Bob Stein on the Voyager Company, transitional multimedia, and the long outlook on information Icon for Essay category

The Voyager Company logo from Voyager Company CD-ROM installers

Named in the spirit of the famous space probes sent into unknown territory, The Voyager Company was the first and perhaps most notable group to experiment with multimedia and software as new ways of presenting content. Though best remembered as the company that created the Criterion Collection, Voyager’s sensibility for expanding and contextualizing media saw its greatest expression in the company’s line of CD-ROM products. From 1989 to 1997, Voyager released dozens of titles that used audio, video, and interactivity to enhance existing works, tell compelling stories on significant topics, and create original art in an uncharted format.

That a media publisher on the bleeding edge folded isn’t unexpected, but their work is still surprising and unique two decades later. Shades of Voyager can be found everywhere from DVD special features to interactive web presentations. Much of their output, unfortunately, has never been reproduced in other formats – a shame both for the value of that content and for historical purposes.

For Bob Stein, co-founder and creative brains behind the Voyager Company, the CD-ROM was just one step in an ongoing exploration of the digital, collaborative future of information. He is currently co-director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, where he continues this advocacy work. Stein was kind enough to talk with me about the mission and legacy of the Voyager Company and its CD-ROM library. We touched on Voyager’s explorations beyond print, convincing people to take a chance on new media, and how CD-ROMs and virtual reality reflect the evolving role of authorship. Bob Stein on the Voyager Company, transitional multimedia, and the long outlook on information » Read more

Cybermercs: The Soldiers of the 22nd Century Icon for Action categoryIcon for RPG category

Title screen from Cybermercs

Aboard the transporter Sky Lark, a mercenary walks into an overrun lab. A trilobyte-ish Zen alien fires an energy bolt at her. This is her fifth time attempting this, though, so she knows to expect that – and the next alien approaching on her left too. This scenario was way more exciting when it first happened.

The role-playing game Cybermercs: The Soldiers of the 22nd Century does suffer from how often players repeat themselves, both by replaying the same sections and by encountering similar kill-em-all situations throughout. Those locations like the Sky Lark make Cybermercs still worth trying: the game’s beat-up metal fatigue sensibility partly offsets its weaker elements. Cybermercs: The Soldiers of the 22nd Century » Read more

World Empire series Icon for Strategy category

Title screen from World Empire

With a dash of geopolitical uncertainty, World Empire sits between simple war board games and full-scale simulations. The games never tax you with the realistic management of a massive army, but by destabilizing the world a little, they force you to play with one eye on what happens behind your own borders.

The five World Empire games play nearly identically apart from some revisions, and as such, I’ve chosen to look at them as a unit. Their similarity also allows a rare chance to see a game’s presentation keep pace with trends across twelve years of development. World Empire series » Read more

Love the milieu Icon for Essay category

Screenshot from Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong-Nou

The database site MobyGames currently counts over 100,000 games released since 1983, surely a low-ball figure that doesn’t include an endless number of independent games and adjacent software titles. No one can reasonably play all of these, both for practical reasons and because of the challenge of choosing which to try. That’s partly why we listen to criticism or recommendations. But even then, if you managed to work through a consensus list of the one thousand most essential games, you would have experienced at most one percent of everything available.

The remaining 99 percent is the milieu of gaming, the overwhelming bulk of the medium that never receives the same attention. For every highly successful, acclaimed strategy game, for instance, dozens more exist without as much recognition. This might be seen as meritocracy at work; the games in the spotlight should theoretically be the best ones. That just isn’t the case though. Things slip through the cracks.

Everyone has at least one favorite game that’s less well-known or critically unhailed. These games aren’t anomalies. So many terrific experiences exist outside the typical gaming canon, and we’ve all enjoyed some of them – yet we still collectively tend to write off the milieu as lesser titles or filler. Why? Not everything is good or exciting, of course, but no one should write off media by default because of broader indifference.

Sometimes accomplished games just pass under the radar and need another look. But much of this comes, I feel, from the tendency for game criticism (particularly historically) to focus on structural aspects – equating value with mechanics, length, challenge, technical accomplishments, and so on. And although this is a totally valid way to discuss games sometimes, it’s not the only way. Unknown games are hurt by this line of discussion, because they’re easy to dismiss en masse as presumably derivative, uninnovative, or mediocre.

Games can be creatively accomplished and enjoyable beyond those criteria! We should embrace that we might love a game for its characters or sense of style or something more intangible, even and especially when it doesn’t stand out on functional terms. Once we get there, all the run-of-the-mill games seem a whole lot more interesting.

Imagine how many great games we might discover if we played everyone’s favorite unnotables. Our relationships with games are so subjective and personal, and once we accept that a purportedly forgettable title could hold something special for us, we open ourselves to thousands of games we might not have considered could be one of our most beloved.

Closing out a great year Icon for Blog category

Oh wow, what a year this has been. 2015 was, by a longshot, the most productive year for myself and The Obscuritory. The past twelve months have held enormously good fortune, with opportunities to speak at events, travel, share resources, stream games, and meet others with off-the-radar interests. I never expected this to gain steam the way it has. I am enormously grateful to everyone who has continued to read or follow along, especially to friends who have told me that what I’ve been doing has value. The motivation has kept me busy: 2015 currently accounts for over a third of the total content on this blog!

The positive response really has been startling, and I have no intention of slowing down next year. There’s lots I want to get to in 2016, and I’ll try to hit the ground running. Look forward to more obscure games, analysis, discussion of related topics, and hopefully some more interviews and field trips.

Thanks for your continued readership. I deeply hope that you enjoy looking into these odd, unlit corners of gaming and have come away a little bit more curious and welcoming. We have a lot more to talk about next year.

Bal Ru’s Curse Icon for Puzzle category

"About" screen from Bal Ru's Curse

Bal Ru’s Curse could be one of the all-time most spiteful games. The game’s backstory explains that Bal Ru, the god of deceit, was imprisoned in a mysterious puzzle and uses his now-limited powers exclusively to screw over people trying to play it. Thanks to Bal Ru, his accursed game is nearly unsolvable – and not much more enjoyable.

Screenshot from Bal Ru's Curse

Bal Ru gets mad if you take your time

The goal of Bal Ru’s Curse is to arrange a 4×4 grid of colored balls into four matching rows. Colors can only move in specific directions, so the balls need to be shuffled around in relation to each other. A red ball, for example, might only be able to switch places with balls directly above or below it. The base puzzle offers a surprising challenge in the same vein as Rubik’s Cube or a craftier 15-puzzle. (The similarities become clearer when only two or three balls are out of place and you have to rework a corner of the board.)

But Bal Ru watches over the game, looking for opportunities to torment you. Every so often, randomly, Bal Ru will rearrange the board and swap the directions balls can move. This trickery happens frequently as Bal Ru’s mood worsens from “Amused” to “Peeved” to “Angry,” sometimes as quickly as thirty seconds apart.

The ball-switching puzzle is intriguing enough without Bal Ru’s interference. With the added twist, the game regularly resets and is almost unplayable. You essentially need to complete Bal Ru’s Curse within a minute or less, which is absurd.

Bal Ru’s Curse needs less Bal Ru. His nastiness disrupts the game probably more than intended and would fit better if less severe.

UPDATE: If you’d like to try this concept with the bad parts cut out, reader CHz made a “cruelty-free demake” using PuzzleScript that distills the game to the ball puzzle. It’s easier than expected without the external pressure but still interesting to solve. Maybe a sliver of Bal Ru’s magic would help. Thanks CHz!

Rockstar! Icon for Simulation category

Title screen from Rockstar!

The refrain about sex, drugs, and rock and roll sticks around for a reason. Exaggerated as they often might be, the most legendary music tales are remembered for their behind-the-scenes disputes and carnage rather than the songs. Games about joining a band usually focus on the performance side, though, or at least tell a neater story with a bus breakdown or out-of-control party thrown in for flavor.

If anything, Rockstar! overcorrects that. It offers a warped glimpse into a business fueled by overdoses, orgies, and in-fighting, where the quality of the music is almost an afterthought. It’s a surprising, vulgar, and often hilarious alternative to the standard rise-to-fame story, but like the hedonists it lets you role-play, the game never knows when to back down and deal with its consequences. Rockstar! » Read more

Ballistics Icon for Racing category

Title screen from Ballistics

How fast is too fast? Ballistics, a dare disguised as a racing game, answers that question with a shrug and a headache. Developer Grin created the game as a flagship title for the then-top-of-the-line GeForce 3 graphics card, and its show-off-y origins explain its total lack of interest in anything but speed.

That was the right call. Ballistics is the fastest game ever, full stop. It throws everything overboard to reach its kaleidoscopic absurdity, and despite – or because of – the game’s near-incoherence, it demands to be experienced. Ballistics » Read more

Reclaiming the multimedia “coffee table” Icon for Blog categoryIcon for Essay categoryIcon for Multimedia category

Screen capture of CNET's CD-ROM Central page "CD-ROMs for Your Coffee Table"

During some Obscuritory-related research, I happened across CD-ROM Central, an old 1990s CNET consumer guide for CD-ROMs. The site is overflowing with discussion about the medium, especially for ignored software and reference titles. Here, a Dom DeLuise interactive digital cookbook has equal footing with a juggernaut like SimCity 2000, and the reviews benefit from how earnestly they treat all the material.

CD-ROM Central also includes a “special collections” section with curated lists of multimedia CD-ROMs by subject. And most fascinatingly, one of those lists is “CD-ROMs for Your Coffee Table,” a roundup of artistic multimedia intended for display and collection, like Taschen books. The author, Molleen Theodore, sees genuine value in interactive multimedia as art objects, and she doesn’t hesitate to recommend photograph collections or experimental media that can “stimulate your eyes, your ears, and your mind.” CNET’s editorial staff treated these CD-ROMs, maybe considered novelties or disposable even at the time, with the sincerity of a book review journal.

An audience existed for serious multimedia, and the criticism respected that. That’s remarkable and inspiring!

The concept of an “electronic coffee-table book” – and the dedication of CD-ROM Central in general – represents an aspirational view of interactive media that we have too quickly forgotten. For a brief time at the advent of the CD-ROM’s popularity, multimedia software offered a new outlet for artists and creators of nearly every persuasion. Any curious person with a computer had reason to invest in this new format, where expressive multimedia storytelling co-existed with action games and interior design tools, often blurring formal genre lines in the process.

The Internet makes the idea of collecting discrete multimedia works seem silly, and CD-ROMs understandably fell out of favor despite their design accomplishments. Yet where an actual coffee-table book or reference material might endure for generations, almost everything featured in CD-ROM Central has been shrugged off as a passing trend, discarded, and rendered unusable. Their artistry was culturally left for dead within twenty years.

As advances in emulation technology allow us to revisit older multimedia, we have an opportunity to renew thoughtful discussion of the sorts of titles that might have shown up on Theodore’s digital coffee table. The CD-ROM medium may be obsolete, but it carries a substantial creative legacy, one aching for rediscovery and new relevance.

(The top image was captured from oldweb.today, a new site via Rhizome that allows you to browse archived websites using the original browsers and operating systems for which they were intended. This is a great tool with some exciting implications for how everyday users access preserved digital content: form arguably matters as much as content!)

Curse of Enchantia Icon for Adventure category

Title screen from Curse of Enchantia

Dreams can be surreal, but the real fun lies in the twisted, fluid logic that guides them there. By the time you realize a dream has become totally alien from any real-life experience, you’ve already unblinkingly chased it down a path of nonsense actions. Maybe we buy into that subconscious malarkey because, silly as it is, it makes sense on some emotional level. Discount it rationally once you’ve woken up, sure, but we’ll believe anything in the moment that feels right.

That’s the appeal of Curse of Enchantia, a breathless fantasy that never really questions its heading. There’s no clear destination for much of the game, and rather than leave it rudderless, this frees Enchantia to build its own weird anti-story momentum. To its detriment, the game still clings to a traditional adventure game structure, but it uses those rigid mechanics for something far more slippery. Curse of Enchantia » Read more

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