The Experimental Gameplay Project is a loose collection of boy geniuses devoted to the increasingly trendy art of rapid prototyping: small games, quickly made, with no time to paint over the cracks or hide conceptual flaws beneath dazzling particle explosions. It is, amongst other things, a club for highly regarded Kyles, famous EGPers including Kyle Gray, creator of the delightfully punishing DS puzzler/platformer Henry Hatsworth, and Kyle Gabler, part of the team behind World of Goo. I like to picture them meeting in a tree house on weeknights.
As you might expect, the project’s website is a regular riot of imagination and cost cutting, where every link could take you to a baffling disaster or a low-budget masterpiece. It’s a chattering meritocracy, really, where disco robots rub shoulders with Space Invaders built from Post-Its, and so it’s no real surprise that one of the site’s most interesting current offerings is little more than a frantic unspooling of text, built by Italian game designer Paulo Pedercini. Ergon/Logos - the name suggests he might not be aiming to hook the Modern Warfare 2 crowd with this particular piece - injects a hot blast of GCSE composition into the workaday world of Flash code and placeholder art, and while the results are likely to irritate as much as they inspire, it’s nice to see that a website that’s home to a Katamari-style brawler starring Mr T still has room for a bit of sub-Auster literary posturing when the dust has settled.
This is interactive fiction redrawn as a (mostly) on-rails side-scroller, its stories laid out in a broken-backed tangle, with occasional intersections giving you a choice of where to take the narrative next. It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure with minimalism and typography replacing secret agents and ghosts as primary concerns, and it’s rather slick, too, the project’s eight-day turnaround somehow allowing for a thick web of consequences and animal-murdering as you loop from one burst of turgid prose to the next.
For my money at least, the problem is that the text itself can’t live up to the seductive smoothness of the camera, and that the narrative struggles to match the stark chic of the bold typeface. Ergon/Logos looks like the credits to a mid-nineties indie movie as it twists across your browser, but it reads like the kind of thing you might have found in your sister’s diary once she was old enough to borrow House Of Leaves from the local library without getting funny looks from the staff. Or, well, yours.
Pedercini acknowledges as much, in fact, and his wry commentary lends this potentially frosty game something that approaches a warming charm. "It’s basically a fast-paced interactive storytelling piece that tries to be a meta-platform game based on the stream of consciousness of an egodystonic homosexual hero, but it fails miserably and becomes a piece of non-linear kinetic visual poetry written by a teenager obsessed with post-structuralist French philosophy," he suggests in a short, yet fiercely polysyllabic blurb accompanying the game, before adding, "I don’t know exactly what I was thinking."
What I’m thinking, however, is that it’s an interesting choice of projects given that the EGP’s theme of the month that inspired it was August’s Bare Minimum. Despite the sparse visuals, words in games are always something of a luxury – the tight fusion of cause and effect that defines everything since Pong working, for the most part, on an entirely non-verbal level. 'Avoid missing ball for high score', besides being one of gaming’s more poignantly awkward formulations (language shaped by an engineer, even if it does fumble unintentionally towards a kind of natural poetry), is also one of the most enduringly redundant: you get the point with Pong the moment you see the first rebound, and few other games have genuinely needed to rely on the written word ever since, whether it’s in the needless tutorial boxes of Batman: Arkham Asylum, telling you how to do things the control system has largely rendered instinctive, or the blurry melancholic asides of Lost Odyssey.
"To hell with graphics, physics, AI, interaction and all that videogamey crap," says Pedercini, finishing off his spiel with a rousing sense of the barroom revolutionary. And yet the appeal of Ergon/Logos, for me at least, is entirely down to the smart presentation. This may be a game about reading, then, but the central lure – the layout, the ever-tilting camera, the stark clash of colours – is largely visual. Despite all the egodystonia on display, maybe it’s not so experimental after all.