The narrow definition of experimental

[Note: This blog post was revised and edited on April 21st]

One of the major perceived advantages of being an indie developer is the freedom to be experimental with one’s games. As opposed to their mainstream brethren, indie developers do not need to deal with the pressures of making multimillion dollar AAA titles that necessitate huge sales and thus need to appeal to the widest possible audience. Instead indie developers because of their small budgets are freer to be experimental and stray from the tried-and-true path.

Yet the popular definition of experimental indie games over the past few years has seemed to become narrower and narrower. When the subject of experimental games is broached successful titles like Braid and Portal are quickly brought up. And these games and their brethren have come to define experimental. Games that are primarily built around a single novel mechanic (or as some may deride a gimmick) are the new flavor of experimental.

Steve Swink (of various indie fame including the game Shadow Physics), himself a presenter at the last Experimental Gameplay Workshop, has also thought about this increasing calcification of experimental and wrote a blog post about it. In it he comes up with his own loose definition of this definition of experimental.

[Experimental] meant finding a unique, promising mechanic dealing with spatial perception, imaginary physics, time manipulation, or some combination of the three and trying to squeeze all the possible interesting permutations of interactivity out of that one unique mechanic. Time, space, sound, color, structure. The criteria seems to be innovation as a mind-expanding riff on physics, and the games can almost always be seen as an attempt to answer one or two interesting questions as fully and satisfyingly as possible. And then culling the cruft.

In particular 2009’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop seemed to have a number of games that fit this definition. Games like Closure, The Unfinished Swan, Miegakure, and Swink’s own Shadow Physics are all based around a single novel mechanic. The innovation in these games is discovering this novel mechanic and playing with variations and permutations of it.

This is not to criticize any of those aforementioned games (in fact having played a number of them they’re all fun and interesting titles). The structure of these games (and other experimental titles like it) is a natural result of the particular innovations they focus on. Games where a unique mechanic takes center stage are often best-served dishing up challenges in this bite-sized format to fully explore said mechanic.

In addition to natural design output there are more pragmatic reasons for creating experimental titles in this fashion. Despite being free to be experimental and innovative, even (most) indie developers still need to think about the bottom line a little bit. Wholesale experimentation with a game can often be tricky and lead to disastrous development experiences. By constraining the experimentation to a single mechanic the developer can help limit some of the riskiness inherent in trying new things. This also ties in well with the smaller budgets and smaller development schedules often associated with indie games. Sometimes all a developer has is the ability to develop a single novel mechanic and properly focus on it. Finally, even in indie games there is some bias towards emulating previous hits. Past experimental indie successes have followed this popular mold and developers are often inclined to emulate the same approach.

But while these reasons might help explain the current definition of experimental games it still doesn’t alleviate a growing sense of dissatisfaction that experimental can – and should – encompass much broader things. The cancellation this year of the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC is a sign of this dissatisfaction. Both as developers and players we’ve been too quick to constrain what experimental can be.

Instead of looking to past experimental successes for guidance we should instead think about experimental a little differently. Games like B.U.T.T.O.N. and Chris Hecker’s SpyParty (which has been presented at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop in the past) that focus on much on interactions outside of the game as those in the game are experimental in a way that’s not just a new time-manipulation mechanic exploited over a series of puzzles.

But really the arguing of what’s regarded as experimental right now is beside the point. I’m not arguing really for a redefinition of experimental, but rather not to let the popular view of experimental hinder the future development of new, interesting, and experimental ideas in games. Games already are oft-criticized for relying too heavily on mechanics and structures that have been in place since the first arcade machines started bleeping blooping. And we shouldn’t let experimental games go down that same path.

VVVVVV is beautiful

While exploring the open world of VVVVVV (pronounced like six V’s) searching every nook and cranny I stumbled across the first beautiful image in videogames for 2010. The world of VVVVVV is full of secrets and it pays to explore every inch of the space to find new teleporters and shiny trinkets to collect. But while stumbling across these little caverns I discovered something larger – a room so large that it takes up around 4 screens worth of space. And within this room lies a amazing Technicolor glowing elephant that fills up every corner of this space. The elephant doesn’t do anything except sit there and glow with a single tear in its eye. The character Captain Viridian like he does for most of the game silently walks by. Except the usual smile on his face switches out for the frown reserved typically for deaths and cinemas. It’s strangely eerie and unsettling as a brief staccato of surrealism within VVVVVV.

It’s a wonderful moment, but for better or for worse to it belies the true nature of VVVVVV. VVVVVV, the new game by Terry Cavanagh, is with no doubt the first great indie game of 2010. Taking inspiration from the ZX Spectrum and games like Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner, Mr. Cavanagh has crafted within VVVVVV one of the most punishing gaming experiences in recent memory.

VVVVVV is – for all intents and purposes – a gamer’s game. There’s a simple storyline where you learn that you play as Captain Viridian, leading his merry ship of other characters (all of which have names that start with V), when disaster strikes. An emergency teleporter is used, things go wrong, and before you know it you’re crash-landed on planet and needing to rescue all 6 of your crew. Your method of choice (and the only method of choice) is your ability to flip. The Captain doesn’t fly or jump or even skip across the world of VVVVVV. Instead by reversing his own gravity the ceilings become floors in VVVVVV and vice-versa. It’s a mechanic whose initial simplicity is deceiving as the game VVVVVV ruthlessly sets out to explore just about every permutation of this mechanic possible.

And that’s where VVVVVV really shines. While rescuing your compatriots across 5 different levels connected by an overworld Viridian never learns any new skills, never acquires any equipment or weapons or armor. What he was in the beginning is who he remains at the end. Instead Cavanagh in each different level sets out on exploring a variation of what is possible with the flip mechanic. In one level you may encounter tripwires that reverse your orientation without regards, in another you need to race against the scrolling screen as you traverse a tower. And in perhaps the most mind-bending of these you’ll need to wrap your head around a world where every room is a loop upon itself.

Each level in VVVVVV is subdivided into individual rooms each usually containing a puzzle or obstacle (although more complex puzzles can span multiple rooms). The puzzles grow quite devious over the 2-3 hours of gameplay, starting off simple and requiring little physical dexterity, but eventually in some cases become masochistic exercises of muscle memory. It’s all expertly done and outside of one or two puzzles which require an inordinate amount of trial-and-error never becomes about overcoming one’s frustration to complete the game. VVVVVV’s structure comes down to individual micro moments then. Each room has its own checkpoint where death is but a momentary delay from retrying the puzzle all over again. The game lays out it challenges in tiny morsels, easily consumable and perfect to minute breaks.

It’s perhaps due to these micro allotments of game where the only failings of VVVVVV emerge. Success is only momentary and while the challenge grows as the mechanics of flipping are explored the game lacks a tangible sense of progress beyond revealing the hidden corners of the map. When the game ends there’s no satisfying culmination of skills nor a narrative breakthrough, but merely an end because that’s all that was developed. Not that the game doesn’t fully explore the systems and mechanics, VVVVVV has a deft touch in exploring each concept without overstaying its welcome. But there’s a bit of the sense that closure is slightly fleeting in VVVVVV.

But regardless of the ending the journey is by itself an accomplishment. As each room unravels its secrets and each improvisation of the game mechanic is dealt with there’s no doubt that what the game has is a fountain of love and passion behind it. VVVVVV with its unusual title and contrary graphics and its punishing gameplay stands out like few other titles – pure and concise, clever and brief.

Note: For better or for worse the price tag for an indie game has yet again become a subject of discussion online. VVVVVV is currently being sold for $15, an amount that while certainly not cheap isn’t anywhere as exorbitant as some would lead you to believe. It matches well with the general prices indie games of similar size and scope are priced elsewhere (indie/mainstream favorite Braid was also initially 15 dollars) and while the initial playthrough is on the shorter end of things, there exist time trials and other modes to extend the length of the game. Ignoring the clinical comparison of metrics, the ratio of ingenuity per the time spent in-game is extraordinary and that alone makes VVVVVV worth the price of admission.

Try out VVVVVV!

(That’s pronounced like six V’s in a row like V-V-V-V-V-V)

VVVVVV is the newest game by one Mr. Terry Cavanagh and is super awesome. Don’t trust me (and I don’t blame you) then look at these reviews.

Edge gives VVVVVV a 8/10 concluding “Brutal and rather short, VVVVVV’s also devious and darkly funny. It’s a pedantic classic, and a game for watch-makers as much as speed-runners.”

Bytejacker says “VVVVVV is retro not just in style but in focus: it’s clearly a game first and an artistic adventure second, with the player being bombarded virtually nonstop by hardcore platforming gameplay from the moment it begins to the moment it concludes.”

Indie Games agrees and adds that “VVVVVV is not simply immense fun – it’s exciting, challenging, and downright glorious with a stunning soundtrack that will flip you on your head.”

Anthony Burch at Destructoid weighs in musing that “VVVVVV understands exactly how hard it is. The game takes every precaution to simultaneously maintain that difficulty and allow the player to celebrate in triumphing over it”

So yeah, you should definitely buy VVVVVV for just 15 bucks. Or if you’re still unsure after those gushing words then you’re free to play the demo at Kongregate now.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my own review of VVVVVV!

Indie dev tales: Platypus

Platypus was released today on the iPhone. I’m not going to link to the app though, not until I at least know that the creator is getting something out of this. If you don’t know the story, check out the making of here where the creator Anthony Flack describes the mistakes, trials, and tribulations behind the game. It’s a short, but entertaining read full of cautionary tales for young designers.

About halfway through making the game, things got a bit more difficult when my house suddely burned down. No, really. Apparently a fire had started somewhere in the apartment downstairs – by the time I got there the whole place was a giant bonfire. Fortunately nobody was hurt, but the house completely burned down, there was literally nothing left of it in the end except for a few twisted bits of metal sitting in an enormous pile of ash. My computers were identifiable, but strangely empty – there was nothing inside the boxes. I guess the circuitry just melted away.

Penny-Arcade, indie games, and distribution

Greenhouse
Yesterday brought the announcement of Greenhouse, the new distribution service/game portal from the guys of Penny-Arcade. You can see further coverage at the Game|Life blog at Wired and an interview with by Chris Kohler the Penny-Arcade chaps about their new venture.

Of course, if the news of the arrival of Greenhouse doesn’t set your world on fire you are not alone. On the surface Greenhouse seems like YADDS (Yet Another Digital Distribution Service) and joins a crowded field of services like Steam, GamersGate, Direct2Drive, Gleemax, and countless portals all offering their own mix of popular titles and exclusives. So what moves are Mike and Jerry (Tycho and Gabe) taking to differentiate themselves in this crowded sea? First a quick explanation about Greenhouse itself from their own website:

The Greenhouse is a new distribution platform operated by Greenhouse Interactive, dedicated to supporting independent game development worldwide. We help indie developers get their games into the hands of gamers, and that gives gamers easy access to new and innovative games that they might otherwise have missed.

And from the Chris Kohler interview at Wired Gabe himself further explains:

“…but if you’re asking me what sort of things are out there right now that I would love to see on Greenhouse? The crayon game. Crayon Physics. That’s the sort of thing that I would love to put in front of our audience, and say, you guys should play this, definitely. And obviously, we can link it, but to be able to actually distribute it through Greenhouse would be fantastic.”

Beyond focusing on indie games and attempting to harness the support of the indie crowd to drive their success, there’s another key point in Greenhouse’s favor. And that’s the power of being backed by the Penny-Arcade brand. One of the biggest obstacles for any distribution service is gaining traction with people. And while differentiating itself through its indie offering is one way of creating a loyal audience, there’s another easier, more sure–fire method. And that’s exclusives.

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.
Much like Valve helps drive Steam with its selection of titles, Penny-Arcade is in the enviable position of doing the same for Greenhouse. PA’s first game, Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is a great exclusive to help drive Greenhouse. You take the loyal audience of Penny-Arcade readers and give them only one avenue to acquire their game (at least on a PC/Mac/Linux platform). And in theory once that drives people to Greenhouse to quench their thirst for the latest episodic escapades of the PA duo, you also will drive them to see a selection of indie titles. And even more hopefully you’ll see a few of these titles perk their interest and thus lead to the glorious “transaction where money is exchanged for goods and services”, all benefiting the indies.

So here’s to Greenhouse and it’s promise towards indie developers. While there are a lot of details yet to be discussed and lots of vagaries that need to be addressed, Greenhouse by virtue of its creators’ pedigree is a challenger in the digital distribution arena worthy of notice.