I’ve played some really fascinating games lately and have wanted to write about them, but have not had the time to do so.Instead of a post on each game (which each truly deserves), here are some quick and messy thoughts I’ve been having about three games.
Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate and Pots
Terrible, long title that I still have google every time, but what a great roguelike. It’s got this very sort of 1990s JRPG aesthetic in both its pixel art and its archaic serif menu fonts, but really owns both of them and combines them with some incredibly smart and contemporary design. I’m mostly enamoured by the sheer robustness of its systems that, at the same time, still have this sense of jankiness. But a kind of deliberate jankiness?
The best example I can think of is the pots. You have a pretty limited inventory in Shiren and it is going to fill up very quickly. There’s no way to see what an item is before you walk over it, and walking over it will either automatically pick the item up or pause you to notify you, once again, that your inventory is full so you can’t pick up [what the item actually is]. So you end up playing the whole game with essentially a full inventory, walking over different items to see what they are, and deciding if you should be swapping it for something else you are carrying. Oh, another revive grass. I should take that. I guess I’ll drop this sword I was carrying just to sell.
One of the types of items you can find is pots. Pots take up one space in your inventory, but you can put things in pots, effectively creating sub-inventories for you to use. Some pots you can only open by throwing them at a wall and smashing them, scattering the items on the ground. Other pots have special abilities, like the Synthesis Pot that takes several weapons and merges their abilities into one weapon. But the main kind of pot you encounter is the Preservation Pot. This pot allows you to both place individual items into them, and to take individual items back out. Further, any food placed in a Preservation Pot don’t rot over time, which is important. I pretty much play with my inventory three-quarters full of Preservation Pots.
But Preservation Pots aren’t risk free. Enemies can curse items, rendering them unusable. If an enemy curses a Preservation Pot, all the items inside it are now unaccessible until you lift the curse, so you’re in trouble if all your Revive Grass in a the one pot. If you walk over a trip trap, you fall over and drop a few random items. If you drop a Preservation Pot, it might shatter. Suddenly, you don’t have room for all the items you were already carrying. Some monsters throw dirt at you, which can get stuck in a pot and take up the available slots. Sometimes you will find a character who will enhance or identify all your weapons not in pots, so if you were keeping a stash inside a pot, well sucks to be you.
So you end up with this complex balancing game of inventory management: deciding what items you should put where. Making sure all your eggs aren’t in one pot, so to speak. This could quickly get frustrating and boring, but the interface, as janky as it looks, encourages these really nice rhythms of menu navigation.
When standing on an item you can’t pick up, opening your menu gives you access to ‘Backpack’ (your inventory) or ‘Feet’ (whatever item you are standing on). This allows you to use items on the ground without first having to be able to pick them up. When you choose a pot in your backpack or at your feet and click ‘Insert’, you can choose items from both your backpack or your feet to put in the pot. So if I come across a scroll I want, I don’t have to make room in my inventory and then move it to a pot, I can just pick it up off the ground and put it straight in the pot. I can also put items in pots on the ground.
If you try to buy something with a full inventory, the merchant will tell you you can’t do that. Unless you have a Preservation Pot with some free slots. Then the merchant will offer to place the item directly in the pot for you. How nice!
There is so much that could be discussed around Shiren. It’s such a mechanically intricate and layered game, and everything has multiple uses and pros and cons. But the pots themselves exemplify the attitude running throughout the whole game. This combination of traditional and deliberate jankiness mixed with a very careful and considered design philosophy. The pots don’t so much ‘solve’ a problem of inventory management as turn a typical and often arbitrary genre convention (the limited inventory) into an actually interest mechanic to incorporate into your strategy. Which feels like Shiren the Wanderer in a nutshell: this embracing of arbitrary genre conventions and tropes but also a sharpening of them into something really focused and intelligent.
It Is As If You Are Playing Chess and Videogame Play as Gesturing
Chess has always had a weird place in game discourse. It’s clearly a good, well balanced set of mechanics, but it gets valorised in this weird way that I’ve never felt comfortable about. This idea that it is the perfect game that all other games should be measured against. I think that’s just a tone thing it feels is underlying a lot of early academic game studies, and probably isn’t as widespread as I feel it is. Regardless, the point is I’ve tended to avoid Chess as its valorisation makes me uncomfortable. There’s also a broader conversation to be had here about the limitation of measuring videogames aesthetically and formally against the attributes and standards of non-digital games, because they are not the same thing.
Anyway, Chess seems to be set for a critical re-interrogation judging by the recent rise in videogames playing with Chess. Zach Gage released Really Bad Chess last week, which is a very interesting interrogation of the game’s rules and balance, but I don’t have a whole lot to say about it yet. A month or so back, however, Pippin Barr released his small game It Is As If You Are Playing Chess, which in essentially a series of on-screen prompts that ask the player to make gestures and hold their body in such a way as if they are playing chess.
This isn’t really an interrogation of chess as a game as it is an interrogation of the way we hold our bodies while playing particular games. The idea is you could sit opposite someone playing It Is As If You Are Playing Chess, and you should be unable to tell if they are playing the videogame, or ‘real’ Chess. It’s a very interesting idea very related in my interests in embodiment and videogame experience. It raises questions about what it means to play Chess. Or more so: what is the playing of Chess? What is its essence? Is it the intangible rule set of relations that exists between the pieces? Is it the pieces themselves? Is it the way we move our body at the game? It Is As If You Are Playing Chess enticingly suggests that you can play at playing by moving your body in particular ways.
Barr wrote about whether or not It Is As If You Are Playing Chess is a game or not. Jesper Juul apparently decided it is not. Perhaps it truly is not a game. But it is definitely a videogame.
Catacombs of Solaris and Videotoys
Ian Maclarty has this great ability of thinking of ideas that, in their execution, seem very simple and straightforward, but which no one else has apparently thought of previously so that straightforwardness is clearly actually a testament to Maclarty’s skills of execution. He makes real ‘why has no one does this before?’ kind of stuff. His latest game, Catacombs of Solaris is a perfect example. You are in a (I think) grid-like maze of multi-colour corridors and you walk around. If you stop walking, your position is reset and what you could see when you stopped walking is captured and painted as the new texture on the walls. The visual effect is that every time you stop walking and then start again, it feels as though the walls and perspective and reality itself have all shifted. You walk up to a wall, pause, then walk again and walk into the colours of the wall as they warp around you.
It’s a spectacular effect that I assume was not at all easy to produce but that comes across as so simple and effortless in its presentation. Maclarty makes it look easy.
I love videogames that take one idea and explore that one idea. “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could do X” sorta games. One day I am going to popularise the term ‘videotoys’ to talk about them. Maclarty is one of my favourite videotoy creators, and Catacombs of Solaris is one of his finest works yet. There’s so much that could be said here about how perception and vision work, about videogames as optical illusions, but I’ll leave that for an art person.