Monday, April 13, 2015

Short on Games: April 2015

[Welcome back to Short on Games! Late last year, I ran this as a weekly ello blog, writing 250 words or less about a small, generally free videogame. I liked the idea and the process a lot, but eventually it got derailed. I'm bringing it back, here, with some changes to the format.

The general structure – a screenshot, link to the game, and my own text – is going to be maintained. The two biggest changes are to schedule and word count. It will now be a monthly series, and instead of 250 words per game I am going to limit myself to 1,000 words total. This will mean a little more variation on the format; I may do four games, each taking up a quarter of the word count, or I may do one game that takes up the whole thing.

I should say, too, that these aren't meant to be recommendations or reviews. They will mostly be a small catalogue, with the occasional insight. Some writeups will attempt holistic readings, others ignore the bulk for a particular sparked-off angle. These will not be differentiated.]

Stick Shift

Robert Yang's Stick Shift makes me think, strangely, of Evan Calder Williams' Hostile Object Theory – and of his cops as "comic objects" and "indirect hostile objects." Not because it is a stretch, necessarily, but because the game's foregrounded relation is one of pleasuring objects, and the man and his car never really come into conflict, much less enact the structural hostilities of capital.

Not that strangely, of course, because the similarity seems to me to be in the system, rather than in the narrative. I highly recommend Yang's liner notes, whether or not you play the game yourself.

Cops are indirect hostile objects; they show up at random, an invisible number generated, chosen for representational value. They are comic; the "riot sticks, grenades, and an M4 rifle"-wielding uniforms don't react when you click to make a kissy face, but the amount of real time they will take from you does. They're narrative justifications of designed systems.

Maybe I afford them so much weight because it took five playthroughs over three days to finally see the end of the game, regardless of its being weighted in favor of your finishing, or because I played it with no foreknowledge the first time through and added an hour to my wait before I realized what was happening.

There's also how much Stick Shift's like those arcade racers when, as a kid, you accidentally chose manual transmission, with no instructions and a timer that doesn't depend on the race's finish. And how that means you attend more closely to the transmission than the steering, and how you get publicly frustrated by it, even if you're alone.

Crypt Community

Crypt Community is probably the closest thing I'll ever experience to the pleasures of owning a fish tank. It's a game that wants to be read into – the word community in the title is conspicuous – or at least to be experienced dialogically. I'm not sure how possible that is. At the end of the tutorial, the game suggests that you "try to create a healthy, robust, satisfied crypt community."

When I mention fish tanks, I'm thinking of the kind that Susan Choi's My Education talks about. So when I point out that Avery Mcdaldno and Karl Parakening's game is full of visible numbers, I hope that doesn't not make sense.

You hold the mouse over folks and an unrelated row of lights blinks up over time. You hold the right mouse button down while hovering over a mob and every interval a grunt. You hold the left down over a portal and the sfx build and the light goes brighter until a little mob pops in the door. By the end you've held down so long that sometimes the one that pops in launches one that popped in three ago's body like a billiard ball.

It isn't that I disbelieve the end of the tutorial, necessarily. I can imagine the game reaching a point of equilibrium, where all current members of the crypt community have maxed out satisfaction that doesn't decrease. I'm just not sure how interested I am in that – either as an ultimate gameplay state, or as a theorization of community.

Which equally isn't to say that this (or the game) is 'wrong.' It has qualities – the dungeon-tiled single room, the billiards, the seemingly-arbitrary numbers/values – that allow for it to be experienced with that fish tank quality, which is wonderful.

Room of 1000 Snakes

Room of 1000 Snakes is maybe the most effective tutorial for WASD controls this side of having bought Half-Life when it shipped and having attended LAN parties for the next half decade.

The game opens with a crawl, in which you are informed that "They told you not to enter / You, an explorer, didn't listen / 'I will find out the mystery of the snakes'" and then you're a disembodied camera in an Indiana Jonesish temple. You can walk around, or hop, and look at the neat stuff. There's a dais with a podium with a big red button on it straight ahead; walk up to it to be prompted to 'press E' to use. Once you "use," music swells. It's The Verve Pipe's "Bittersweet Symphony," and it's really, really funny.

The room starts to shake a little, and you probably click use a few more times, and you probably just start wandering around. And then you notice the holes in the wall spewing sand, and then you remember the name of the game. For the last thirty seconds or so, you shake off snakes. The chorus hits and the game ends and boots you out to an associated tumblr where you can buy "Collectible Jpegs." It's all really wonderful.

Eco Fighters

Here's how you control the Capcom Classics Collection Vol. 2 port of Eco Fighters: you spin your arm with the triggers, either bumper fires, and the d-pad moves. Or: the square button swivels the arm left, the circle right, and the X fires. Or: the right analog stick swivels, left moves, and any of the above fire. Or: whichever combination of the above. This is appropriate, because the ship slugs and jolts its way around no matter which you choose.

Eco Fighter is set in a future where green anarchist teens are the space-faring heroes who save the Earth from becoming a "Dread Sphere." Designed by the winner of a contest, it's a horizontal shmup with the unique mechanic of your ship having an arm which can be customized with a weapon and spun in a full circle around you. It's as awkward and goofy as it sounds.

You start off by blowing up a couple cranes, but a single level later you're blasting turtles for no reason. The horizontal scrolling makes the whole thing dreamy, punctuated by seconds of action. Too-often mimetic bullet designs over busy levels with bad controls means enough deaths that they become less full stop and more comma, a clearing of the air. It's a pretty little mess.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Slasher, Cinematographer

Here's why Michael Myers is scary: from the very beginning of Halloween, the camera is tenuously equated with his vision. You never quite know if what you're watching is something that he is seeing. As the film goes on, he moves into being associated with the dark spaces that the camera shows, in addition to the whole POV. It's a movie with a lot of dark spaces, so he ends up being a constant potential; potentially watching with us, potentially in sight but unseeable.

Freddy Krueger works because he is functionally a switch. When he's off, the film plays Hollywood realist-melodrama. When he's on, the world is no longer subjected to those arbitrary restrictions. Freddy means that cuts become expressive in themselves, (special) effects.

The It that Follows is, very clearly, meant to be in this lineage. The opening shot absolutely reeks of Halloween, a film-grainy widescreen circle pan of a woman running out of her suburban house, staring at an unseen pursuer, juking it to run back in, and then back out again to get into the car and drive off. It seems dead obvious that, whatever the diegetic explanation will end up being, the It that will presumably be following someone is going to be formally the camera. Not just because of the Halloween references, or the fact that she spends the bulk of the sequence looking directly into the camera, but even that the camera is literally an it that follows actors. It's easy, sure, but it seems promisingly executed at first, and doesn't have to devolve into some cheap moralizing and self-aggrandizement. Just look at Halloween, where it is used to provide a specific framework in which to explore the lives of some teenagers in a specific place.

It Follows ends up deciding that the monster is going to be the opposite; rather than the POV, it functionally becomes the (visual) background. More specifically, the extras. By the midpoint of the film, at the very latest, your attention is necessarily split; any shot that isn't a close up is not just a technique for establishing your moment-to-moment relationship with whoever is in focus (or their relationships to one another), but a reason to actively engage the whole composition. The dark corners of Halloween are effectively, here, the presence of other people. There's a strange way in which the movie most functionally similar to It Follows is something like Dark City, with all its painterly compositions drawn to attention by the pseudo-anonymity of its villains.

The Myth Time of the movie is an attempt, I think, to enhance this; an early scene has a group of friends watching a black and white SF film on a rabbit-eared television while one reads Dostoevsky's The Idiot on a custom clamshell e-reader. Jay, the protagonist, goes on a date to a movie theater with an organist; her sister Kelly works at a roadside ice cream stand with architectural hints of the raygun gothic; the girl from the opening shot answers her flip phone before she gets Barrymored. The disjuncted technology, like the nature of the monster, compels the viewer to partially refocus on the stuff rather than the action.

The characters, too, play into this. Yara, who is functionally an extension of the e-reader, dissolves into the background until It takes her shape. Paul refocuses Jay, who gives a performance that seems to dare the viewer to look past her. The neighbour children establish early that the being-watched is both mundane and threatening, bridging the gap between the camera/POV and the extras. Greg (who Depps it up) is embodied transportation, necessary to move between those backgrounds. Kelly, Jay's sister, is, well, maybe the only human among them.

The setting is important as well, in exactly the same way. That Myth Time of the film, presented primarily through the technology, is talked about in terms of timelessness, but that's hardly the case. It Follows is largely set in suburban Detroit, and the city proper is remarked as being considered dangerous by the core groups' parents. It is obviously a post-white flight, postindustrialized Detroit. The fact that a blighted Detroit surrounded by (at least) primarily white, middle class suburbs can be described as timeless is, well. The point, though, is that postindustrial Detroit is the very essence of the sort of place that we see for its settings rather than the people in them. Ruin porn, and all that.

All of this works together to create a film which has an incredibly effective mood. Or, more precisely, that works overtime to instill the viewer with anxiety*; not only is the monster frightening within the narrative, but you are being pressed into a form of active viewing that acts as a sort of counter-pedagogy to what films -- even horror films, even of this exact lineage -- normally abide. It Follows' referentiality plays into this, most obviously by its rule: It will follow you once you have sex with who it is following, and you pass it along by having sex with someone else. If it kills who you passed it on to, it returns to stalk you again, and back down the line. Halloween stumbled into the sexual conservatism that Friday the 13th codified and Scream named; It Follows literalizes it. What has been taught remains learned, but the lessons only mirror their plan, not consume it.

For a film to place so many demands on the viewers attentiveness to its cinematography, it is perhaps not surprising that this cinematography is almost entirely aimed at facilitating the mood. Stoker-like circle pans and cameras mounted to cars (and a wheelchair) break up meticulous medium shots that want movement the same way the tension rises and spikes or collapses with it. It's all, as they say, very gorgeous.

Ghostface works because, nearly two decades after Michael Myers, the consensus was that the operation of the movie monster was a form of psychology, amenable to the establishing of rules of engagement. Because characters in a film can be observant of dark spaces and sexual mores, but not on the operation of the camera that captures them, the edits that constitute them.

*Admission: I was anxious by the time the fucking Poltergeist remake's trailer played, and knew next to nothing about It Follows going in, so probably overidentifying that bit.