Month: February 2014

When Game Critics Lack Moral/Scientific Consistency, They’re Looking for Hand Claps and Jeers

by Jed Pressgrove

If you saw someone publicly denigrate a woman then turn around and kill a little boy, you’d be morally inconsistent to decry one sin but dismiss the other. This is the kind of moral inconsistency that many video game critics sell in self-congratulatory arguments against sexism in violent games. And they’ll keep doing it as long as people keep clapping their hands and throwing tomatoes.

The most popular excuse for this moral inconsistency is agenda-setting for the circle jerk: some critics seem to believe that we already take violence seriously enough in real life, which means that violence in games is not a moral concern. Showing fear of game censorship (and perhaps fear of the possibility that games can influence violent behavior), these critics will trip over each other to cite scientific evidence that games can’t influence murder. They then turn around and preach against sexism in games, claiming or suggesting that games can or will affect real-world views about sexism (often with no scientific article in sight). They do this because they know “sexism in games” articles stir up both the angry liberals and angry conservatives in the gaming community, which translates into page views and perhaps money. These critics also know that if they come out strong against violence, they wouldn’t have the liberals or the conservatives on their side, endangering their overall “credibility” (but more in a political sense, not a journalistic sense). In short, anti-sexism, pro-violence arguments give game critics enough friends to keep their credibility and enough enemies to get even more page views and comments.

But an honest moral and scientific critique of games takes courage, not a business plan. The question of whether games influence or reinforce bad behavior is a question that scientists are still trying to answer, but many critics don’t care. They’re willing to limit the concern to sexism, then treat the scientific question of causation/reinforcement as an emotional concern — as if science is the same thing as morality — so that the cheers and jeers of the audience will be even louder.

Social scientists, however, continue to examine violence and sexism in games, sometimes in the same study (for example, see An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Behavior in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behavior). While pure science doesn’t make moral evaluations, the holistic approach of scientists can serve as an inspiration to people who want to share moral arguments that make sense. Moral consistency either questions both violence and sexism in games or isn’t concerned about either subject. Moral consistency will still lead to a debate — should we care about objectionable content in games? — but at least the debate is a debate that isn’t based on narrow political terms.

Only suckers believe polarizing critics like Ben Kuchera and Kat Bailey are going to change people’s perceptions about gender. Their unscientific, morally inconsistent arguments typically reinforce existing beliefs; they do not tend to revolutionize the system. As long as liberals don’t care about violence and as long as conservatives can point this out, we will have no middle ground. What we will have is an unending argument that never advances — idiocy.

Fear of Twine: Relax … It’s Just a Review

by Jed Presssgrove

Note: I consider Richard Goodness, the curator of Fear of Twine, a friend. I also follow Tony Perriello, Eric Brasure, Joel Goodwin, and Konstantinos “Gnome” Dimopoulos on Twitter. It’s important to acknowledge these facts rather than ignore a potential conflict of interest.

Fear of Twine, an exhibition of 16 Twine games, opens with “Relax. It’s just text.” In its plea for understanding, the phrase brings to mind the 1998 movie Relax… It’s Just Sex! — a fitting comparison, given that Twine games have featured various depictions and discussions of sexuality. But Twine doesn’t represent any one thing or any specific set of things. On a broad level, Twine provides further proof that the potential for empathy and offense is greater than ever in video games. On a personal level, Twine sometimes reminds me of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from when I was so young, though several of the Fear of Twine games could be criticized for not providing enough meaningful choices. What follows is a review of all 16 Fear of Twine games.

Room 1


What separates Tony Perriello’s Debt from most Twine games is its cinematic essence. With only a black background and green text, Debt channels sci-fi classics such as The Terminator by revealing the text in “real time” as the story occurs. The game’s impeccable use of sound effects and music give it even more cinematic flair. As a “bot” on a mission to locate a target, you don’t play the game so much as follow “recommended actions,” a device that further removes Debt from traditional games of any sort. While all of this dazzles and immerses one in a dystopia, the game’s pessimism seems far-fetched given that the story takes place in the 2020s. Still, Debt is likely to captivate anyone who has ever had trouble paying a bill, and the game drives home the reality that we can be tracked down via things we find fun or superfluous (like checking in at a favorite restaurant on Facebook). But what should the working class take from Debt other than stylish dread?

Duck Ted Bundy

The humor is silly and black in Coleoptera-Kinbote’s Duck Ted Bundy. You play as a duck whose base urge is to deceive and kill like the infamous serial rapist and murderer. One’s enjoyment of Duck Ted Bundy, a mixture of dating technology and bumbling evil, is partially based on how funny you find lines like “A beautiful duck in the full blush of youth letting her guard down and staring at you with trusting eyes, ever sincere, ever round, ever moist and pitch-black.” The game’s absurd situations can be played multiple times to rack up the kill count, and there are four endings to find. Unfortunately, repetition doesn’t serve the game’s not-so-secret weapon: Internet humor. I laughed at most of the duck pictures, but the game’s sex and violence lack the staying power of R. Crumb’s pornography.

The Conversation I Can’t Have

Unlike the other Fear of Twine entries, this game from Morgan Rille doesn’t appear to be interactive fiction. The Conversation I Can’t Have is more of an interactive essay about Rille’s submissive masochism, though not without poetic storytelling. The game’s didactic sections can seem shallow, but the quick lesson about gender, for instance, surpasses the annoying attempts of the point-and-click musical Dominique Pamplemousse. The stories within The Conversation I Can’t Have not only work as pleasant erotica; they expose mainstream video games as dry and flaccid (Rille’s conversation wouldn’t fly on the PS4 or other “mature” consoles, and it’s steamier than Steam). The Conversation I Can’t Have may not have the compelling psychology and narrative of Soha El-Sabaawi’s kinky reProgram, but it beautifully fits the Fear of Twine theme of “Relax.”

The Matter of the Great Red Dragon

Dignified usage of the word “sin” is a bizarre sight for eyes trained to consume secularism and extremism, but Jonas Kyratzes’ The Matter of the Great Red Dragon routinely shares ideas such as “Evil does not cease simply because people choose to ignore it.” This game is a thoughtful examination of traditional values and contemporary malaise. The Matter of the Great Dragon doesn’t intend to compete with other fantasy products and franchises but rather uses fantasy to explore whether morality itself can stand the test of time. I recommend ignoring Kyratzes’ author’s note; following the principle of his note would rob you of philosophical insight within the game’s juxtaposing endings.

Room 2

Zombies and Elephants

This work by Verena Kyratzes has the grisliest descriptions of the Fear of Twine exhibition, which is surprising given my desensitization to zombie violence. Here, the elephants are far more interesting than the zombies, but even those beasts can’t keep the zombie nihilism at bay. While Zombies and Elephants allows you to make choices, the game often makes you wait too long. Kyratzes is a skillful writer, but Zombies and Elephants needs more editing: there are walls of text that can drown out the fact that you play an important role in the story. Despite these flaws, getting to the end is worth it for the horror. Just don’t expect the focused commentary of zombie stories like Night of the Living Dead or Pontypool.

Workers in Progress

This game from Konstantinos “Gnome” Dimopoulos comes across as a broader, Marxist version of the Democracy simulations on PC. Workers in Progress presents an array of interesting scenarios where big things happen with one click of the mouse. While this approach might make the game easier to digest for the general reader, a little characterization could have gone a long way. The game also tends to end abruptly, so a few more levels of political negotiation would have made the game a more satisfying experience. From a sociological standpoint, I appreciate the fact that Workers in Progress gives fair attention to the ideas of Karl Marx; few games do. However, theory from Max Weber could have provided more sociological credibility as well as a way to flesh out the narrative.

Saturday Night

Whether you’re gay or straight, perhaps you’ve had a night somewhat like Eric Brasure’s Saturday Night. To say much more would ruin the joke, which is all this game has going for it. For what it’s worth, I think the game is a pretty funny joke, partly because it doesn’t even try that hard in the first place.

Truth is Ghost

After going through Joel Goodwin’s Trust is Ghost three times, I can sum it up as a story I wish I could understand. The narrative is interesting and varied (the game allows you to make choices for various characters), and the religious references get the wheels turning in my head rather furiously. But I feel I am lacking the context needed to identify what the story is trying to say. The ending does make the whole thing seem unpleasant.

Room 3

When Acting as a Particle

You don’t choose your own adventure in David T. Marchand’s When Acting as Particle. Instead, you click any bit of text in a visceral series of choices within a preset adventure. The game is pure action and full of nervous energy (even the text is jumpy). There’s no exposition leading you into situations, and the game doesn’t tell you the consequences of your choices. What happens before and after your choices is only as interesting as your imagination — to an extent. You do get enough hints in the text to know that you are a political leader in a nation of unrest. Marchand undoubtedly intended some of the choices to be mundane and repetitive in order to put you in another person’s shoes. Some of these sections can be quite tedious, and the game needs more narrative branching, but the foundation for a better game is clearly here.

The Girl in the Haunted House

Several of Amanda Lange’s ideas and tricks are quite familiar, but her subtle narrative framing, as well as her use of background color, creates an original story. The paths in The Girl in the Haunted House not only lead to their own conclusions but also reveal details about scenes in other paths — not everything can be figured out in a single playthrough. This game’s exploration of a “house” is far more inventive than the overrated Gone Home. And that’s not the only way Lange tops the 2013 critical darling: the Girl’s horror feels authentic (the allusions to harassment are particularly relevant) and avoids creating a partisan (idiotic) battleground for liberals and conservatives.

The Scientific Method

This entry from Evil Roda isn’t a hip ode to darkness but rather an illustration of a scientist’s duty and struggle. Most science fiction wants to challenge you or provide thrills, but The Scientific Method emphasizes the grime and emotional side effects of scientific responsibility. As a disease threatens humankind, you are given two options of potentially life-saving research. The victories and disappointments of the research then make their way into the protagonist’s home life. The perspective of a scientist under pressure acknowledges the emotional aspect of an objective field, but even when things get better, the game’s cold lecturing overshadows the joy of discovery.


Drosophilia (a reference to flies) is by far the most curious of the Fear of Twine bunch. The three creators — Pippin Barr, Gordon Calleja, and Sidsel Hermansen — combine hypertext, sound, and YouTube videos to simulate a nagging office environment. The presentation is original, but my experience often amounted to a lot of mindless clicking, which evoked memories of the almost insufferable The Stanley Parable. Even the peaceful ending gave me no peace. Despite all of this, I would like to see another Twine game with such creative use of audiovisual elements.

Room 4

Abstract State-warp Machines

This game by Ivaylo “Evil Ivo” Shmilev is the perfect example of something that could make someone fear Twine — a long interactive poem that empathizes the white-collar politics of professional science. I almost dismissed Abstract State-warp Machines as overwrought, and I know some people will dismiss it based on the fact that it’s a poem that requires a good deal of concentration. All of this is a shame. For instance, we rarely see a statement of grief and understanding as profound as “I know now why people seek mediums to converse with the dead.” Does the poetry of Abstract State-warp Machines make the choices it presents even more challenging? Absolutely, but the difficulty of the game reflects the richness of the subject. This innovative work will stand the test of time.

The Work

The horror narrative of Cayora Rue’s The Work seems to represent a creative mind that is beating itself to a pulp. This game led me to that important question from filmmaker Francios Truffaut: “Is the cinema more important than life?” But the outcomes of The Work suggest a fatalistic perspective that goes beyond Truffaut’s concern about the prioritization of life and art. Rue even makes the text of the game hard to read to emphasize the negativity. The Work is certainly honest about the difficulties that might torment a storyteller, but such hopelessness can be balanced with more of the blue-collar ethic and pride that defined Larry Brown’s 92 Days.


Delayed text and Google maps characterize the naturalistic approach of Coyotaje, a story about illegal immigration across the Mexican-American border. Joseph Domenici’s focus on environment shows a commendable refusal to play politics, and the scene about different American Dreams of Mexican immigrants is remarkable. But Coyotaje does trip on pretense when it declares “This is not a game.” The irritating trial and error required to make the protagonist care about his own soul says otherwise (Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us allows superior philosophical handling of the conflicted Bigby Wolf).


This “fucking RPG” by Richard Goodness and PaperBlurt is a refreshingly simple take on the genre. As much as I enjoy RPGs, the obsession with numbers and the unending technical variations on the talk-search-fight-collect-shop formula can get tiresome. TWEEZER rarely speaks of a number and streamlines the RPG essentials with concise text and a time device. Even though a game of TWEEZER can only last a maximum of three “days,” the possibilities are plentiful and ridiculous. There is one annoying flaw: sometimes text disappears before I’ve read all of it.

Kirby’s Dream Land: A Review on Joy and Entitlement

In an era when people expect franchise games to overflow with content and mechanics (especially before downloadable content), Kirby’s Dream Land is an enigma. Critics have held and may continue to hold the game’s simplicity against it. As a certified gaming mascot, Kirby is expected to gain powers from his enemies, so Kirby’s Dream Land is often deemed a prototype, too basic. But this line of thinking denies the revelation of original creative design. From a historical standpoint, the Game Boy title is, quite frankly, stunning.

A game like Kirby’s Dream Land should be taken in slowly, as it is a delicacy whose every facet was designed with precision, care, and what appears to be joy. A normal playthrough is indeed short and easy, but the game presents immaculate creations with the enemy design, the level variety, the little cartoons between levels, the cheerful music, and the shockingly beautiful ending that ranks above almost any other in gaming.

Ideally, game critics would recognize Dream Land as a standard (not as a relic), but many of them are too busy brainwashing gamers with marketing slogans. Some critics excuse their own lack of conviction by preaching against “gamer entitlement,” a toothless euphemism that leaves critics sitting innocent as they continue to encourage outlandish expectations through their fixation on console wars, powerful graphics, features, mechanics, and superfluous Game of the Year awards.

Critics and gamers should try breezing through the Extra Mode in Kirby’s Dream Land and reconsider their default stances. In Extra Mode, the game sets you up for destruction, forcing you to master the deceptively simple mechanics. Kirby’s lack of speed and special powers requires you to be cunning and skillful, especially as you get deeper into the challenges you had already overcome. (The superior art and mood of Kirby’s Dream Land make the second quests in Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda look downright pointless.)

Kirby’s Dream Land is the rare game that seamlessly blends artistry and design in a way that can appeal to gamers of numerous backgrounds. Its place in video game history deserves to be cemented, if not for the sake of its greatness, then for the sake of the gaming community’s sanity as consumers: unlike countless games after it, Kirby’s Dream Land has zero fluff despite the appearance of its hero.

Tearing Down the Levine/Bioshock Idol

by Jed Pressgrove

Some games media couldn’t resist worshiping developer Ken Levine after he announced the closure of Irrational Games, the studio behind the Bioshock series. This cultural elitism — cute at best and misleading at worst — has no place in reports or editorials, particularly when one considers the history and art of video games.

Perhaps this cultural elitism received its purest and most condescending expression from Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander when she reminisced about talking with Levine: “I felt it was refreshing to go talk to a game developer who really understood literature, history, theater, who was so obviously fascinated by culture. In my work I talk to man after man who loves to say ‘badass’ or whose scope of references doesn’t extend beyond the Aliens trilogy.”  The smug implication is that most game developers don’t “get” literature, history, or theater — the cultural capital that makes Alexander a privileged human being — making Levine a special breed worthy to worship. Alexander’s intentions with her description might seem innocent, but her spill indicates and reinforces the myopic mindset that Levine is a lonesome intelligent creature in a video game world that lacks cultural understanding and meaning.

Gamespot’s Tom McShea made a similar mistake when he, under the heading of “Bad News: One Less Artistically Minded Developer,” equated the closure of Irrational Games with the gradual disappearance of “emotionally difficult experiences” (?) and “subversive games” from big-budget studios. (One wonders if McShea is familiar with the emotional difficulty involved in playing, say, Castlevania III.) In reality, most developers are mindful of the “art” behind video games. To imply otherwise is inaccurate and maybe even insulting. But who cares about those people who say “badass” anyway?

And how is Bioshock “subversive”? It’s one thing for Boston Magazine to publish ahistorical nonsense like “[Bioshock] was one of the first games to offer the player a moral choice.” But when Alexander types with wonder, “you as the player character make choices and study whether you think they mattered,” one wouldn’t be out of bounds to question whether some experts are driven by hype.

The gross suggestion is that Bioshock provided insight into “choice,” the most tortured term in gaming. How did Bioshock surpass or even meet Fallout, Planescape: Torment, or even Street Fighter II in regard to the consequences of choice? Bioshock has more in common with a movie like The Usual Suspects. Through its devious plot twist, Bioshock favored manipulation over choice — not that I ever cared, as I found the game’s environments and violence to be the main points of interest.

The anti-game history and anti-artist worship of Bioshock and Levine presents a serious intellectual sickness. People are well within the boundaries of reason to love Bioshock, but its cultural reach is relatively limited, unless we define “depth” as a narrow set of philosophical concerns. Criticizing Ayn Rand doesn’t make you an artistic genius — it simply means you know how to pick an easy target. After all, the failed American Utopia has been snatching our morbid curiosities for decades upon decades. Video games have more impressive cultural stories, but the way Street Fighter II brought together people of different backgrounds for friendly competition is a forgotten legacy. The story’s not smug enough.

How We Kill the Sexes in Video Games

by Anthony Murray

One day, a colleague asked me this question out of the blue:

“Apropos of nothing, do you know of any games where the low-level enemies (not the main boss or anything) are female?”

I kind of cringed a bit, and then asked her to define what “female” was. Her guidelines were “having a body shape which clearly denotes them as not male.”

At first I was like “Sure!” in my head. I thought about MMOs and a small library of games where there were some vaguely feminine low-level enemies. In MMOs, “feminine” enemies will spawn constantly depending on the area of the map you’re on, and you can kill them for loot/experience. But in everyday games, low-level female enemies are a minority relative to their male counterparts.

I knew the reason for this disparity, so I replied:

“It’s hard because the idea of killing waves of women-like enemies casually is kind of a big deal.”

In fact, I can easily think of games that made explicit design choices to limit/minimize violence depicted against women; God of War comes to mind first. But her response to that was:

“… the whole ‘don’t hit women because they’re the weaker sex’ is sexist to begin with, you know?”

She was absolutely right.

Because we’re so sensitive and selective about this topic, we create a weird circular discussion. By saying that women can’t be killed arbitrarily en masse like their male counterparts, we’re saying women are sacred and untouchable for some “unexplainable” reason. This feeling is evident because anyone who would approve killing massive numbers of women in games would become known as the most sexist monster in our industry. Through such perceptions, we unconsciously reinforce the negative stereotypes of women in most media; they are valuable because of their biology and are restricted to being pretty, submissive, pure, and protected because anything else would be absurd!

Even though there have been many people screaming for “equality” in games, I haven’t seen anyone brave enough to address something as simple as killing a multitude of female enemies in a mainstream game. I don’t blame developers or publishers entirely for this; I mean hell, who wants to be that guy/gal who approved the “woman slaughter simulator,” even if the violence were “balanced” among the sexes? So we take very small steps. Sure, she’s a female enemy, but she’s also a seductress, monster, ghost, possessed, indoctrinated, or something that allows players to justify her death, thus feeding off bad stereotypes about sexuality. In our attempts to take one step forward, we unconsciously take two steps back.

We do support one type of thinking, though; we have the guts to kill women for “narrative reasons” to motivate the player/character to go on their journey. And only recently we’ve begun talking about this and caring about that specific representation. Does anyone see how sexist this is to women and men? Doesn’t anyone remember that equality comes with the good and bad of being treated the same and that you can’t pick and choose?

For example, why aren’t males killed for narrative reasons nearly as often as women, especially early on in games? The only games with this dynamic that I could think of are war fantasy games — your Call of Duty or Gears of War-like games. War has always been a niche that appeals to a lot of males, not just because of the nature of its violence or tactics — war fantasies allow males to be honest about how they feel and to have a sense of meaning. If you can kill your enemies, work cooperatively with others, and die with honor on the battlefield, you have value. You can cry for your comrade who died without fear of judgment while simultaneously honoring their sacrifice through battle. It’s the fantasy of being broken down and reminded of your lack of value/status, only to be built up to rightfully earn it.

The war fantasy tends to be innately powerful and impressionable upon males, especially young boys. Like little girls who worry about their weight and are measured against unrealistic standards of beauty, little boys worry about their usefulness and value to society and are measured against unrealistic standards of doing something to prove that they matter. So the issue isn’t solely that women are commonly stereotyped as prizes, achievements, and cheap plot devices in games; it stems from something deeper than that.

As a society, we’ve internalized the idea that a male without status is a male that is disposable. If an unnamed male dies arbitrarily, we rarely have the same innate gut reaction as we would if an unnamed woman dies. We subconsciously think to ourselves that if he wanted to live, he could have tried harder. Sure, his family and friends would feel devastated, but in the eyes of macro-level society (and the player that wants to progress), who cares? If we need another hero, another soldier, or more cannon fodder, some other dude will gladly replace him — period. I mean, aren’t males supposed to be built for war, violence, and death? What does this say about us and the gendered stereotypes we subconsciously transfer into our works?

That’s why we can have games with endless waves of “male” enemies and not bat an eye. This idea has become so normal that no one really cares if men or women slaughter other males arbitrarily. We may say that the encounters are boring, repetitive, uncreative, or even interesting and exciting, but at the end of the day it’s not about the maleness. However, change the sex variable, and all of a sudden many would be up in arms. “You can’t kill women like that,” they may say. “Killing women carelessly is only feeding into male-power fantasies and sexism,” others may say, without realizing what’s wrong with their statement. A woman should have the choice to be anything she wants to be, whether she is a low-level enemy fighting to defend an evil empire or a strong, resolve-driven hero taking up a sword and shield because she wants to save the world. Her sex, gender, looks, or anything else should not matter.

So let’s throw these things away. If we have to create, destroy, sympathize and be heroes, villains, allies, or enemies, let me experience it through the lens of men, women, LGBT, minorities, or whoever else in games from both sides. And if you have a problem with any human being in particular dying arbitrarily, or suffering through their experiences based on surface things and not due to the reasons the game decided to pursue certain mechanics, themes, or situations for needless killing (i.e., throwing characters under the bus to drive its experience forward for the sake of doing it), we have a problem.  A problem that will hold us back as developers, players, and as an industry that’s working toward fully embracing everyone and treating everyone the same.

Anthony “Mister Armory” Murray is a game designer with a fascination for all things game development. His goal is to provide practical pieces of information to aspiring game developers and to lend a helping hand to those that he can as he moves through the industry. Follow him on Twitter (@misterarmory) and check out more of his writing on his personal website.


A Pointless Review: The Plan

by Jed Pressgrove

The Plan is a very short free game from Krillbite Studio, but you don’t even have to play it. Just read the first sentence on its Steam page: “A fly ascends to the skies, pondering the pointlessness of its brief existence.”

Rarely do you see such truth in marketing. The Plan is a giant set-up from the first time you lay eyes on its description and the praise from Giant Bomb, Eurogamer, and others. “Oh, it’s free,” someone will say. Yeah, have you ever played a good free game like Will You Ever Return? 2 or Hydorah? Pretty graphics, rousing classical music, and the lack of a price don’t make a good game — good ideas and good design do.

The Plan has two ideas, and neither idea is as profound as the marketing says. The first idea is something the game mistakes for existentialism: a fly flying higher and higher to certain death. The first thing you might consider is that a fly’s life doesn’t have to be as boring as it is portrayed in The Plan. A fight with a spider web is the only stirring moment in the entire game; how about a fly swatter or newspaper coming at you as you continuously try to meddle on human skin? Instead, it seems the fly’s pointless flight should inspire you to examine your own, presumably pointless, existence. (Hell, reading the “Fly” wikipedia page is more enlightening than this game’s sorry ascent.) Moreover, moving up and up begs comparisons to last year’s Castles in the Sky, a flawed game but far more fascinating than the nonsense of The Plan.

The game’s other idea seems novel at first, but it’s even more pointless than the ascent: at the end of the game, you’re prompted to type something. Anything. So I typed “What’s the point?” The game then showed me a screen of stars. As I hovered over the stars with my mouse, I got to read the messages other players had typed upon finishing The Plan. The majority of the responses amounted to quotes like the following:

“the plan”


“[insert player’s first name]”




Why would anyone want to read this? And why limit me to only a few dozen stars? (And yes, I did look for the words that I typed — I suppose that points to the “Read our own garbage” routine that social media have helped foster.)

I don’t care what a well-meaning nihilist might claim: existence can have meaning, often through interaction with others. As such, I recommend playing Chris Johnson’s Moirai over The Plan. Like The Plan, Moirai prompts the player to type at the end, but Moirai’s usage of this idea reveals the consequences of language and violence. That is far more profound than anything you’ll experience or read in The Plan.

Jazzpunk Review: Are You Ready to Laugh?

by Jed Pressgrove

Sight gags, silly dialogue, running jokes, mindless destruction — no type of humor is too lowbrow for Jazzpunk. This approach rejects an overwhelming seriousness that threatens to stop video games from evolving as entertainment. Some critics may not realize it, but Jazzpunk is a challenge to jadedness and egotism.

Remember how Papers, Please evoked the Soviet era to incite misery and guilt? Jazzpunk’s mockery of intelligence gathering wishes to return us to higher spirits. The game’s irreverent take on globalism recalls the absurdity of the great Marx Brothers political comedy, Duck Soup. Rather than contribute to political or cultural malaise, Jazzpunk looks for every opportunity to cut up (notice that the game’s title reconciles two musical genres at odds). Despite its nods to the Cold War and other things of the past, the game is clearly a comedy for the present.

Before Jazzpunk, I would’ve been hard-pressed to recall a recent game that truly exercised the healing power of laughter. Games like Portal and Saints Row might be funny, but their humor is treated as secondary to gameplay expectations (in the end, no more profound than cute ’em ups like Star Parodier). If the puzzler and action mechanics of Portal and Saints Row had been unfavorable, those games wouldn’t have made much of an impact on gamers. In contrast, Jazzpunk will only make a significant impact if it makes you laugh, as it’s designed to make you laugh by any means possible. Jazzpunk’s story and gameplay are merely subservient, so the game’s success is partially based on whether one is willing to forget the pretenses of story and gameplay. Critics and gamers looking for a traditional or abstract story will be disappointed, and Jazzpunk’s “adventure” gameplay is only fulfilling when it helps make a good joke.

Though somewhat reminiscent of The Stanley Parable, Jazzpunk doesn’t pander to cynicism or self-congratulatory criticism, nor does it insult one’s intelligence by sharing obvious lessons about game design. Jazzpunk has fun at the expense of Street Fighter II, Quake, and the Virtual Boy’s Mario’s Tennis (among others), but it doesn’t dismiss the essence of these games, nor does it shoehorn references to pander to fans (unlike The Stanley Parable’s circle jerk with Minecraft and Portal). Never insistent, Jazzpunk allows you to wander or follow the main mission. Jokes spill out of the game no matter the playing style. The game only denies catharsis to those who don’t laugh.

Unfortunately, by not appealing to the ego of video game critics, Jazzpunk has opened itself up to some lame reviewing. Metro GameCentral complains about the lack of gameplay in Jazzpunk but also calls the more minimalist Gone Home and Stanley Parable “inarguably better games.” Polygon describes Jazzpunk as “a great first-person conversation” (whatever that means). Destructoid’s review says the game “just ends with no real resolution.” Unbridled levity is strange or sinful in a gaming world that often looks for reasons not to laugh.