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The Avant-Game - brain food for the hardcore weirdos

The Avant-Game - brain food for the hardcore weirdos
December 13, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

December 13, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, GD Mag, Design

Originally published in the December issue of Game Developer magazine, this piece on diversity in video games from editor-emeritus Brandon Sheffield explores a handful of downloadable titles that push just a little further than what we're used to.

I'm a proponent of diversity in the game industry -- that's no secret to anyone who's read my prior columns. This time though, I'm talking about diversity in the games, not the developers. We've only begun to see games tackle interesting subjects, emotions, and genres; games like Flower, Journey, The Unfinished Swan, and Dear Esther are experimental, but within mainstream bounds. But what about games for the hardcore weirdos? Do we have something for the Ed Wood aficionados of the game world?

Beyond triple-A, beyond social, and even beyond the realm of the standard indie game, there lies a world of curious, confusing, and confounding computer entertainment--and though they don't often make much money, they show us how incredibly broad and full of potential games can be.

The Games

I love you but you kiss like a girl
This is a jousting game for two players, featuring giant faces with tongues that you can extend and retract as the faces continually advance toward each other. You score hits with a long tongue and block hits with a short stubby tongue as you play a game of cat and mouse, raising and lowering your tongue-lance to knock the other player off the screen.

It's an awkward experience for everyone, and thus feels very much like high school, but it is actually a proper competitive eSport wrapped in a ridiculous shell. Play it with a friend and you'll see that an odd premise plus a solid mechanic can yield very solid results.

Magnetic Shaving Derby
Use a magnet to clumsily guide a razor across your face as quickly as possible--and avoid those sensitive eye, nose, and lip areas! If you're too slow, hair grows back and you begin anew. A bonus mode has your magnet guiding a space penguin to grab coins and avoid spiky meteors.

magnetic shaving derby.jpgUltimately, this is an experiment in delayed control input--while you have direct control over the magnet, it has a delayed effect on the object you actually want to move. This give-and-take is the main mechanic of the game, and it works because you know what you're getting into (the lag is a feature, not a bug!) and fits the game's universe.

Dys4ia is essentially a series of WarioWare-style mini-games, most of which you can't lose, that tell the story of one person's biological and mental transition through the use of female hormones.

What's most striking here is that easy metaphors can become more powerful through interactivity: breaking through a brick wall, for instance, or having to stealthily hide from others to avoid scrutiny, or being unable to fit into the established shapes you're given. It's a lesson in how, with the right framing, designers can use simple, straightforward gameplay to speak to something much more subtle.

Enviro-Bear 2000
You're a bear in a car, trying to get enough food within five minutes so you can hibernate for the winter. You have to run into animals, fish, and whatever else, then grab and eat your spoils and get back to your cave. You can only use one hand to shift gears, steer, brake, accelerate, and eat, since your other arm is out the window -- because you're a cool bear and don't want to look lame in front of the others.

envirobeat.jpgThe "narrative" is bizarre and the controls are odder, but ultimately players are frustrated into a head-on collision with enjoyment. Using one finger to control several things at a time is an interesting exercise as a player, but even more valuable to think about as a designer.

Triple Threat
Triple Threat is a two-player competitive tank-battle game in which you control the direction of your vehicle, but not the rate of fire. You have to learn when your tank will fire and try to damage your opponent while also capturing turret nodes to do additional damage. The game is more complex than it should be, but that's part of the charm--removing a critical element (like manual fire) changes the dynamics completely.

Most of you have likely seen Bennett Foddy's input experiments, which have players perform inane tapping motions on their keyboards to complete a conceptually straightforward task, like running a race, moving a horse to a goal, or scaling a rock.

http://qwop.jpgIn these games, the controls are fiddly enough that you can barely get anywhere--and that's the fun. You know what you have to do, but making it happen is always just out of your reach. In QWOP, for example, you move your avatar's thighs and calves separately. The input method makes it hard to succeed, but due to the amusing physical animation, failure is entertaining and almost a reward in itself.

Frog Fractions
Frog Fractions has only just come out as of this writing, but is already making waves for its irreverent mash-up of genres. This game begins as an homage to the edutainment games of the 1990s, but winds up referencing scrolling shooters, text adventures, typing tutors, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and more, as every new screen seamlessly shifts genres.

In a way it's like a long-form mini-game compilation--the theme and drive is always the same, but the input method and general design is constantly shifting underneath you.

Last but not least is my favorite developer of game oddities: Quikding (formerly Quimdung). This mysterious collective of weirdos uses amateurish MS Paint sprites and backgrounds amid bizarre themes to a gloriously surreal effect.

bonkey trek.jpgBonkey Trek has you travel along a perilous road by smacking your bonkey (not a typo) on the back of the head and feeding it so it doesn't die of starvation, all while answering curious questions along the way (again in order to not die). In Cave Rescue, you have to save 100 residents of a town who have been stuck in caves of various sorts, and take them to the government health center. Alternate input methods abound, bizarre stories leave you constantly questioning what you're doing, and glitches somehow don't feel out of place.

Outside the box

While the teachings of these oddities may not easily filter up into the world of monetized game development, they are certainly brain food for the designer, the businessperson, the musician, and the artist. There is so much more that games can do, and it seems that right now we're only investigating what they've already done.

These games, and countless others like them, push just a little further than what we're used to, and there is definitely something to take away from them, regardless of what discipline we work in or how big our teams are. So why not try out some different ideas of your own in a prototype or a game jam? What you make may well inform your next "real" project.

[You can subscribe to the print or digital edition of Game Developer magazine at its subscription page, or download the recently enhanced Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device - with Android support coming soon.]

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