Feeding the Forgotten – Vendreditch Game of the Week

Feeding the Forgotten is a game by Nic Lyness and can be found at time of writing at this page for free. 

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I like games that re-contextualize things, I have a soft spot for them. So it’s no surprise that I like Feeding the Forgotten. By making quests inherently virtuous its given me pause in thinking about what a quest, and quest markers mean.

Feeding the Forgotten is about as straightforward as can be in terms of mechanics. Find those in need strewn about its bright and cheery depiction of urban space. Those needing help will be marked with bright question marks above their head much like you see in so many RPGs. But here there is no quest to complete, no personal gain in the end. You’re simply going to give those you find what they need to survive, some food, goods or even conversation depending on their need. That’s it, very straightforward.

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The player doesn’t get anything out of these quests, that is unless you count the satisfaction of helping. Feeding the Forgotten isn’t a masterpiece of game design. But it will stay with me the next time I play a game where quest markers rest above people’s heads. Are my actions benefitting anything besides me? Could I be doing something better? Something more? Even if they claim the task is in their interest is that my underlying personal motivation?

Feeding the Forgotten won’t give me much in terms of answering these questions. But I’m glad it’s going to help me ask them.

Exit 19 – Vendreditch Game of the Week

Exit 19 is a game by Jack Squires and can be found at time of writing at this page for free. It is part of the Ambient Mixtape 16.

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Growing up on the Canadian prairies, I knew the oppression of the sky. Stand in the right spot and it’s a full five kilometers to the horizon in front of you and another five to the one at your back. But it’s not the endless fields that dwarfs you, the sky hangs above you an order of magnitude larger still. It’s almost too large to comprehend during the day, and it grows as the day progresses. In the evenings, pink and golden skies blur the line between earth and air as clouds match colours with wheat fields. After dusk on a cloudy night there is little discernable difference to observe between a pitch-black field and a pitch-black sky. During the day the sky is merely the largest thing you’ll ever see. At night the sky becomes everything.

While set in a mountainous valley and not the prairies, Jack Squires’ Exit 19 captures this natural phenomenon about as good as any game could. The game is a relatively straightforward wander game that depicts being stranded in a desolate valley during nightfall. Exit 19 employs a dithering kind of visual layer on the land and objects within a certain distance from you that moves about like old videocassette tape distortion. The sky and objects in the far distance don’t have this dithering effect and are merely rendered in solid static hues. Even though the ground is completely still the dithering gives it a feel of uneasiness, as if it’s trying to move in every direction at once. Meanwhile the sky above is motionless, heavy, and arguably even dead above you.

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As the player progresses through Exit 19 the sun will set and night begins. As darkness becomes more and more prevalent you’ll notice that the dithering effect doesn’t work in shadows or other places of complete darkness. The dithering is only present on land and objects lit with light. The shaded corners are now just as still lifeless as the now purple sky.

When the sun has finally set, the land and sky have become an undistinguishable whole. The black sky blends perfectly with the darkened hills and only a small patch of dithering remains in the patch of light your flashlight gives out. The uneasiness of the dithered world is gone as the indifferent frozen sky has conquered and replaced it. As the game ends the player can find themselves cast into a brightly lit grave. Though there comes a moment of hesitation, the lit inside of the grave is heavily dithered. Does the player now question if the dithered space is what should be feared? Graves are obviously linked to the concept of finality but does this mean the dithering is as well? Has the player spent the length of Exit 19 fearing the retreat of the dithering only to have it greet them in death in the end? What’s clear is that the player is put in an impossible conflict, the world is now static and lifeless but so is the antithesis of that. It’s a moment of utter loss and misplacement.

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There’s other ways to look at Exit 19, and I understand this sky-focused approach appealed to me from my own personal history. But it’s hard for me to call Exit 19 anything but an incredible accomplishment. It captures the natural phenomenon of dusk in a way that feels so incredibly organic while still capturing the impact of the moment. Exit 19 has already received heaps of praise as being a standout title of its collection, and it’s all absolutely warranted.

Love March – Vendreditch Game of the Week

Love March is a game by Squiddingme and can be found at time of writing at this page for free. It was created for the “GBJam 5” game jam.

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The very first video game system I ever owned was a Game Boy Pocket. I got it when I was 7. To this day it’s still the platform I’ve put the most cumulative hours into, so I can’t deny that I have strong nostalgic feelings for it. So naturally I have to highlight a game from the Game Boy themed jam this week, but I want to showcase one that I feel truly captures what remember looking back on the platform. Many of the games in the jam would have been simply impossible to run on Game Boy, the 3D entries for example. While others could have worked but are of genres not that commonly found on the handheld. Pretty much of the roguelike entries feel anachronistic, there was at least one Shiren the Wanderer on Game Boy but that seems to be it. Ultimately Game Boy is probably best known for having mountains of puzzle games, specifically action puzzle games. And Love March is a pretty cool one of those.

Love March isn’t long but it manages to be totally 100% Game Boy the whole time. It’s an action puzzle game where you play a drum major needing to assemble their marching band and guide it to safety past cars, tornados, bulls and UFOs. There is genuine humour in seeing a truck plow through a pack of small children and send them flying into the air, or a UFO blasting them with lasers from above. It’s violence chibi-ified, as you can easily track backwards afterwards to find them perfectly well. Game Boy games were pretty much restricted away from being M rated, so this kind of silly harm free violence was common on the system. Though you wouldn’t know that from so many of the other GBJam5 entries.

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I both love and hate that Love March is a gamejam game to begin with. Sure, there’s probably a real chance it wouldn’t have been created without a gamejam to inspire it. But the jam’s short length kept Squiddingme from developing the game to its full potential or polishing off some of its rough edges. A fuller version would benefit from a gentler learning curve and a point system that doesn’t punish you for trying to save your lost bandmates. But Love March is really an adorable ball of a time. I certainly encourage Squiddingme to make good on their stated desire to go back to it in the future.

Cetaphobia – Vendreditch Game of the Week

Cetaphobia is a game by Benji Sayed and can be found at time of writing at this page for free.

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When you load Cetaphobia’s game page on itch you’ll find a curt description of the game.

“A game about trauma.”

It’s a bold first introduction, and certainly not a welcoming invitation by any means. But it’s fitting for this work by Benji Sayed, Cetaphobia isn’t supposed to be easily consumable or even enjoyable in the conventional sense. The game confronts the player with its despair from the opening frames. It’s a game about hurting, depression and loneliness and confronting all of those things on one’s own.

Cetaphobia is a kind of 5-act play about the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Each scene of the game represents each of the stages through a jarring glitchscape of contorted images, written text and obfuscated video. It’s best to approach Cetaphobia with this knowledge as otherwise it may be hard to deduct that without being informed ahead of time. But with this focus there the game works as a analogy of the stages.

Cetaphobia is mechanically simple, using only the four directional keys and little interaction. This works for the piece as it lets the player be consumed by the sentiments and imagery of the piece. The game’s player character is a small bald-headed character but you’ll also walk across full-screen video of the same person shaking their head seemingly in disdain (whom I believe to be preformed personally by Sayed). It creates a deep sense of self-loathing where the entire environment is a blur of imagery of self-hate or self-criticism. Poetry and text found strewn about the world deepen this sense of alienation.

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There’s more to this imagery throughout Cetaphobia but I’d be doing it a disservice by cataloguing the symbolism piece by piece here, I don’t think that is of much value anyways. I don’t know what kind of trauma Sayed wants to speak to but I think anyone who’s gone through any kind of depression like period would be able to see some of themselves in the game. For those who won’t personally identify with the experience Cetaphobia is still a worthy example of games as a personal artform. Cetaphobia feels like a videogame incarnation of somebody’s personal wounds, an intimacy uncommon to the medium. I strongly recommend anyone able to handle depictions of trauma and depression to give it a look.

Hot Tips: Parts of Cetaphobia can be hard to complete without knowledge of how to proceed. I wouldn’t have been able to finish it without tips Sayed shared with me on twitter. If you get stuck I invite you to message me and I can help you out.

Block n’ White – Vendreditch Game of the Week

Block n’ White is a game by Adrien Avellan and can be found at time of writing at this page for free. It was created for the “QaziJam 7” game jam.

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Block n’ White is a game by Adrien Avellan that totally encompasses the idea of black and white, in both technical, mechanical and metaphorical meaning. The game isn’t long or even that rewarding from a gameplay perspective, but I have a great admiration for how the game strives to ponder at least four ideas of black and white in its short runtime. Black and white was the restriction placed on the game’s development by its game jam rules and out of all the entries Block n’ White is the most complete thought experiment on that idea.

The first conceptual understanding of black and white is the colours themselves. Block n’ White actually uses the some yellow and blue shading in addition to the black and white, but not so much that it feels like it’s a game “in colour”. It still feels like it stays true to the aesthetic of black and white even if it cheats with a little colour here and there. It’s the most obvious thought when you think of black and white, most of the games in the jam only really embrace this one understanding of this. Block n’ White embraces other concepts, but this is one facet that is expected by the audience if the game wants to explore the others.

Another mechanical idea of black and white is the presence of light. On a screen black and white aren’t merely colours, but the presence (or lack of presence) of light. The white parts of the screen are much brighter to the eye than the black darker parts. Block n’ White actually plays with light mechanically in several ways. The player character is a light source, which distorts the strong shadows of the floating platforms as you move across them to the point where they can be completely masked in the shade. The player can be misled as to where the platforms actually exist or don’t. The game brings the presence or absence of light to the forefront.

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Finally, black and white can have two different metaphorical meanings, either the idea of concepts in opposition or the idea of simplicity. Block n’ White actually kind of addresses both of these ideas. The game’s main mechanic is that the kind of light source can alternate between sunlight and moonlight depending on which platform you’ve landed on previously. Much like the colours black and white, day and night is a common example of opposites. Block n’ White emphasizes this opposition by inversing all the colour on screen when the player switches between day and night, this is a visually arresting switch and reinforces the importance of opposition.

The other metaphorical concept is that of simplicity. A sidescrolling platformer is about as simple as games get, no wall-jumping, no puzzles merely basic jumping. And Block n’ White is about as simple as sidescrollers get. Others may be put off by the relative simplicity of the game, but in this case I think it works here because of the game jam’s theme. The game’s simplicity is just another exploration of what the idea of black and white could mean.

All in all Block n’ White is a game with great understanding of its assigned theme of black and white. It would be nice if some of these ideas could be more explored in a larger game by Avellan but I won’t begrudge the short length with the understanding that he made it in just one day.

Colonialism is Colonialism Even on Mars – Comment Port

This is an adaptation of a comment I left for the Cane and Rinse podcast.

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I have a lot of problems with the plot and setting of Jamestown: The Legend of the Lost Colony(2011). The basic plot revolves around a man who goes to “Mars” as a means to atone for crimes committed back on Earth. It’s basically a story of how colonialism can redeem and purify past transgressions. Complete with happy ending where everyone comes together when the “bad guys” are defeated to plant a tree, stare into a sunset and create a new home on an inhabited place. Except that’s an archaic understanding of colonialism, one that ignores the horrors brought to the locals by the colonizers.

Jamestown isn’t set on Mars, it tries to be but it invokes so much imagery from the colonization of North America. It’s obviously an allegory for the creation of the British Empire on the new world. That brings baggage that calling it steampunk Mars can’t get rid of. They gloss over atrocities, and create others where they didn’t happen to portray the colonization of New World as a noble endeavor in ways it never was. This is especially true when Jamestown deals with First Nations imagery.

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The most egregious example is how Jamestown paints the martians as the aggressive antagonists. There is one level where the action pauses so the player can see the remnants of the Roanoke colony destroyed by a Martian attack. That moment serves to tell the player, “these are the bad guys and you need to take revenge”. Except that absolutly is not what happened. While it’s possible that the actual Roanoke settlers we’re massacred by First Nations, all the evidence is that they left their settlement fort on their own accord. The idea that they were mercilessly slaughtered in their homes is perpetuating the false idea of the real First Nations as ruthless savages that deserved the genocide they ended up receiving.

EDIT: After writing this comment originally, an interview with Final Form Games revealed that the attackers of the Jamestown colony in fiction was animated swamp life. I think this is a shaky defense as the player has no idea that it’s not native martians. Despite Final Form Games claims that there is no revenge motivations for the characters it doesn’t change the fact that you slaughter Martians, their allies, destroy their ecosystems and sack their religious temples.

I could brush that aside as an unfortunate oversight, but after that story beat the game the game twists history in a way I find even more troubling. The characters Victoria Dare and Joachim are introduced. These characters are given the visual identifiers of being First Nations. Victoria is dressed in leather skins, and Joachim sports a Mohawk (both largely Hollywood anachronisms of First Nations dress). They are presented as the established settlers who have integrated into the new land. Both Victoria Dare and Joachim Gans are real people that existed in the history of the european takeover, except they were a white Christian and Jew respectively. Their fictional versions here exist solely to have some First Nation looking characters on the side of “the good guys” excusing the fact that you’re shooting up the native martians. The only point the game acknowledges the Martians as sentient beings is in the farce variant of one of the cutscenes. So Jamestown ends up being a game where the player is tasked with eradicating all the native presence that doesn’t fit into what the British saw as “proper”. While white-adapting natives get to live, they were the good guys.

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Maybe I’m over analyzing a shmup plot, but in a place where native people are still pressured to become more white this bothers me a whole lot. The idea of First Nations people needed to become more “white-like” has harmed those people for centuries. Whole groups of peoples were genocided on this continent. In no way should Jamestown be presenting those racist ideals as something good, something purifying for the settler.

Don’t think I am stretching to make this reading of the game. Jamestown, Roanoke, John Smith, Walter Raleigh, Victoria Dare, Joachim Gans are all real places, events and people that participated in the actual colonization process. I didn’t put this reading on the game, Final Form games did by drawing so much attention to the imagery of American history present in Jonestown.

I am not opposed to playing a game where I am a bad guy, but it needs to be aware of it. Telling stories about awful people can be a great tool, but not when it comes out as shallow propaganda for something so destructive of so many lives. They can make the martians look as alien as they like, but in this game they take the specific place of Native Americans, and Jamestown has us shoot them like dogs.

None of this makes the shooting of Jamestown any worse, the “how” of Jamestown if you will. But it sure does make the “why” of it different for me, to the point where I won’t be picking this back up. It’ll be interesting to see how any of this reads for you Brits across the pond. So much of our understanding of this stuff relies on how we know our own history, and I imagine you’ve all got very different understandings than us over here in the “new” world.