The Meaning of Colors is a tiny “game” about connecting the dots and thinking like a right-wing nut. It was made with flickgame, a tool by Stephen “increpare” Lavelle for the creation of quick, MS painterly, visual hypertexts. The peculiarity (and brilliance) of flickgame is that it forces you to define specific colors as active areas, as opposed to objects or shapes, so I decided to make a piece around it.
GlitchScarf is a playful performance and a system to mess with knitting patterns in real time. Design or glitch a scarf as it’s being made, wear your artful errors with pride.
The project is a collaboration with Tenley Schmida. It was for the most part developed during a 3-day game jam at the Carnegie Mellon University Textiles Lab (the makers of the award winning embroidery game Threadsteading).
This is possibly the only software that allows the creation of knitting patterns on the fly, as opposed to feeding a machine with a static image.
The Ills of Woman is a faux Victorian-era board game imagined as a precursor of Hasbro’s Operation. It was co-designed by Molleindustria and Tenley Schmida who came up with the idea after reading about the “wandering womb”, an ancient belief that the uterus could freely move around the body of a woman causing all sorts of afflictions. Some variations of the wandering womb persisted until modernity, whereas other discredited illnesses referenced in the game have been well within the realm of official medicine until the 20th century.
More than simply making fun of obsolete science we wanted to create a game about how psychiatry, medicine, and even fashion was (and still can be) used to justify the oppression of women and marginalize “sinful” or deviant individuals. There’s plenty of literature on how conditions like hysteria or melancholia were used to pathologize a wide range of behaviors in women.
Victorian board games were permeated by the morality of the time, and often conceived as educational tools, so it’s not a stretch to envision a proto-Operation game along the lines of The Checkered Game of Life, using the then novel electric technology as a gimmick.
The cards’ descriptions heavily draw from British and American writings from the 19th century, making the game somewhat accurate in its wrongness. Still, The Ills of Woman builds upon a caricature of a bigot and oppressive Victorian society. On closer examination, most of the conditions in the game were subject to fierce debates, defying simplistic narratives. While corsets were certainly popular until the 1920s, the practice of tight lacing may have not been as common or extreme as we think, its condemnation may have spun from moral prudishness rather than genuine health concerns; the treatment of Melancholy, which roughly maps to today’s depression, included many common sense practices, and the use of leeches is mostly documented within insane asylums; the notion that the vibrator was invented to cure hysteria may be more of a contemporary fantasy than a historically uncontested fact; even the infamous bicycle face, occasionally resurfacing as a feminist meme, existed only within conservative circles and was quickly replaced by the now common-sense idea of cycling as a healthy and liberatory practice – even for women.
How would we sort things out? Canid, hominid; pet, professor; bitch, woman; animal, human; athlete, handler. One of us has a microchip injected under her neck skin for identification; the other has a photo ID California driver’s license. One of us has a written record of her ancestors for twenty generations; one of us does not know her great grandparents’ names. One of us, product of a vast genetic mixture, is called “purebred.” One of us, equally a product of a vast mixture, is called “white.” Each of these names designates a different racial discourse, and we both inherit their consequences in our flesh.
- Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet
Yesterday I released Dogness, a game in which you to have to create a the most “perfect” and homogeneous dog park. The perfect dog is randomized every time, it is quite challenging to create a population that approximates the ideal. It involves controlling immigration, expelling the “unfit” dogs, and selectively breed the animals to preserve or achieve the desired traits. The traits are determined by four “genes” (size, build, height, and color). The offspring tends to look like the average of the parents with some added randomness. The genetic engine is extremely simplified for playability: there are no dominant or recessive genes and the sex of the parents doesn’t matter, anybody can mate with anybody. However, puppies can come out stunted if they are forced to mate with close relatives. At the end of each 6 minutes section you are evaluated based on the moving average of your population’s Dogness. A Dogness of 70% or higher is a good score.
Dogness was meant to be a submission for #resistJam, a friendly competition calling for games that “resist oppressive authoritarianism”. The game itself was pretty much done a year ago but it took a looong time to find the willpower to complete the UI.
The game is obviously a direct response to the resurgence and normalization of white supremacy in the Trump era, but I was going for something a bit more complex and open-ended than a satirical allegory.
I’ve been looking at the relationship between eugenics and dog breeding, and how they support and undermine each other. Humans have been breeding dogs since forever for utilitarian purposes (in fact we likely adopted and domesticated each other), but the crystallization of breeds and the obsession with pedigree only happened at the end of the 19th century with the creation of Kennel Clubs. That’s around the same time eugenics was introduced by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s problematic cousin.
Galton’s starting point for eugenics was the domestication of animals and he often referred to dog breeding to support his theories. The dude spent an awful lot of time trying to find biological justifications to social inequality and therefore was well loved by rich people and British aristocrats.
Eugenics and dog breeding shared the same language and misconceptions and provided a pseudo-scientific backing to racist ideologies: the idea of blood purity, mongrelization as dilution of desirable traits, biological reductionism, and so on. Consider how during the golden age of eugenics in the United States there were societies promoting “fittest family” contests similar to dog shows.
Recently there has been more awareness of the problematic aspect of purebred dogs. Breed standards are creating increasingly unhealthy animals and calls for the ban of “puppy mills” are becoming more frequent. However, at the same time, we are seeing a resurgence of xenophobic groups recuperating these discredited theories (of course proper neofascists would pedantically argue about all their different flavors of shit: how white supremacy is not white nationalism, how some of them may not deny holocaust and what not, but it’s really not worth getting into details).
Anyway, the game is available on itch.io as Pay What You Want and it will officially premiere at the next LIKELIKE show along with a bunch of amazing dog-related games.
At the beginning of 2018 I quietly started a new project in Pittsburgh. LIKELIKE is a space for independent games and playful arts. Its mission is to expand the audience and perception of videogames, promoting indie culture, giving visibility to experimental and overlooked gamemakers, experimenting with novel ways to present games beyond the white cube and the expo formats, creating a nexus for the local indie and digital art scene.
LIKE is built upon about 15 of experience in showing my games in the most disparate contexts and the work of similar venues, festivals, and collectives from Babycastles onward.
For the first phase of the project the goal is to organize a series of themed shows, exhibiting 4 to 6 projects selected for their accessibility to non-gamers and their diversity of approaches. The first event was about “complicated relationships” and showcased multiplayer games such as Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Fingle and Breakup Squad as well as the upcoming card game Consentacle. February’s show was centered around alternative shooters, which was unexpectedly timely given the current debate about gun control, and Trump’s use of videogames as scapegoats.
For the future the plan is to form a proper collective and add more site-specific, performative and experiential pieces to the mix. Let us know if you have playful or gamelike projects that struggle to find a home.
I’ve been interested in the attention economy of videogames lately and in the wicked problem of the duration of play experiences. While AAA companies gamblify their business models and compete for the most repulsive and exploitative monetization schemes, indies generally stick to wholesome premium experiences (in Apple newspeak, the pay once and play forever genre). But premiumness is hard to sell to the vocal gamers proletarized by an endless economic crisis. There’s plenty of pressure on indie gamemakers to offer the hours of playtime that can justify a $5 to $20 price tag – the kind of market positioning that can potentially pay the bills. Play hours can be generated expensively with content, or for cheap with truckloads of text, sheer difficulty, or repetition. This best-of-the-year list is devoted to the idealists who organize the players’ time according to their expressive goals, and not to the perceived market demand. If games are machines for wasting time, they may as well waste it in an artful way. Hand picked with my usual emphasis on things that matter and imperfectly ordered from longest to shortest:
Oikospiel Book I
If I have to spend hours immersed in a fantasy world, I want it to be a challenging and delirious world like David Kanaga’s. Oikospiel Book I is described as a “dog opera in five acts”, in that you play the role of a strike-breaking German shepherd with luscious music driving the whole experience. The game is thematically rich and metatextual, it revolves around immaterial labor, play, and environmental crisis. The title itself demarcates the scope: oikos is the greek prefix for ecology and economy, spiel is German for play, and the Italian word opera is related to labor. The wordplay and the references are dense, but the game doesn’t feel cerebral or academic. Leaping through flow-of-consciousness texts and stock 3d assets, glitchy assemblages and arresting musical acts, you may miss many of the ideas and subplots detailed in the libretto, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Oikospiel is a gesamtkunstwerk held together by digital duct-tape, and part of the thrill is wondering if it will hold together conceptually and materially or crash under the weight of its own ambition. The surprise is that there is no gravity grounding the structure, it’s a romantic game to feel through its game-feel, and a rhizome of abstractions to absorb subliminally.
Bury Me My Love
Bury Me My Love is a game that cleverly uses real time and the smartphone device to tell an important story. You play the role of Majd, a man living in war-torn Syria, as your wife Nour attempts to escape to Europe. You keep in touch with her through a snapchat-like app, advising, entertaining, and supporting her throughout her difficult journey. European countries are in a “refugee crisis”, mass hysteria, numerous setbacks and unexpected immigration regulations force the couple to make serious decisions on the spot. A text message can change Nour’s route or convince her to hire an expensive smuggler.
Although the settings can be changed, the whole story is meant to unfold in roughly real time. You have a short conversation, you close your app, and then you wait for Nour to recharge her phone, or to get to the next stop of the journey. Hours later she would send you a text (as a push notification) and touch base with you. It’s a powerful way to create suspense and empathy.
The creators are an all-French team but they did a huge amount of research into the matter, interviewing refugees and examining their text messages. The result is a mash up of many different experiences, a heartbreaking oral history compiled in a captivating form.
Night in the Woods
The circular time of NITW can be daunting at moments. Not much is going on in the depressed Rust Belt town of Possum Springs. Not much agency is granted to the player as they hang out with the bratty protagonist Mae Borowski and her friends stuck in dead end jobs. And yet, day after day, you grow attached to that row of houses and its inhabitants. You start to notice the subtle changes of weather, the tensions between the characters, the darkness lying deep inside Mae. NITW is deceptively cute and whimsical until the knives come out. It slowly unfolds as an elegy to a community hollowed by capitalism, a coming-of-age tale about the anguish of growing up in a messed up world.
Frank Lantz’s latest game is a complex “clicker” in which you play as an Artificial Intelligence manufacturing paperclips. Like all clicker games, its casts the player’s time as an implicit resource. You can theoretically click the mouse button a million times, or leave a browser tab open for days, but you’d rather set up an engine that does it for you in an increasingly efficient way and revel in the labor you “saved”.
Universal Paperclips is an adaptation of a thought experiment about singularity. If intelligence was conceived as the ability to optimize the solution of a problem, and an Artificial Super-Intelligence was tasked with the creation of paperclips, such entity might end up taking over the world and turn it into a paperclip-producing factory, possibly even transforming all the planet’s atoms into paperclips.
The parallel with capitalism, in its industrial, informational, and bitcoin-speculative varieties is hard to escape.
Stretching the parable just a bit, it can be argued that we are currently living through a singularity in which a distributed intelligence we can’t control (capitalism/financial markets) is subsuming the planet and human society under the logic of profit.
Frank Lantz has argued that games are the aesthetic form of instrumental reason and as such they can bridge the gap between rationality and emotion. Universal Paperclips is a perfect embodiment of this idea: a deep, engrossing, addicting, and ultimately beautiful system that allows the player to over-identify with an optimizing deity.
I have a more critical take on the subject (namely that we need to create emotional distance and inject paradoxical and unformalized elements into games to counter the cybernetic bias of computing machines) but I still regard Universal Paperclip as a major accomplishment, not just for its compelling mechanics, but its capacity to gradually morph its internal economy. While the end remains the same, the means expand and transform continuously. The gameplay gradually incorporates marketing, soft power and finance, and eventually goes through major paradigm shifts. It’s a remarkable dramatization of the different phases of capitalism, albeit without explicit mention of crisis, and a great proof of concept for those who strive to envision systemic change through games.
Fidel Dungeon Rescue
At first I couldn’t believe that Daniel Benmergui, the creator of many poetic and artsy games, put his highly anticipated Storyteller on hold to work on a side project of a side project which spun off from a prototype satirizing dungeon crawler games. Somewhere along the way, Daniel discovered something extraordinary, and forged it into a little-big game about a dog rescuing his elderly owner.
Fidel is a roguelike; in anno domini 2017 the term typically refers to turn-based gameplay involving a mix of exploration, combat, and leveling within a modular, randomly generated world. The twist in this case is that the titular character can’t move on previously explored tiles, turning an RPG-derived genre into a puzzle. But instead of the rigidly constructed mazes of a title like the Witness, Fidel doesn’t have pre-defined solutions nor paths that allow one to collect all the collectables or kill all the killables. Each step is a compelling negotiation with a system imperfect by design. Fidel manages to be deep without being too complicated or punishing. Game sessions are fairly short, easily slipping in the crevices of a non-gamer life, but also long enough to prevent the one-more-try addiction cycle. Moreover, it’s extremely polished and full of surprises that provide a sense of progression and personality often missing from traditional roguelikes.
I have a soft spot for messy puzzles with multiple solutions, and Freeways raises the bar of both messiness and multiplicity. The latest game by Justin Smith (the genius behind Desert Golfing and Envirobear 2000) is a love-child between a traffic simulation and MS Paint. Freeways envisions a future in which self-driving cars rule the world but highway exchanges are apparently designed manually by shaky-handed engineers with no undo function. Your goal is to draw the connections between a series of roads in the most efficient way. Since the vehicles are automated, it doesn’t matter how byzantine your system of ramps becomes, as long as it produces smooth traffic flow. The best results are Lovecraftian horrors of cloverleaf interchanges, fractal roundabouts, biomorphic overpasses and assorted asphalt nightmares. It’s a wonderfully artisanal and yet post-human way to think about infrastructure. Just make sure to play it on an iPad or with a drawing tablet.
Reigns: Her Majesty
Reigns was already one of the best releases from last year, but Leigh Alexander’s writing took the sequel to the next level. In Reigns: Her Majesty you play as a lineage of queens governing a kingdom in turmoil. The executive decisions are structured as a series of short encounters with advisors and subjects through a Tinder-like interface. Each binary choice affects four variables representing the church, the people, the military, and your finances. The goal is to guess the effects of each action based on the internal logic of the world, and maintain the balance between factions. Some encounters unlock new sections and advance various story arcs.
While the original Reigns often felt like a number balancing game, Her Majesty adds a new layer of satire to the pandering mechanics. Even in the most powerful position, the queen regnant has to navigate through societal expectations, outright sexism, and sneaky “nice guys” trying to undermine her. There are echoes of gamergate and shards of social commentary throughout, but the real treat is the intergenerational quest for the transformation of patriarchal power.
Four Last Things
My main gripe with high-fantasy in pop culture is the adoption of elements from the European Middle Ages and the Renaissance in complete disregard for the religious experience and the peasant’s perspective. All across media we are so used to see castles without churches and warring kingdoms with no apparent mean of subsistence. One might say that in fantasy, the concrete power of magic replaces the ideological power of the clergy, and nobility-centered stories are in continuity with the Chivalric Romance tradition (the original fantasy genre). But the outcome is a proliferation of narratives of an imaginary past that gives us no useful tools to think about centuries of actual Western history.
This is why Four Last Things felt refreshing to me, despite the familiar visuals and gameplay. The game is a classic point-and-click adventure primarily made of paintings from the Flemish Renaissance. You play as an ordinary guy who has to commit the seven deadly sins due to a bureaucratic quirk. The premise allows for plenty of Monty Pythonesque humor, but there is also a remarkable commitment to the historical material. More than a gimmick or a cost-saving strategy, the use of public domain assets informs all puzzles and situations. The collages are beautifully crafted and while looking for clickable items you’ll find yourself wondering where the digital manipulation happened. You may even appreciate details you would not have noticed in a museum, in front of the actual work.
A Mortician’s Tale
Death in videogames is so omnipresent and yet so rarely problematized. From the rote-killing of shooters to the learning-by-dying of most action games, dead bodies blink and disappear, dissolve in gory bits, lay around as ragdolls, quickly forgotten.
A Mortician’s Tale is an openly “death positive” game: it supports a progressive movement striving to break the culture of silence around death in Western society. Playing as a young mortician, you have to perform the tasks and the emotional labor of your trade. While mastering tastefully stylized procedures, you have to keep in touch with a dear friend from college, and face the acquisition of your mom-and-pop business by a cynical funerary services corporation.
The player’s agency in A Mortician’s Tale is so narrow that it may feel like a one-hour-long tutorial; but if you don’t mind a linear story told through the conventions of a management game, you might find yourself deeply touched.
Everything is Going to Be Ok
Nathalie Lawhead is notorious for her hysterical apps and games exploding with glitches, hand drawn animations, and ’90s computing psychedelia. Everything is Going to Be Ok goes beyond style and sheer weirdness, channelling this unique language toward a more focused expressive goal. The project is a digital fanzine, a collection of short games and gamelike experiences with recurring characters and themes. The scenes explore communication breakdowns, social awkwardness, the elusive nature of real friendships, and the internet as a messed up remedy for all of this. Everything is Going to Be Ok is dark, intense, and funny like a Don Hertzfeldt movie, but also boldly innovative for its use of humor in an interactive medium.
In a better world, Topsoil would be as popular as Candy Crush or 2048. In the current one, everything is topsy turvy and the bad guys always win. But that should not prevent us from enjoying minutes of bliss with this overlooked puzzle. Topsoil is a tight, abstract territory management game. You plant seeds and decide when to harvest a certain crop growing on a certain color. Each harvest cycles the terrain (a rare systemization of crop rotation in agriculture) so you have to hedge your bets and attempt to synchronize cycles to avoid the fragmentation of your land. It’s easier to play than to explain. Secretly install it on your puzzle-addicted relatives’ device.
Aliens exist but what do they think of us? Are they appropriating our culture and getting everything wrong? Alien Caseno is a tiny world that will make u think big and make u laugh.
and i made sure to hold your head sideways
It was New Year’s Eve and everybody drank too much. You piece together memories of that wild night, memories that appear like a deconstructed children’s book. This is a short, intimate, serene game about taking care of the people you love.
Sometimes revolutions happen at a glacial pace. Nothing appears to change, or so they think.
Game. Game of. Game of the. Game of the year!
Here are some wonderful things you should play instead of Zelda, Mario or that first person shooter: faces are face-melting puzzles, object-oriented ontological puzzles, police abuse and VR are a perfect match, pushing the boundaries of interactive cat humor, a praying mantis anti-dating sim, 7 years of development for 30 minutes of gameplay, historically accurate gay hookups in a public bathroom except the penises are guns because of censorship, come for the islamic art inspired puzzles, stay for the sandbox mode, a game in which you have to pet the pup at the party, it’s a solitaire… it’s a puzzle… it’s a roguelike, a management game for our times, Porpentine forms a posse and goes serial, mononoke your way into a mysterious nature, what is it like to be a moth?
I made a short documentary/Let’s Play about one of the first artgame makers: John O’Neill who, in the early ’80s, created strange videogames about the meaning of life and dolphin communication. It contains material that has never been recorded or put together before.
I was doing some research for one of my classes when I stumbled upon O’Neill’s wikipedia page. It was well documented, and his tabletop game company is active, but I could find very little information about his early digital games, except for a couple of screenshots and two incomplete videos. So I went down a retrogaming rabbit hole and I even ended up interviewing him.
The great game industry crash of 1983 pretty much wiped out all the opportunities for game experimentation in North America, and several of John’s personal projects were cancelled or obtained limited release; but it’s remarkable how despite everything, both Lifespan and The Dolphin’s Rune are still playable today via emulators.
The games are quite cryptic but if you feel like trying them, in this zip you’ll find everything you need to emulate them on Windows, plus a scan of The Dolphin’s Rune manual:
In this zip you can find the interviews quoted in the video and a very detailed account of John O’Neill’s involvement with the video game industry. It was written by the man himself a few years ago in response to an inquiry from a game historian:
This is the transcript+slides of a keynote I gave at the 2017 Indiecade Europe festival in Paris. Attention economy, indie market saturation, and how, why, and for whom we make games. Read it here:
A Short History of the Gaze is finally available for free to the few privileged people with access to Oculus Rift and the required high end computing equipment. The piece premiered at the conference WEIRD REALITY: Head-Mounted Art && Code in October 2016 and has been shown at a couple of festivals since then.
It’s the first molleindustria project that employs a first person view and immersive 3D environments, mainly because they are the subject of the piece. A Short History of the Gaze is conceived as an experiential essay, in analogy to the film essay genre; instead of exploring a theme though text and images, it tries to do so though a series of scenarios and micro interactions, mostly looking and not looking at things.
All the scenes examine the act of looking and its relationship with violence. From the evolution of sight in a pre-cambrian sea creature to the dominance display of a primate, from a landscape of billboards begging for attention to an infinite panopticon.
The gaze is central to any Virtual Reality experience and yet rarely problematized. I wanted to create an artifact that is immersive while fighting against the suspension of disbelief, in which the player/viewer is encouraged to fill the conceptual gaps between dramatically different scenario. A Short History of the Gaze is my response to the many oversimplifications that afflict the discourse surrounding virtual reality: VR as presence and embodiment, VR as empathy amplifier, VR as the liberation from a despotic directorial gaze etc.
If you tried it and you want to know more, you can watch this (spoilery) 5min playthrough with commentary.
The second coming of Virtual Reality is a convergence of different technological traditions with different aesthetics, goals, and strategies. In this talk given at the A MAZE and Game Happens festivals in 2017 I tried to question the current narratives supporting the idea of VR as a mass-consumer product, and recuperate some of the visionary and countercultural ideas that went out of fashion since the early ’90s.
Sometimes I get asked for permission to publish screenshots from my games. It annoys me a bit because all my games are released under Creative Commons and, besides, I don’t see screenshots or video recordings ever falling outside of fair use. Streamers, youtubers, and machinima artists can even make a living out of commenting and manipulating recordings gameplay. The documentation of a dynamic, interactive piece is always transformative, participatory, and many steps removed from the actual work. Architects don’t prohibit taking pictures of their buildings.
Despite that, the publishing industry and academia are quite attached to pre-internet conventions, and fair use is not always valid outside of the United States. Therefore I, Paolo Pedercini, representing the project known as molleindustria, hereby state that:
All screenshots and video recordings of molleindustria games and products are to be considered public domain and can be reproduced without permission or attribution for any commercial and non commercial use.
You can download relatively high resolution screenshots of most games on this website from here.
I had the honor to be one of the keynote speakers for the first International City Gaming Conference in Rotterdam last month. The conference, mainly attended by city planners and architects, looked at how games can facilitate more effective and inclusive city-making. Here’s the transcript of my talk (a similar version was presented a year ago at the Screenshake festival in Antwerp): http://molleindustria.org/GamesForCities/
In a recent episode of the politics/comedy podcast Chapo Trap House, a listener asked “What can socialism do for gamers’ rights?”. The question was obviously a joke, but the hosts produced a humorous and somewhat thoughtful answer.
Thankfully, there is no such a thing as “gamers’ rights” in the sense of something distinct from consumer rights. The joke was likely a reference to the sense of entitlement and tribal identification that fueled the gamergate campaign. But the question of what gaming would look like in a socialist world has haunted me for days. Not only because I’m a leftist and I care about games, but because of how it relates to many crucial issues of 21st century radicalism…
I teamed up with poet, performer, and activist Harry Josephine Giles to put together a collection of games to be played during protests. Casual Games for Protesters is a kind of response to the daunting question “What can game makers do in the age of Trump”. It’s a gesture but also a serious proposition, a way to see protests as experiences that can and should be crafted. We are soliciting guest contributions and we’ll be adding more games in the days to come. This is the project statement:
Casual Games for Protesters is an ongoing collection of games to be played in the context of marches, rallies, occupations and other protests. They require very little preparation and equipment.
Protests can often be alienating or difficult to access for some people — whether that’s because of safety concerns, lack of physical accessibility, burn-out or just not knowing how to get involved. And rallies and marches can be overwhelming, formulaic in their structure, unnecessarily grave, or even boring to attend.
We believe it doesn’t have to be that way. Participating in social change should be exhilarating, social, intellectually and physically stimulating, liberatory and fun. Games can help craft those collective experiences.
Of course, context is crucial, and not all games make sense in all situations. The dignity and rage of the Ferguson uprisings involved mourning victims, expressing anger and campaigning for better lives. The blockade of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock is shaped by the traditions and beliefs of the Native American tribes that lead the protests. Such situations may not always leave room for playfulness — or they may call for a different kind of play.
We have tried to compile a wide variety of games from many different sources and imaginations. We’ve remixed folk and parlor games, added a political twist to acting and training, borrowed liberally from our precursors, and made up new things entirely. We are indebted to a long tradition, from the experimental theater of Augusto Boal and the New Games Movement, from the creative protests of C.I.R.C.A. to the world of modern live-action games. Direct inspirations were the Tiny Games format popularized by Hide & Seek, Metakettle by Terrorbull games, and the playable poetry of Harry Josephine Giles.
What we haven’t included yet are less casual and more pre-prepared games for specific events. Such games could be deeply integrated with the theme and the tactics of a protest, complement its theatrics, and inform actions of civil disobedience. We hope that some of our games might inspire such inventive, radical and effective tactics.
We will see an escalation of unrest and mass participation in the coming years, in opposition to the resurgence of the extreme right in Europe and North America, as part of global responses to climate change and floundering neoliberalism, and in both local and international movements. Countering protest fatigue and making activism more approachable and stimulating must be a priority for everyone.
2016 has been declared *annus horribilis* for months, and there is a good chance it will remembered as the year when everything started going to shit in the Western World.
Despite being recently swept by the proto-fascist backlash known as Gamergate, the world of videogames has yet to respond to the new turn. The big-budget game industry, with its glorification of dystopia, cold war nostalgia, and fragile masculinity product lines, will probably adapt and produce even more baroque hyperstitions to serve new and old powers.
Outside of the games-for-gamers niche we’ve seen a lot of developments this year. We’ve seen the second coming of Virtual Reality met by the indifference of the masses – a scenario that may actually encourage more artistic and experimental use of the technology. We’ve seen the Pokemon GO fad, which may serve as a demonstration of the power of games to reclaim and transform public spaces. We’ve seen some first-wave indie developers upping the ante without compromising their visions: the hauntingly beautiful INSIDE, the sprawling madness of The Witness, the existentialist infinitude of No Man’s Sky, are multi-year team projects made possible by the success of previous releases (hence the importance of supporting your favorite game makers).
One-person outfits without million dollar budgets pushed things forward in even more interesting ways: Quadrilateral Cowboy builds upon the Blendo Games’ stylish short-pieces; Imbroglio is another dizzingly deep roguelike by Michael Brough, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll is the culmination of Increpare’s ongoing exploration of block-pushing games. A banner year for puzzles.
Here are some of my highlights from 2016, with the usual emphasis on politically-aware/ underrated/experimental works:
1979 Revolution: Black Friday
1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a documentaristic game about the Iranian revolution. The gameplay is reminiscent of titles like The Walking Dead or Heavy Rain: a mix of cutscenes, linear interactions, quick time events, and multiple choices that occasionally produce major outcomes.
The game takes the player to the events preceding the Islamic Revolution with very little context or exposition, letting them gradually unpack the complexity of the conflict. They have to face the impossible moral dilemmas of a revolution doomed to fail, negotiating the protagonist’s background and desires. Everything in the ~3 hours game is tuned to maximize emotional impact and meaningful play. 1979 Revolution is bleak and uncomfortable but also masterfully produced and researched. An engrossing introduction to one of the key events of our times.
The Resistance against the Nazi-fascist regime toward the end of World War II is a defining moment for the Italian people. Relatively limited geographically but deeply rooted in civil society, the Resistance prefigured a democracy yet to come, provided a model for a regime change supported from below, and still gives us a way to grapple with our tragic past. We, the Italians, were the bad guys, but the good guys were among us, and fought when it was time to fight.
Venti Mesi (Twenty Months) is a collection of short interactive stories based on actual events happened in Milan in the months before the Liberation. They are all from the point of view of common people dealing with the unraveling of their nation, and all adopting brilliant visual and narrative strategies.
Bomb the Right Place
The rise of Trump is forcing all satirists to reconsider their approach. The next president of the United States is already a caricature of himself, and has a talent for occupying the media space with his outrageous and grotesque posturing. By receiving mostly bad press, he effectively erased the feeble and confused message of the establishment Democrats. That’s why most of the newsgames series GOP Arcade, with its one-liner games like “pussy grabber”, felt short and inadequate for this political phase (admittedly the stated goal of the site was simply to make the “election slightly more enjoyable”).
However, Bomb the Right Place is pure genius. It’s a kind of a geography puzzle and a riff on the old joke that Americans learn about new countries after they bomb them. Bi-partisanly challenging.
There is something inherently contradictory in room-scale Virtual Reality (or “VR with hands”). The first wave of VR promised mind altering experiences, non-human perceptions, post-verbal languages and more; it underdelivered in part due to the lack of good mimetic interfaces, in part to the sickening disconnection between camera and body movements. Systems like the HTC Vive or the Oculus Touch solved some of these issues at the price of remapping the space of action back to our miserable human scale and our miserable human limbs.
Job Simulator makes the most out of this contradiction, by re-proposing familiar scenarios distorted by the limited affordances of the technology.
The Vive launch title presents itself as an artifact from the future, a kind of museum exhibit allowing people to play as workers of the late 21st Century: a white collar in a cubicle, a convenience clerk so on. The player is asked to push cartoonish buttons or juggling objects around, leaving room for some mild workplace sabotage. The robotic guide provides a satirical, slightly off description of the job.
Job Simulator is a clever joke on Virtual Reality escapism and indirectly poses some questions about futurism, bullshit jobs and the post-work society we should be moving toward. But above everything it’s a very satisfying lightweight puzzle and an experience unlike anything I’ve tried before. Exaggerated Reality is more fun than Virtual Reality.
I have a soft spot for simple and elegant political games. Two interviewees is a commentary on gender discrimination on the workplace developed in one day by Mauro Vanetti (who is also an anti-slot machine activist).
A male and female candidate are getting interviewed for a job, the screen is split, the questions are the same. The player picks the answer for both characters.
From our vantage point we can see the notes taken by the interviewer which reveal an implicit bias. A confident, resolute answer will make a good impression coming from the male character but it will be perceived as threatening or arrogant from the female counterpart.
The scenario is quite similar to the many field studies on gender and race bias consisting in sending out identical resumes from fictional identities with male, female, white or typically African-American names. Studies that confirm, over and over, that prejudices and more or less implicit discrimination is still widespread.
The Game: The Game
Dating sims, with their creepy heteronormative tropes have been ripe for parody and subversion for quite a while; the flamboyant Wrestling With Emotions and the porno terrorist Viral by artist-rapper Fellatia Geisha are two notable examples. But nothing gets close to The Game: The Game in terms of conceptual rigor and execution.
The creator, my friend and colleague Angela Washko, spent years researching the world of pick-up artists and its intersection with the “manosphere” (i.e. outspoken right wing misogynists on the Internet), an effort that included a long interview with the infamous Roosh V in an attempt of “radical empathy”.
The Game: the Game distills an in-depth research on seduction methods devised by pick-up artists in the form of a dating sim. The format is a perfect match since many of these techniques are basically conversational algorithms. Instead of playing the part of the seducer, you are put in the shoes of a target of an actually existing pick-up artist and subjected to his perplexing, pathetic, very rarely clever techniques. Every dialogue is based on actual primary sources and presented without exaggeration or ideological filters. An eerie original soundtrack by Xiu Xiu contributes to the utterly uncomfortable but engrossing experience. The project currently exists only as gallery installation but it will be released for digital download once completed.
The Last Guardian
I’ve been pointing at how animal companionship in videogames tends to be informed by an utilitarian and reductionist logic: Pokemon are both weapons and collectibles, existing in a fictional world designed to naturalize this instrumental relationship, Neko Atsume is an addicting conditioning device dispensing immaterial cuteness for your time and money; virtual pets are nothing but a few lightly dressed variables banking on our tendency to attribute feelings and thought to artificial entities, the Tamagochi effect.
The Last Guardian is an epic tale of domestication and healing that manages to transcend this instrumental relationship. Gameplay-wise it’s an action/adventure with simple puzzles that can be solved by indirectly manipulating a griffin-like creature named Trico. However, there is no way to see the companion as just a way to reach a platform or as a formal constraint, like the helpless girl in Ico, the game’s direct predecessor. Trico’s behavior and characterization is vivid and subtle, it develops over time, and yet stays unmistakably “other”. Trico resists direct control, misunderstands you and then surprises you by autonomously navigating the impossible architecture. It’s often a frustrating experience, but frustration is an integral part of the aesthetics of the game.
San Andreas Deer Cam
Art that transforms commercial games through modding or subversive play has been around for more than 20 years. Today, with the explosion of game spectatorship (live streaming, let’s plays, absurdist stunts), it might loop back to the realm of internet folklore and find a mass audience. San Andreas Deer Cam is a mod of Grand Theft Auto V that followed a computer controlled-deer in real time. The deer exhibited a deer like behavior and showed us the familiar simulacrum of Los Angeles with completely different eyes, traversing the built environment in oblique ways, naively crossing highways, taking us to places and vistas we would have never thought to explore. The live stream gained a big following on Twitch. Day and night, online spectators commented and interpreted the inscrutable motivations of the deer, creating their own micro-memes and inside jokes.
The city was still functioning like a gangsta rap paradise and the deer retained some of the properties of the human avatar. For example, crossing the boundaries of an airport unleashed an unreasonable response from the militarized police, wrecking havoc throughout the city. Hilarious and mesmerizing to watch, it gave the trite GTA franchise a new reason to exist.
Some excellent indie games from this year that didn’t fit my peculiar narrative: To Build a Better Ballot, Liyla & the Shadows of War, Mu Cartographer, I love Fur, Thumper, Really Bad Chess, Spaceplan, Push me pull you (already among my games of the years back in 2014), Reigns, Triennale Game Collection, Kentucky Route Zero act IV.
Weird Reality was a symposium for the VR/AR curious and the VR/AR skeptic which managed to incorporate, in the words of a participant, “an incredible wonderful diversity of gender, ethnicity, age, experience & trust in tech”.
Graduate students shared the stage with Virtual Reality pioneers like Brenda Laurel; creative industry professionals mingled with artists-provocateurs like Jeremy Bailey critical theorists like Wendy Chun, who delivered a fantastic takedown of the “VR as empathy machine” narrative. Hopefully videos of the talks will be posted online in the next months here.
The intersection between the conference and the music festival was the VR salon, a collection of arty, offbeat works where I got to show my new project, A Short History of The Gaze. It’s my first, and probably last, Virtual Reality “experience” and I was surprised by the very positive reactions. I’m still figuring out the best way to put it out in the world given its susceptibility to spoilers, and the general inaccessibility of headsets and gamer-grade computers.
Here’s some great VR works to keep an eye on:
Laura Juo-Hsin Chen is one of my favorite artist working with VR right now. Her MASK series tackles various subject with hand-crafted headsets and software enabling performances and bizarre social interactions.
In her Daily Life VR, she turns mundane actions like eating, pooping, sleeping into imaginative immersive and social experiences.
Claire Henshker is mostly known for her immersive recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining through the process of photogrammetry.
At the conference she presented her upcoming project: Zen Zone, a sprawling imaginary ecosystem conceived and art-directed a 6 years old kid named Zen over the span of several months. The process of collecting and assembling all the outlandish creatures and the handmade assets is a great story in itself; it even involved mo-capping the kid mimiking the movements of his imaginary creatures. I understand it would be experienceable as 360 movie and as a real interactive scenario, with an Attenborough-esque voice over by Zen himself.
The Institute for New Feeling is an art clinic/collective committed to the research of “new ways of feeling, and ways of feeling new”. Their project include humorous but credible treatments, therapies, and wellness products. At the salon they displayed a work in progress of Ditherer, an immersive store for HTC Vive that prefigures the future of ethical shopping.
Picking up virtual products from the shelves of a warehouse transports you to a vivid dream-like world representing the narrative of the product. In the currently available scene, grabbing a virtual avocado takes you to Tom Selleck’s controversial ranch where you are bombarded by trivia and bits of avocado history, eventually ending up in a perfect recreation of GW Bush’s living room to enjoy their “famous” guacamole, in a kind of farm-to-table reverie. It’s actually even weirder than it sounds and I’m really looking forward to see more products.
Sarah Rothberg brought a work in progress of Oops I put on your headset!, a vapor-wavey app that simulates the experience of accessing the artist’s computer. Somewhat reminiscent of the hyper-millenial software memoir Cibele or the gone but not forgotten Noby Noby Boy app. The old cyberpunk idea of Virtual Reality as operating system/browser gets an wry and much more imaginative reboot.
DiMoDA: The Digital Museum of Digital Art, is certainly not the first online/downloadable exhibition but it’s probably the most invested in the conversation about the distribution and commercialization of natively digital art (or more specifically, of a type of walkable art installations made in Unity).
Their (anti)institutional framework includes various degenerations of a virtual architecture from which you can access the artists’ worlds, exhibitions IRL, and collectors’ editions of the works: usb drives embedded in slick 3D printed objects.
The controls of the VR version were unfortunately barf-worthy, but the environments were quite interesting and unlike anything I’ve seen in the gaming world. I see a possible convergence between the “walking simulator” type of indie game, and this increasingly more recognized art genre. Let’s join forces and kill these boring photorealistic 3D environments once for all.
For a more complete writeup, check Blair Neal’s post on medium.
2015 was the year gamers were finally relieved from the burden of play.
The explosion of streamers on Twitch and YouTube and the rising popularity of eSports legitimized “passive” forms of engagement with the game form. Interactivity – as in mashing buttons, making choices, organizing artfully constructed disorder – has always been overrated anyway: there is so much going on in the head of a pattern-seeking neo-couch potato or in the social dynamics around a game event.
Since the real world is going to shit there’s mounting interest in Virtual Reality. Alas, in absence of appropriate interfaces, the Second Coming of head-mounted media amounts to a collection of 19th century-style panoramas, disembodied theme park rides, neck-operated tourism and other semi-static gazeables.
The democratization of game development evokes Indiepocalyptic nightmares: if 37% of all purchased titles on Steam have never been played, there may be an overproduction of entertainment, or better, a crisis in the attention economy.
Perhaps buying in public is the new playing. Perhaps watching Let’s play videos is a more efficient way to go trough the to-play list.
In the more underground circuits, the tyranny of the gameplay has been defeated. Traditional notions of goals, agency, winning vs losing are secondary to production of open-ended worlds with unique atmospheres and styles. The derogatory term “Walking Simulator” has been adopted by a new wave of gamemakers that are leveraging Unity’s bias toward First Person Shooters to create contemplative, mysterious spaces where guns and swords are simply not needed.
In 2015 Independent game developers have been more inclined to further blur the game/app boundary as demonstrated by the critically acclaimed playthings Panoramical and Plug and Play, the procedurally generated alien art of Strangethink, the avant-garde educational titles Earth: A Primer, Metamorphabet and Nicky Case’s Explorable Explanations.
Indies are more aware of the performative aspect of game making. According to Robert Yang “The most important thing about a game is that it exists, because that means you can think about it.”. A game, played or unplayed, is just a meme in the infosphere, an unit of culture stretching across media, fighting against the oblivion imposed by post-Twitter social filters.
Moreover, the very idea of existence in the game world is flexible. In order to compete in a saturated market, independent developers have to build their own artisanal hype machines; they have to give the impression that a game exists months or years before its hypothetical release.
It’s telling that the first independent game featured on a late night tv show is a game that doesn’t exist yet. The upcoming No Man’s Sky is the most appropriate 2015 Game of The Year.
Here too, discourse and social practice take control: talking about what games could or should be, participating in a crowdfounding campaign, sharing excitement and work-in-progress screenshots, may just be more satisfying than playing the actual games.
Non exhaustive list, in no particular order, and for the sake of polemics.
Sonic Dreams Collection
Arkane Kids, with their Room of 1000 Snakes, and Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective already changed the history of video games – in a subliminal kind of way, at the very least.
But this series of faux artifacts from the Dreamcast era is a technical and conceptual triumph: the Sonic Game To End All Sonic Games.
Sonic Dreams Collection, with its deviantartsy kinkiness and built-in Vine-maker is the ultimate meme-game. It’s an instrument for the production of bafflement that no YouTube streamer can refuse to play. In the pulverized spectacle of game streaming, bewildered reactions are the currency, and games like this are goldmines of WTFs.
Old New Media folks would call it database storytelling. Old gamers would see it as harbinger of a Full Motion Video revival. And yet Her Story, while being a technologically appropriate period piece, resonates with the very 2015 spike of interest in complex criminal cases: from the podcasts Serial and the Message to the documentary miniseries Making a Murderer and The Jinx.
Her Story, with its investigate-by-keyword-search gameplay, may be the most accessible game ever made: good for both solitary and group play, challenging without being punishing. A great holiday present for your non-gaming relatives.
One of them
When I played Pierrec’s tiny game I was so struck that I offered to port it to HTML5. It’s a character study that doubles as a (very spoilable) PSA: simple, effective and strangely replayable. If newsgames have a future, it is in this type of experimental shortform work.
2015 was the year of Robert Yang. It has been hard to keep up with the indefatigable developer, modder, critic, activist and educator. His series of short gay games are at the forefront of a sexual liberation wave that has been sweeping the independent gaming scene for quite a while.
A couple of years ago I lamented that “we created technologies that make the simulation of a grenade launcher way easier than a caress”. Robert seems to address precisely this technological deficit by creating sophisticated vignettes to solve problems that have not been solved before: the buttocks deformations in the spanking game Hurt Me Plenty, the suggestive cheek in Succulent, the steamy water bouncing on the shoulders of Rinse and Repeat‘s hunk, the complex physics of the ballsack in Cobra Club. Beneath the gif-worthy, giggle-worthy surface, all these games have a very focused conceptual direction in which personal, formal, and political concerns converge. The dick-pic-cum-grindr simulator Cobra Club may be the best of the series so far or, if you prefer, the one that most effectively demands to exist in our thoughts.
Casual Games for Casual Hikers
Outdoor games have always been associated with abstract, manicured playing fields or, more recently, with urban spaces. The mess we like to call nature comes with built-in challenges and obstacles: camping as survivalist roleplay, conquering a mountain as archetypal Hero’s Journey, rock climbing as embodied puzzle…
For the more casual nature-gamers, Harry Giles proposes a series of conceptual exercises to be performed while hiking, in company or in solitude. Casual Games for Casual Hikers is a brochure of “Stories to tell, rules for kicking pebbles, ways to name mountains, maps to draw when you get home”. Slightly more playable than Yoko Ono’s event scores from Grapefruit, equally whimsy.
Game luminary Frank Lantz chastised critics for their inability to talk intelligently about The Beginner’s Guide. The game presents itself as a collection of prototypes made by a fictional character named Coda published with an in-game commentary by The Stanley Parable’s co-creator Davey Wreden, acting as himself. While traversing these bizarre worlds we learn about the tense relationship between Coda and Davey, which becomes a mean to explore a variety of issues in creative work: the legibility and playability of game art, creative blocks, social and self-imposed pressures, and so on.
While such metafictional devices have been used at least since Don Quixote, in the gaming world they are still relatively unexplored and have led to outlandish speculations.
Authenticity concerns aside, by existing as a self-aware, self-critical, work about the relationship between game makers and their audience, the Beginner’s Guide seems designed to defy any possible criticism. It tells you how to play it, what to think about it, and even how you should feel when you play it. Of course, like the titular character in the Stanley Parable, you can choose to disobey.
It’s a dense and clever work that you play in a breeze and sticks in your head for a long time.
A Series of Gunshots
Pippin Bar is known for sublime joke-games such as low-fi dick fight, or the Marina Abramovic line-waiting simulation The Artist is Present.
A Series of Gunshots is a bit of a departure in tone and style. A minimalist gem that may be the most poignant playable commentary on gun violence to date.
If I had to pick my favorite “walking simulator” among the many twee, stylish releases I’ve played this year, I would choose Little Party. Mostly because under the twee, stylish surface it hides a certain melancholy and a rare subtlety in its environmental storytelling. Playing as a middle aged woman, you find yourself awkwardly hanging around in a cabin during an art-party organized by your teenage daughter. The only way to interact with other characters (and move the elliptical narrative along) is by expressing motherly apprehension, because something has to go wrong.
Cibele pretty much plays itself, being ostensibly a fictionalized reenactment of play sessions experienced by the author Nina Freeman a few years ago. From its mock operating system interface, you can snoop on Nina’s empowering/self-deprecating selfies and teenage poetry before launching the game-within-a-game Valtameri.
There, you semi-automatically grind on apathetic monsters while a semi-automatic, apathetic online romance develops between Nina (channeling her slightly younger self) and a more experienced player.
Despite the lack of agency, the game format is employed effectively to portray what’s around a game: the cross-fire of instant messages, the in-game social status bleeding off-game, the identity performance on social media with the related projections and deceptions, the inevitable eruption of bodily desires.
Millennials may find Cibele relateable and therefore wholly laudable. Non-digital natives like me may find it perplexing and cringeworthy. If anything, Cibele made me feel lucky for having spent my adolescence offline.
Porpentine’s file-based poem is an understated treat. Her ability to generate entire universes in tweet-length verses congealed in a neatly .zipped package in a time when apps and paternalistic operating systems are making us forget about file systems. Foldscape is a game too, provided that you have the required hardware to run it in your head.
Of course 2015 also gave us many great games to be played in a more traditional sense. Among my favorites: the hardcore-kawaii puzzle Snakebird, the claymation bad trip Hylics (a true gateway drug to JRPGs for people who hate manga), and the First True Italian Game Wheels of Aurelia.
I was asked by my colleague Jesse Stiles to give a talk about video games, interactive music videos and other playthings specifically created to promote music. What follows is an incomplete list of projects I found, thematically sorted. Thank you tweeple for all the recommendations, let me know if I missed any good ones.
In a world of self-driving cars, what’s going to happen to the art and tradition of bumper stickers? Will our gaze be ever drawn to these cheeky statements while traveling automatically? Is the car going to be less of extension of the self and more of a family member, with its own personality, affiliation and trite jokes? And what about the possibly long and turbulent period of coexistence between human drivers and AI?
Made on a whim, down the street from CMUber.