Gamepunk: a manifesto

Cave-story
 A still from Doukutsu Monogatari’s freeware masterpiece Cave Story.

Over at Pretty Fakes, Gorjus talks up a great new video game, Continuity. In the process, he touches on, briefly, a welcome trend in gaming design:

For lack of a better term—we’re really at the beginning of a gaming age, and so some of the language is not yet concrete—some of these games feel almost punk to me; for if Uncharted 2 and other PS3 & 360 megagames are Fleetwood Mac and the Speedwagon, these guys are breaking gaming back down into its component parts: puzzles, mood, intensity, feeling, loss, timing, worry, and wonder.

Indeed, Continuity’s look harks back to N, though far less violent or nail-biting. A black stick figure interacts on a gray background with simple geometric patterns; some are dangerous and some are not. Color is used sparingly. The controls are minimal—the game can almost be played with one hand.

Both games hark back to the days of the Atari 2600 and, a little later, the Nintendo Entertainment System. The A.V. Club’s biweekly “Sawbuck Gamer” column is devoted to reviews of cheap and free video games, and it’s startling to note how initially crude some of these games look and feel. Then again, when the primary playing device is increasingly becoming the iPhone, it makes sense that there’s a wealth of games that respond well to an uncomplicated keypad and small screen. When so many “indie” games are created by a single small-time developer, instead of a major corporation or even a mid-size team, it shouldn’t surprise us that the production feels simplified.

These games are not, however, mere reductions. Both Continuity and N, as with the immortal Lode Runner before them, get progressively more difficult and multi-layered. The puzzles, so quick and easy in the initial levels, begin to cause high-tension headaches and finger twitches. Even as the graphics remain crude, the sound design is rich and finely honed. These casual diversions start seeming like pixellated Myths of Sisyphus, the next level topping the one before it in terms of challenge and depth.

Certainly, punk games don’t lack for ambition, either. Take Cave Story, a side-scrolling sci-fi adventure that would look at home on a Sega Master System. Designed by one Japanese designer over several years, the game develops a narrative of depth and pathos, along with providing the goods in terms of a shoot-‘em-up with several weapons, difficult puzzles, fingertip-searing action, and secret goodies galore. It’s so full of secret delights, in fact, that it invites replay even after it’s been completed… just to find all the hidden treasures.

In this sense, it’s just like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda, two games so thoughtful and detailed—despite the abstraction of simple graphics and sound—that they become truly immersive experiences. Cave Story is among the best PC games I’ve played in half a decade, and it’s free and could have been built on a Commodore 64.

So, armed with the knowledge that Cave Story, Knytt, Small Worlds, and countless others like them exist, I propose that designers trim the fat.  What follows are my articles of faith.

A Gamepunk Manifesto:

1) A game is meant to be played, not watched. As a corollary, movies are not video games; design accordingly. No 30-minute “cut scenes,” celebrity voice actors, actual footage from TV shows or movies, or instant replays allowed. Subtitles should be kept to a minimum.

2) Use only those graphics that enhance the playing—as opposed to the atmospheric—experience. Excessive concern with shadows and reflections is not permitted. Abstraction precedes verisimilitude.

3) No game, no matter how challenging its puzzles or complex its narrative, should require more than eight buttons… and four of those are the directional keypad.

4) The game mechanics should be intuitive to the game’s controller.

5) In terms of gameplay, exploration should precede explosion by a ratio of at least 4:1.

6) The gaming area should be a map rather than a rabbit hole. Side-scrolling or a top-down view is preferred.

7) Do not confuse your game with reality. Embrace absurdity, surreal touches, and the game’s internal logic, no matter how loopy said logic is.

8) No cheat codes and no invincibility cloaks.

9) If the game’s development costs as much as a summer blockbuster movie, you’re doing it wrong.

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The above list isn’t meant to freeze game development at the year 1985. Not at all. Rather, I’m thinking like Guy Maddin. His movies use the mechanics of silent cinema—black-and-white stock, irises and wipes, 18 frames per second, title and dialogue cards, melodramatic acting—to fashion incredibly modern and personal movies. My Winnipeg use silent tropes, but they look and feel otherworldly, like something from the future (or at least a warped, alternate present) rather than from the distant past.

Similarly, I want the 8-bit era to remind designers and players alike of all the possibilities inherent in the pixel and the MIDI synthesizer, and to exhaust the complexities of simplicity before indulging in bells and whistles that make the game look really cool to tech-heads but that aren’t much fun to play for anyone else.

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RELATED: In October 2007, I waxed nostalgic about a childhood amidst Nintendo. I wrote about the joys of Tetris here.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to Gamepunk: a manifesto

  1. gorjus says:

    Okay, this is awesome. Going to download Cave Story right now. And your manifesto reminded me of bits of art school–Picasso didn’t start out with fifty-foot abstracted canvases; he started out with small little still lifes, soaked in realism. In their own special way, the basis of gaming is Pong or Combat or Zelda or . . .
    Said another way, learn how to play Johnny B. Goode before Stariway to Heaven. So if we’re looking at purists, for lack of a better word–Metroidians, Zeldites–who ARE the Johnny Rottens of gaming? As opposed to those creators hearkening back to a more pure form, where’s those folks trying to destroy the form? And what happens when the Matchbox-era Beatles (who could play Johnny B. Goode all night long) transform into Sgt. Pepper’s?
    I am happy just thinking about all this.

  2. Your question is the most fascinating one–who’s exploding the concept of what a game is? In some ways, I think the most radical development lately–and one that violates several of my rules, especially re: graphics and production design–is Sega’s Shenmue, which technically has a plot but really is just an excuse to roam (without time limits) through a small Japanese town. The principle of free-roaming, as opposed to plot or time clock, as the principal component of a game has paved the way for Grand Theft Auto and other games of that ilk.
    Also, what about
    Animal Crossing? There’s not really a end-goal for the game; instead, the whole idea is that you play it seasonally–time passes, stuff happens. It’s like life, full of the quotidian, but with cute animals and not much point. Is it even a game?
    Speaking of which, I think Will Wright sorta has to be considered the gaming “punk”.

  3. Sudoku says:

    I agree with #2 and #4

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