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Critical Riffs: Fez, Snot City, Glitchhikers, Love Worker

by Jed Pressgrove

Fez

This ballyhooed platformer combines Nintendo nostalgia and esoterica to make us go “Wow.” We’re supposed to do the talking because Phil Fish’s pixel art has next to nothing to say. The game has cute dialogue and plenty of places to see, but the perspective changing and puzzles make for rigid and tedious exercises, as opposed to the revelations uncovered with practice and experimentation in the cryptic masterpiece Solomon’s Key. Don’t buy into the bullshit about Fez’s ode to relaxation. Fish called his work “a ‘stop and smell the flowers’ kind of game.” No, that was 2009’s vastly superior Flower.

Snot City

James Earl Cox III is a more accomplished artist than Phil Fish. Snot City won’t win any awards for maturity or sensitivity, but the game’s subversion of clean-cut problem solving in games is unpretentious and original. Snot City establishes itself as a race against time in which you have to find new abilities to unlock paths and save the day. Although it’s tempting to stand still and take in the unusual environment, message prompts and fidgety animation reinforce the urgency to move. One could criticize Snot City as an inside joke on game design, but Cox’s conclusion is an unforgettable sensation.

Glitchhikers

This game from Silverstring Media captures the suspense of normal human life through an appeal to the senses. Simulating a late-night drive on the highway, Glitchhikers awakens the universal fear of running off the road with every blink of an eye and every look out the side window. The game wrecks when it starts talking. Although sure to garner comparisons to filmmaker David Lynch, the heavy-handed dialogue between imaginary hitchhikers and the driver overlooks ordinary, relatable concerns (work, family, etc.) of people who drive tired at night. By primarily appealing to dark, surface-level philosophy, Glitchhikers proves that commoners don’t matter when you’re up your own ass.

Love Worker

Earlier this year, Vaida shared Talks with My Mom, a modest story that surpassed Gone Home’s nonsensical and irrelevant portrait of gay identity and family. Vaida’s Love Worker is more of a minor achievement yet registers as genuine escapism. You move left and right hurling bombs in the middle of an industrial area full of walking suits. Rather than kill, the bombs add color. Not as naive as it might seem, Love Worker refashions the robot, a symbol of compulsory work, into a songwriter: “As a machine/I can’t compete/With what humans do.” This combination of song and game isn’t new, but few independent shorts concentrate on joy like Love Worker.

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From an Individual to the Universe: Talks With My Mom

by Jed Pressgrove

Sometimes art conceals understanding or best intentions. Talks With My Mom avoids this pitfall: without a hint of pretense, the game condenses one girl’s struggle of growing up gay in a traditional household. This honest gem, an entry in Gender Jam, shares and inspires as the protagonist speaks to her bigoted mother. As a storyteller, developer Vaida seems willing to talk to anyone — just one individual communicating to the universe.

A lot can be said about gender and sexuality with stick figures. This style is not an abstraction but rather allows us to fill in the gaps through the context of the dialogue. With its frank approach and sequencing, Talks With My Mom is reminiscent of hyperpersonal autobiographical comic books like Maus and American Splendor. Within the funny book frame, phrases like “It was a tiring day” work both as empathy devices and punchlines.

From a player’s perspective, some might criticize the lack of interactivity and options. But as anyone who has played a dreary Twine or an engaging Twine knows, clicking itself can be a grind or feel as fluid as a game with good combat mechanics. Talks With My Mom’s clicking is very agreeable, as you don’t have to click anything in particular to advance — click the mother, click the daughter, click dark space, click the text, whatever. With this freedom, the story’s rhythm and mood are yours to influence. It is entirely possible that the player’s clicking style can make the talks in the game more or less awkward or humorous (or perhaps clicking isn’t a style so much as a reflection of our own personal reactions). In any case, the game’s simple and flexible clicking could be more palatable for traditional gamers.

The protagonist’s strained relationship with her mother is presented with maturity to spare. Although the game pulls no punches in showing the mother’s anti-gay, anti-genderqueer, anti-trans, and anti-individual statements, Vaida illustrates her mother’s ignorance and badgering with care and humor, not hate (“We went shopping. Again. She’s very persistent.”). Talks With My Mom also shows how looking back can reveal new perspective. “I thought you were done with this eccentricity” hurts coming from any parent, but its utter naivety is laughable coming from a taller stick figure. Parenting can be a joke.

An implicit message of Talks With My Mom is looking back at moments, however painful, and reaping lessons from obvious and unlikely places. The complexity of the mother’s bigoted beliefs comes to a head when she offers a valid point of parental worry: “The majority of people will judge you.” The protagonist’s answer to this concern defines the game. Talks With My Mom stars a gay girl but has the potential to entertain or enlighten anyone. The game’s comments on family debate and individuality reach across all aisles — Vaida’s purpose is unquestionable, her young life on clear display.