We can see a shift of media entertainment being developed. With the modern world of repeated entertainment and its never-ending consumption, we look at the high risk and experimental projects for fresh air. It’s important to be aware of these alternate creation scenes, if solely for a personnel experience, let alone the additional respect one might find after such an eye-opening occurrence. For games, the ‘experimental’ scene has proved the perfect place to be involved in new forms of interactions, ones that usually lack the overplayed mechanics of big budget games. They deal with issues such as life and death. There has been academic debate over what the terms ‘game’ and ‘experimental games’ infer or give context to. Settling on a definition for both of these terms is for another conversation and the debate still rages today. However, one aspect is usually agreed upon, the experimental game scene fosters developers who create rich and thought provoking content that can change the way you look at media or even aspects of your own life.
A perfect example of the ladder is Every Day the Same Dream by Molleindustria. The game was created in six days by Paolo Pedercini for the Experimental Gameplay Workshop in early 2010. Molleindustria describes themselves with “Since 2003 we produced homeopathic remedies to the idiocy of mainstream entertainment…“ Pedercini is an Italian who currently lives in Pittsburg and teaches his passion at Carnegie Mellon. While the game has received some updates from it’s initial posting, the flavor remains the same. Every Day the Same Dream wakes the player with a drab soundtrack and expertly dull color palate. As the player explores one of two possible directions, colors overlap in this 50’s inspired commentary on the grind of life. The apparent end goal is to arrive at work and do your time in the cubicle. The skilled camera composition and identical plus relatable employees only adds to the player’s commute. After experiencing this white-collar grind, the world hints that there may be more to life. Soon, the player is going off the beaten path, discovering the real goal the game. In time, the goal of the game embraces it’s player’s agency and that of players conscious choice on how to spend their days. Choosing to walk the opposite direction one day may lead to an entirely different and beautiful outcome. It may be that not everyone in today’s world is trapped inside a cubicle, but most can relate to the modern grind of middle-class working repetition. The game is a bleak, depressing, browser based and a short commentary on our own lives and the beauty that is found by simply looking for it.
Often, these hand-crafted stories are based from personnel experiences of their developers. The game Is it time? by Jamie Fraina expresses this honestly. Fraina was originally from New York but has since moved to Dubai. He has created a game with an almost unlimited playing time, but still explores thoughts on when life ceases to be worth living. The game drops the player into the role of being an old woman whose husband has just passed away. The player waits alone in their house, trying to maintain their hunger and boredom. Mere glimpses of your daughter coming to drop off food proves she’s too busy for you, while you have a hard time remembering which characters who visit are real or old memories. If you leave your house, you can make a friend or sit outside, live the life of the elderly. Your options are bleak, and the reality of this life is one that strikes close to home for many. In the controls menu and game webpage, Frainia admits where this game came from if the form of a conversation with his own grandma; “When will it be my time to be with you again, Armond?” This quote has stuck out to me ever since. It seems like there is no point to her life and that she is just lingering, waiting for her time to come to be with her husband again.” As the player lives in this house day by day, their vision and screen gets darker and daily tasks like walking get difficult to maneuver. At the end of each day, you either fall a sleep in your bed or become too exhausted and pass out. Consistently, every time you sleep, the game simply asks you “Is it time?” with a choice of yes or no.
Some of these emotional experiences deal with current and all-too-raw issues. Following the train bombing attack in Madrid in 2004, Newsgaming made Madrid. Newsgaming describes itself as a developer in a “genre that is currently emerging: videogames based on news events.” Newsgaming was one of the first to give these current events an interactive median. Newsgaming shook the space with its first title September 12th, which tried to show the harmful long-term effects of short-term revenge. In the follow-up, but far from sequel, Madrid has players keep memorial candles burning in remembrance of the attacks. The screen consists of many different ethnicities and ages of people from all over the world wearing t-shirts with “I (heart) Madrid” or other places of attacks. Everyone on screen holds a candle that animates as it slowly burn’s out. Every time the player clicks on a person’s candle, it brightens. The goal is to keep the candle bar still burning brightly in memory of the fallen. However, with so many attacks and so many people holding candles, the task is futile. The player chooses whom to remember and subtly decides on strategy to keep only a few always bright or many partially burning. The message is a disheartening reminder that we are human and we should do at least what we can to keep those we have lost in our thoughts despite the difficult task.
Since this kind of media was created, we’ve had many developers dedicated to getting the word out through this median. One of those is Jordan Magnuson who created NecessryGames.com which has lead to the development of several eye-opening games. Magnuson sees his creation using such logic as “I mean that these games are inevitable, in the sense that they had to be made to express some part of our human experience; many artists speak of being compelled to create the things they do, and that is what I am referring to.“ Coming third in popularity after the The Killer and Loneliness, lies another title that deals with real issues in Freedom Bridge. Players control a black cube on a blank and minimalistic screen. The only choice is to move through the right, through a series of barbwire fences, each time getting cut and bleeding more during the short pilgrimage. As the player leaves a trail of blood during the journey onwards, they finally find a bridge. The game comes to a short and sudden end half way across the bridge with a gunshot and the player’s pool of blood. After the feeling of being swiftly robbed of their virtual life soaks in, a screen with information about a real bridge spanning from North to South Korea is displayed, informing the player the bridge in un-crossable and the death they just experienced is very much a reality.
Some controversy debating ‘is this a game?’ is often sparked when games tell a linear story with minimal input needed from a player. One of these games to do just that was created by Tale of Tales and goes by the title of The Graveyard. In it, the player takes the role of an old woman, who walks down the path of a Graveyard. The world belongs to a simple 3D space and only reveals itself with black and white. The motivation and reasoning for such a walk is left up to the player and their own inferring thoughts. The player can try to stray in this 3D world. But the camera forces them down the one straight path in front of them. Eventually the player finds a bench and he or she can chose to sit. After waiting for a short time, a close up of the woman’s face shows on the right and a song about her life starts to fade in. After some meaning is derived from merely this narrative focused music, the player can continue to sit in the yard, or walk back along the path to the opening gates. Even the team stops to further describe the game “ It’s more like an explorable painting than an actual game. An experiment with realtime poetry, with storytelling without words.“ This is truly an experimental title in the sense that it seems The Graveyard was released to the world to see what might happen.
One of the more well-known experimental games about life and death is Today I Die by Daniel Benmergui. Benmergui is from Argentina and has created many indie game hits. Today I Die is regarded as an interactive poem. The player drags a girl who’s submerged underwater to complete puzzles and align words to form a poem. When the words are altered or changed, so is the environment and the current challenge. The end goal is to lift this girl out of the water and free her. Benmergui describes one of the core functions of the game as “moving your focus from your own interior worldview towards the world around you.“ The game deals with serious life thoughts of love and depression, while also generously allowing players to read into their own fears and feelings.
The cult classic of experimental and art games alike is Passage. A game created by the notorious and experienced when it comes to experimental games, Jason Rohr in 2007. Many describe Rohr’s 5-minute unique experience as an interactive poem about life itself. The player’s avatar is a young man who travels left or right through a series of humble mazes, forever traveling and living. If they choose to do so, they can meet a girl and fall in love, thus controlling the couple as a whole. When together, they can only travel through certain sections of the casual maze. The player can choose to stop and open treasure chests or at least reach a significant distance traveled, which once again appears to be the main goal. As they continue to travel, the avatars grow older and their movement through life slows, and eventually the woman dies. Her once walking figure turns into a tombstone. It is up to the player to leave a life companion and continue on, or die next to her. Eventually the player’s time comes and they too fade into a tombstone. Passage was one of the first to give these simple decisions a far greater meaning in the game and in the player’s life.
Experimental games can be a refreshing cleanse from the onslaught of mainstream identical titles. Inside of this smaller scene, we can see a more mature and evolving group of creatives who believe there is much more to be done with interaction as an art form. These experimental projects provide unique and personnel exploration that should reach a wider audience. We can see the future of this media within these personnel projects.
(this article is a draft, please be warned of incoming changes)