VARIOUS DOS GAMES – Have I had it wrong about platformers this whole time? In the indie period they were the privileged vessel for “game design” in all its empty intentionality - ah, but what if I put the block there instead of here? Hee hee hee… ho ho ho! But all those guys have moved onto making Sokoban levels now, and with hindsight it’s easier to see why this genre transformed into the totem that it did. If indie games were not-AAA, they were also not-shareware – part of defining themselves as distinct from the chaotic hobbyist past was through overidentifying with Nintendo instead. Platform games in this context were doomed to automatic significance –simultaneously the site of orthodox game design’s most well-known case study and of the shareware era’s most delirious mistakes, a staging ground for the new era.
Playing around in random DOS platformers you run again and again into the same features: rambling maze levels, collectibles of unknown purpose, weirdly doomy and intense synth soundtracks. “Dark Wolf” frontloads you with earnest fantasy worldbuilding text and then you play as a tiny wizard guy hopping around vast and empty garden worlds. The licensed “Trolls” game, on the more commercial end of the spectrum, feels like a pretext for demoscene-like special effects: exploding stars that shoot out of every powerup and bounce crazily around, so that the greatest threat of the enemies is that you won’t even see them among all the visual noise. There’s a sense of things that are platformers just because that’s their nearest idea of what a videogame looks like – once they achieve that family resemblance they can stop, mission accomplished. Yes, there’s a platform, and a ladder, and a crystal. Who cares what happens after that? Uh, pay $15 for the full release to find out :sweating: :sweating:
Hopping dreamily around the big containers, enjoying the huge rich skyboxes until I step on a goblin and am killed instantly – well, that’s the videogame way. But rather than tally up their merits and faults I want to say that what appeals to me is this very sense of things not fully integrated. They feel like collections of test levels, like what a game is before it’s finished becoming itself: before the ingredients blend, back when they retain their own mysterious private character. The music is too intense, the panorama too dreamy, the platform structures too abstract, the monsters too punishing – we experience these things as fragments, as combinations, discovered and lost as we’re moving around. A test level is a laboratory for desire: a place where new effects can be developed, through chopping and mixing, and that can act as a provisional container for combinations that strike us (even when we’re not sure what to do with them yet). Art has limits, but desire does not, and if there’s something that resonates about these games now, it’s in this same sense of limitation suspended –postponing game design for a dream of infinity.
THE SUPERNATURAL OLYMPICS - Every game is potentially a container-game. Ulillillia’s most well-known work may still be his video series on Bubsy 3D, in which he converts it from a list of goals or authored challenges into a collection of “oddities” - what’s the highest point on the map? What’s the fastest speed Bubsy can reach? Posted a few years before even the first GDQ event, these were my and possibly other people’s first exposure to the same kind of against-the-grain method of play as speedruns and the pannenkoek2012 Mario 64 Half-A-Press explainer. But what stood out most at the time was the perversity of applying this kind of close read to Bubsy 3D, of all things - a game that played a similar role in the emerging game design canon as Satan did in christian mythology. If even Bubsy levels could be transfigured into gardens of delights, what couldn’t? And what would game design mean if this were the case?
In the best shareware tradition, Ulillillia’s own “The Supernatural Olympics” takes these questions and turns them into a floaty platform game. Platform here is singular - the whole game consists of running and jumping around a single vast, unbroken plane, while a densely layered background panorama rolls by in the distance. There are some nominal, optional goals, to do with getting to a particular speed or height… But mostly it’s about the sensual pleasures of movement tech and of abstracted, virtual space, of space with the giddy unboundedness of math. What if I told you that you could keep multiplying figures together to get ever higher values – and still never leave the domain of real numbers?! Unlimited hours of gameplay, and a form of desire which has been with the medium since inception.
The test level never has to end – from within the shareware ruins, The Supernatural Olympics projects forth a strangely Apollonian aesthetic of clarity, lightness, space.
ANYWORLD – But let’s go in the other direction for a while. If The Supernatural Olympics extracts the openness and clarity from the DOS platformer, what are we to do with the parts that are left over? All the blocks, noise, clutter, game-junk – all those half-finished mechanics, scavenged sprites, example areas, all the material of game development, all the scaffolding, all the rubble.
Anyworld is a Gary Acord game, and the RSD Gamemaker website helpfully identifies it as an “Acord megamix”, sampling assets, characters and locations from all across his previous games. But even without that context we can tell something is up. The gameworld is non-representational even by the loose standards of videogame representation. Your character’s movement is a completely fucked cross between top-down movement and sidescrolling platformer – which one applies at any moment seems to depend either on the area of the screen you’re in, or on the erratic priorities of the game engine. The viewport jitters around you and never seems to line up exactly. Pushing one of the dedicated directional jump buttons hurls you bodily out of the screen, so that any navigation becomes a matter of vague preference. Wandering or falling through a colour abyss, you encounter fragmented areas in totally different forms of perspective to those that your character occupies as well as scavenged bits of different shareware games. Touching the tiles that the level is made of causes them to unexpectedly flicker and change, revealing scattered pieces of seemingly earlier, long-buried builds.
Reportedly Acord himself was known in the DOS hobbyist scene as a prolific chopper-upper of other people’s work – not just sprites, but whole levels taken from the engine’s sample games appear here in transfigured form. But more striking is the sense of self-collage, of that same chopping, rearranging impulse turned inwards on itself. There’s no longer a point where collaging might end and the game begins; we’ve gone from the test-level-as-laboratory to something more like an alchemist’s workshop, where the endless reshuffling of matter becomes a door to hidden knowledge… Platform games without a sky, where the “platform” to be navigated is the game build itself, rent from within by terrible volcanic pressures. In another context the name “Anyworld” would seem utopian and open – here it seems to gesture at a secret anonymity of matter itself, one that extends into and infects all the lush pastoral landscapes of the genre’s various green hill zones.
A while ago, I read the phrase “an education in desire”;
and was surprised I hadn’t seen it before, when it seemed to connect so many things so well
Anyway, I believe platformers can be educate in a similar way
In their dreamy complications of the ground and sky.
— Kissy Jr