satire

Hypnospace Outlaw Review — Defunct Satire

by Jed Pressgrove

In Hypnospace Outlaw, the object is to scour and flag fictional web pages for violations such as content infringement, harassment, and obscenity. The game’s puzzles, if one can call them that, recall the desk work of a technical editor, and the audiovisuals evoke social networks of the 1990s and early 2000s. Think of this title, then, as Papers, Please meets Myspace — a combination that, on a basic conceptual level, reeks of tedium.

As an enforcer of Internet law in 1999, the player must grapple with an outdated interface, very noticeable loading times, less-than-ideal navigation, and the garish, cheapo imagery of web pages created by precocious children, jealous teenagers, overbearing Christians, douchebag rock musicians, clueless businesses, phony spiritual advisers, and other groups you’ve probably already laughed at while online.

In other words, Hypnospace Outlaw’s satirical vision would’ve seemed daring if it had been released about 20 years ago. Today, this game registers more as a mildly amusing representation of the early days of user-generated profiles on major platforms. Now that we are all used to slicker-looking and more intuitive social media, Hypnospace Outlaw encourages a type of nostalgic, smug laughter. We can cherish how lame we were a couple of decades ago and how much better we look now.

It wouldn’t have been impossible for developer Tendershoot, through reference to history, to say something relevant or, more wishfully, incisive about who we are as a modern online people. But Hypnospace Outlaw mocks the utter naivety of yesteryear too much to function as a commentary on our current struggle — namely, the modern Internet user’s willingness to knowingly reject their own interests in order to have convenient access to products. That we can play Hypnospace Outlaw on Steam, a platform that exploits our culture’s apathy and consumerism (as suggested by the 2015 satire Crime Is Sexy), tells us that the comedy has no fangs.

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #10-6

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the intro to this list here and the entries for #15-11 here.

10. Downwell (2015)

Some might define Downwell as a shooter, but developer Ojiro Fumoto ingeniously riffs on one of the platformer’s most common features: the ability to dispatch an enemy by bopping them on top of the head. In Downwell, you can safely bop certain enemies but get injured by touching others, and it’s this concern that gives this pacey game its fundamental tension as you try to rack up combos or merely survive through the greatest fall in video-game history. The newest game on this list, Downwell shows that Fumoto is a brilliant independent artist who should get more attention from the gaming press (which is too obsessed with, among other things, the randomly generated sci-fi banalities of No Man’s Sky).

9. Kirby’s Adventure (1993)

Kirby’s Adventure doesn’t exactly conform to the standard notion that platforming should involve a distinguished approach to jumping. This Nintendo classic — which has the fingerprints of the late and great Satoru Iwata, in addition to those of long-time Kirby and Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai — is more driven by the freedom to fly, and Kirby’s copycat ability both complements the established formula of 1992’s Kirby’s Dream Land and predicts the surreal, morally dubious nature of Super Mario Odyssey. As a game where you can casually advance through its levels or dive deep into its hidden areas through fun uses of the hero’s many powers, Kirby’s Adventure has flexible appeal and is one of the greatest technical achievements of the 8-bit era.

8. Spelunky HD (2013)

I’d like to meet someone who has stopped discovering tricks and quirks in Derek Yu’s Spelunky HD. The fundamentals of this game — the climbing and hanging, the running and jumping, the throwing and dropping — are fine-tuned to an absurd degree, and Yu’s level design strikes an impeccable balance between randomness and familiarity. And pay attention to the game’s underrated satirical undercurrent, where the protagonist’s greed and treachery — the damsel in distress, who is wryly labeled a villain in an in-game notebook, can literally be used as an object — are almost always rewarded with death.

7. Mega Man 3 (1990)

An honorable mention in my 15 greatest shooters list, Mega Man 3 fully realizes the potential of its predecessors. This game’s silky smooth run-and-jump action, a revelation after the slippery play of the first two Mega Man games, is accompanied by faster screen-to-screen transitions and a now-legendary move, the slide, that redefined how the blue hero can travel and react to threats. The game’s kinetic flare makes it hard not to feel propelled through its gauntlet of outstanding villains, from Snake Man to Gemini Man to Top Man. (For more on the greatness of Mega Man 3, read my essay here.)

6. Donkey Kong (1994)

The best remake in video-game history, this Game Boy masterpiece opens with the four levels of 1981’s Donkey Kong before sending the player, as Mario, on an indisputably epic quest. Without a tutorial sucking the creative spirit out of the whole affair, you’ll learn how to create temporary ladders and bridges, ride on the heads of harmless enemies to reach higher ground, take advantage of a highly athletic moveset (a clear inspiration for the acrobatics of Super Mario 64), and more as you identify and then carry a key to open the door to the next stage. This stunning interpretation of Donkey Kong as a limitless well of dynamic action is also an audiovisual home run, with sound effects that pay homage to the arcade classic, an urgent soundtrack that ranks among the best on the Game Boy, and cinematics that amusingly reimagine Mario’s neverending pursuit of the titular antagonist. Jonathan Blow, eat your heart out!

Fingered Review — Self-Awareness, Please

by Jed Pressgrove

Thanks to the nearsighted Indie Game: The Movie, developer Edmund McMillen will primarily be remembered as one of the creative minds behind the pop game Super Meat Boy. Playing through McMillen’s catalogue of work shows that the Super Meat Boy story doesn’t sum him up, as games like Time Fcuk and Cunt respectively convey his despair and misogyny. McMillen’s latest game, Fingered, shares a gleeful misanthropy that’s also not as easy to swallow as Super Meat Boy’s cuteness.

In Fingered you play an executioner who must “finger” the guilty party from a line-up of suspects based on eye-witness accounts. As you progress round by round, the accounts become less straightforward and more unreliable. If you execute two innocent people, you have to start over at the first round. Although the suspects are randomly generated, the process gets stale due to the unchanging witnesses and, more significantly, the vagueness of their clues. It’s little help when someone tells you the criminal looks “odd,” “crazy,” or “neat,” as every suspect is drawn in an exaggerated style that reflects McMillen’s contempt for humankind and society.

This unusual design means that you must either decipher (through tedious trial and error) the intentions of various phrases or interpret Fingered as a nihilist’s satire of the U.S. justice system. In any case, McMillen asks you to accept his fatuous ideology. Every successful round ends with death cries as you pull the switch for the electric chair. These screams seem to call for more wit than McMillen’s bland “It’s bad if you send innocent people to the electric chair.” Who cares about innocence when it’s clear McMillen’s hatred for people goes hand in hand with the death penalty? After all, the witnesses beg for your laughter and prejudice as much as the suspects with names like Negative Nancy and Dim Dan. And who is McMillen trying to fool with Bigot Barny? The blunt message about Barny (“He’s racist … ”) indicates that McMillen can’t see the bigotry in himself. (At least McMillen’s juvenile Cunt openly admits his fear of and disdain toward women.) According to one of the post-execution newspapers, “I stoled the TV!” might be the last words of a dark-skinned criminal, but since McMillen’s game uses randomness, good luck guessing whether that remark could have been intentionally racist. Fingered’s attention-to-detail tests might recall Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, but the latter knew the point it wanted to make (despite being overrated). Like a bumbling detective, Fingered is clueless.

Games That Provoke — Will You Ever Return: In da Hood

by Jed Pressgrove

Our responses to video game content seem to be predestined. We can reasonably predict how we will feel about a game’s violence, a game’s lack of diversity, a game’s language, a game’s sex, a game’s political meaning. The unexpected boldness of Will You Ever Return: In da Hood could temporarily halt this pattern — if only it could get more attention.

Some would find it very easy to dismiss Will You Ever Return: In da Hood immediately. The game opens with Satan proclaiming “I like to fuck bunnies” and shooting his spermatozoa. Unlike with a Grand Theft Auto or South Park entry, you really don’t know what you’re getting with Will You Ever Return: In da Hood, even if you’ve played the first two Will You Ever Return games from developer Jack King-Spooner.

Uninterested in building a franchise, Will You Ever Return: In da Hood plays with our perceptions of reality. As Will Smith from his Fresh Prince days, you search a dreary part of Philadelphia and interact with pop culture icons, the majority of whom are rappers. Although you control a Will Smith made of pixels, many icons in the game resemble their real-life counterparts, like pictures cut out of magazines. This visual approach reveals a pretense in how big-budget graphics are often praised — video game “realism” is only polygon deep. (An acknowledgement of artificiality is also why the Scottish King-Spooner can have an American rapper say “mum.”)

The quests in Will You Ever Return: In da Hood also call attention to the commingling of reality and artifice and how we perceive both as an audience (as Tupac says, “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.”). The first significant interaction is with Jennifer Lopez, who tells you she needs crack — a silly fabrication that nonetheless awakens the social judgment that tabloid journalism has taught us. You eventually get caught up in the “war” between Biggie and Tupac, which culminates in a joke straight out of Looney Tunes. Another scenario involves talking with the Wu-Tang Clan about rules of the street. Then there’s a staring contest against Hulk Hogan. This type of satire doesn’t debase pop mythology; it amplifies our understanding of it.

The ridiculous quests are juxtaposed against more pressing social problems. King-Spooner’s gun-control agenda lacks insight, but the game’s attention to poverty and street violence creates a need for catharsis (i.e., the need for Big Willie Style). The historical racial divide highlighted in NPC dialogue (“Emmitt Till to Trayvon Martin.”) goes beyond the debates in the video game community. One can learn more about race from the references in Will You Ever Return: In da Hood than from the self-important public relations about diversity and social injustice at the Game Developers Conference.

Perhaps it’s not ironic that King-Spooner uses Will Smith to reconcile reality and artifice. The developer’s critique of Lil Wayne might seem mean-spirited, but there’s a lot of truth to the resolution: “Will [Smith] raps and the world becomes a better place. Children stop to listen and flowers bloom.” It certainly sounds more credible than the Independent Games Festival telling us that the miserable Papers, Please was the greatest thing of 2013.