The games in my “ambition” category all “aimed big.” They tried to simulate the daily lives of an entire community, or put the entire history of videogame storytelling in their satirical sights. This category can be seen as the reverse of that. If my “ambition” games were large in scope, these games are small. They are cozier, more intimate, content to make sharp observations on a small scale, or to experiment within a tighter and more focused domain.
You can also think of this category as an extension of sorts to my “stakes” category, from two days ago. Much like Gravitation or That Dragon, Cancer, many of these are about interpersonal relationships. They are about acting ethically as a parent, or a sibling, or a lover, or … an interstellar salvager who has rescued a couple of AIs.
Okay, so, the connection might not be obvious at first. But, much like the games in my “stakes” sub-list, these are games that give you stranger, more precise goals than saving the princess or saving the world. They give you goals that are deeply intertwined with the hopes and fears of characters you get to know … well, intimately.
Ultra Business Tycoon III
Platforms: Browser-based Twine (here), Desktop-based Twine for Windows, Mac, Linux
Porpentine burst onto the scene in a big way in 2012 with Howling Dogs, which established her as one of the major authors working in Twine, and an exciting new voice in interactive fiction. It remains, to this day, her best-known work, and the one most likely to be name-dropped or added to a syllabus as a synecdochic representation of the entire Twine scene.
But one do oneself a great disservice if one confine one’s knowledge of Porpentine’s writing to just Howling Dogs. There are so many sides to Porpentine’s writing, each of which gets heavier weight in different works. There is her strange and poetic fantasy imagery, on display in Howling Dogs, and further highlighted in Their Angelical Understanding (2013). There is her queer re-alignment of disgust with awe, re-casting the filthy and degraded as the beautiful and sacred (highlighted in With Those We Love Alive, 2014). There is her humor, which incorporates both absurd imagery and sudden bursts of charmingly colloquial language (High-End Customizable Sauna Experience, 2013). There is her sheer, gut-punch sense of sadness and desolation (Begscape, 2014). There is her elaborate experimentation with using Twine to create not pure interactive fiction, but hybrid simulation games, with inventories and goals-within-goals (Skulljhabit, 2014). And, finally, there’s her part-cynical, part-wacky nonsense riffs on game culture in general, and 1990s games in particular (How to Speak Atlantian, 2013).
So, for me, Howling Dogs doesn’t cut it. It’s a strange and moving piece of interactive fiction, but I cannot, in good conscience, have it stand as my sole representation of Porpentine’s prolific output on this list.
Ultra Business Tycoon III, though … that, I can feel better about. Ultra Business Tycoon III has it all. Every single aspect of Porp’s output that I find distinctive, and that I love. It’s fascinating; it’s funny; it’s more than a little gross. And so, if I have to chose only one of Porpentine’s many Twine games to go on this list (and I am doing that, somewhat arbitrarily), it must be this.
Ultra Business Tycoon III is a work of interactive fiction about playing a videogame. To reach the end of the IF piece, you must beat the game-within-a-game that gives the piece its title. This makes the whole thing a rather interesting intellectual exercise for those who enjoy pondering the boundary cases clustered around commonplace understandings of the concept “game.” I assigned it to students of one of my classes, to prompt discussion in this area. Not a single one of them finished it.
Why would I grant such a game a place on this list? Because sometimes, the most gratifying stories are those that ask a lot of you. Those that aren’t afraid to bore and frustrate you, to test your patience to see if you’re up for the delicate revelations that will play out by their conclusions.
Ultra Business Tycoon III can be a frustrating experience. You’ll have to do the same thing over and over again, waiting for an arbitrarily different response. You’ll have to click through options that don’t make sense. You’ll get stuck. You’ll swear at the developer. You’ll swear at those GODDAMN BEES.
All of this is necessary.
All of this is necessary, because the character you are embodying is confused, too. These things don’t make sense to them, either. They are bashing against this game for a reason, though. They have a motivation that you perhaps lack. And, as the game progresses, its narration gradually peels away from the game-within-a-game, establishing some space between you and the player of Ultra Business Tycoon III. You begin to learn more about this person: who they are, why they’re playing. What they’re escaping from by pouring all of their time into this game, as confusing and frustrating as it is. What they value, and what they want, outside of simply beating Ultra Business Tycoon III.
To play Ultra Business Tycoon III is to understand why somebody else plays videogames. It is provocative, and it is heartbreaking.
And whether you consider Ultra Business Tycoon III to be a “game” (whatever that might entail) or mere “interactive fiction” (whatever else that might entail), it remains undeniable that Ultra Business Tycoon III is powerful, and it is necessary.
Platforms: Flash for browsers (here), for Windows, or for Mac
Paolo Pedercini, the radical artist at the center of Molleindustria, has long been at the forefront of using videogames as a vessel for agitprop rhetoric. Every Day the Same Dream (2009) made waves for its bleak simulation of unfulfilling labor and alternative possibilities. Phone Story (2011, with Michael Pineschi) famously got banned from the App Store when Apple decided that its exposé on the labor practices of smartphone manufacturing hit too close to home. Across all of his output, Pedercini remains committed to using the medium to craft parables: short experiences that, like Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation, efficiently express a message through simple, transparent mechanics. (There’s a reason why Ian Bogost uses Molleindustria’s 2006 McDonalds Video Game as one of his first extended case studies in Persuasive Games.)
But although I respect Molleindustria—and appreciate the pedagogical value of Pedercini’s modus operandi—I have to admit that most Molleindustria games leave me cold. Their rhetoric is too exposed, too clean, too calculated.
This changed with Unmanned, Pedercini’s collaboration with Jim Munroe. Munroe is a Canadian video artist known for humble, funny machinima pieces such as My Trip to Liberty City (2003) and Yoga Deathmatch (2005). The humane warmth of his writing ends up being the ideal complement to Pedercini’s usual steely radicalism. Unmanned exhibits Molleindustria’s usual perfect blend between mechanics and message (in fact, I’d say it’s one of their strongest games in this regard), while also grounding its politics in a very human, personal story.
Unmanned is a game about drone warfare. It asks all of the usual questions, and lobs all of the usual charges. What happens to “warfare” when only one side of the conflict is actually putting their lives on the line? Is it psychologically healthy (to say nothing of morally defensible) to reduce combat to a videogame? Aren’t drone operators alienated from their task of taking human life, in a way that actual combatants whose lives they take aren’t? What does it mean to make life-and-death decisions, when one is safely ensconced in an office cubicle?
But Unmanned does more than hit you over the head with the usual issues. It is also about being a father, and being a husband. It is a parable of alienation and distraction, not just in the specific instance of being a drone operator, but also in the general milieu of modern life and capitalistic labor. It is about a person, as much as it is about the military-industrial system that he is a cog within. It is, in the end, a short fable about how to be a moral actor, given shape by a brilliantly metaphorical control scheme.
Developer: Love Conquers All Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux
Let’s take a moment to disentangle a particularly prolific period in interactive fiction/visual novel author Christine Love’s career, spanning from 2010–2013, shall we? In 2010, Love released Digital: A Love Story, a game about reading emails and falling in love with an AI, which rightly turned some heads. In 2011, she released Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story, described as “a sequel of sorts” to Digital. In 2012, she released Analogue: A Hate Story, an official spiritual successor (though not direct, plot-related sequel) to Digital. And, in 2013, she released Hate Plus, which is very much a direct sequel to Analogue. Got all that? Good.
If I were judging on the merits of how well each of these games told a self-contained story, then Analogue: A Hate Story would win out. It takes the basic epistolary structure of Digital: A Love Story and refines it, crafting a world that is more detailed, and a relationship that is more emotionally rich. If I am being perfectly honest and objective, I must acknowledge that Hate Plus suffers a bit from being such a direct sequel to Analogue. Playing it without playing Analogue first would render the story difficult to follow, and vague in its implications. So, really, I should have no business recommending Hate Plus over Analogue: A Hate Story.
And yet … Hate Plus is so endlessly fascinating. If we judge Love’s career not on her ability to tell self-contained stories, but instead around her experimentation with characters and the player’s relation to them, than Hate Plus is clearly the apex.
In Hate Plus, we bear witness to the decline of a parliamentary democracy into a ultra-reactionary, patriarchal monarchy that would make Mencius Moldbug blush. Think The Handmaid’s Tale. Or, um, the US circa 2017. But although the detail that Love provides about this downward slide is impressive, the real focus is not on the politics, but on the people affected by them. This includes your two companion AIs (rescued off a derelict ship in Analogue: A Hate Story). And it is here where things get fascinating. You will feel things toward the two AIs in Hate Plus that you have never felt toward any videogame character before. You might even do things for them that you’ve never done for any other videogame character. These characters’ worlds open up to you in ways that are utterly foreign to the medium, charting new possibilities.
I’ve written about Hate Plus before on this blog, so I won’t belabor my praise here. Suffice to say, this is one of the most boldly experimental games on this entire list. And its experiments are all aimed at pushing the boundaries of what our interpersonal relationships with fictional characters can be.
Developer: Team Oneshot
Released: Original freeware version 2014, commercially-released remake 2016
A slight whiff of déjà vu: Here we are with another game that is boldly experimental, and uses its experimental tendencies to expand the types of personal and emotional relationships we can have with videogame characters. And another one that I have written about at greater length before, as well.
If you were hellbent on being uncharitable, I suppose you could simply slot OneShot into the “self-aware and melancholy riff on JRPG nostalgia” genre staked out by Undertale. And, I mean, sure. They tell similar stories, using similar graphical styles. (In fact, judged solely on matters of story and characters, I would have to say that I prefer Undertale to OneShot.)
But OneShot is so much weirder and more modernist than that. Its world and its characters seep out into your PC in ways that are utterly unexpected. Undertale eventually made its way onto Sony platforms, and it’s not inconceivable that it would eventually come out on the Nintendo Switch, as well. OneShot, though, is so utterly platform-bound. It uses modernist medium-specificity as a way of ingratiating you to its protagonist in a way that its simple save-the-world story could never hope to achieve by itself. In its best moments, OneShot is akin to a pocket-sized alternate reality game: it requires the same sort of lateral thinking and willingness to poke around with your computer outside of the usual bounds of game interfaces. And yet, no matter how how much it pushes the boundaries of the medium (in ways both literal and figurative), it remains thoroughly grounded in the sense of care we feel toward its virtual protagonist.
Any game that can make you say to yourself “I did not know that was a technical possibility of the medium,” while simultaneously wiping away a tear, is a good game, in my book.
Developer: Star Maid Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux
As Laura Mulvey told us all so very long ago, cinema is all about scopophilia. It is the pleasure of visual voyeurism, of seeing without being seen. As we monitor others’ lives from the safety of a darkened theater, we gain some sort of primal fetishistic sense of control over the proceedings.
The idea is still intriguing all of these decades on, but far from conclusive. Sound is a notable absence in this theory. We should acknowledge that voyeurism is not the only form of spying. There is also eavesdropping, which arrives with its own set of pleasures.
And I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a game that understands these pleasures quite so well as Cibele.
In Cibele, you play as Nina (the game is autobiographical, and the protagonist is a younger version of creator Nina Freeman herself), as she logs time in the colorful and easygoing MMO Valtameri. You can poke around on Nina’s computer desktop, rifle through her photos and emails, then bring up Valtameri, and kill some low-level monsters. As you do so, Nina engages in cautious and emotionally-guarded flirtation with Ichi, another player she has met in the game.
Technically speaking, in Cibele, we “are” Nina. We are right there, seated at her computer, playing Valtameri as her. But our actions as Nina are relegated to MMO grinding, and pointedly don’t include choices in her dialogue. So our consciousness is split. Although we function “as” Nina in the game’s interface, we are also aware of her as an independent agent. Although we control Nina’s mouse, we merely listen in on the emotional details of her private life. Unlike Firewatch, Cibele isn’t based around the feeling of bantering with a friend. Cibele doesn’t invite us in in quite the same way. Although we come to know these characters intimately, our lack of agency means we are more of a close, secret witness than a participant.
The encounters we bear witness to are both embarrassing and charming, heartwarming and heartbreaking. Although I can’t shake the feeling that the 30-year-old Freeman was a bit too old to play her 19-year-old self in the game’s video interludes, there is no denying that she does a fantastic job voice acting the character, as does Justin Briner in his vocal performance as Ichi. (At the risk of being redundant, I will say yet again that voice acting is very important, and the improvements in it we have heard over the past decade have worked wonders in games’ ability to land emotional punches.) Freeman and Briner are both pitch-perfect in their performances of self-conscious nerds, too achingly embarrassed to be emotionally honest about what’s staring them in their faces. In their halting and posturing delivery, one can clearly hear the deepest of all teenaged emotional torments: the mutual crush that dare not speak its name.
These two are both insecure about their sexual inexperience, confused as to what forthright emotional intimacy might mean, and on top of it all separated by a continent. If only they could talk to each other about these things. But, alas, the heartbreaking fact is that that’s not how adolescence works. In its self-assured decision to deny us control of these intimate conversations, Cibele wants to make sure we remember that.
All of the games I have put in the main section of this category have been experimental in some way: they experiment with control schemes, or narrative, or the boundaries of the game itself. I wanted to leave room in my honorable mentions for games that aren’t quite as bold, and therefore don’t quite earn their place on the main stage, but are nevertheless quite lovely.
Fran Bow (Killmonday Games, 2015) is an achingly traditional point-and-click graphic adventure game, with all the usual hallmarks of the genre, right down to the overstuffed inventory. The tale it weaves, though, is delicate and nuanced, a chronicle of psychological maturation that is somehow also a flight into fantasy. Whether one reads its more fantastical elements as reality or as escapism, there is no denying that the game touches upon a very personal struggle to accept death, with its macabre touches balanced by overwhelming humanity.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) (Upper One Games / E-Line Media, 2014) is a comfy little co-op puzzle platformer, with a fairly standard save-the-world narrative. As such, it won’t be winning any awards for originality. What it excels at, though, is showing that save-the-world narratives can come in lots of different shapes and sizes, across many different cultures. In the case of Never Alone, it is the Iñupiat culture: the Alaskan natives whose tribal council established Upper One Games, and from whose folklore the plot and characters of Never Alone are drawn. I can’t honestly say that Never Alone is unlike anything else you’ll ever play. But between the Iñupiat-language narration, the striking art style, and unlockable documentary videos detailing Iñupiat culture and the history of the tale in question, it is one of the most distinctive games of its genre, a fascinating bit of inter-cultural exchange that gives outsiders a chance to peek in at the process of passing down tribal heritage.