Some short-form
January 07, 2009

If there's one thing I've learned from my time as a games player, it's that I have an insufferably short attention span. Counting the number of game I've completed by choice rather than because I had to for purposes of reviewing the thing leads me to only a small handful of titles - most recently, though I reviewed them both, Fallout 3 and Mass Effect.

Of course, there's little correlation between an epic blockbuster of a mainstream game and some of the little art-house titles that pop up around the internet from time to time; but hell, it's a good segue, so shut up. While ploughing through the last couple of weeks with a virus (a real one, not a computer one, and one that seems to have resurficed in full force today. I come armed with Lemsip), I've had the chance to plough through a few short-form 'games' - and a bloody good riot it's been too.

This interest actually started when writing a feature on The Path, Tale of Tales' upcoming horror-adventure game. Browsing through their back-catalogue, I came across a rather interesting little gem of experimental design, which led me to scour the realms of the internet in search of more short-form releases. Anyway. Thus. All are playable, in some form or other, for free. And beware: spoilers are likely to follow. If this introduction has pricked up your ears, play them first, then come back to the analysis.

The Graveyard (Tale of Tales)
This is the one we're not supposed to call a 'game'. It's an "explorable painting" and "an experiment in real-time poetry, with storytelling without words."

The description's perfect. First controlling this decrepit old lady feels clunky and infuriating. But as you make your slow progress up the path, you begin to realise: that's the point. This is portrayal of old age, presented in a way that every other medium would be incapable of. As Tale of Tales themselves put it: it could easily have been a short film; but then it would have lost its impact. This is all about your empathy with its silent protagonist: and as you make your way towards the chapel, at a painfully low tempo, you begin to understand.

So, at your life's new pace, you begin to observe. You look at the rays of the sun peaking through the clouds above, casting ghostly shadows onto the path where you walk. You see the leaves sway in the breeze, and hear their rustle overhead. You listen as the sound of the city moves aside out of respect for the tranquility of the graveyard. And, finally, you sit down, and you think.

This is the pivotal moment of The Graveyard. That song, and that scene, and that added poignance of the possibility of death if you've paid $5. It affects the game a surprising amount, though perhaps just knowing about it, or watching that version on YouTube, would carry with it the same impact. (That said, it seems a little sad not to cough up a mere $5 as recognition for the care Tale of Tales have taken here.) This is an interactive poem about the fragility of life in its peaceful finale. You have no control over whether you live to see another day. If it's your time, your head slumps over in front of you, and you stay sitting on that bench for the remainder of time. If you're lucky, you awkwardly stand, and begin to make your way back out into yet another unpredictable day.

You Have To Burn The Rope (Kian Bashiri)
"Games are too hard these days," reckons Kian Bashiri. About as far away from The Graveyard as it's possible to get, You Have To Burn The Rope arrives in the great tradition of It Does Exactly What It Says On The Tin marketing. It's a very self-aware pastiche of hand-holding in modern videogames, with the subtlety of your average screaming internet meme. The ludicrous manuals, game guides and walkthrouhgs, created in association with this project, ensure you understand its joke.

I'm not sure I'm fully comfortable with the very obvious Portal parody at the end. Firstly, that strikes me as exactly the sort of game that doesn't warrant such a take-off, being brilliant, clever and novel as it is; and secondly, because I wonder if it starts to push its luck a bit in the Look at me: I'm a JOKE stakes. Still, I love You Have To Burn The Rope. That it's so clear and directed in its approach, even sidestepping the fact that it adds to the comedy, is a commendable thing. That it gives you a weapon, but only as a pure, unnecessary cosmetic, adds a bit of subtle satire to the mix. That it's over in a matter of seconds is, most probably, one of the main aspects of this 'modern videogames commentary'. An immediately silly, but pragmatically very intelligent, little creation.

Gravity Bone (Blendogames)
This is one that I really don't want to spoil for anyone that's going to play it. Its premise is that of a tactical espionage shoot-em-up with heavily stylised graphics. It's free. Go and download it, play it to its conclusion, then come back.

Seriously, you're going to spoil it for yourself...

Okay. Done? Right.

Wow. Wasn't that good? When was the last time a game ended with your death, just as it was about to get going? Before you even picked up much of the story? Before you even filled the empty space between item slots two and four...

Gravity Bone is clever because it establishes itself as the setup to a much larger experience, then totally defies all your expectations of it. But it lagely succeeds in this respect not because it merely challenges your expectations, but because it carries the confidence, panache and overriding quality of a far more developed title. The chase sequence, particularly the part where you 'drop in' at the posh dinner, is inspired. The flashbacks are brilliant. The little tutorial notes incorporated as part of the game world (and, indeed, the whole visual style) evokes memories of Team Fortress 2. And then it just laughs in your face. Superb.

Funnily enough, I'd like to see this tackled as the intro to the full game it pretends, for its majority, to be. Sure, you'd have to readress the very focus of what it's trying to achieve, but I can't help feeling that such a distinctive game, conceived with such polish and such love, would result in a mainstream game with all the charm and vibes of these little indie-experiments. Food for thought.

RaRa Racer (Increpare)
Just a little one to finish with. It's not trying to 'say' anything in the way that the others are, but it's different, and very funny. I like this one a lot, even though there's not a right lot else to say about it.

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