Sunday paper - Ambient play
December 12, 2023

Here are my favorite games of the past week!

Conceived as a kind of gallery exhibition of "works of art and activitism that showcase intersectional sensibilities and strategies for understanding, addressing, and healing urban fault lines, drawing from the radical potential of dreaming," this is a collection of dreams, thoughts, and games imagining a better world for ourselves. Gabbah Baya presents these disparate works very thoughtfully, each little room curated to reflect and expand the ideas and feelings of the exhibited piece. One cubby houses a musical piece, where a set of hearts and necklaces hover while you listen; another corner displays architectural drawings, some of which wrap around the faces of spinning cubes. It's hard to do justice to in text, but every room feels different, its own. It makes moving from room to room exciting and drew me to think deeply and critically about the specific ideas being presented within a given work.

Moving through the space as a whole is beautiful. I think it's one of the most beautiful digital spaces I've ever visited, with loping, elongated pathways over shimmering ribbons, blushing stars drifting into the dark. The music is stunning. I am playing it on repeat, as I write this, drifting to its angelic textures and harmonies. It's a gorgeous piece.

There is an air of tragedy in a lot of these works. Tales of displacement, estrangement, a world that has failed us. So I found myself moved by how much hope and love these artists have for the world, for their communities, for themselves and each other. It's a beautiful game, and a gift to visit. May our own worlds grow to meet its compassion.

This game utterly consumed me for an afternoon...It's a PvP autobattler where you level up your knight over many rounds, shaping their stats to build a unique fighter. The HP vs Dexterity vs Damage decision is streamlined but surprisingly deep, especially in tandem with choosing how aggressive / defensive you want to be. I built high HP damage aggressors, glass canon dexterity ninjas, ultra defensive blocking machines, all to varying success, and all with varying feels to them. It feels quite expressive!

Perhaps the main hook though is that after your death your fighter will live on as a future enemy. Everyone in the game (with I think a few exceptions) was a past player's ruinous attempt at glory, so you are battling through a gauntlet of your past troughs and triumphs. Every character I made was in the "eunice b dibble" lineage, so I would regularly stare at the stats of a foe and think, "what a terrible build" or, worse, "how will I ever defeat them?" only to look at their name and see it scrawled: "eunice b dibble vi." To feel the weight of our's really quite fun. It's not as number crunchy as maybe I'm making it sound, but feels much more playfully experimental with a fun persistent world element to it. Eunice b dibbles unite!!

This past weekend, I went to the Raindrop Races showcase on ambient play at Boshi's Place. It was a collection of games that focused on "the type of play we engage in even when we have no choice or control at all over the outcome." The whole collection was very exciting, with a live indoors raindrop racing setup, a Super Smash Bros Melee CPU-only tournament, the After Dark screensaver collection (below), and this beauty from common opera. At the show, this was displayed with a large canvas where we could chart the map ourselves, translating the roving images on screen to a human record. I was so captivated by the images, though, that I just happily watched. The bird animations are stunning, beautifully fluid with quivering pixels. It was gorgeous watching it roam an unknown land. And those clouds! Maybe the most beautiful videogame clouds I have ever seen?

Earlier this week, I read Nathalie Lawhead's essay on walking sims, and they talk about how AAA games have these beautiful worlds, but their mechanics hurry us along without letting us stop and breathe. Lawhead holds walking sims as a balm for this, spaces where all you can do is appreciate the world, its people, its environs. Brave Mouse Cartographer, for me, is an even more radical approach to this ethos. You have no agency over where the game takes you, and in stripping it away you are left with no choice but to disengage, or sink deeply into its rhythms. For me it was a very stunning experience, a slow-cinema-like meditation. I sat for about 15 minutes, just poring over its world, rising and falling with reverie to the drum of a bird's wings. A beautiful game.

After Dark, by Berkeley Systems

The other game I fell in love with at the exhibit was this collection of screensavers from 1989. I don't know how many screensavers there are, dozens, and they cover a vast range of styles and sensibilities. There was a game where you watch for lightning, which let you tweak the bolts' regularity and "forkiness" (we chose, of course, maximum forkiness). There was a game where a lawn sprouts grasses, weeds, flowers, and bushes over multiple days, before at some point a man in a lawnmower would come screeching in columns to chop everything away. There was a game where a child, "superboy," would scamper around the screen while randomly generated comic bubbles told his story. I watched with a group of friends for two hours, clicking excitedly through the list, continually surprised by the breadth of play they conjured. I think you probably have to emulate these, but it's worth it.

You can read more about the show in the zine the curators made, over here.

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