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.

Sylvie and Hubol
Windows/Free/~3 hours

"Welcome to the JIGGLY ZONE. Become JIGGLER and find the Medallions scattered Throughout the land."

I came to this one through the repeated, insistent recommendation of Blake Andrews, Babycastles veteran and longtime contributor to Glorious Trainwrecks, the online home of trashgames and B-games. I wasn't previously aware of the works of Sylvie and Hubol, but they have been prolific producers of free games for the last ten years, always in a B-game style.

Designers of free games don't organize neatly in genres or movements, so probably it's a bad idea to apply terms like 'B-game' or 'trashgame' or 'kusoge' to other people's work. Maybe the easiest way to explain a game like JIGGLY ZONE is to say that for the last ten years, a small set of game designers has resisted the virulent, near-total commercialization of independent games. When you set out to make a videogame you can sell for money, you implicitly accept a large set of norms and orthodoxies around value and quality — for example, commercial games have to look and sound attractive. All the art and sound in them must be original. A commercial game has to be of a certain length relative to its price. It has to be accessible and easy to understand. Most broadly, commercial videogames are not allowed to be terrible in any one dimension... and this comes at a steep price, which is that they are usually not brilliant in any one dimension, either.

When B-games are ambitious, which they often are, they tend to be ambitious in a way that is laser-focused on one single element. This lightness allows them to pursue that one element, be it a mechanic or a concept or a joke, in a way that is forbidden for commercial work.

Here, then, is the reason why you should play JIGGLY ZONE: unencumbered by the need to do everything, it does one thing — level design — to perfection. I loaded it up with a degree of apprehension: do I really want to play another masocore 2D platform game? And then, in spite of myself, I was seduced by the virtuosity in the placement of the blocks and hazards, and the way they give life and depth to the game's action mechanics.

JIGGLY ZONE has a very simple and familiar structure: you are given a nonlinear 2D world to jump around in, and you must collect a bunch of treasures, most of which are squirreled away in places that are hard to jump to. Some of the treasures grant additional powers of traversal, in that familiar Metroid-inspired way, and the game also provides one generous gift from the outset, which is that you can place a checkpoint by pressing the down arrow whenever you are standing on solid ground. The cadence of play, as a result, is rapid staccato repetition: you line up a jump that looks difficult but feasible, you place a checkpoint, and then you attempt that single jump over and over again until you get it right.

JIGGLY ZONE's world is made up of just two types of objects: deadly blocks and solid blocks, and so the substance of the game is just the particular placement of these blocks in each level. At first glance, the placement seems haphazard and almost random. But as you inch through the world, placing checkpoints and forming hypotheses about which jumps are makeable and which are not, you realize every single block has been placed with great care and ambition. The level design starts simply enough but it progressively guides you through the details of the mechanics with a level of granularity I have never seen before: how high is my third double-jump? How much height do I lose if I jump into the ceiling? By the end of the game, it has become the most technical and original platformer I can remember playing, but it is all in the arrangement of the blocks.

I've talked about invisible forms of beauty before on this blog, when I wrote about the puzzle design in Mirror Drop. JIGGLY ZONE has a great soundtrack, but it is a visually hideous game, with a character borrowed from Pokémon and no appreciable story, no high concept, no sense of place. Still, as I worked my way through the game, finding the hidden loopholes and tricks that made impossible obstacles just-barely-possible, I felt that same sense of awe and joy that I feel looking at masterpiece paintings or listening to favorite records.

Invisible beauty, encoded in the virtuosic placement of two types of pixellated block.