The Eternal Castle [Remastered]
by Leonard Menchiari, Daniele Vicinanzo, Giulio Perrone

Windows/Mac/$10/4 hours

"The Eternal Castle [REMASTERED] is an ambitious attempt to modernize an old classic in order to keep its memory alive. Through detailed research and hard work, the production team tried to expand the experience while keeping the same 'feel' and emotional flow of the original masterpiece from 1987."

I'm taking a bit of a gamble on this one — I saw it on 'Six Second Trailers' this morning and instantly bought and played it. There's a chance it will turn out to be a big commercial hit and people will wonder what it's doing on this blog, where I try to recommend you a game you might not otherwise play. But I enjoyed it enough that I wanted to write about it anyway.

The description quoted above, from The Eternal Castle's store page, can't be taken literally — the game is a passionate love letter to Prince of Persia and Another World, neither of which had been released in 1987. Like those games, Eternal Castle takes a technical, somewhat realistic action-platforming system, and uses it as a canvas for telling a cinematic adventure story. The 'Remastered' conceit, I suppose, is there to frame your expectations, since the game is somewhat more rugged and unfriendly (some might say 'janky') than recent high-budget games in the genre, like Inside.

I love how this game looks, from beginning to end. Actual CGA games did not use the four-color palette this way — they tended to try to mitigate the lack of color by using using all four colors on every object, and by using dithering to make the colors blend together. Eternal Castle instead embraces the palette, to create large areas of the screen that are either retina-burningly bright or totally black. This intense contrast creates a sense of light and distance that I don't recall ever seeing in a CGA game.

The action mostly happens in cross-section silhouette, reminiscent of the 1991 Amiga game Blade Warrior, or more recently NightSky or Feist or Limbo. For me it works much better here, partly owing to the ultra-hot palette, and partly to the subtle use of 3D light tricks to fill out the space. It's worth playing Eternal Castle just for how it looks and sounds.

At their best, games in this genre of 2D cinematic action adventures create a sense of place that cannot exist in games where you can explore the space more completely. You can see far into the distance in almost every part of Eternal Castle, but you can only visit a two dimensional slice of its world — just enough to sketch out a much bigger expanse. The game uses camera tricks, dramatic set pieces, sound and special effects to give this dolls-house world a sense of materiality which is quite unusual for 2D games, old or new.

In the same way as the games that inspired it, Eternal Castle tells a story almost entirely without words, and without overtly explaining anything about the world you're exploring or its history. Like the constrained art style, this gives the game room to expand and breathe in your imagination, making it feel richer and cooler than a modern open-world AAA game where you are invited to zoom in on every molecule of the place and its story.

It's hard to take something that is such an unabashed homage to early '90s videogames and write about it in a way that doesn't boil down to "if you liked Another World or Flashback, you'll probably like this". But that framing does a huge disservice to Eternal Castle, as though there were nothing here except nostalgia, when in fact very little of it feels generic or cliché.

Let me put it this way, instead: there is a handful of games that I wish I could forget or make strange, so that I could experience them with the alien wonder that they had on the first play. Eternal Castle is unique enough that it felt like I was playing Another World for the first time.

by Jamie Gavin

Windows/Mac/$5/1 hour


This one came recommended by the wonderful Notable Releases. It's at the crest of an incredibly strong wave of games coming out around now, in which the player interacts with a simulacrum of a computer inside their real computer. I guess there are games in that vein going back at least as far as Spycraft (1996) and Uplink (2006) but I think the modern genre starts with Christine Love's Digital (2010), a prescient work which owned this space for five years, at least until Her Story (2015) Emily Is Away (2015) and Cibele (2015) came out. So this has long been a theme in games, that is used to make the player reflect on their own role as the player of the game, in much the same way as the 'play within a play' is used in Hamlet. Some of the games have a 'cyberpunk' setting, but computers are no longer inherently cyberpunk, and neither are all of the games.

The last year or so has seen a sudden wave of games that use this device. I've written about Black Room (2017) and Subserial Network (2018) on this blog, but not A Normal Lost Phone (2017), Bury Me, My Love (2017), Don't Feed The Monkeys (2018), Macdows 95 (2018), Hypnospace Outlaw (2018), All Our Asias (2018), eCheese Zone (2018), or numerous games that we will most likely see next year. I don't think of it as a fad or a bandwagon, since all the games I just linked are interesting and use the device in their own unique way... but we might reasonably start to wonder what has brought on this sudden influx of games with the same narrative and mechanical frame.

Perhaps it is significant, in 2018, that the computer-within-a-computer embodies the designer of a game holding a mirror up to the player, asking them to reflect on exactly what it is they are doing when they are playing a game or operating a computer that is connected to a network.

ENIGMA MACHINE starts in a pretty normal videogame place — I'm talking to an artificial intelligence, visiting simulated spaces, solving some mild puzzles. But that rote cyberpunk framework is just the blank canvas that the real experience is painted on. Toward the end of it, the game produces some great surprises and ramps up into an intense synesthetic experience which I've had to take a break from because it was getting too intense.

I'm fascinated by the ways in which this wave of games understands the visual medium of simulated computers, of pixels on pixels. ENIGMA MACHINE, like some other recent games (Paratopic (2018) and OK/NORMAL (2018) and Giraffe Town (2018) all come to mind) presents its 3D spaces as PSX-on-CRT, and its textual spaces as MDA-on-P3 Phosphors, a visual anachronism that uses old display tech the way contemporary musicians use vintage synthesizers — to capture a futuristic vibe using an aesthetic of timelessness. Jesper Juul argues that indie games have used retro pixel-art aesthetics to capture a sense of (fake) authenticity and materiality, but these games are way past that—they intentionally violate the visual constraints that would provide that authenticity. To me, it's beautiful.

Anyway, maybe you're wondering why I'm linking to all these other games, if I'm trying to recommend THE ENIGMA MACHINE to you. It's because I'm trying to tell you that something is happening right now in games, like it's genuinely HAPPENING RIGHT NOW and maybe you are missing it, and I know that most of you are only going to play one of these things, at most. This one is dead center on the zeitgeist.

Black Room
Cassie McQuater
Browser/Free or donate here/~1 hour

"Hello! Black Room is a game about your internet browser."

This one has been out for about a year, but I only heard of it recently when it was recommended by author and musician Liz Ryerson.

Black Room presents itself in three distinct ways: as a personal narrative about falling asleep, as a meditation on the web browser, and as a 'feminist dungeon crawler'. These three themes do overlap, and at the center of the Venn diagram is a subtle and opaque experience that is more ambitious and larger than any other browser game I can remember playing.

The narrative conceit that opens the game is the idea that the titular 'black room' is a meditative technique, passed to the author by her mother: imagine a room and fill it with furniture until you fall asleep. The objects in the room begin as furniture but it soons become clear they are framed more broadly as thoughts or symbols, and as you progress through the game the room becomes more fragmented, cluttered and dreamlike, perhaps as the narrator falls into an unsettled, anxious sleep. The recurring visual theme is the image of women from fiction – particularly, from the digital forms of ascii art, GIFs, and videogame pixel art characters – suggesting that in our connected digital lives we are trapped in a waking semiotic fever-dream, where cultural symbols are permanently burned into our retinas to be paraded endlessly behind our eyelids while we sleep.

The author also presents Black Room as a 'game about your internet browser', an idea which is not only explored through the recycled digital ephemera that populates it, but in formal ways through the browser itself. It (explicitly) asks you to resize your browser window to change your view; it pops open new windows with new modes of interaction, and splits your attention and sense of embodiment in the space, building that particular sense of anxiety that is common both to troubled dreams and to browsers with too many tabs left open. Eventually you feel overwhelmed by the threads of too many ideas and too many tasks, your desktop littered with open windows, your computer's fan running at full speed.

There's a good writeup of Black Room on Hyperallergic by Andrew Klein, but I haven't really seen anyone discussing the feminist themes in it, probably because to really talk about it in depth would spoil some of the surprise, and – after all – the whole point of this blog is to convince you to actually play the games I recommend rather than to predigest them for you. But I suppose it will not spoil anything to say that Black Room gradually warms up to a particular idea, which Judith Plaskow famously pioneered in 1972, and which has been explored in other influential feminist games. Black Room, I think, explores a dream that is not nostalgic but darkly utopian, like the work of the first surrealist painters.

By the way: there's a growing breeze of interesting utopian work being done in games right now, especially by younger designers. From Colestia's overtly political games about urban space, to subtly optimistic things like solimporta's Levedad, to specific personal utopias like One Night Hot Springs. In a medium that started with the nihilistic pessimism of Missile Command and Robotron — and stayed there for decades — that seems like some kind of turning point.