Art Games: The Thinking Man’s Shoot-Em-Up

I’ve just discovered a genre, a form, a little avenue of creativity that I had no idea about.

This image is fairly representative of the amount of colour in the game.
This image is fairly representative of the amount of colour in the game.

I’ve never been a big fan of games where all you do is shoot to survive. I preferred to watch other people (i.e. my brother) play games, as I’m a wuss. The funny thing is, the games I did play and get really into, I often excelled at (even the shooting games). But I was put off, I think, by the very masculine focus in the market, and the fact that everyone I knew who made indie games made violent action games and were boys.

But this frame of mind is as limiting as believing YouTube is only for cat videos. You can create a compelling narrative on any platform, as I discovered by stumbling into this genre a few days ago.

If beautifully crafted, thoughtful, interactive fiction with a fantastic score and a propensity to leave you coming away thinking and feeling sounds good to you, here’s my run down of my favourites. Note: this is a comprehensive (read: long-winded) look at 25 of the most notable free online art games out there, from the very best to the very worst. Links are provided.

The Best of the Best:

This image is fairly representative of the amount of colour in the game.
This image is fairly representative of the amount of colour in the game.
The classic. Top of everyone’s list, and with good reason. The game that first sent me down the path of art games, this one really packs a punch. Great visuals, great music; very easy to lose yourself in. 5/5
Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 17.10.39
An emotional knockout.
Today I Die was fabulous; easily one of my favourites. Mouse-only and fabulously intuitive, this game grabbed me where the creator’s previous effort, I Wish I Were The Moon, failed to. If it seems too hard, try a new approach. This game takes a good look at the power of mind over matter and the influence of positive vs. negative thought. It’s oddly beautiful in every way. 5/5
Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 17.19.35
If ever an opening screen told you shit’s about to get real, this is it.
Spent is barely even a game, but play it right now and send it to everyone you know. Probably fairly similar to Ulitsa Dimitrova, though I sadly can’t play the latter on a Mac. Minimum wage/5 (does that enrage you enough to want to raise it?)
If only the hell hound took the titular advice.
If only the hell hound took the titular advice.
I loooooved Don’t Look Back. Classic gaming at its best; this little number from the creator of VVVVVV involves shooting, but also a fair amount of creative thinking – and instead of being set in X war against Y, it’s a modern dramatisation of the classic greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Give it a read-up, but here are the basics: he travels to the underworld to find his dead wife and bring her home. Once he has found her, he must leave without checking she’s behind him, or they will both die. Not looking back leads to a great final act reminiscent of a certain rule in Tower of Heaven, only with a much more emotional punch.
This should say it all: my keyboard stopped working right before the end of the game and I had to refresh. I played it all the way through again to the finish with no objections.
It’s a fabulous concept for a game, with a compelling narrative from the get-go, yet still retaining its challenging “gaming” aspects (there are actual boss battles!). It’s really very beautifully done, and has possibly the best wham ending of them all. 666/5
Named for its incredible depth. Maybe.
Named for its incredible depth. Maybe.
Perfect. Text-heavy (but game-heavy, too!), this is a standalone piece of fiction. A never-done-before take on the Escape The Room genre (admittedly one of my favourites), this game holds its own among the best speculative Sci-Fi thrillers in terms of staying power, and in a fraction of the time. Moodwise it’s got something akin to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, only with a much, much better ending. It’ll scare you, it’ll amuse you, it’ll tug at your heartstrings. An almost-invisible liberal agenda is implemented perfectly and naturally in exactly the sort of positive way you hope for. As a linguist, I enjoyed the transliterated Russian sentence “the majesty of god is within you” – there’s also a semi-spoiler in binary. Such a multifaceted game; you could view it as a simple point-and-click, but would be denying yourself the truly infinite depth of it.
The only minor flaws are the overly-complex password system (hint – you can click to apply them, if and when you finally have them in their entirety, instead of typing them in; and if you miss one segment, spare yourself the agony and find it in a video walkthrough.) Also, it’s far trickier to find your way around than it would be in reality, though that may purely be down to my own terrible sense of direction. 4.5/∞
Everything by GAMBIT
Is there something about caps lock that gives you the Midas touch, or am I just a CLAMP fangirl?
Anyway, it’s hard to choose and harder to order, but here are my top three games from this innovative, philosophical team of developers.
Sure, dip an engagement ring in green paint. What could go wrong there?
Sure, dip an engagement ring in green paint. What could go wrong there?
Symon: A point-and-click set in the unconscious mind of a paralysed patient, this game runs on the bizarre logic of dreams, and yet is somehow more intuitive than any other point-and-click game I’ve played. Poignant and funny, with beautiful graphics and added replayability. 4.279/5
The Last Symphony: This game is an absolute revelation. It’s hard to describe how wonderful it really is. The true story comes as an epiphany which is tangential to, yet intimately intertwined with, the path you follow, and the two storylines remain this way long past the end of the game, likes ships passing in the night on a predestined course. I cannot praise or recommend this game highly enough. 5/5
Elude: With three modes – normal, happy, and depressed – this game is a perfect illustration of the debilitating effects of depression. Some people are playing life in a hard mode they can’t switch off. 4/5
Honourable mentions
Covetous: Deeply, deeply disturbing, as it’s essentially true, give or take. You’re left with a Sophie’s choice at the end; there is no win or lose, only complete the game or refuse to. This game could be comical, but veers straight into the intended zone of “horrifying”. I feel I should throw an epilepsy warning in here, too. 4/5
Air Pressure: This game is not as it seems, and that’s all I really want to say. 4/5
Some people really do want to watch the world burn and cackle as they stoke it, don't they?
Some people really do want to watch the world burn and cackle as they stoke it, don’t they?
 This could have made it onto the favourites purely for one powerful gimmick (play it and see…) which really does resonate, bringing it off the screen and into real life. The game is also structured and punctuated in a very sobering and chilling manner. The dialogue is impressively natural, and by turns quite striking.
So, where’s the catch?

Where the dialogue is impressive, the text somehow manages to fall completely flat. The newspaper articles each morning draw you out of the narrative completely, as they sound like they were written by a seven-year-old (i.e. “Plants are dying (so things like trees, grass)”. This is a sentence in a real front page article in a newspaper your high-flying scientist protag subscribes to).
It’s also heavily inspired by the fantastic Every Day The Same Dream. It cites its sources, but lifts whole levels from its predecessor. And where the former takes an emotional moment and makes it a punch to the gut, that falls flat into farce in this game. You’ll see. Nyooom…
But the real kicker is its skewed philosophy. To spoil but one ending (out of many possible depressing ones and one ever-so-slightly-less-depressing one), if you decide to get a drink with your co-workers to celebrate curing cancer before you even have the slightest inkling there may be anything wrong, you’re totally screwed and the end of the world is irrevocably on your shoulders. They may as well stop saying “you have one chance” after day one. The whole planet is judging you for that pint. What a horrendous person, working tirelessly to cure cancer and then having one drink. Even if you opt not to (I cheated, don’t mind me), there’s no sign of anything being remiss until the following morning anyway. I don’t know what the whole lab spent the day derping on, but it wasn’t the imminent apocalypse.
The way I see it, if you’re paranoid the world is going to end to the extent you never have any fun, the world may as well already have ended. 3.8/5
Yet One Word: Okay, just one more GAMBIT game. This one is an incredibly cathartic process. It’s almost like briefly achieving zen through a game. This has very interesting implications for the future of gaming. 3.8/5
The Tower of Heaven: Riotous fun. This platformer stars you as a pissed-off citizen of earth, and God as a shit-bag who laughs at our misery and gets more and more panicked as you scale the Tower of Heaven ever higher. 3.8/5
Colour My World: Up until the end, this game embodies my life philosophy. It’s a shame you can’t add more colour, though. 3.5/5
It's so pretty. That's really important to me so step off.
It’s so pretty. That’s really important to me so step off.
 Great music; very, very innovative dialogue-but-not dialogue; some great attention to detail in the design, and a nice twist. Gorgeous game, but a little slow and repetitive. As there’s no way to fail, it really is its own walkthrough. 3/5
The Company of Myself: Cute, fun, and engaging little puzzle game with a heart-rending moment you don’t want to accept. 3.8/5
ImmorTall: very short but sweet, if slightly long-winded. The sadness comes directly from the hypothetical plot ringing true. 3/5
Not For Me…
American Dream: Epilepsy warning aside, this was very enjoyable, but only because I accidentally got too carried away with the stock market section, and never got to experience its fabled parties. God I’m a nerd. 3/5
As I Lay Dying: I enjoyed the ass-kicking female protagonist but her love interest really is remarkably stupid. If you’re going to kill off a character within the first ten seconds, make it tragic, not idiotic. Anyway, I sadly got frustrated and bored with this game very quickly. 2/5
Prior: Prior was fairly fun, though heavy on the overly-convenient exposition, until a game-breaking bug left one room totally invisible to me. 2.5/5
Distance: (I can’t find a link now – anyone?) As someone in a long-term LDR, a look at the difficulties wasn’t really what I needed, and to be honest, many of them were irrelevant to me. You choose when it’s time to call time, I guess, though for me that wasn’t applicable. 1.5/5
Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 19.30.32
A nice illustration of its principles, but slightly tricky to control and no fun as a game. 1.5/5
Alter Ego: It’s entertaining enough, but disappointingly heteronormative. To illustrate: if you play as a male, for example, and try to indicate alternate preferences when the game thrusts girls in your face, the game tells you “you must not be interested in girls yet.” Where the game allows you to choose every other aspect of your life, whatever you do there is no option for a same-sex relationship. My character married a female perfectly happily, but I was left wondering why, in such a comprehensive and otherwise balanced portrayal of life, such a thing should be omitted entirely? The game is US-centric (occasionally to an irritating degree; pop quizzes revolve around founding fathers, etc.), which may account for this fact, but certainly does not excuse it. 2.5/5
Coma: I struggled with the controls and only made it about a minute in before giving up. Aesthetically pleasing. 2/5 3.5/5
 EDIT: After trying again and getting the hang of the controls, I very much enjoyed this little game, so I’m bumping it up to a 3.5. It’s somehow creepy yet adorable.
Real No-Nos
Er, sure. Whatever you say, whoever you are. (???)
Er, sure. Whatever you say, whoever you are. (???)
If games were people, Coil would be the poser artsy kid who tries to be dark and abstract. The sort of person who claims the mess on his floor is a ‘statement’ and is likely to enjoy the ambience of totally empty ‘art’ exhibitions. I normally enjoy art games, but this one was pretentious tosh that was more a long-winded yet confusing soapbox piece for the creators than anything that focused on the effect on, or god forbid the enjoyment of, the player. The music’s quite good though.

Their attempts at what I assume must be poetry are baffling and bemusing, and the controls are impossible to get a grip on, since the game doesn’t lower the tone enough to give you a “What to physically do with your mouse and/or keyboard to progress” page. Because that wouldn’t be artsy enough, obviously.

Then there’s the ‘storyline’. We all know that a sperm cell is meant to get to the ovum, but after that…is the zygote really meant to lasso things to absorb so it can grow? Isn’t that what the umbilical cord is for? Are these even human babies? I…just…???

If anyone can make heads or tails of this game, I wish I could say I’d love to hear it, but I don’t think I’m invested enough in the narrative to care. If you don’t care about fancy graphics, make a beeline for Covetous, a similar but much more compelling and disturbing  online game. 0/What are numbers really but abrasions in the very nature of reality?

So there’s the list – check some out if they grabbed your interest, and let me know what you think! A special thank you to casualgirlgamer.com and jayisgames.com for your great lists of art games. Have I missed anything important? Do you disagree with my verdict? Let me know below!

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