The 'Shroom:Issue LXIX/An Introduction to Alt-Play
It goes without saying that those reading this have played or at least have heard of at least one game, and whether it was or is a paper-and-pencil adventure or the latest digital marvel, the memories or opinions of these games were and are likely based on their degree of fun or their value as a form of entertainment, whatever those may be. Indeed, some would argue (and have argued) that such terms as “fun” and “entertainment” define the game industry and its products, that the game as a medium, as opposed to film, television, and literature, cannot address “serious” issues. Every so often, designers challenge this idea and produce works that not only address “serious” issues but also do so in a way which encourages people to evaluate their views on the purpose of gaming, if not their views on games in general. Jason Rohrer is one of those designers, and through the three games included in the DSiWare title Alt-Play: Jason Rohrer Anthology (though each is also available online), he has created experiences which have shifted the focus away from the idea of gaming as a source of fun or entertainment, instead shifting it toward the idea of gaming as an art form.
The first game in the 8-bit anthology is called Passage. The game world is a maze littered with treasure chests and obstacles, though only a narrow strip of pixels is visible at any one time. There are barriers to the left of and above you, forcing you to move either down or to the right. If you move down, you will encounter an increasing number of treasure chests. Some of these will contain blue stars, which add 100 points to your score, while others contain dust, which adds nothing. Moving down also increases the number of obstacles that appear on-screen, forcing you to eventually move up and to the right (though your character inches ever so slowly toward the right of the screen as you play). If you move right at the start of the game, you will encounter a woman. She and your character will fall in love and remain together for the duration of the game, which is five minutes. While traveling with her doubles your score, it also reduces your ability to explore the environment, since it doubles the size of your hitbox and makes some areas inaccessible. Regardless of which option you choose, over time, your character(s) will age, and your view of the areas to the right will be diminished. Eventually, you and/or your “wife” will die, and once you do, the game ends, at which point you are returned to the main menu and can either replay the game or choose a different one.
Passage’s length makes it ideal as a means of passing time (I can think of worse ways to spend five minutes), and since there is no one way to play Passage, it allows for limited experimentation while playing, such as seeing how high you can get your score or how much of the maze you can explore before the game ends, and that’s without factoring in how traveling alone as opposed to traveling with your “spouse” impacts things. Sure, the ending’s the same regardless, but setting these objectives for oneself allows one to have fun (well, I have fun) in a game not designed around being fun, which I think makes each playthrough unique and more interesting.
The second game in the anthology is called Gravitation. Much more complex than Passage, the game is eight minutes in length, and unlike Passage, it utilizes a visible timer. You play as Rohrer himself and begin by playing catch with his child, Mez. Walking toward Mez causes him to throw a red ball in arcs of various heights, and you return it by ensuring it touches you. Each time the ball returns to Mez, your mood increases. The game’s music becomes faster and more upbeat, and the amount of the screen you can see also expands (you initially see yourself and a furnace; Mez is to your left). In addition, since you can jump in this game, your jump height increases with your mood, with the spontaneous combustion of your head indicating that your mood and possible jump height are at their respective maximums. After playing catch long enough, you will see a hole in the top of the area in which you are located. Jumping out of it will reveal a series of platforms and a blue star, introducing you to the game’s other mechanics. When you are not playing catch with Mez, your mood and jump height steadily decrease (the music also becomes more somber). Collecting blue stars will increase your mood and allow you to jump to higher and higher platforms. These stars fall upon contact and end up in the starting area as numbered ice cubes, which must be pushed into the aforementioned furnace in order to earn and increase your score. Eventually (if you decide to climb as high as you possibly can), you will encounter platforms you cannot reach, and your mood will drastically decrease to its lowest point. The screen will shrink until it displays your immediate surroundings, and you will have to return to and play catch with Mez, push ice cubes into the furnace, or simply wait for your mood to increase again. This cycle of increasing and decreasing your mood repeats until the game abruptly ends.
As I slightly hinted above in my description, Gravitation also allows for a degree of experimentation. You can either remain with Mez or vary the frequency with which you venture upward and return to the starting area. Without spoiling anything, that second option has the potential to drastically alter the course of the game, not that it has much of a course to begin with. Because of its platforming elements, Gravitation is, in a sense, more "fun" than Passage, though it is just as useful as a means of passing the time. Before I continue, I’d like to point out that there is much more to these games to that, but it is difficult to discuss these games without diminishing their potential impact on people who have yet to play them, which is why I have avoided discussing how these games are examples of the medium being used as art; that is something which must be realized through experiencing them, several times if necessary.
On that note, the final game in the anthology, Between, is the only one I have yet to experience. Unlike the other two games, Between is multiplayer-only, and the only multiplayer options the anthology offers are wireless and download play, both requiring two Nintendo DS systems, which isn’t practical for me (trying to play the game on PC isn’t any easier, since it involves finding someone who wants to play and having that person enter a code in order to join the game. The other option is to “join with a stranger” and hope someone is playing at the exact time you are), especially since Rohrer’s games aren’t exactly games to which most people are or would be attracted. In any case, I’ll include the description here as a courtesy to you all, since I don’t to want to deny you a potentially rewarding experience should you be interested enough to try it out, not to mention that it wouldn’t really be a review if I didn’t at least mention the game. Anyway, Between involves you and another person working together across three worlds to construct towers made of colored blocks from your inventory, displayed on the touch screen. You must balance using the blocks to build the towers and ensuring you have blocks to use in each world, though you can transition between worlds at will. Regarding the worlds, two are completed independently, but one is common to both players, requiring the players to cooperate in order to build the tower for that world, which not only is an interesting game mechanic but is also a potential bonding experience, since sabotage is impossible (as far as I know).
Aside from the three games, Alt-Play’s other content consists of a biography of Rohrer and a creator’s statement for each game (it’s $1.99, so you get what you pay for). I recommend reading the latter after playing the respective games. These games are vastly different from most games on the market in terms of general design and purpose, and having played Passage and Gravitation, I am certain my experiences with them would have been far less enjoyable than I have found them to be, and I think they are among the best experiences in the game industry right now. I know that not all of you will share my opinion, but I hope that I have at least piqued your curiosity enough for you to play them (and Between, of course). If you do so, I recommend playing them online first (they’re free and easily accessible through Google) , so that you buy the anthology if you like them, since the eShop video, description, and screenshots do not do them justice. With that, I express my thanks to the 'Shroom staff for offering me the opportunity to contribute to this issue and share these games within a game with you, and I hope you enjoy whatever experiences the holiday season may provide.