Retro as Genre, Retro as Art
Wednesday, 06 July 2011
Today I want to draw attention to two rather different games that share in common a retro aesthetic: Jordan Magnuson’s The Killer and Nitrome Games’ Silly Sausage.
Over on the Nitrome Games website, you will find the game Silly Sausage, which was programmed (and I think designed) by ihobo.com regular Roman Age (Romain Macre). All of the games on Nitrome are informed by retro sensibilities – they look, and sometimes play, much like classic arcade games from the 1980s, which speaking as someone who practically lived in the arcade during this decade, is an era of games with which I feel a great connection.
In many respects, the Nitrome games are informed by more mature sensibilities (for instance, you do not have to start the entire game from scratch each time you play!), but they also try to recapture some of the qualities of these early games that are less often encountered in contemporary games. There is still, for instance, something of the fail-repeat sensibility to their play – although failure will only lead to repeating the same level, not the entire game. Still, there is something quintessentially ‘arcade’ about all the games of theirs I have seen.
Silly Sausage (pictured above) is an original variation on the classic game Snake, and will likely appeal most to players who have spent hours stabbing away at a cluster of four keys to control an ill-defined squiggly line purported to be a snake. The Sausage of the title is a cute sausage dog, whose 16-bit style animations are a definite part of the appeal of the game. Unlike Snake, whereby movement is continuous and cannot be stopped, this dog can stop for a scratch. Indeed, the basic play of the game involves stretching her out (snake-style) and grabbing onto a new block, whereupon she unravels up to the new point. If you stop moving before reaching a new block, she unravels back to where you set off. It’s a simple mechanic to grasp, and one that generates a surprisingly diverse play experience.
The connection to Snake lies in the fact that this game is also a collector at heart, and also in the fact that the control scheme draws heavily against the controls of Snake – if you haven’t played a lot of that older game, I suspect you will find Silly Sausage difficult to master. In fact, it is also highly reminiscent of one of my favourite arcade games, Anteater (Stern, 1982) which can be described as Snake meets Pac-man, and which shares with Silly Sausage a kind of risk-reward juggling play, since extending and retracting the anteater’s tongue is much like stretching out the sausage dog, with the same kind of risks when you are highly extended.
Personally, I found myself quite wrapped up in the game’s charm – challenging without being too irritating, it feels very much like a forgotten gem of the arcades even though it was released this year. It uses its retro sensibilities as a definition of the genre it operates within, and makes the most of it in the process. Innovative and accessible fun for retro-heads everywhere.
Jordan Magnuson’s “notgame” The Killer is what I’ve taken to calling an artlet – a short and simple game-like piece of software with artistic goals. Jordan, you might recall, is the insane individual I mentioned last September in Game Design as Travel Journalism. Using funding raised from donations, Jordan is travelling around the world making short digital games to document his journey. This is, as far as I know, a unique project, and one that pushes the medium a little bit further into new ground by using the game (or notgame) as a means of representing social, political and cultural information in a unique form.
I won’t say much about The Killer since it is something that you should try for yourself. The controls are trivial, such that anyone could play it. Here is Jordan’s introductory text:
A small notgame inspired by the thousands of senseless killings committed in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime. Requires no gaming skills whatsoever. Takes about three minutes to play through, though the length varies, and the experience is never quite the same for any two people.
The content has been evolving since I first took a look at it, and I recommend The Killer as a great example of using retro sensibilities in entirely new ways. (You can find it here). The 8-bit style pixel graphics are resonant of the early home computers, but the play (or rather experience) of this artlet is not like anything from the 1980s. Its sensibilities are clearly aesthetic and representational – it asks you to put yourself into a particular situation, and the more you accept its fiction the more effective it will be in terms of its emotional impact. Highly recommended.
Hi Chris, I'm glad you liked the game. Thank you for taking the time to write a nice review.
I often thought of Bubble Bobble as I was building levels: single-screen levels, yet great variation in geometric shapes.
Although I have played many games that are now considered retro, it was my first true retro game as a programmer, and it made me realise the importance and power of symbols. Mostly, what I like about retro arcade games, is how you can lose yourself in a colourful world of blinking lights, beep sounds, and the use of symbols for everything, just like a pinball machine. Very, very far from modern realistic games, one can even wonder if it is the same medium at all.
PS: the game design is by Nitrome; the level design was shared between the artist and myself.
I'm going to try The Killer, sounds interesting.
All the best!
Posted by: Roman Age | Wednesday, 06 July 2011 at 23:30
Artlet? Notgame? Not only do those terms sound very pretentious (And just plain bad), but they make it seem as though games prior to 'notgames' didn't have legitimate artistic status, or storytelling language, or weren't emotionally affecting - which is just plain wrong.
Games all the way from Pong onwards have the same storytelling mechanics, tell stories, and in some way evoke some emotion. Sadness isn't the only emotion.
It also doesn't make it art, just because the designer is travelling around the world by himself. Lots of game developers send people travelling to get texture photos and inspiration.
But I did think this was a really good game and a good story.
Posted by: Louis Closs | Wednesday, 06 July 2011 at 23:32
'But I did think this was a really good game and a good story.'
-referring to 'the killer'.
Posted by: Louis Closs | Wednesday, 06 July 2011 at 23:33
In addition, if you're trying to find an alternative for 'Game', then I have found 'Play' (Said as a noun) to work fairly well in describing something that has a specific narrative purpose/focus, but which functions through interaction.
But maybe these terms are ultimately unecessary.
Posted by: Louis Closs | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 00:22
Romain: Ah, Bubble Bobble - one of my favourites. But Silly Sausage doesn't feel like this because that game is *so* influenced by gravity, whereas the Sausage is gravitationally immune. :) Best of luck with your future projects!
Louis: "Notgame" is Jordan's term for The Killer, so my use of it here is simply a courtesy. "Artlet" is a term I use for any artistically motivated game that is programatically simple, on the model of "applet" as a miniature "application". I certainly don't mean to imply that there was no artistic element to games prior to artlets (which are a recent phenomenon) - see my forthcoming book Imaginary Games in this regard, where I make the philosophical case for 'games as art' about as robustly as is possible! :)
I'm not really looking for an alternative to 'game'; I use 'artlet' solely to refer to miniature artistically motivated games, because these for me have a particular "feel" that is quite unique. Unlike you, I don't think this is especially pretentious, although I'm open to the criticism. ;)
And seriously, sending the art team to a city for textures and inspiration is not the same as packing up and travelling the world while you document your experiences by making games. The former happens all the time - to my knowledge, Jordan is the only person doing the latter. It doesn't "make it art" that he's doing this - games were always already art - but it does make it artistically interesting. He could easily have a small exhibition of his work at the end of his trip, which is a lot more than you can say about sending the art team to San Francisco to collect texture reference photos. :)
Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!
Posted by: Chris | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 11:42
I've tried The Killer, it left me pretty shaken, annoyed too (as no matter what you want to do you have no alternative, but I know that this is exactly what is intended, which completely makes sense in the context).
Thanks for sharing, Chris.
Posted by: Roman Age | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 13:04
Oh okay. Well, I guess your term, artlet, sort of refers to a new sub-genre of computer game. I suppose that's fine, if you prefer to see things in terms of genres.
Book looks interesting. Might have to check it out (If it's not too lofty). :-)
Posted by: Louis Closs | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 16:44
Personally, I'm hesitant of an art/game divide. It already happend, and to me it divorces one bunch of games from another - one of which claims to be some sort of exclusive club. I think this is bad for the development of the medium, because game communities end up shunning that percieved exclusive bath of games. Or they put them on a pedestal and use them to judge the output of all future games.
What we really need is integration.
Posted by: Louis Closs | Thursday, 07 July 2011 at 16:50
Roman Age: which ending did you get? While the constraint is a part of the experience, it does have three different endings... Let's call them, for experience "kill, don't kill, and die". Hope from that vague gesture you can work out which ending you got! :)
Louis: thanks for continuing our discussions! I don't prefer to see things in terms of genre, but sometimes I find it useful to draw attention to the circumstances behind a game. The idea behind artlet is to say "bear in mind this is a short-form game by one person" in the same way that "applet" says "bear in mind this isn't a fully functioning application". :)
My approach is not to say "these games are art" and "these games are not art" but to say "all games are art" - yes, even games like Chess are, on some level, art. The question then becomes, which of these games are worthy of artistic esteem, not which are art. Hope that's clear!
And if the book interest you, I encourage you to give it a go! It's not too lofty - I think and hope it works for someone who has never read a philosophy book in their life. If you can read a popular science book, you shouldn't have a problem with "Imaginary Games".
All the best!
PS: forgive the slow comments service - I'm in the middle of a run of conferences.
Posted by: Chris | Monday, 11 July 2011 at 16:27