Back in the good old days of computer gaming (we're talking late-80′s to mid-90′s here, folks), one thing that could be said about the games market is that it was a crap shoot. Before the advent of the Internet, the few dead-tree review magazines couldn't keep up with the number of newly-released titles, and computer game companies didn't seem to take advertising very seriously. This meant that the chances of knowing the details of a game before purchasing it were pretty slim. Usually, all a gamer had to go on was the box copy, and whatever word-of-mouth could be picked up while hanging out at the local Babbage's.
Buying a game could be a gamble, pure and simple. Sure, Origin was a safe bet for action or role-playing, and Sierra was the uncontested king of the adventure genre, but so many smaller companies were trying to make it big that it was impossible to know exactly what would be on the shelf on any given day. Sometimes, a search though the $5 rack would reveal an unlikely-sounding game written by two guys in a smelly basement, only to be unmasked later as a true gem of programming skill. More often, a slick-looking box with beautiful images and promising descriptions would turn out, when unboxed at home, to fall somewhere between maddeningly dull and outright unplayable (I'm looking at you, Rocket Jockey). But rarely, very rarely, a game would crop up that would cause an immediate and almost-universal reaction among gamers: "What were those guys smoking, and where can I get some?"
Instant (Subliminal) Messaging
In 1995, Midway Games West (Time Warner) released a rather interesting puzzler by the name of Endorfun. In it, the player controls a small cube set on a flat plane. The cube has different colors and patterns on each of its six faces, and the plane is divided up into squares the same size as a cube face. Some of these squares turn colors, and the goal is to roll the cube over them with the same color face. For a puzzler, it's a unique idea, and it requires a good grasp of spatial relationships. (Lost? Sketch out a grid and use a six sided die to get an idea of how it would work. Better yet, head over to The Underdogs and download a copy of the original game.)
So Midway has a mind-bending puzzle game on their hands, but it's not quite enough. What else could they add to the mix to give it that certain flavor to distinguish it from the other games out there? Psychedelic backgrounds? Check. New Age soundtrack? Check (courtesy of The O Band). Subliminal messages? Che…wait a minute, back up there. Subliminal messages? Yes indeed, and Endorfun creator Michael Feinberg wasn't shy about it either. The main help file for the game reads:
The music in Endorfun contains subliminal messages designed to help you feel good about yourself and the world around you, to help you enhance your state of well-being and personal abilities. In addition, after every time you play, a positive message appears on the screen to reinforce these thoughts… Note: If you prefer to play Endorfun without the benefit of the subliminal messages, you can turn them off by playing the game with sound effects or no sound instead of music.
Some of the 90+ messages are:
"In my own way I am a genius"
"I am free of dependency"
"I create my own reality"
I have no doubt that the programmers were creating their own reality, but I have to wonder if they were being honest with themselves about that whole "dependency" thing. Oh well, they could probably quit any time. And while the efficacy of subliminal messaging has been widely debated, one fact that is abundantly clear is that Endorfun carved out its own niche in PC gaming notoriety and became the flower child of the industry.
An Interesting Trip
The year I graduated, my high school was just starting to build up a real, honest-to-goodness computer lab. One of the PCs even had a CD-ROM drive, which was practically unheard-of then (To put that in perspective, that year I took two programming classes: one was on Apple BASIC, and the other was on Macintosh Pascal. So yeah, CD-ROM drives were cutting-edge). I had been playing games for a couple of years at this point, but the fanciest of the lot installed from a half-dozen 5.25″ floppies. Now here was this multi-thousand-dollar computer with media capable of storing hundreds of times that much. I was amazed at the possibilities: full-motion animation, CD-quality sound, and speech (actual human-type speech) were now available for use in games. And the game our school received for demonstrating some of these new capabilities? The Manhole.
Ah, The Manhole. Thus, my torrid love-affair with computer games was reaffirmed and I was lost for life. I had never seen or heard such beauty, and afterwards I could talk of nothing else. Sadly, that's no exaggeration. It was only in recent years, when I found an old copy of it, that I realized just how odd this program was. It was the acid trip of computer games. Let's see if I can do it justice.
At its heart, The Manhole is a "point and click" adventure game from a first-person point of view that was developed by Cyan (who later went on to create the monster hit game Myst). The opening scene presents (what else?) a manhole. Clicking on it causes it to slide open, and clicking again makes a beanstalk grow. Clicking once more causes the player to climb the stalk into the sky, and then through a hole in the sky into a wooded glen. Hmm… Through a hole…? Nevermind. After that, it's on to the tower that stands behind the trees, where clicking on a pillar drains the pool in back. The empty pool reveals a multi-branched tunnel: the middle track opens on a lunar landscape, the left path leads to a disco-dragon's lair complete with doorbell and easy chair, and to the right is an underground canal with a gondola that's piloted by Ganesh. OK, let's hop in the boat, float down the canal…floating…still floating… Whoa, is that a waterfall? Crap, it sure is, and there's no way to turn around. But that's okay, because after rushing down the falls we wind up in a giant rabbit's freaking teacup, having sailed down the straw. Sailing through a hole in the side of the cup takes us right back where we started. Enough of this. Jump out of the gondola, crawl back out of the pool tunnel, go in the tower and climb to the top. Looking around shows not the tops of the trees, but pieces on a giant chess board. Clicking on one of them gives a panoramic view of…an elephant in a gondola. Uhhhh…I think I'm just gonna go sleep this one off. Call me when the brownies are done.
Yes, The Manhole was a game without a point. In fact, it was more than that: it was the game without a point. This is the one out of my entire collection that drives my wife nuts, because there is no way to win, and no goal to achieve. Exploration is the whole idea. Weird, freaky, mind-numbingly odd exploration, but hey. At least I can experience flashbacks without actually having to take drugs.
Island of the Phallic Nuclear Trees
One game that I actually spent my hard-earned allowance on as a youth was called Archipelagos. Unfortunately, it is also one game I have since lost. The closest I can come to describing Archipelagos in one simplified breath would be "a post-apocalyptic Populous," even though that comes nowhere close to doing it justice. Playing from a first person perspective, the gamer's job is to clean up toxic waste on small island clusters around the world. This is done by building up land masses to reach the power stations for each level's radiation generator. After absorbing all of the energy from these, it's a race to get back to the generator and stop it from melting down. Of course, a job like that would be simple on its own, so the programmers added in a time limit, pursuing enemies, and ever-widening poisonous areas.
Of course, the developers didn't leave it at that. Using the overhead map, one can get an idea of the creativity that was put into the maps. There's the island shaped like a pig, an island group in the shape of cursive writing that spells out "Lazy Susan's Relish Tray," and then one of my favorite islands: merry olde England. Best of all is the Freudian title screen. Artistic issues, anyone? Don't take this the wrong way — Archipelagos is a great game. It's the perfect blend of action and puzzle, and it kept me coming back time and again. But there's a fine line between "unique" and "weird." Archipelagos walks that line with an air of surrealism and the balance of a drunken acrobat.
Galapagos: Mendel's Escape was released in 1997 by Electronic Arts, and aside from a brief mention in PC Gamer, it didn't get much press. Perhaps that was because it was almost more of an experiment in artificial intelligence than a game, but it definitely falls on the geeky-cool side of things.
Galapagos starts off with the intriguing supposition that the main character (Mendel, a four-legged spider-like robot) cannot be directly controlled by the player. Rather, the player can only interact with the environment, and allow Mendel to form its own conclusions about cause and effect. Powering this decision making process is a custom designed AI engine known as NERM, or "Non-stationary Entropic Reduction Mapping." In my experience, this translates roughly to, "Watch Mendel Die Repeatedly While You Click Madly On Everything In Sight Trying To Make Him Turn Around." Ideally, the AI would allow him to learn from previous mistakes and become more "intelligent" each time he dies. I have it on good authority, though, that it's awfully easy to turn him into a neurotic wreck, twitching at everything that moves and unable to decide where to go. I didn't even make it that far.
Galapagos is a game that requires good reasoning skills, accurate observation, and patience. At the time it came out, I wasn't interested in thinking that deeply about a game, so I just gave it a passing glance. Now, however, I'm wondering if I shouldn't give it another try. After all, what self-respecting geek could pass up an opportunity at molding his own AI? On top of that, the game is just plain pretty, in a cyberpunk type of way — think Tron meets System Shock. The creators of Galapagos were definitely on to something, but who knows how they put it all together into a coherent, logical package.
What a Long, Strange, etc.
So what has happened to crazy game ideas like these? Surely there's somebody out there willing to take a leap and put together some strikingly odd and unexpected concepts and make them available to gamers. The problem is, the market changed. Where retail channels were once open to anybody who could put a decent boxed product together, now it seems dominated by only a few big names. The chance of a small producer getting shelf space is extremely slim, especially when we have ultra-consolidated giants like EA and Microsoft running the show. Add to that the forces of history (to use a grand phrase), and we have a serious creativity crisis. Consider this: gamers who have been around for ten years or more have seen a lot, and have had quite some time to get set in their ways. We, as players, find genres we are comfortable in and are less willing to risk money on unproven ideas. The companies are aware of this trend, and in turn don't wish to spend money on something that's unproven.
With the computer game market as it is, it seems that the best route for the independent developer is through the Internet. With world-wide visibility and as-yet unfettered access to new markets as they come available, strange and quirky games seem to have found a new home. You may not see them on store shelves, but the spiritual successors of games like the above are still alive. For a couple of my favorites, check out Binary Zoo's Mono and Duo, and Unreal Voodoo's Frets on Fire. Also keep an eye on the Independent Games Festival; they find quality talent year after year without fail. Believe it or not, ten years down the line, these are the games that our kids will be nostalgic for. These will be the titles that they will remember playing — not because they were best-sellers, but because they were fun and new. And, perhaps, a little bit crazy as well.