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Exploration, Synesthesia, and Architecture; or, Video Games and Summertime
by Parker Scott Mortensen

When the weather is warm I don’t want to play video games. My desire to sit glued to the TV wanes during the summer months. Life has more whimsy, more spontaneity and more nuance - not only does it seem a shame to lock myself inside during this time, but video games hardly seem like the right outlet for a sense of whimsy: doing something I do every other day of the year.

I once wrote an article about how video games are on a collision course with irrelevancy. I genuinely believe in everything I said in that article but its deficit was that it lacked specifics. I intentionally avoided citing many examples of what I found to be both vapid and worthwhile in video gaming because I have a difficult time touching on a topic and not digging down full steam.

I want to spend some time sharing video games I think are more than what we typically expect; titles that can be deep, expressive, exploratory, and even beautiful. It’s during these upcoming months when I’m most willing to expand my tastes; it’s summer, so let’s be more carefree, more expressive, more lustful, more sexy, more fun and more empathetic. Let’s be more everything.

Small Worlds

Open world games have lost their novelty for me since Super Mario 64. In their inception, they promised exploration, implying ostensibly limitless discovery. It was less a descriptor of how much freedom the game afforded you and more a promise of a world worth investigating every inch, not blowing everything up.

Nowadays, the term “open-world game” carries with it that very connotation of wanton destruction. Games like Just Cause and Red Faction unleash players into high-octane explosive playgrounds where environment and exploration are secondary to unrestricted fun. Destructive fun. The danger in that approach is that it abandons one of the core pleasures of being loosed into an imagined space - the simple joy of exploration.

Small Worlds exemplifies that core exploratory pleasure of open-world games. It’s a flash-based indie game about a series of 2D pixelated areas with no goal other than to discover what is around you. You play as a small anthropomorphic bunch of pixels that initially finds himself (or herself) encased in a glass bubble. The only visible way out is a tunnel through the floor. You can see nothing else. Your character is mostly surrounded by darkness, and soon finds that his or her only real option is to escape out of that opening. As you leave your hatch, you uncover more from the darkness as it gives away to a network of tunnels. The more you uncover, the more the camera pans away from your avatar, revealing the extent of the environment you’ve discovered. And there’s a lot to discover.

Small Worlds impresses because it’s a small indie game that executes the ideas behind open-worlds as well as, if not better than, any proper big-budget title. This should be a learning experience: whether you’re scaling buildings, driving stolen cars, or just running around, one of the biggest joys of an open-world environment should be the opportunity to simply exist there. There should always be a persistent sense of discovery.

There are blockbuster games that touch on this sentiment today. Red Dead Redemption crafted a western landscape that wasn’t necessarily always interesting to look at, but felt so legitimate that it was a pleasure to inhabit when the game required you traverse it, and was always good to allow appreciation for a sunset or a slow, winding basin trail. Likewise, Fallout 3’s environment was depressing, but its atmosphere was distinct, complete with its own self-deprecating tone and mid 20th century motif. Even Just Cause 2, with its emphasis on explosions and naive destruction, brandished an island with hidden pockets of peace where the ability to destroy suddenly halted in favour of a few fleeting moments of serenity.

Sometimes, it takes a bare-bones approach to distill the essence of what makes something valuable. Small Worlds takes this approach and encapsulates our basic ideas of exploration in a way that presents them equal to any element, quietly pleading game developers to take note.

Everyday Shooter

I generally loathe twin-stick shooters. Geometry Wars and the like just make me sick - I can’t deal with the amount of challenge those games ruthlessly pile on, and I don’t like feeling like the game is trying as hard as it can to make me fail, as though it were making fun of me. I don’t play games to be pummeled with challenge just for challenge’s sake.

The exception to this distaste is Everyday Shooter. Though it plays like most other twin-stick shooters, it’s in the area of presentation that Everyday Shooter becomes more than a trawl through bullet hell.

While it is definitely a video game, Everyday Shooter occasionally errs towards being a creative tool. One of the core concepts in Everyday Shooter is dynamic response: enemies are abstract geometric shapes that weave and swerve, not necessarily to destroy you (though they will), but also in rhythm to the beat and tone of the soundtrack, which is entirely guitar-based. When enemies are destroyed, guitar riffs and twangs plunk to signal victory; when combos are initiated, the riffs compound and complement each other as the combo increases. In a sense, enemies in Everyday Shooter function more as notes than hard obstacles. It’s synesthesia.

The design of Everyday Shooter a fairly simple system to interact with, but it’s built with some meaning behind it, adding a genuine sense of discovery to an otherwise tired game. It’s not a game I zone out while playing - it’s a game I can't help but think about.

Everyday Shooter differs from other abstract music games because it is less predicated on expression and more about the exploration of mechanics. While games like Electroplankton center around creating music, Everyday Shooter focuses on discovering music. Every level is different in its presentation of graphics, sound, and chaining system; level 4, for instance, has enemies that are more erratic, and they hide behind clouds of murk until you’re close. I kept dying on this level until I learned to be more patient in my movement and carefully hit smaller enemies, triggering smaller, quicker notes before advancing to the bigger baddies, which trigger large payoff riffs. This took a long time to figure out.

What does it mean in the context of creating music that I have to rub up against the enemies before I can even see them? What does it mean when the music itself is practically eluding me?

Everyday Shooter is a game that reorients your motivation to play while you’re engaged in it. It gives you a taste of what it’s like to contribute to something beautiful, and then it makes you fight for that right to contribute. There’s a struggle for creation here, a gem of euphony buried in the game’s mechanics.

When you finally unearth it, it’s nothing short of precious.

Mirror’s Edge

I first played Mirror's Edge during a stage when I was utterly bored and unimpressed by video games. I had bought a 360 in an effort to fertilize my interest in gaming, and Mirror’s Edge was just what I just happened to pluck off the bargain bin. It may very well have been one of the best quickfire purchases of my life. Mirror’s Edge is a game of simplicity, serenity, and most of all, beauty.

You probably know, but Mirror's Edge is a first-person parkour/free-running game for PS3/360 that mainly takes place on the rooftops of an urban-paradise. It's essentially a platformer with a focus on speed and fluidity of motion; the goal is to get from point A to point B as fast as possible.

Every time I play Mirror’s Edge I’m impressed. Not necessarily by the tightness of the mechanics or how much fun I have when I play (it’s often very frustrating), but by the way I feel when I play the game.

The caveat is that I’m one to be inspired by aesthetics, how nicely things look and feel, and that may not be the case for everyone. But I find Mirror’s Edge striking. It’s a game highly focused on environment and your interaction with it. You navigate a minimalist world muted in white, accentuated with drips of only the most vibrant colors that come to define particular areas: a soft swatch of green fills a massive cargo boat, hard yellows tense an ascent through a treacherous atrium, and a deep blue coats a skyscraper in the ultimate moments of the game. It’s a world that uses extreme simplicity to focus your attention.

In high school I was reading some venerated classics. The Great Gatsby, Our Town, The Grapes of Wrath, Kafka’s work, etc. And amongst those, I was playing Mirror’s Edge. All these works swirled in my mind and became a well of inspiration for me as I started to write my own fiction. I drew heavily from the feelings and images Mirror’s Edge swelled in me. There was suddenly beauty in walls and ceilings, vibrant color could bring me to tears and make me wistful. I wrote stories about lovers in elevators and swooned over the crunch of death that follows leaping off buildings.

It was like a virus. The serene minimalism and the way you interact with it infected my sense of beauty and mixed with my previous notions of what was aesthetically pleasing. I could hardly focus on tasks because I missed the simplicity of that world. It was the one time in my life when I genuinely yearned to relinquish myself to an imagined universe that seemed so much more profound, so much more a pleasure to inhabit than our own.

To me there is an ineffable quality to Mirror’s Edge. Something about its design is special in a way I can’t clearly express, partly because it’s personal and partly because the game itself is adequate explanation. That's something that makes me want to hang on to a copy long past its release, long into the future.

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- Parker Scott Mortensen

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