Dwarf Fortress is barely a blip on the mainstream radar, but it’s an object of intense cult adoration. Its various versions have been downloaded in the neighborhood of a million times… At bottom, Dwarf Fortress mounts an argument about play. Many video games mimic the look and structure of films: there’s a story line, more or less fixed, that progresses only when you complete required tasks. This can make for gripping fun, but also the constrictive sense that you are a mouse in a tricked-out maze, chasing chunks of cheese. Tarn envisions Dwarf Fortress, by contrast, as an open-ended “story generator.” He and Zach grew up playing computer games with notebooks in hand, drawing their own renditions of the randomly generated creatures they encountered and logging their journeys in detail. Dwarf Fortress, which never unfolds the same way twice, takes that spirit of supple, fully engaged play to the extreme
The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home launched in 2013 and became an instant classic among video game fans. The atmospheric game cast you as a girl exploring her family’s new home, half-unpacked, in search of clues about your missing sister. The story told through that exploration—the pillow fort and stained pizza boxes in the VHS-littered living room, the printed zines and childhood scribblings spilling out of storage areas—is so delicate that to talk too much about it collapses it. But the game, along with other rebelliously observation-oriented, “action”-averse games like Dear Esther, helped prototype an entire genre: Telling the stories of people, of a place, through gentle exploration.
It was no happy accident for the four-person Gone Home team, which had experience working with environmental storytelling in more traditional video games, like the BioShock series. Those games are about clobbering aggressors, but they’re also often atmospheric works about grand social decay and weaponized morality. You can imagine wanting to hone in just a bit more on the latter part, to tell the human stories, to remove the “fire plasmids” and rusty wrenches entirely and just draw the lived-in world.
Here’s a fun idea: A digital book about the development of a game that’s also a platform for that game’s release. Game…book… ception? Nathan Meunier, author of This Book Is A Dungeon [This Dungeon Is A Book] describes his new project as “a multi-format creative experiment that merges the worlds of game design, interactive fiction, indie authorship, and self-publishing together in one crazy project.”
Meunier took just over a month to teach himself Twine, and made a dungeon-crawling game he says mixes the interactive fiction elements of Twine with pixel art and the features of a traditional RPG game (try a free demo of the game). Along the way, he documented the process in a book he plans to release on Kindle with the game itself inside.
Artists of any era tend to create with the best, most current tools available to them. Technology’s primary function is to make human life as easy and efficient as possible. This is no different in the case of art production technology. Greater production technology means fewer limitations imposed by the medium.All mediums have their limitations, however. Just as the canvas has its edge, graphics processors have their thresholds. In the earliest days of game art, the extreme technological limitations created serious adversity.We all get how pixels basically work. A computer divides a display into squares, and each square can be assigned one RGB value at a time. The total squares supported by the hardware is the device’s “resolution.”
The traditional value system around games as a product to be “consumed” has shifted our focus away from creators and their vision to what will test well with the people who will buy your product. When the dominant narrative is intrinsically tied to capitalism and being a good businesswoman, we become risk-averse.
And risk-aversion is cool for people who want to make games in established genres and pre-existing audiences, and lord knows I have a weakness for roguelikes and shoot-’em-ups, but can’t we also have and properly support games that are alienating by intention? Games about unsolvable problems or difficult situations? How independent can you really be when at the end of the day, you have to choose between caving to incredibly narrow avenues of financial sustainability and making something challenging?