Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dreaming in Split Realities: Zen-like Difference Games

Casual computer gaming has come a long way in the past decade. Back in the early 2000s, there wasn't a whole lot to note. Most browser games were simple little distractions that you'd load up and play once, and Flash-based gaming wasn't much different. In a lot of ways, the Brothers Chaps' old Homestar Runner games represent a creative variety of the types of Flash games you'd see on sites like Newgrounds - which is still a huge place to go for the latest in Flash animated movies and games, its offerings running the gambit from many of the best to worst out there on the internet.

Gaming has transformed significantly over the past several decades. We've gone from Pong and Space Invaders with Atari and Coleco to Mario and Sonic with Nintendo and Sega, and then to Sony and Microsoft pushing shooting, conceptual gameplay rehashes, and design pretension to ridiculous levels while trying hard to appeal to the testosterone-driven crowd that would've pushed previous generations of nerdy gamers into lockers high school. Shallow, image-driven game concepts and marketing became popular - though Sega did beat Sony and Microsoft to the punch on that, but their rivalry with Nintendo was frankly friendly compared to the smug hubris regularly displayed by Sony and Microsoft's executives and the worst of their audience - much to gaming's detriment. Normal people don't care about video games making you look "cool," and they don't care about hyperkinetic violence or running around online "fragging" and "pwning" each other while shouting epithets at each other on headset voice chat.

This is where a new significant transformation for gaming has come to light: comfortable, casual pick-up-and-play gaming that anyone can understand, get into, and have a tremendous amount of fun with. Nintendo made their explosive comeback by creating platforms designed to be accessible and to appeal equally to both the usual gaming demographics and entirely new ones - particularly women and actual adults, as opposed to the insecure teenagers and mental-teenagers that Sony and Microsoft have chosen to drive their video game lines into the ground over. We got motion controls - gaming like we'd imagined in futuristic, science fiction settings at last! - and games like Wii Sports, as well as lifestyle software for daily physical and mental health-related use like Wii Fit, Brain Age, Big Brain Academy, EA Sports Fitness, Walk It Out, and more. Exercise and video gaming joined at last, and edutainment aimed at adults. Fantastic ideas, bringing all sorts of outside daily life concepts together with gaming software in ways that we'd never seen - or at least never seen done well - before, evolving video game software as a concept and taking that next step forward as a medium. All this in stark contrast to Sony and Microsoft's focus on graphics, online shooters, and trying to turn games into "movies" without any of the writing or directorial talent that draws us to film as a complete separate medium in the first place. On top of this evolution of how we look at video games as a concept, Nintendo also provided platforms in the Wii and DS where any kind of game from previous - and current - generations could be made, but also made better through the addition of motion controls. And all kinds of gameplay that most people found inaccessible due to the confounding complexity of standard video game controllers suddenly became much more appealing and accessible, the Wii's basic controller undergoing an ambitious redesign to transform how we view standard gaming controls into something much more familiar - a remote control - and comfortable. Even the DS's controls are right at home for most, acting as a SNES controller with an touchscreen screen.

Likewise, where Nintendo's new boom began, we continued to see the mainstream emergence of a previously largely niche - and still mostly niche even now - independent computer game design scene, which I myself was in and out of for a good part of my adolescence, and am I only just returning to this year with an iPhone/iPod Touch game I'm working on with my older brother. Companies like PopCap saw a lot of success with PC games like Bejeweled and Peggle, online digital download stores like Steam began to pop up, the Homestar Runner guys started making even more ambitious games with a taste for the retro (Nostalgia has become a driving and wonderful force with many independent game designers, recalling all the kinds of ideas that made older PC and console video games so much fun in the '90s and '80s that have been lost in modern gaming's fixation on pushing graphical horsepower and ditching gameplay to make godawful CGI movies that take themselves too seriously and fail to understand why video games and movies are entirely separate mediums.), and major search engine homepages like Microsoft's and Yahoo's began hosting a variety of simple Flash games with social elements to entertain people. And, of course, I would be remiss to discuss the current explosion of simple, accessible social titles with their own depth on major social networks like Facebook over the past year. Virtually everybody knows at least one person - if not many - hooked on addictive social games like Farmville or Mafia Wars these days. Now sites like Facebook are being looked at as platforms for serious game development by many companies, hoping to turn a profit off easy accessible titles that are free to play, and thus very inviting. Flash gaming portal Kongregate is a personal favorite time-killer in this vein, a Flash gaming-centric social networking site where you can submit titles and play hundreds to thousands of games of all sorts, catalogued in a way to make it easy to sift out the undesirable titles, with contests to enter and all sorts of little collectibles to get hooked on picking up for your profile, such as little achievement-style badges for numerous games. And on the most eccentric side of things, we have The Kingdom of Loathing, an easily accessible point and click stickman art and comedy writing based browser role-playing game - one of the deepest and funniest games on the internet, which anyone can get into easily, and like Flash gaming and the freeware put out by the indie gaming scene, it too is free to play. There's no shortage of wonderful and worthwhile options for people looking for games to play without spending a cent.

These days, you'd be hard pressed to find mainstream video gaming websites and blogs that aren't centered on the question of whether or not video games are art. And on both the mainstream and niche sides of the industry, you'll find developers - whether teams or a single person - determined to produce meaningful art games. On one hand, you get smaller names like Jason Rohrer, whose games tend to receive a fairly mixed reception and are hard to frame as something "fun" to play. For many art games, the gap between something meaningful by design and an actual entertaining experience is difficult to bridge. On the ultra-mainstream site of the spectrum, we have Sony's Heavy Rain, recently released on the Playstation 3 last week to a ridiculous amount of raving despite its severe deficiencies as a game. The title is literally little more than walking from place to place, watching FMV cutscenes (The game's design focus was centered on producing and pushing some of the most expensive graphics a video game has ever seen. Not exactly a focus that has a history of yielding anything resembling fun gameplay.) and occasionally pushing a random button on the controller for a quicktime event. The game proposes to be a thrilling (minimally) "interactive" film noir, written by people who aren't professional writers or filmmakers, and then raved about by a media largely comprised of people unfamiliar with good literature or filmmaking. Glaring problems with the largely offensive charge into "cinematic" gaming that Sony has been trying to lead with their Playstation brand for over a decade now - pushing focus on graphics and serious narratives (The more seriously a game takes itself, the worse it is, pretty much as a rule.) while pushing further and further away from the very thing that makes gaming what it is: the gameplay. Unfortunately, growing sentiment at Sony and amongst the worst of their fans is that games need to "evolve" out of existence and merge with the film industry - except that it should also be judged separately, and as superior, because these are movies being made by programmers, not screenwriters, directors, or anybody who frankly has any business attempting to make movies, let alone serious ones.

As for whether games are art, it's all a matter of individual perception. For what video games are as a medium, it doesn't matter if they're art or not - that's not the point. They're meant to be interactive entertainment - something you play, not watch. Something you have fun with, not something set on making you cry. An active experience, as opposed to the passive experience that experiencing art is in itself - whether cinema, other forms of visual art, or music. And many types of cinema and television are by no means art in any way worth recognizing as such.

I wanted to do this particular blog post to look at four games in particular, which you can read about and find links to after the jump. All four are Flash games hosted on Kongregate that work well as both artsy titles that draw you in through beautiful, mesmerizing visual design and music, but also as entertaining titles, engaging you through their central gameplay experience: observation. We all grew up playing all sorts of little games in kids' coloring books and the like, from word searches to simple crossword puzzles and more. These particular titles - difference games - are an artsy Flash gaming evolution of those simple children's puzzles where you'd look at two side-by-side images on a page and attempt to pick out or circle the differences between each. In its accessible simplicity and childhood nostalgia, the two developers behind these four games have shown how much can be done with that concept from a more intellectual perspective without losing their fun. So after this long, rambling introduction and discussion of gaming and its movement into the lifestyle, social, and casual arenas for everybody, check out the rest for links to and discussions of the games you're here to see.

5 Differences

A man walks an atom through the park. An electronic crosswalk sign flashes in the middle of a pond. Another man dangles precariously from a bridge. And an artist paints a canvas with the image of an eye, which immediately becomes animate and begins to blink. These are but a few of the surreal images you encounter throughout Ivoryboy's 5 Differences.

A sense of rotoscoped realism pervades the game, which Ivory himself admits on Deviantart is more of an art project than a game.Silent, realistic animations play out here and there, the people practically silhouettes against the stylized, mostly monochrome visuals.

The game was originally uploaded to Kongregate back in October of 2007. In its entirety, 5 Differences plays out across 15 scenes/stages. Of Ivoryboy's progression of the series, 5 Differences is the hardest. Each scene contains a few set differences and some that change on each playthrough. There's a great deal of subtlety to many of the differences, so of all the difference games in this feature, this is the one that could possibly take you the longest to get through.

5 Differences feels slightly primitive compared to the games that follow, in its silence (Apparently it was originally intended to have a Sigur Rós song for backing music.), allowing only the visuals to create an atmosphere. Its sort of sketchy-realist rotoscoped art style differs dramatically from its followups. But if it establishes anything, it's that Ivory has a very well-developed, keen sense of visual aesthetics. This is even more sharply visible in the following games, to which 5 Differences serves as an excellent introduction, well worth playing through for the visual artistry alone.

6 Differences
Glowing red radio transmitters / towers on distant hills, large hands reaching out to the starry sky, a crow atop a church sign beneath the moon, a factory spews rainbow clouds into the sky by a busy highway late at night, a deer in a suit rides the subway, a train passes beneath a suburban neighborhood's streetlights, and a man watches the passing moon and stars, a cityscape visible in the distance.

For his second difference game art project, Ivoryboy spent two months taking photos at three in the morning, and Photoshopped them all before its release in May 2008. The progression from 5 Differences is stunning, leaving its fantastic scene photography intact and only rotoscope-animating over some of the visuals, creating a gorgeous mesh of styles and lending the game an otherworldly feel - something each of the games in this feature contain in a very appealing way. Within this dreamy tone, the photos explore a theme of urban decay at the dead of the night. My very favorite and most romanticized time, and an engrossing, evocative visual theme.

Another notable departure from 5 Differences comes in the form of two fantastic, ambient backing piano tracks, both of which come from Nine Inch Nails' Ghosts I-IV album. I only just learned of this source when doing research for this post, and to say that I'm surprised would be putting it lightly - NIN isn't exactly a band I would have expected to put out a daydreaming-oriented ambient album, but I'm thinking it's one I'll have to check out. This sort of music is writing inspiration fodder for me.

As a game, 6 Differences is a little easier than its predecessor - probably in part because making the differences as subtle as in the previous game would have made for a more maddening experience. In response to frustration with the previous game, a hint feature was also added in case you get stumped, so there's really no excuse for not finishing this one - you want to see it through to the very end. This one plays out over the course of 14 scenes. In some cases, the 6th and final difference doesn't appear until you've already found 5 of the differences, prompting an interesting little animation resulting in some sort of aesthetic change that brings about the scene-ending 6th difference.

Ivoryboy began mixing up his approach to the stay layouts in this game as well. In some cases, instead of two parallel images, he presents you with a direct mirroring of the image on either side, in one stage presented as something of a first person acid trip, looking for differences as the scene sways back and forth and you wave your shadowy animated hands in front of your face.

In addition to the urban decay undertone, 6 Differences is in many ways a love poem to the city at night. Imagery I'm particularly fond of, myself, as a lover of nighttime cityscapes. It's not hard to get lost in the lights. And this game introduces some particularly enjoyable little visual quirks here and there, from a hidden message on a McDonald's sign that you have to zoom in to see to the appearance of the iconic Andre the Giant "Obey" poster in the background in at least one scene. Even Ivoryboy himself appears in the game. I wish I could pinpoint which city the photos for this game was taken in, but all I know is that Ivoryboy lives somewhere in Nebraska, so presumably a major Nebraskan city. Possibly Lincoln or Omaha. 6 Differences is easily one of my very favorite games on Kongregate for its aesthetics and atmosphere as a mood piece.

Can you find all the differences and make it through the surreal late night to dawn?


To take a break from Ivory's art games, which dominate this feature, let's look at a different difference game, by Difference Games. (The previous sentence was brought to you by alternative rapper Differ Diff. Things are different, motherfuckers.)

Dreams stands out from Ivoryboy's works on several counts. Let's start with the first: an actual narrative story. The game follows a teenage girl in high school doing what any of us with active imaginations did in high school - drifting off to sleep in class and going on a strange adventure.

The majority of the game follows the girl through her dreamscape, guided by a woman who looks like she's intended to be some sort of fairy or spirit. The girl flies through the air and witnesses the spectacle of all sorts of strange and wonderful creatures before returning to reality in the end. At heart, the game is a celebration of imagination with the sort of fantastic dream world we'd all love to escape to.

Dreams' scenes are all drawn by a talented artist - I wish I could grant more specific credit, but it's not so easy to track down Difference Games' games' individual staff members. Nor can I speak much of the site/company's nature and how they operate. I can only say that they did a wonderful job with this addictive flight of relaxing fantasy, its comic book art style complemented by an original music track both slightly eerie and somehow nostalgic - there's something about the combined aesthetics of this game that remind me of my childhood in the '80s and early '90s, perhaps something of some of the unusual fantasy works we saw here and there back then. (Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal, for instance. We don't see anything else quite like that being made today.)

Dreams also separates itself from Ivoryboy's games in its gameplay. Each of its 14 scenes contain 6 differences, but unlike the others here, none of the differences are predetermined - they all have set possible locations, but they vary each time you play to keep the experience fresh. Likewise, there's an invisible clock constantly ticking down, encouraging you to finish each scene quickly for point bonuses, as there's a score attack element and an online high score table to submit to, giving the game variety and replayability beyond the artwork. The difficulty of the differences tends to vary from obvious to extremely subtle to keep the player on their toes.

It probably won't take you too long to finish this one, either, with a hint system to make shorter work of the experience, but like Ivoryboy's artistry, Dreams is a very alternative sort of difference game well worth your time.

4 Differences
The most recent of the difference games featured in this post, Ivoryboy's prequel to the earlier two games was just released at back at the end of January.

Stylistically, it continues to develop the mood established in 5 Differences and refined further in 6 Differences, while following 6 Difference's grounding in manipulated photography.

This time, there's no rotoscoped people to be found - only the poetry of the quiet, peaceful imagery presented for your exploration. As is evident in the screenshot here, shifts in hue and contrast are often part of the visual manipulation to bring out certain colors with different intensities to give the game an overlying sort of nostalgic, emotional tone. It transplants you to another place with its atmosphere - somewhere you'd want to go.

Where the previous games mostly stuck to the gameplay formula of carefully looking over two near-identical side-by-side images, 4 Differences shakes things up by giving you numerous mirror images. And where previous games had minimal animation precisely executed to fit the games' ethereal atmospheres, 4 Differences tries a few new concepts: including an entirely animated scene in which you watch two sets of moving scenery - one atop the other - from within a moving train car and look for differences in the passing landscape, and a scene that moves around as you move the mouse pointer over the game. Another scene involves looking for differences in splattering ink, an image gradually taking Rorschach test-esque shape as you successfully find each difference.

Following 6 Differences' NIN soundtrack, 4 Differences features a single, minimalistic ambient track by unsigned independent artist Hugh and Saturation, which draws you right into the dream.

Of all the games listed here, 4 Differences is probably the easiest and shortest at only 12 scenes, most of the differences relatively easy to spot. But in many ways, it's easily one of the most beautiful and refined, as well.


As for why I chose to write about this topic of all things next: I draw inspiration from numerous sources, and I always have appreciation for mood pieces like these. Games like this - and a number of music videos out there - move me creatively with the feelings they evoke. I feel like I should start sharing and discussing my sources of inspiration a little more - if only just a little. You guys like hearing about things like that from artists, writers, and creators of all sorts in general, no? And I may not be widely published yet, but I am technically an author guy of sorts, anyway, with aspirations that exceed the cosmos. (And may or may not resemble the Oort Cloud. That has yet to be confirmed.)

This post also introduces a number of new post categories, so you can take those as a look ahead at what you can look forward to my writing more about in the future as I expand Spiral Reverie's subject matter even further. (See? Eclectic blogs aren't a bad thing when the author has a ridiculous number of interests and hobbies.) The internet isn't all terrible - not  quite - and so I want to at least highlight some of the genuinely good stuff for you guys while adding in my own thoughts. Thanks for your patience, considering that this post was well over a week and a half in the making, and obviously, I had a lot that I wanted to say with it. Enjoy the games!


*T-Abby* said...

Innnteresting...I know nothing of gaming beyond the fact that I used to play CS a lot in high school.

Benjamin Fennell said...

I can ramble about it pretty much at length, since I've been gaming before I could even read, and I'm enough of a nerd that I've been keeping track of where it's going from pretty much all fronts ever since I've had internet access. As a result, I'm pretty opinionated, but I like to think I'm in a pretty good position to share some worthwhile things, as well.