraying (the player character) Tim’s pursuit of the Princess as occurring in the aftermath of a failed relationship with her, but then after a while turning it into something more abstract. The Princess is the eternal and non-specific object-of-pursuit, the thing which will make everything better once you find it, and which you therefore take terrible risks to discover, despite the uncertainty of your success. (In the epilogue, this is linked to science, and the development of the atom bomb, leading some to conclude that Tim is a nuclear physicist and the whole game is his guilt trip about his work on the Manhattan project. But I think that’s an over-literal reading of one example, among many presented, of where the generalized pursuit of Princesses leads.) The strangest part is that there’s a point where the stories of the mundane and eternal princesses overlap, where Tim leaves his significant other because he feels driven to go and find the Princess. Some have interpreted this as simply indicating that the woman he leaves here isn’t the one referred to earlier as the Princess, but I think the idea that he leaves her in order to find her fits well with the time wackiness. Sometimes Tim does things backwards.

And besides, the whole thing is driven by dream logic. The text is very clear that Tim is confused and his memories are blurred (as you might expect from someone who keeps changing his own past). The backgrounds are blurry in an impressionistic way (which makes the parallax scrolling look really nice for some reason). The level-selection areas are clouds, for crying out loud. Apparently there’s been something of a backlash against the pretentiousness and vagueness of the story, but I think that’s taking it all too literally. Some people seem to resent what they see as the author forcing the audience to make up the story when that’s clearly the author’s job. But I don’t feel like I’m being forced to do any such thing, because this is not a story-driven game. The story fragments are there as a frame, and do a nice job of providing things for the gameplay elements to be metaphors for, but it’s clear that the game came first and the metaphors were chosen to fit it. The big exception is the final level, where the gameplay comes to comment on the story quite directly, turning the rescue its head. Well, we’re told in the very beginning that the Princess’ captivity is Tim’s fault, the result of a mistake that he spends the entire game trying to go back and correct.

Super Mario Land: One More Thing

One thing puzzled me about Super Mario Land a bit at first: its length. The Gameboy was designed as ideally a platform for casual play, something to occupy your attention while you waited for the school bus. Its killer app was, after all, Tetris. But at half an hour or more per play session, SML doesn’t really fit that model. On the other hand, with a half hour or so of play in the entire game (and no save feature!), it doesn’t fit the model of a “core” game either. What sort of experience were they aiming for, anyway?

When it came to me, the answer was obvious. A half-hour of maximum total gameplay in a single session fits comfortably within the expected parameters of a coin-op arcade game. In 1989, coin-op was still the dominant form, and it would have been taken for granted that console titles are imitations of coin-op games, even when they weren’t direct adaptations. This also makes sense of the “Continue” mechanic, which simulates inserting another quarter.

Today’s designers of games on the level and scale of Super Mario Land are writing them in Flash and releasing them for free on the web. I suspect that today’s core games are influencing these works in ways that will eventually seem as odd as the coin-op influence in early console games, but only time will give us the perspective to know how.

Super Mario Land: Final Thoughts

Rescuing Princess Daisy required just one more solid thumbwrecking play session. I managed to get most of the way through World 4 in the same game that I encountered it for the first time, but needed two continues to pass the two-stage end boss. “Continues” in this game are earned with points, and, when used, restart you at the beginning of your current level with three lives. Since I couldn’t beat the final boss with more than ten lives left on the initial sally, I was rather surprised at pulling through in the continues. But ideally each death teaches you a little more about what to avoid.

World 4 has one of the best bonus rooms ever. It’s a screen that fits the usual parameters of the Super Mario Brothers-style bonus room, but is otherwise completely filled with coins. This isn’t really all that impressive as a reward — it takes 100 coins to earn an extra life, and if you could collect all those coins, they’d be worth two lives and some change. You can get more than that from the bonus game between levels. But the bonus game isn’t nearly as delightful as suddenly finding yourself completely surrounded by coins.

It strikes me that part of the genius behind the early platform games was using motion to create an impression of a continuous, fluid world in spite of the system’s graphical limitations, compensating for low spatial resolution by taking advantage of the high resolution in time. A still image of Mario looks blocky and pixellated, but his trajectory looks like a smooth, graceful parabolic arc. Sonic the Hedgehog would later employ the same principle in a different way, emphasizing both speed and speed differences.

Super Mario Land

So, what do you play when you’re on the road? Handheld games, of course. The Nintendo Gameboy, and the Gameboy Advance that I later bought to replace it, are the only handheld consoles I’ve ever owned, as well as the only Nintendo consoles. I bought my Gameboy mainly to play The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, considered by some not just to be the best game for that platform, but one of the finest games written for any platform at the time. But if you’re going to buy a Nintendo console, you’re almost required to get at least one Mario title for it. In fact, I think Super Mario Land may have been bundled with the Gameboy I bought.

The fact that I didn’t finish it when I first played it back in the 90’s is mainly due to its complete lack of any way to save your progress. Not even level codes are provided. It compensates for this somewhat by being short. The game consists of four “worlds”, each consisting of three levels with a boss fight at the end of the third (although, interestingly, the bosses allow the player the option of slipping past them instead of fighting them). After a little practice, I find it takes me about 8 minutes to get through the first world, so a skilled player can probably play through the entire game in under half an hour. To someone struggling to get though world 3 for the first time, the first two worlds form a sort of warm-up, where the challenge isn’t to survive but rather to pick up as many extra lives as you can in preparation for the hard part. A lot of games these days have a sort of “survive, then perfect” pattern, where you can go back to earlier levels and try to improve your performance in order to earn special rewards, such as unlockables. Viewed from this perspective, the main difference here is that it’s not a choice. You have to go back to world 1 every so often, when you run out of lives.

The gameplay is based closely on that of Super Mario Brothers for the NES, but with various innovations, such as new monsters, a really distinct boss at the end of each world, and at least one level that’s a scrolling shoot-’em-up rather than a platformer. Still, despite this, it mostly feels like a smaller, simpler version of SMB. Indeed, in some ways it seems like a SMB knockoff, with all of the names changed but the premise kept intact. Princess Daisy, SML‘s damsel in distress, is functionally equivalent to Princess Toadstool/Peach. Only by reading the manual do I know that SML‘s chibibos are not goombas. I wasn’t familiar enough with the Mario mythos to notice this back in the day — possibly it wasn’t as entrenched back then.

I’m under the impression that a lot of early Gameboy titles were reduced versions of NES titles, which is strange, since, as far as I can tell, the Gameboy was actually a more powerful machine than the NES in every respect other than graphics (and possibly sound). But the reduction in graphics is very significant: lower resolution, four-shade greyscale instead of color, and, worst of all, the slow response time of LCD technology circa 1989. It was a rare Gameboy game that actually looked better than the NES game on which it was based — Link’s Awakening being one example. SML has the handicap of continually scrolling, which shows that LCD display at its worst. It’s somewhat better on a GBA than it was on the original Gameboy, but I still find myself occasionally missing crucial jumps because I can’t see what I’m doing well enough.