Art Games on Tour

I went on vacation last week and I was pretty sure I’d have to suspend VideoDrone coverage through til next week, which bummed me out. Luckily I had the bright idea to look into apps on my phone to see if there was anything there that might serve. And lo and behold, I discovered that the Apple App Store, which I just assumed was all expensive Final Fantasy ports and Candy Crush clones actually had a pretty vibrant community of smart creators. I expected to be hamstrung and what I found was that I couldn’t even hope to scratch the surface of mobile gaming in one VideoDrone. Good news for the both of us.

So today, I’m going to be talking about the two games I played and thinking about their status as explicitly mobile games. I’ll begin with the fairly well-recognized and loved “A Dark Room” and I’ll move on to the more recently released Verreciel (suggested by the always lovely @batemanesque on Twitter). Both of these games do double duty, critiquing gaming as a pastime on one hand while also actively interrogating the nature of the phone as device for communication and exploration. They are very much medium-specific art. In the spirit of this claim, I’m also typing this piece on my iPhone, so you’ll forgive any stylistic shifts intentional or otherwise. There will be no typos.

A Dark Room is the brainchild of Michael Townsend and was adapted to iOS from a browser based format by Amir Rajan. The game itself is pretty difficult to describe, but a couple of things off the bat: it’s entirely text based, and even the “map” upon which your character ventures out and the enemies that your character fights are rendered as common keyboard characters. The graphics, such as they are, are sub-386 computer, which frankly I think works better than unsuccessfully advanced graphics on an iPhone. That’s neither here nor there, though, as the game’s story-telling effectively uses the lack of graphical sophistication to its benefit, shifting to a part-narrative, part-roguelike explorer, part inventory management simulation that begins and, at least symbolically, ends with one basic command: stoke the fire.

The plot is straightforward enough to start. A wanderer stumbles into your room and collapses; you have to keep stoking the fire to keep her warm and alive. When she recovers she reveals she’s a builder and can build huts for other wanderers, given enough wood. So the game’s mechanic kicks in: press buttons to gather wood, check inventory to see if you have enough, build up your town. As the town grows, you get more and more buildings, along with a wanderlust. The builder urges you not to go off into the world, that death awaits you, but the game pushes you until you have to. And the world *is* full of danger, as water, food, and health all drop precipitously. Your explorations end with you dead all too often, and then you end up being brought back by the builder and her amulet.

Things get dark here as your villagers, who live in the huts you’ve built, never stop working, and you realize they are slaves. You also begin building up your weaponry to deal with the somehow decimated world around you. And at the point where you begin making bullets, the builder leaves you. You are left to conquer the world with your army of slaves, killing soldiers and villagers alike until you find a spaceship and fly away to another planet to begin again. (Indeed, a down and out swamp dwelling man suggests that he knew the builder too and failed her in much the same way you have).

Finishing the game in this way opens the same basic issues that we found in our previous reading of Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line, namely that videogames are becoming more and more interested in making us feel ambivalent and even bad about our choices made in game. The world falls apart, you kill children, and the builder leaves, all of which seems like just part of the way the game progresses — what is the player supposed to do but build more huts, more guns, more water tanks for more expeditions?

Well, as the game tells you after beating the game once, you could build *no* huts. And this dramatically changes the game, as the builder does not travel her arc of anger and desertion, but instead becomes sick, needing to reach the stars. And without townspeople to help gather supplies, the name of the game is much less about overpowered expansion of empire, and more about quick raids for supplies and patient checking and rechecking of the wood pile. The game changes dramatically, in other words, to show the difference between being a warlord and being a lone person trying to help a friend.

A Dark Room cleverly breeds both the power and stress into these respective positions by way of it’s mechanics, wherein the player constantly clicks back and forth between the “fire” screen (which needs stoking the whole game) and the inventory management screen, constantly clicking button after button in timed sequence. Some critics have described this as akin to the neoliberal business trend of “flow,” in which a worker gets so into their task that they enter a state of zen-like space of productive time. For my money though, A Dark Room is much more conscious about the ways it divvies out its stress. The complicity with making more and more slaves to build bigger and better weaponry is tied to the fact that to do it alone would be brutally time consuming. Similarly the panic you get over losing, say, five food or whatever during the survival mode isn’t tied to Perma-death (which this game doesn’t have), but time. “I just died and lost 20 minutes” you might say, as if your email just crashed after penning a long draft.

This means that A Dark Room, in addition to being a gripping narrative experience, is an efficiency trap too, a well wrought critique and imitation of the phone you play it on. The game is fun often, and I really do recommend it to everyone, but the driving force of completing it is more just process justification — one last tweak, one last task to finish. And when these tasks are lined up in a way that leads to dictatorial destruction, you start to see how such a philosophy could begin to make sense to a bureaucratically poisoned mind. Even alternatives seem outside the system until the system poses them, and much like our next game, Verreciel, the game relies on the pluck of the player to explore alternatives. It just also gives the player a comfortable medium — their phone — to make remarkably predictable moves. In the normal clicking back-and-forth why question the need for huts? You need more people to make the process easier; that’s how apps work. You begin to see the logic and the critique.

In Devine Lu Linvega’s Verreciel, the ethics of the piece fall out almost altogether. While the game has its climax when your character literally puts out several suns, the purpose or motivation behind the character’s action is pretty opaque. The main thing you are concerned about as a player is making your ship run, and your ship’s console is, you guessed it, your iPhone screen. Effectively blurring the distinction between in-game action and controller, you may as well be pressing commands on your ship as you use the touch screen to link and control the thrusters, navigation, even the radio of your strange, complex ship.

The game itself is a bit buggy, and often this ends up being the best strategy guide for the game — crash Verreciel and find yourself with the right collection of odd objects to complete your next task. But I don’t really begrudge Linvega for this; the game is massive and experimental, wonderfully conceived and visually arresting without, again, trying to recreate console graphics that fall flat in the iPhone medium. Indeed, as the plot doesn’t so much matter in Verreciel, the game encourages peaceful space flight and patient, often Jerry-rigged solutions to barely expressed technical problems. In other words, it’s exactly like owning an early version of a piece of technology.

Verreciel, like A Dark Room, relies on atmosphere as much as it does plot or gameplay, encouraging an unconscious blending of iPhone and game until the interface becomes almost unnoticeable. For a space flight simulator, this makes Verreciel dreamy and immaterial, paced at a crawl that feels — much like Sunless Sea did — a veritable part of the game itself. It, and A Dark Room, aren’t perfect games, but they get the idea of medium specificity, and what opportunities the iPhone provides for videogames. That both games end with dreamy fadeouts and recursion to the opening screen is notable as well, as they blur their status as games and apps. You don’t “beat” Google Maps — you get to the end and restart. Both games take the problem of replayability and essentially pose it as an inevitability of the form.

That there are iOS games that actually care about their medium is an encouraging thing, especially since they’ll never be the money makers casual games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush are. These aren’t really “on the train” games. But they are games that care about the device in which they’re played, and as a result, they feel a lot like the early 8-bit experiments in expansion or the 16-bit freak out experiences in early computer gaming. They’re trying something new, and it focuses on interface; in this way, I really do think iOS games are doing something markedly different than console or PC games. If they keep it up, they will be a serious part of the critical games landscape to come.

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