games and places


Games I Played Last Week In America, Each One Written About For The Same Amount Of Time That I Spent Playing It

BREAKUP SQUAD (by Catt Small). 4 minutes.

Breakup Squad is a five-player game. I play as one of a team of three allied friends; we're trying to keep two exes away from each other at a party. The exes, controlled by rival players, are nice people but they're bad for each other. They need to stay apart for their own good. You can push other partygoers in front of them, build barriers of flesh to ensure that they stay separate; as a last-ditch effort you can just get in the way yourself. I'm playing this game at a party, and real-world crowds are around me, barriers of people I had to push through to get my turn: it feels like a good setting.

But after fifteen seconds of playing I realise: wait, no, I'm not a helpful friend at all! I'm one of the exes. And as an ex, I know what's best for me! I'm a grownup! These crowds are my enemies, these on-screen crowds and the real crowd around that wants me to fail. If I'd like to talk to someone at a party, then who are my monstrous friends to try to stop me? And all of a sudden I push my way towards an intensely adorable on-screen figure, my long-lost love, and we meet. Ah, it's so great to catch up! Why haven't we hung out lately? I high-five the real-world stranger who played the other ex: WELL DONE US. "This won't go well", the screen informs me, but it already has.

EXPOSURE (The Sheep's Meow). Seven minutes.

This is a gentle game of camouflage. Your play as a large tadpoley blob, and you try to stay out of sight in the slowly drifting patterns of your environment while predators move by.

When you are hidden well, you cannot see yourself and do not know exactly where you are. That's a strange sentence, just there: it means, when you (the weird tadpole character) are hidden well, you (the player controlling the weird tadpole character) cannot see yourself (the weird tadpole character), and do not know exactly where you (the weird tadpole character) are. In sentences like this we use a reflexive pronoun in a way that is grammatically I suppose correct but conceptually muddy. (Or is it gramatically correct, just because of the incident of "you" referring to these two distinct entities? If we talk about two children, in a situation where one child has taunted another, we don't say "she teased herself" just because they're both a "she".) 

How closely do we usually conceive of these "you"s? How far can you pull them apart before that breaks? Of course you are never really your avatar in a videogame: the identification is one of convenience and concept and instinct, "you" are the thing you control on the screen in the way that you control your body in real life, you-the-player and you-the-character bundled into one for convenience. We explain the rules of a game by saying "you" and we conflate these two selves but we know they aren't actually the same thing. Or we think we do, but: there's that reflexive pronoun thing again. If it's just a coincidence of terminology, two separate "you"s with the same word to denote them, why would we say "yourself"?

And having a "you" that you can't see, putting game-yourself in danger so that controller-yourself can see where you are and plan the next moves: I don't know. it pulls at that identification, teases it apart a bit. It's interesting. It makes you (the player) look at you (the played) and think about where that you-ness sits. Or anyway, it does for me.

COBRA CLUB (Robert Yang). Two minutes.

I've played Cobra Club before. In fact, I've shown Cobra Club at an event, and it's one of the easiest of all games to explain to a non-games audience: a dick-pic simulator with sliders to control both the camera and the dick. In a games context this sounds a bit unlikely - or did, before it existed. But as a concept that you can sell to a passer-by it's so beautiful and self-explanatory, and the game is so perfect an incarnation of this core idea (at least initially; it grows deeper as it proceeds). This is, I think, one of the most immediately playable games to show to people who would say that they don't like games.

Because I've played Cobra Club it before, I only poke at it for a couple of minutes, this time. A message pops up from another character telling me to take nine pictures of a bar of soap, which I do. They are very arty pictures.

MORNING MAKEUP MADNESS (Jenny Jiao Hsia). 40 seconds.

I am SO GOOD at this game. I apply my makeup expertly in swipes and indelicate smears, hit 80% then 100% then 100 again. I am wearing real makeup on my face that I put on in two minutes. A passer-by compliments my score. I do not tell him that I have played this game before.

BLACK EMPEROR (Jose Tomas Vicuna). Four minutes, but not all at once.

This is so quick, this game, you  die so fast; the first time you play you barely realise what's going on before it's over 

This game is so quick, you do it once and then it ends and you start again right away

This game is over so quick you barely notice the landscape behind at first, the shifting hills, the sky

This game is so quick and it's over so soon but you figure it out as you go, you figure out tactics to survive a little longer 

This game is over in ten seconds and you start again and maybe this time you do a bit better, or maybe

In this game sometimes you crash into things but you can learn the track, you can plan better, you can do a tiny bit better next time, maybe, if you're lucky

Sometimes you go too slow, the sand dragging at you, and you need to go faster right from the start, maybe, stay at the front of the screen, just accelerate 

You learn the patterns of this game and you learn the part where you always fail, the part where you stumble and your turn ends

This game is quick and hard and maybe your boyfriend is doing just a little bit better at it than you so maybe you try again when his back is turned

This game has a high score table and you didn't even notice because you hadn't made it to the top four but someone does, someone who survived maybe a second longer, and the whole room cheers

This wide plain is growing familiar to you now and you want to drive through it faster and further, past the distant mountains

You know the bends of the road and that should be enough, you should be able to anticipate the next moments, it must be possible

This game is fast and hard and there's a queue behind you now so this is the last turn

Okay this is the last turn

Okay that one didn't count, but this is the last turn, and this time you'll keep going and get further and you'll manage that swerve, that swerve

STEPHEN'S SAUSAGE ROLL (by Stephen Lavelle). 25 minutes.

Stephen Lavelle - designer of Stephen's Sausage Roll, though afaict it's not specified if the Stephen of the title refers to Lavelle himself, to the main character of the game who is (one imagines) coincidentally also named Stephen, or to some other Stephen entirely - is my housemate, so from this point onwards I guess I might stop referring to him as "Lavelle". 

He's a good housemate; he takes the bins out regularly, brings nice people around to visit sometimes, talks about interesting things. We have just enough of an overlap in television tastes that we can watch things together, but not so much of an overlap that the household's become locked into an awkward system where we can't watch anything until everyone's home.

Stephen's Sausage Roll is a puzzle game that is very, very good and also very, very difficult. It is very, very difficult on purpose, arguably not because Stephen hates you but because he believes in you, because he wants you to do better, because he knows what you're capable of if you try. Of course you can solve this. Of course you don't need hints. When you work something out for yourself you will be so happy, at least for a moment, at least until you move onto the next puzzle and once again find yourself bewildered and sad. Stephen watches you quietly and waits for you to succeed.

I believe that this is Stephen's motivation because this is, just sometimes, how he is as a housemate. "What did I buy today?" he asked one afternoon, a while back now. "I don't know, what did you buy today?" "Well, what might I have bought?". We figured it out, in the end. I don't remember what he bought but maybe I could figure it out from first principles again if I really tried.

Anyway. Stephen is a good housemate and because Stephen is a good housemate it would be rude, I think, to yell in the house that we share something like "oh my GOD Stephen what is WRONG with you" or "FUCKSAKE Stephen" or "ugggggh, why are you LIKE this Stephen". Unfortunately, while playing Stephen's Sausage Roll it is almost impossible to not do this. So I don't play it at all while I'm at home. I played the first four or five worlds while on holiday in Australia, then I came back and stopped playing, and then I went away to America for a couple of weeks and thought: you know what, maybe it's time I gave the game another go.

I played for another 25 minutes and didn't solve any new puzzles, and now I'm back in the UK so that's it for now: no more sausages for me. But playing it, after a break of months, was a strange and compelling thing. I discovered that I've internalised the tricks of the sausage and its fork: I still remember how to roll the sausages around, how to move them, all the possibilities and tiny strategies that I learned six months ago. I don't remember the solutions to earlier puzzles but I remember on a very instinctive level the toolset that I've acquired to solve them.

This is, I guess, fairly normal, this feeling of playing a game after a long break and waking up dormant abilities. But usually if I play a game that I haven't played for a while, the game's controls aren't that unusual. Maybe the thing I'm trying to accomplish involves running and jumping between different objects, maybe I'm meant to shoot things, maybe I'm moving coloured blocks. The conventions of how you do these things exist in other game worlds as well. There is no set game convention for the ungainly movements involved in shifting vast sausages around with a many-pronged fork and your tubby little sausage-tending body, backing away from corners to give yourself room to swing the huge tines around. These movements came back as I played, and they are so unusual I felt each little pattern and trick and motion as it reawakened.

SACRAMENTO (by dziff). 6 minutes.

I was at a party and this game was the prettiest thing in a room of pretty things, watercolour pinks and blues and a massive red ragged-edged sun that hangs over everything. In the game you walk away from a train station and look at trees and pinwheel flowers and curious flamingos and tall tall trees; you can walk straight through almost everything and it feels so unreal that it's a shock when you blunder back to the railway platform and it's solid and you can't just walk right through.

So I played this game at a party and then tried again at home. There are glasshouses that I've seen in screenshots so I know they're in the game somewhere, and I see them in the distance once, but when I try to walk towards them they disappear. After exploring not-long-enough, I'm pulled back to the train station and the world fades away: an ending a little like the end of OASES, which dziff made with Armel Gibson last year. This game has the same sense of exploration-and-end, though with a very different story underlying it.

I've seen a wrist with a watch on it, in screen shots, hanging in front of the player, ticking away the remaining time, but I don't see it when I play. Maybe I've missed something.

I play again just to be sure, and I find huge fish bobbing in the air, and a woman reading, and dragonflies that zip away when you get near. 

SPLIX (by Jespertheend). 47 minutes.

Splix is a multiplayer snake-plus-Qix-ish game. You join, and find yourself on a bounded board with maybe 80 or 100 other players. You move around like a snake (or rather, like a computer-game snake, which is to say at right angles and a regular speed, so very much not like a snake, in fact).

You have control of a certain territory on the board, shaded in the colour of your body to show that it's yours. Within that territory, you're safe, but when you leave it, your tail grows long behind you - until you rejoin your territory, at which point everything within the wide loop of your body becomes yours.

There are dangers. If you hit into your own body, you die. If you hit the edge of the playing field, you die. If you lose your connection, which sometimes happens, there's a good chance you'll die. But the main threat is from those 80 or 100 other players: if they hit your body while you're outside your own territory, trying to expand it or just exploring, then you die. Your game is over. You have only one life.

Until you die you have a score, which is: 500 points for every snake you've killed, and 1 point for every square of territory you currently control. This score is never constant - territory you control can be taken from you, eaten away one chunk at a time by people who swoop into your lovely green or yellow or pink field and claim it for their own. Even if they die, you don't get the territory back: it just fades to the unclaimed grey-brown background of the playing field. The only way to get your territory back is to surround it again with your long vulnerable body.

The safest tactic in this game is to take great and constant care - to grow your territory slowly; to flee from battle, relinquishing contested land; to never let your tail grow so far it extends off-screen, and to always stay close to your home so that you can dart back into it at a moment's notice. This works well, for a while. But sooner or later your score tops out: other players start eating away at your territory as fast as you can expand, and you stall in, perhaps, the lower registers of the high score board, eighth or tenth from the top.

Another option is to go on the attack. The 500 points you get for killing someone else? Those are 500 solid, worthy points that will stay with you until you inevitably die. Your territory can always be taken, and the points that go with it will vanish, but the points you get for successful attacks are for ever (for the rest of the game). This is a dangerous way to proceed and usually ends badly, but then, this is a game that always ends badly.

And yet another option is to expand your territory more boldly. You can go out into the world in a huge sweep, hoping that nobody will attack; or you can draw narrow stretches of claimed territory out into a huge square extending from your home, like the walls of a castle: if you manage to close that square then the massive central courtyard between your jagged buildings becomes yours. 

These are all fine ways to play.

As you play, you encounter other snakes using all of these different tactics. At first you know nothing about these snakes except their names, and perhaps an idea of the size of their territory (gathered from what you can see on the board plus the thumbnail of the entire playing space shown at the top of the screen). 

Their name might be POOP; in fact their name is very often POOP. Their name might declare loyalty to, or disdain for, Donald Trump. Their name might say "plz dont kill me" or "i dont attack first" (ignore the claim: they do). Sometimes people manage to circumvent the content filters that I assume are in place, and find a way to be ingeniously racist (or, slightly more rarely, misogynist or homophobic). Dick, you may mutter to yourself under your breath.

Because beyond their name, and their territory, there's something else you quickly learn about nearby players: how much of a dick they are. Usually the answer is a bit of a dick, which is fine - you, too, are probably a bit of a dick while playing this game.

I certainly am. I would say, if asked, that I don't enter other people's territory unless they enter mine - but sometimes I make an exception, for example if a player is above me on the leader board, or I don't have any other practical options for expanding my territory, or I really want to. Plus I will almost always take an opportunity to kill an opposing player, should one arise, even if it's a player with whom I have previously maintained a cordial border - it's hard to deny the appeal of those 500 points.

Sometimes you find a player who is very clearly not a dick - they build their territory to the edge of yours and no further, a polite gap of one or two squares left between your lands, an implicit request for non-aggression (which I almost always honour and often make myself). Players at this extreme of "not a dick" will sometimes even refrain from killing opponents who have not yet attacked them. I feel warmly towards people who are entirely not a dick. Sometimes on a tour around the edge of my territory I will see that a player who was not a dick has died, leaving their territory empty, and I'm sad, though I also of course start to claim that empty space as my own.

Pn the other end of the scale, sometimes there's someone who is absolutely a dick, oh my god, such a dick. I've encountered players who claimed territory only from within mine - even when it would have been easier to stake out new ground. They were only interested in stealing from me, not in exploring for themselves. These people are dicks and I hate them and I want to destroy their snakes, and I do, maybe two times out of four, and another time someone else to whom they are also being a dick destroys them, and the fourth time they destroy me and I feel furious for at least a minute or maybe even two, how dare they, they were such a dick, where is the justice in that.

The justice is nowhere because there is no justice in Splix. You may start in an isolated corner with two walls of your territory protected and plenty of room to expand. You may start in the middle, surrounded by dicks. You may start mere squares away from an opponent who hits into your snake before you even have the time to absorb what's going on. You have to do the best you can with what you get, and sometimes the best you can do is nothing. Sometimes the situation is just too hard.

And when you win - well, there is no way to win in Splix; you can only balance uneasily on top of the leader board, always knowing you may be overtaken or simply eliminated. You are always just a moment of inattention or bad luck away from losing.

These are great truths of humanity, of course, articulated in art for many centuries. Nothing is fair, and trying hard is not always enough. The drive for revenge can destroy the best of us. Your frail body is the only home you have to live in, and you may rule an empire but everything still depends on that irreplaceable clumsy mustering of flesh. Sometimes, people are just dicks.

Plus you can play Splix without really paying attention to it while you're watching telly, so I don't know what more you might want from a game tbh.

Holly Gramazio