I once drove a school bus against oncoming traffic. I had a hard time steering due to all the drugs I had consumed, and cars exploded around me in rainbow-colored bursts. After maybe five minutes, I crashed into a truck and died. But the experience kept going. What happened next involved Big Ben, a space station and a squid-like creature made of baby mouths and hands. This wasn’t just an isolated psychotic episode, either; I’ve relived it a number of times. And thanks to game designer Mark Essen, you too can endure this migraine-inducing odyssey by playing his surreal (and controversially titled) Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist.
Since 2002, Essen, aka messhof, has been designing games using Game Maker and MS Paint. These are some of the most basic programs you can use to create games, yet his work stands out as cutting edge even within the independent game scene. Other indie designers may sometimes use avant-garde techniques to try and confuse you, but none quite like Essen. His games rewrite the rules of game design; they turn the concepts of user-friendliness and reward structures on their heads. Playing them commonly results in extreme frustration, disorientation and nausea. They challenge players not just through their level of difficulty – which is high – but by how much visual and aural bombardment they’re willing to endure. Where does he find inspiration? “Mostly friends,” he says. “I’m lucky to have a lot of creative friends that actually make stuff all the time, so they’re usually who I talk to if I’m trying to figure out what to do next.”
His games take ideas from classic ’80s game design – simple, often side-scrolling 2-D graphics and basic combat or problem-solving challenges – and combine them with art-house sensibilities and more experimental design concepts. The easiest way to describe his oeuvre is through a case study of Punishment, a game he made for a class on the convergence of games and art that he made available online in 2005. It wasn’t his first game, or even his first game that subverted the norms of game design – Bool probably has that distinction. However, it was his first game that featured his off-the-wall, disorienting, nauseating and bizarre techniques. Your goal is simple: Try to climb to the top of the screen while the game tries to confuse you. But this is easier said than done.
“I wanted Punishment to be a game that didn’t hold your hand or fix your mistakes,” says Essen. The game is extremely difficult, taking hours of play to beat, and you can’t die no matter how far you fall. “Every time you miss a jump, you really miss it, and if you want to try again you have to climb back up. As you get higher up in the game, you have more to lose, since you can fall through as many screens as it takes you before you grab onto a platform,” he explains. So, unlike a traditional platformer, there’s no safety net in the form of lives, continues or checkpoints. But difficult jumps are hardly the only thing standing in your way. “I added some obstacles as you go higher that are supposed to be dizzying and nauseating. The screen rotates based on different factors in each screen, you can run into something that flips your right and left controls and each level has a weird background image that comes into focus as you get closer to the top.”
The idea of disorienting the player was not part of Essen’s original concept. “As I was making it, I just started noticing it,” he says. His original plan was to make the game less playable the further you got; the screen would rotate and parts of it would be randomly covered. He axed the latter, however, because “the rotation made more sense to keep in. The game wasn’t cheating you that way, so you just get angry and sick by your own means. Purposefully making the player dizzy wasn’t something I’d seen before, so it seemed worth doing.”
The game wasn’t cheating you that way? Are his games actually designed to be fair? “Yeah, absolutely,” he tells me. “I think they’re all fair – there might be one or two that have their own logic, but you’re not getting killed by something off-screen. It’s pretty clear that it’s always your fault.”
Most of his post-Punishment work has featured similar concepts. They subject players to a sensory assault, while at the same time forcing them to confront extremely difficult (though never unfair) challenges. But Essen isn’t a sadist. “I think the games that were the most fun for me growing up were the ones where figuring out how to move your character was the most challenging part, or the part you could inject the most personality into,” he says. His game Flywrench fits that description perfectly. In between spasms of flashing colors and music that sounds like a remixed dial-up modem, you must figure out the correct way to move your ship through obstacle-ridden environments. The most challenging part is simply getting the moves down.
Essen’s games aren’t always about the challenge of accomplishing goals. “Sometimes when I’m making a game it’s more fun to just watch things play out in a scene instead of totally structuring it,” he says. “Like in Scrap Collector it’s all about experiencing these exhilarating dogfights. There’s a lot of monotonous platforming until you get to that point, but then the game sort of stops and there aren’t any more goals except playing around with these rocket planes.”
The concept of making a game that is more of an experience than a challenge works well with Essen’s two-player game design ideas. Take Cowboyana, for instance. In it, two players wade through an endless stream of vignettes about cowboy life: shooting each other in the back, getting drunk and robbing trains, among other things. “There were a bunch of scenes I wanted to do, but connecting them all seemed like a lot of useless filler that would just slow the game down,” Essen says. “Cowboy scenes are sort of interchangeable anyway, so it just jumps around through them, leaving it up to the interactions between the two people playing to keep it varied.” Each scene is book-ended by cowboy poetry that is at times depressing, at times hilarious.
Humor, actually, has a large place in Essen’s games. “I try not to make them too serious,” he says. But the humor is sometimes (read: often) black. Take his most recent game, The Thrill of Combat. One player flies a helicopter around a color-throbbing environment, while the other uses a laser to destroy enemies. But the true goal of the game is using the laser to harvest organs from humans on the ground, complete with an Operation-style mini-game. In any other setting, it would seem overly dark and disturbing, but the humor makes it work. The Thrill of Combat was released for download a few weeks after its debut at the recent “Welcome to the Terrordrome” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. “Museum?” you ask? Did I forget to mention that Flywrench is being displayed at New York’s prestigious New Museum of Contemporary Art until July?
Essen, in fact, designs many of his games for gallery settings. (So much for the can-games-be-art debate.) For them to succeed in such a setting, though, Essen has to make specific design decisions. “They’re able to be played without a lot of introductory levels and clicking around,” he says. “One person can play, another can play right after that. Maybe something happens if no one’s playing.”
“You also have to think about how the game is displayed, like as a huge projection or whatever, the sound, etc. With The Thrill of Combat, I set it up for two players with a steering wheel, pedal and a joystick in front of a big projection. When you’re playing, you sit so close to the screen that it fills your whole view. It’s flashing and rotating, and you’re trying to tell your partner what to do, and to anyone watching it seems pretty chaotic. But the wheel’s angle is tied directly to the rotation of the screen, so if you’re sitting on that control bench, it makes a lot more sense.”
Fellow indie game designer Anna Anthropy, aka “auntie pixelante,” recently suggested that Essen is trying to “reinvent the art gallery as a new arcade.” Indeed, Essen hopes to find a more permanent space for these kinds of games. “I’ve talked to a few people that are on the way to setting something like that up, and I think there’s an audience for it,” he says.
As for what he’s up to now, he tells me about two of his new games. One “takes place after a king dies, and you run around a castle and hunt down everyone that stands in the way of you getting yours, all with gentlemanly sword fighting.” In the second, “you build and fly a plane from island to island transporting goods, but when you crash you have to pay for repairs and go into debt, so you sort of get stuck working between two islands, because your plane is too crappy to go any farther. It’s an exploration game without the exploring, because you’re too in debt.” An exploration game without the exploring? Sounds good to me.
John Adkins is a freelance writer who enjoys playing weird indie games, particularly when those games are by Mark Essen. He can be contacted at johnadkins256[at]gmail[dot]com.