Our games this month were “Coloratura” by by Lynnea Glasser, ” “the uncle who works for nintendo” by michael lutz, and “16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds” by Abigail Corfman. I picked these games from the wishlist.
Three games about monsters & their rules of play. I’m looking forward to discussing them with you in the comments below this week! Some of my thoughts:
n.b. this is a discussion of games we have played this month, spoilers abound!
“Coloratura” is a new favorite for me — wow! I can see why this was so celebrated when it came out in 2013 (winning a few XYZZY awards including “Best Game”). Lynnea has some author’s notes worth reading on her blog — especially check out the notes on accessibility/usability and her “final thoughts” which goes into a lot of detail on her process. Just on a technical level, this game really nails the pacing of a sci-fi/monster movie — the slow formulation of horror as the rules are established, then playfully explored (ie. the “meat monster”), and then the urgency of the closing set-piece in the submarine. Lynnea’s focus on usability really makes this possible, as in for example the “adaptive” design of the “meat monster” puzzle:
“The actual puzzle to create the meat monster was incredibly simple. It could be solved with only four basic actions: Get heat, touch meat, possess meat, leave. There is no subtlety to the questgiver either: you stumble upon the meat, and your internal dialogue tells you that you need to help this meat.
After solving the initial puzzle step of bringing heat to the meat monster, it’s clear that the meat monster wasn’t happy with its surroundings. The solution is to possess the Newsong and move it out of the room. But >Possess isn’t a common command, and wouldn’t necessarily come naturally to most players. So, I added a mechanic so that every attempt to solve the problem (by opening the door, talking about the door, etc.) or attempt to interact with the meat monster (look at it, touch it, talk to it, etc.) would increase a counter. At each counter level, the hints on how to solve the puzzle would become more and more direct. This conditional counter (instead of a turn-based counter) meant that players could do other things (like go back for more heat) without being punished. At a certain point, the game would even solve the puzzle for the player, with the meat monster forcing you into control of its mind. This kept the plot moving forward and rewarded players who were concerned about how to help without being quite sure what specific action was needed. If that had been a failure condition instead, players would have just gotten frustrated over their helplessness.”
“Coloratura” asks us to imagine the interior, emotional life of The Thing. It’s body horror filtered through the perspective of a creature without a body, and who is therefore indifferent to all the violence & gore, and whose experience of this gruesome scenario is instead a kind of new agey color/emotion/music synesthesia. It’s a funny, engaging, novel twist, and it works so well because it captures the rhythms of a monster movie so accurately, and because the mechanics & puzzles are designed so accessibly. It feels completely natural to inhabit this alien perspective by learning & performing the monster’s rules (the color/emotion associations, the way the monster moves around, etc.), like putting on a uniform, or a costume.
And of course “16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds” is all about these kind of rules — it’s right there in the title! It seems to have a similar focus on usability, if you want to call it that. The game makes sure the rules of vampire slaying are always clear and near-at-hand, through lots of in-game hinting and through the list of solutions presented at the end of each playthrough. There is some puzzle-solving in here (the kind of cycling text combination-lock mechanic in the street preacher’s bible quiz was an interesting one), but it felt to me as much like a physics sandbox as a set of 16 vampire puzzles — we are told the rules, we know what to expect, but the joy is in faithfully executing those rules and watching the system play out. It’s also really funny — the vampire’s pick-up artist routine was a highlight.
I had played “the uncle who works for nintendo” before, but hadn’t seen all the endings. Very glad to have come back to it — it’s definitely not over until you’ve reached the secret ending! Some are a little bit obscure and it takes time to replay experimentally and find them all, but look up a guide if you need to — it’s worth finding everything. Michael has shared some author’s notes (they also unlock within the game when you complete it. I highly recommend reading “On Creepypasta” for some crucial background, ex.:
“To paraphrase Zizek, the key to understanding a horror story is to imagine the same story but without the horror element. When we do this we can locate, on some level, the true horror: the thing that must be fantasized and fictionalized in order that it becomes a digestible, “entertaining” horror story, rather than something truly unpleasant.
If we perform this deconstruction on the many permutations of the videogame creepypasta subgenre, what happens? The story we end up with, time and again:
I bought a game, and I played it. I received a game as a gift, and I played it. I found a used game for sale, and I played it. I picked up an old game from our childhood, and I played it…
What these stories reveal, I think, is an underlying anxiety we have about games in general: that beneath their smiling faces and heroic poses Mario and Link are somehow hostile to us. That if these emblems of childhood and adolescent pleasure had their way, we would keep playing with them until it killed us.”
This is actually a favorite activity of mine: watching horror movies and trying to identify the (non-supernatural) anxieties they play on. In some cases it’s pretty close to the surface, like “The Babadook” is about a sexy supernatural monster, and also clearly about the natural fear that grief will completely overpower you. Sometimes, though, the anxiety a horror story is channeling can’t be so simply named or rationalized — like the anxiety Michael describes about childhood pleasures trying to trap and kill us. “the uncle who works for nintendo” gets there by giving us clear rules (the uncle comes at midnight, you can’t go into the kitchen, Twine has hyperlinks and game variables, you can reset and replay as many times as you like without consequence), but then also breaking those rules in explicit and dramatic ways to keep us from being able to rationalize too much. The Twine error messages stood out to me because they’re, in a sense, ornamental, but they go a long way to signal that rules are being broken and it’s time for reason and analysis to give way to irrational fear.
What did you all think?
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