If games really are the art of the modern age (and the evidence is mounting they are), then GDC's annual Experimental Gameplay Sessions are the French Films. Short, hard to watch, harder to understand and both meaningless and dripping with relevance, the experimental games showcased here are proof that not only are there some really talented people making games these days, but they don't care what you think of them. Like beatniks in Soho wearing berets and snapping greetings to each other between puffing on Nat Shermans and talking of "the real."
You probably haven't heard of these fellows, and you've surely never heard of their games. But they don't care. They aren't doing it for you. Occasionally one of them will break out and sell out and make it big, but for the most part these people are artists. They make games that push boundaries and uphold themes and all of that kind of crap that makes you want to tell them to get a life - and a job.
The ringleader of this cadre of misfits is Jonathan Blow, the outspoken independent game designer who thinks my magazine has a stupid name. Blow, whose Braid has been making a big splash over the past year, has, in return, used his newfound pull to draw attention to his fellows in the arthouse trenches. The Experimental Gameplay Session on Thursday was standing room only, filled with the kind of people who, twenty years ago, packed seedy cinema houses to watch Das Boot and give each other meaningful glances. The smell was interesting, to put it delicately.
Putting my elitism aside, I wanted to see what the kids were into these days. I wanted to know what "experimental" meant in terms of games. I wanted to be disgusted. And I was. This experiment was a success.
Blow showed off his Braid again, demonstrating how the use of alternate realities and time shifting in the game creates a dependence on replays and setting up interactions between your current character and the shadow characters of your previous play-throughs. It's a hard concept to get your head around, so I recommend trying the game. It's really well done. More art gallery than art house, as befits Blow's status of breakout artist.
Still, he talks too much, and his presentation of Braid and Jeff Minter's Space Giraffe strained my capacity for pseudo-intellectual blathering. And considering I work for The Escpaist, I thought I was immune.
Another game in the replay vein was a cute puzzle-type game called Cursor * 10. In it, like in Braid, you play through a level, clicking stairways to climb a tower, and obstacles to reveal hidden stairways to continue climbing the tower. But sometimes you need help. Buttons must be held down to reveal stairs, but once you click away from the button, the stairs disappear. So you play again, and this time you follow your first play. There are now two cursors on the screen.
When the first cursor clicks the button, you click the stairs, etc. It gets far more complicated, and you can see where the title comes from, as some puzzles require multiple steps - and cursors - to complete. Simple, intelligent and fun. More games should be like this.
Time Bot took the theory and went Sci-Fi, creating an environment where you must collect gear-like objects and open doors using multiple bots. You can spawn new bots at almost any point, then follow your previous bot as it replays what you've just done.
But beneath this game's cute, robotic exterior lies a dark, evil heart. The puzzles are devilish, almost sadistic, and the creator seemed to take great delight in inventing new ways to kill you. When you die, you lose all your bots and have to start over. Not the most player friendly mechanic, but what do you expect. In the art world, this is called 'a statement." Translated, it reads: Get better at playing my game or I don't care what you think.