CRITICAL GAMING by CORRADO MORGANA

Gaming’s independent scene offers a critical edge, comparable to indie music, arthouse or alternative cinema. It offers something other than the usual mainstream tropes, a vibrant scene exists where creativity and experimentation not commercial viability is key. It provides an arena that challenges the stereotypical genres. In a gaming culture obsessed with photorealism, endless expansion packs, sports gaming licences and big budget Hollywood tie-ins, indie gaming is like a breath of fresh air, a challenging, innovative, reflexive and critical practice that questions the nature of the medium.

Artists are producing highly politicised works – September 12, The anti-Bush Game and Disaffected are good examples. Developers are exploring innovative game mechanisms such as ‘one switch gaming’, games that use only a one button interface. Non-interactive-gaming is a phenomena which overturns the whole ethic of gaming as participatory and turns it into a spectator sport, a wry riff on the endless hours spent within gaming environments. Conversely Massively Multiplayer Pong turns the idea on it’s head-taking a 2 player game and turning it into consensual gaming (if there are enough players!) The visual language of indie games reflexively draws on the history of gaming with nods to retro graphics. There are a number of witty 2 dimensional remakes of 3D environments such as Halo zero and Codename Gordon. The list goes on...

Distribution is also under scrutiny by practitioners, developers and theorists. Since developers id (Doom, Wolfenstein, etc.) arguably, kicked off the shareware games phenomena in the 90’s, indie gaming has survived and flourished through distribution methods other than the usual retail outlets. Freeware, Shareware, open source distribution have radically different modus operandi than commercial games. Freeware software is just that, free. Shareware allows access to early levels with payment allowing access to further content. Open Source can be distributed with the code itself open to redistribution and community development. With little or no advertising to sucker punch the casual gamer, indie games have virally infected the gamers consciousness. However this may be set to change...

The whole marketing and distribution of indie games is currently undergoing a minor revolution championed by, surprisingly, Valve a developer turned distributor/publisher. Valve’s Steam online content distribution system, much maligned in its initial stages, has been used to distribute indie games to a more blockbuster obsessed gaming audience. Darwinia, for instance which won much critical acclaim, but achieved poor sales through traditional outlets, is now offered through Steam. Steam was initially presented to those who purchased the immensely sucessful Half Life 2 and taps into that potential audience.

The gaming press has recently expanded it’s remit to support and give coverage to independent gaming. Many column inches have recently been devoted to independent gaming, reviewing exceptional exponents alongside commercial products. Websites such as selectparks.net, ludology.org, watercoolergames etc. review and present critical gaming praxis to an expanding audience.

There are some pertinent examples of Open Source methods, Yoda Soccer, an open source community developed update of the classic Sensible Soccer and Freeciv, a multiplayer version of Civilisation for instance. Developers commonly release older game engines under open source licences and community development is rife. There are many modding (modifying) tools for commercial games; tools which allow users to create their own content, content that is sometimes wildly and ingeniously different from it’s source; tools that turn consumer into producer. Without the modding of commercial game engines by the community we wouldn’t have Garry’s mod for Half Life 2, the many genre extending mods for Unreal Tournament and Quake or the many games based arts projects that use these engines, Tom Betts’ QQQ for instance.

Continuing with the indie film anology, there are festivals to rival Sundance. Indie Gamejam, billed as an “event designed to encourage experimentation and innovation in the game industry” has been running since 2002, SlamDance is an indie film festival that has opened it’s doors to indie gaming and recently The Experimental Gameplay project, which started out as a highly successful student project at Carnegie Mellon University has expanded its remit to all comers.

It’s not all bad news for innovation in commercial gaming though, Will Wrights Spore is an exciting proposal and recently David Cage and Quantic Dream’s Fahrenheit, attempted some very different approaches to the interface of narrative gaming.

Eastern commercial developers have offered the critical gamer something else... something very different to the Western genres. Katamari Damarcy, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and Animal Crossing are highly inventive and somewhat genre busting examples.

So who’s the audience? the bored, the critical gamer, the developers themselves trying out wacky and experimental ideas, the games theorist etc...With this in mind the Game/Play selection attempts to present four exponents of the art.

Jetro Lauha’s somewhat transgressive, Truck Dismount, ostensibly a physics demonstrator, presents us with a simple premise, a wall, a truck some ramps and a crash test dummy...Dismount!

Kenta Cho’s psychedelic, high speed, retro styled shoot ‘em ups have attained a cult status amongst critical gamers. Currently included in the Debian distribution of the Linux Open Source Operating system. Noiz2sa is an early example of his frenetic, minimal stylings.

In Façade, a ‘one act interactive drama’, Trip and Grace are having a domestic dispute. Using a simple 3D engine and a highly sophisticated text interpreter and artificial intelligence, the player tries to settle the dispute, ease the tension, take sides or give them a hard time. Façade took the Grand Jury prize at the Slamdance 2006 indie games festival.

Julian Oliver’s 2nd Person Shooter, Missing in Action overturns the traditional first person and third person perspectives commonly found in action games and inverts it so the players avatar is only visible from the opponents viewpoint, Julian Oliver wryly states that ‘in this little experiment you are on the outside looking in and to my great amusement, it’s a complete and total pain in the arse!’ selectparks.net

Enjoy....

Links

Political Games
September 12th: http://www.newsgaming.com/games/index12.htm
Disaffected: http://www.persuasivegames.com/games/game.aspx?game=disaffected
The Anti Bush Game: http://www.emogame.com/bushgame.html
One-Switch Gaming
Strange Attractors: http://www.ominousdev.com/
Non-Interactive Gaming
Tetris1D: http://www.tetris1d.org/
Progress Quest: http://www.progressquest.com/
2d Gaming
Halo Zero: http://www.halozero.new.fr/
Codename Gordon: http://www.halflife2d.com/
Steam
Steam: http://steampowered.com/
Darwinia: http://www.darwinia.co.uk/
Critical games websites
Select Parks: http://www.selectparks.net/
Ludology: http://www.ludology.org/
Water Cooler Games: http://www.watercoolergames.org/
Open Source Games
FreeCiv: http://www.freeciv.org/
Yoda Soccer: http://yodasoccer.sourceforge.net/
Indie Games Festivals
Slamdance: http://www.slamdance.com/
Indie Game Jam: http://www.indiegamejam.com/
Other Sites of Interest
Multiplayer Pong: http://pong.flash-gear.com
id software: http://www.idsoftware.com/
Tom Betts: http://q-q-q.net/
Experimental gameplay awards:
http://www.experimentalgameplay.com/competition.php
Garry’s mod: http://gmod.garry.tv/
Fahrenheit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fahrenheit_(video_game)
Spore: http://www.spore.com/
Ico: http://www.icothegame.com/
Shadow of the Colossus:
http://www.us.playstation.com/Content/OGS/SCUS-97472/Site/
Katamari Damarcy:
http://www.nlgaming.com/nl/asp/id_1237/nl/reviewDisp.htm
Animal Crossing: http://www.animal-crossing.com