GDC 2008: Brain Wiped in Soho


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.

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Matt Korba's 'The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom'

Matt Korba's 'The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom'

Another theme of this year’s Sessions was “obfuscation,” which, if you don’t have the dictionary memorized, means “to obscure” or “hide.” The idea with games that obfuscate was to either obfuscate the environment, the characters, the story or the point. Most of the games demonstrated here achieved all of the above.

Like Lost in the Static a game in which everything is made of different layers of static. Pause the game and you can’t see anything – just static. But when it’s playing, you can just barely discern the shapes you need to navigate around and over to play the game.

An innovative platformer, Lost in the Static is nevertheless unplayable and awful due to what the creator calls “physiological challenges.” Again, for the vocabulary-challenged, that means people get nauseous after playing. Or watching. I had to close my eyes.

The two truly excellent games demonstrated this year, were, interestingly enough, both created by Matt Korba. If someone doesn’t send this boy a Town Car to get him out of Soho soon, I’ll do it myself.

The first game he showcased was up for Best Student Game at the Independent Game Festival Awards last night. It’s called The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, and it oozes style out of every pore.

Matt, clearly a film fan, created a game based on old silent films. You control Mr. Winterbottom as he adventures his way through various puzzles. You can also create more Winterbottoms by recording your game and the replaying it. When you replay, there are two of you, who tell two friends and so on. You can create Winterbottom towers, whack Winterbottoms with your umbrella to send them flying, or let them whack you to send you flying. It’s good fun, and too good for this part of town.

Transparentor, Matt’s other game, takes a page from the bad sci-fi movies of the 1950s. He says the goal was to create a game as bad as the bad films of that era, and with Transparentor, he both succeeded and failed.

In the game, you are Transparentor, an invisible monster. Meaning you can’t see yourself. At all. You can catch glimpses of your shape by looking at the occasional shadow, or tell where you are by stepping in pools of liquid and watching for footsteps, but for the most part you have no idea what you’re doing or where you are. And yet, this only adds to the fun.

With flying saucers on strings and a boss battle (against another invisible monster), Transparentor is easily the most crazy cool game I’ve seen all year. I look forward to enjoying it in a fine gallery showing uptown.

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