Monday, 9 May 2011

That's a lot of the letter V

Steam is really annoying sometimes. This morning it asked me for my date of birth to view a product with violent content; I accidentally brushed the enter key too soon and now the damn thing is convinced that I'm only two months old. And I have no idea how to undo that. The online help pages certainly don't have any intention of telling me.

I was one of the first wave of users, and the lag, bugs and lack of support were so bad that I ws driven from it and therefore, sadly, Valve products in general. After completing Half-Life 2 the first time around, I barely touched Steam. I mustn't have so much as clicked the icon in stretches of, lordy, two years at a time.

When convinced by friends to take up Steam's chat service a couple of months ago, for the purposes of voice comms during Minecraft sessions, I found myself pleasantly, if mildly, surprised. Everything is well laid out, it's fairly smooth and fairly fast, and there's a brilliant selection of games. There are still faults - the damn thing seems to spend its entire existence updating, for a start - but it's a world away from the poorly-implemented service I knew and just about tolerated (for a brief time, anyway) back in 2004.

And whatever faults Steam has I can overlook for one simple, joyous thing: it's made demos cool again. As recently as four or five years ago, most devs had seemingly given up on playable demos. Some blame the nature of sandbox games or the further rise of cross-console releases, but those things didn't stop people in previous generations; I'm pretty sure it's just a case of greedy publishers not wanting to give away even the slightest bit of content for free. And that's one of the many reasons why I fell out of love with gaming. Being unable to try before I might buy meant that... well... I didn't buy, more often than not.

But Steam, as well as championing indie games, has made the distribution of demos not only feasible but commercially viable once again. No more having to scour shady download repositories or wait for magazine coverdisks, which was how things worked a decade ago; now, if a game intrigues me, I can give it a try on my own terms, and if I like what I see I can buy the full version then and there. This is a truly marvellous thing.

To younger gamers this must all sound like the confused rantings of a hopelessly out of touch old man. Well, I am what I am, but over the last few days I've been young again, playing demo after demo in a state of rapt enthrallment. Especially indie games; I here and now stake my claim for the right to, whenever anybody starts complaining that nobody is doing anything new in the gaming medium, punch that person in the face. And then make them play Eufloria or VVVVVV.

The latter is especially brilliant. It's a platformer with no jump key - your commands are left, right, and switch direction of gravity. Yes, switch direction of gravity. Instead of jumping over a pit of spikes, you pull yourself onto the ceiling, walk past it, and then drop down again. Genius. Like Portal, the game is very clever about how it uses this, making it essential to the gameplay and not just a gimmick. And like Portal, while Prey technically did it first, VVVVVV does it much better. It's also extremely cute and - helped out by the retro-styled graphics - even a little emotive.

Designer Terry Cavanagh (of Distractionware) is also responsible for the haunting Don't Look Back, an 80s-ish platform retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Of all the games out there which require you to shoot Cerberus up the arse with a handgun, it's quite possibly the best (did any of the Devil May Cry games ask that of you? I can't rightly remember off the top of my head).

A couple of other intriguing little art-piece puzzle-platformers found on Don't Look Back host Kongregate, referenced a few times in the comments field for that game, are Loved and The Company of Myself. The former succeeds more as artistic statement than game; it's short but quite beautiful, visually, and contains some interesting musings on a range of subjects connected to dominance, servitude and - in terms of both ownership and overbearing creepiness - possession. Sadly the game side of things is twitchy and unresponsive at times; perhaps that's why creator Alexander Ocias identifies it primarily as a short story. The Company of Myself is built around an absolutely remarkable concept - using the main character's past lives as tools to get through the game. Think Super Meat Boy's end of level replays, redone as the core mechanic. Maybe I'm envious because I had a similar idea myself recently, and Company does it better justice than I ever could.

But Company also stands out for the weaving of the story into the mechanics. That many-lives gimmick is richly explored by the narrative and not in the way you might think. Rare is the game which truly moves us; rarer still is the game which moves us when we're not even doing anything tactile yet, while we're advance-mapping out a level and suddenly we realise the impact of what we must do to progress. But exactly that happened to me this morning. It's a sensitive, intelligent story which also happens to include one of the, and I am not kidding here, most overwhelmingly excellent mechanical gameplay devices I have encountered in literally years.

I was heartened to see that all three of these games have received reams of positive feedback and favourable community ratings. But the negative feedback is just as telling.

Naturally, some of the negative comments come from those complaining that they Don't Get It, or that these games don't contain enough gore and explosions, or that the graphics are stupid and the music is gay (they're not, and it isn't). Not to stereotype or anything, but these definitely tend towards the less literate of posts. But there's also another layer to the poor responses. There is, it seems, a small but fervent minority who actively oppose the use of games as an artistic platform, who find the very concept of narrative-led gaming pretentious and argue that Having Something To Say is best left to other, less visceral media. This reaction, I must confess, was a bit of a shock.

I know there are plenty of gamers who simply don't care about games as art, or games as story. I don't mind that at all. But the idea that games as art is actively detrimental to gaming is one I hadn't really considered before. Maybe it's spinning out of the old narratology vs ludology debate from way back when, when games were only just breaking into the academic consciousness? The idea that individual games have been hampered by their story, or by artistic pretensions... yes, certainly. But to argue that it's bad for the medium as a whole to want to tell mature or provocative stories? I'm not sure I can wrap my head around that.

But then, I'm sure some people can't understand why I think Halo has been bad for the industry overall. Mere dislike is easy enough to deal with - I don't like real time strategy games, so I don't play them. Simple. I actually quite enjoy Halo, as far as braindead repetitive corridor shooters go; my problem with it is that it pushed the focus of game design in a direction I consider to be ultimately harmful to the cause of gaming being considered a valid medium. Perhaps the people who enjoy said direction are the same people who are actively opposed to games led by artistic concerns.

Are they wrong? I dunno. Not necessarily. But I can't accept that artistic games, seeking to tell intelligent or emotionally resonant stories, are bad for the business. Where would that mindset have gotten theatre or cinema?


  1. I remember the early days of Steam. I had a 56K modem and a connection which automatically dropped every 2 hours. It was hell.

  2. Oh Steam, thou saucy client, why dost thou make BT wax wroth and cause them to cast slings and arrows of fair usage notification into mine inbox?