Even those who would reject the idea that videogames are an “art form” could agree that games can exhibit certain traditional aesthetic values. One prominent one is elegance. If we look toward traditional, analogue games, it seems inarguable to me that Go is elegant, and that Chess is elegant. Over the course of centuries, the tumbler of human culture has worn them down to their most perfect, least messy forms. (And they often come in supremely visually pleasing packages, to boot.) Looking to the history of videogames, it seems uncontroversial to propose that Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov, 1984) and Breakout (Atari, 1972) also exhibit this serene mixture of simplicity and grace.
Of course, videogames can also be bloated and unrefined. On the audiovisual level, the public imagination has long associated the medium all that is cacophonous and retina-searing: a ceaseless stream of crude stimulation optimized for goldfish-like attention spans. A peek at the output of PlatinumGames or Treasure over the past decade demonstrates that this conception is not entirely unearned. On the design side of things, games often come packaged with an inordinate amount of mechanical cruft. To boot up a contemporary Ubisoft game is to be assaulted by map icons, as the core activities of the game are augmented with collectibles and minigames and side-challenges and online player “invasions” and microtransactions and and and and and and and and and….
Sometimes, though, you can point to a game and say, “this is exactly what it needs to be, and no more.” Sometime a game stands as a perfectly-cut gem of craft, with every element contributing to an overall sense of balance. Its user interface is a triumph of usability, compact and graceful. Its color scheme is tamped-down and meaningful. Its sound design is minimal and expertly-deployed. It is thematically tight: if there is a narrative involved, it is a lean and coherent one. It is, overall, soothing in its form, even if it might simultaneously be stressful in its challenge.
The first five games of this list all chase this sort of technical perfection. Some are small, and some are large, but they all are careful not to hit one unnecessary note.
Wait … what? Who does that? Who makes a decade-long retrospective in a year ending in anything but a 9? And who publishes a retrospective in any month but December?
Well, I do. And I have my reasons for it.
Chief among these is that the true purpose of any “best of” list is to be wrong in fun and provocative ways. What better way to start things out, then, than by choosing an utterly arbitrary set of dates?
But, really, I do have reasons, which you’ll find below the fold, as well as the categories I’ll be announcing the games in. The list itself will start tomorrow, and continue until October 10th. (And there’s a reason for that!)
This past March, at SCMS, I walked out on a paper being delivered by Oscar Moralde on The Witness (Thekla, Inc, 2016). I did so not out of disinterest. (I’ve enjoyed Moralde’s papers in the past.) Nor did I do so out of rudeness. Rather, I did it because of spoilers. Moralde was kind enough to warn ahead of time that his paper would spoil a small portion of the joy of teasing out the behaviors of The Witness’ world, and advised those who hadn’t played it to leave, lest they deny themselves a rich intellectual—and some would even say emotional—experience of personal discovery. And, in my eternal shame, as of March of 2017, I still had not played The Witness. Even though it had been sitting right there in my Steam library for months. (Ashlyn Sparrow and Whitney Pow can attest to the truth of this story.)
Moralde’s paper was a wake-up call to me that I needed to get better about my gaming backlog, if for none other than purely academic reasons. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping up on things in real-time since that moment. (I played Tacoma, already!) I offer this story, though, not (strictly) as a chance to to advertise my newfound dedication to keeping up with recent releases, but also as a warning. Basically, the heads-up Moralde offered in front of his talk also applies here. The pleasures of The Witness are the pleasures of discovering puzzle mechanics, and you will deny yourself a small portion of those if you watch this new video essay I’ve whipped together.
That said, if you don’t mind spoiling such things, or if you’ve played The Witness already, go ahead and dash right in. This video is considerably shorter and more focused than my previous experiments in the “Let’s Study” format. It focuses on the pedagogical aspects of the game’s puzzle design, in particular its fondness for safe failure. Whether it’s encouraging assumptions about its mechanics that quickly get proved wrong, or setting up perceptual bad habits only to nip them in the bud, Jonathan Blow’s puzzle design in the best portions of The Witness front-load failure, so as to hammer home lessons. I hope you enjoy my short tour through this technique!
As before, a full transcript of my narration is below the fold. (I’d love to eventually add these as subtitles to the YouTube upload for accessibility reasons, but that is beyond my abilities, at the moment.)
When you first start playing Eli Piilonen’s The Company of Myself (2DArray, 2009), it feels as if someone found a way to perfectly weld together a diary entry with a puzzle platformer. This was back in the heady days in the wake of Jonathan Blow’s Braid (Number None, 2008), when the public at large was still reeling over the idea that puzzle mechanics could mean something. And, at first glance, The Company of Myself seems to take this trend and go somewhere quite confessional with it. Its central mechanic of cloning yourself to solve puzzles stood as a perfect expression of feelings of self-reliance. And not just any self-reliance, either, but rather that specifically incorrigible mode of self-reliance that emerges when one is a bit too much of an unreconstructed introvert, refusing even the most basic forms of assistance because you desperately wish to not bother, or to be bothered by, anybody.
The “cloning” mechanic has popped up elsewhere in games—for instance The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (The Odd Gentleman, 2010)—but The Company of Myself was more ambitious, wedding the mechanic with a personal story of interior life. Or, at least, it seems to do this, until you realize the whole thing is bullshit. The story takes an eleventh-hour delve into the lurid, revealing itself as an over-the-top fiction, rather than a form of sincere self-expression on the part of its creator.
The Company of Myself takes the easy way out, tacking on an over-dramatic denouement that destroys its potential as a diary-game. But … what if it didn’t? Could one actually use puzzles to communicate the intricacies of internal lived experience, in an emotionally sincere way? In this entry, I’ll be looking at two games that try: Liz Ryerson’s intimate and beguiling Problem Attic (2013), and Atrax Media’s more slick and straightforward Sym (2015). Along the way, I’ll also be dipping a bit into Braid, just because it’s hard to talk about contemporary puzzle platformers without doing so.