It’s been a few years since the gaming industry began flirting with what you might call the experimental. Digital distribution came along and provided and did its thing, providing a viable avenue for the stranger things to reach us all.
The unsafe creations. The unpublishable, if only because there had been no precedent to prove people might actually buy them.
Well, we did! And we still are! And talented people are still making weird things - making more of them than ever before, with greater proficiency and more voluminous weirdness! Okay, weird is a misnomer. They’re often beautiful. Or tragic. Or even healing, meditative or trancelike, some escapes into a life not our own.
Here’s a couple of modern examples of games exploring the fringes of what we conceptually regard as “normal” video games.
A sharply drawn dream of anime ballet and purple neon, Sayonara Wild Hearts is ostensibly a rhythm game, but to label it such and speak no more would be to vastly undersell it. It’s an audiovisual feast about street toughs and movement with some arcade-game interactivity and Queen Latifah to keep you more directly involved.
You fall out of bed after a tarot-card heart unfolds into a butterfly and upends your house, whereupon you stumble to your longboard and ride through the constellations to the tune of Claire De Lune. You’ll have your masquerade mask and dancing shoes with time to spare before the West Side Story fireball battle begins. We’re nailing timings on some rhythmic button presses to complete the fight, then off to speed through the city on motorbikes, dodging obstacles and collecting points.
But we’re doing all of this at such a clip that the reasoning behind it is irrelevant. Music and visual splendour are at the fore. Animations are quick and snappy when they aren’t liquid and flowing, the colour palette shifting and thrumming as the entrancing beauty of it all speeds forward uninterrupted. It doesn’t deal in concrete concepts. It’s a dream to drink in, one that demands sharp enough responses that you can’t quite stop to consider it anyway.
Do you remember waddling around Wind Waker’s Outset Island? The levity and warmth of just ambling about before any Inciting Events related to any Epic Quests reared their heads? Typical design demands that we leave that behind and steel ourselves for danger, right? A Short Hike seems intent to stay there. It strikes me as a distillate of that feeling, replete with wholesome, top-heavy animal friends and a colour palette you could paint children’s blankets with.
You’re ostensibly chasing cell service on a small island. What that means in practicality is a curt little impetus to get you out and meeting people, collecting seashells, and buying hats. There are familiar hints of progression and advancement, normal video game things, but its requirements are rather stripped of challenge. If you can’t afford a Golden Feather, the rhino fellow who mentioned it will just spot you the cash! And while you have direction - hike to the peak - it’s having delightful little chats and seeing the sights that represent the meat of the experience.
It could stand as a direct answer to the assumption that games should focus on overcoming adversity. It’s a game that recognizes that tasks can be fun without expectation of execution or difficulty. Just get out there and explore. And remember to join us at the visitor’s center this evening for a public-serving of our traditional, historic dish of strawberries on toast!
It’s golf. But also soccer! And bowling. And a stealth game, and an exercise in horse-flinging, Super Mario, Super Hot, super bizarre, guitar practice. It’s an absurdist adventure in defiance of expectation. Or rather, the complete removal of your ability to form expectations beyond it has something to do with golf, the format changing before the previous even has the opportunity to outstay its welcome, often before the previous even registers. It’s an unpredictable little toy in simple colours, physics simulations, and oversized toast, more surprise and delight than practicing your short game.
What the Golf stands in that collection of things you really ought to experience blind. What it is beyond, hey, a golf game, is in constant flux, and spending too much time conveying what that means to you would be doing us both a disservice. Chip up and give it a try.
An entire triple-A game has come and gone since Kojima’s PT gave us such a strong suggestion of what horror in games might become. Something that didn’t feel obligated to startle or chase the reactionary influencer crowd, something confident in taking its time to build tension and investment. Deeply unsettling instead of toothy and flailing. A commonly shared touchstone of what we wanted horror to become. Yet woefully deficient of smiling MS Paint art.
QT rectifies that.
Meet friends. Meet hundreds of friends. Drink friend juice. Discover secrets! It’s still just as inscrutable as its namesake, but perhaps a bit less chillingly so. As best as I can tell, QT is about finding delight in a zero-pressure environment. It’s an exhibition of the cute and cuddly, something devoid of challenge in play or ideas, where discovering interactions and poking around inside a very specific emotional mindset is the whole casserole. Fuzzy and nice. I’d call it absurdist, but perhaps there is something very human happening here. Perhaps it is not what you seek in games, but you know? Sometimes it’s nice just to smile for a little while.