Time for some big crazy news: I’m hosting a panel at this year’s Awesome Con in Washington, DC!
Awesome Con is a comic and pop culture convention that has absolutely exploded since it started just two years ago. I’ve gone to both Awesome Cons held so far, and it has been exciting to watch a small artist exhibition grow into a juggernaut with over 50,000 attendees expected this year. As both a longtime fan, I’m proud to be one of the panelists contributing to the growing gaming presence at this… well, awesome event.
Much like at MAGFest, I’ll be speaking about great obscure games and why they’re important to gaming culture and the pop culture landscape in general – especially in how they can breed positivity and inclusiveness. Expect to hear about some old favorites as well as other titles tailored to Awesome Con’s sensibilities. I strongly believe that obscure games can invigorate the future of gaming if we play and share them, and I’m ecstatic to spread the obscurity gospel at such a big venue.
(This isn’t a gaming-specific event, so I want this panel to be approachable by anyone interested in games. I’ll consciously avoid jargon and cultural inside jokes when possible.)
The panel will be titled “Obscure Video Game Gems (and Why They Matter).” Date, time, and room are TBD. Awesome Con is held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown DC, easily accessible through public transit. Get tickets before they run out! (If you need upselling, the Ponds from Doctor Who, George Takei, and William Shatner will also be there!)
I’ll be at Awesome Con all weekend, and I’ll probably show up in costume and enter a tournament at some point. Greatly looking forward to seeing all the shining, wonderful faces there. This is a fantastic event with a huge variety of content and a strong commitment to being a safe space for geekdom of all walks.
(from left to right) Rhizome archivist Dragan Espenchied, Participant Inc. founder Lia Gangitano, game critic Jenn Frank, FEMICOM Museum founder Rachel Simone Weil
Theresa Duncan’s game Zero Zero ends with a fireworks show as the calendar rolls over to the year 1900. “The future,” the protagonist Pinkée cheers, “we’re there!”
FEMICOM Museum founder Rachel Simone Weil mentioned this quote when discussing Zero Zero‘s thematic pining for the future, but it also captures the revelatory feeling of Rhizome’s showcase event for the newly preserved Theresa Duncan CD-ROM games on April 16th in New York City. Their restoration is a watershed moment for gaming – for the revitalization of Duncan’s games, for the importance of diversity in gaming culture, and above all for the relevance and accessibility of the CD-ROM medium. After listening to the discussions and speaking one-on-one with archivist Dragan Espenschied, I left with impossible optimism for the future of these games and other forgotten digital works. Read more »
Hey sports fans! Back in November, I posted about a crowdfunded preservation program for three CD-ROM games for young girls by artist Theresa Duncan. The Kickstarter was a success, and the games will be playable for free via browsers this Friday! I’ll be sure to share the link once they’re available. These are great and still highly important games that absolutely deserve their place in the gaming canon.
As part of the Kickstarter, I’m attending “The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs,” the games’ premiere celebration at New York’s New Museum this Thursday. The evening will feature a panel discussion from Rhizome’s Dragan Espenschied, Lia Gangitano of Participant Inc., FEMICOM founder Rachel Simone Weil, and game critic Jenn Frank. I’m crazy stoked about this event, and I can’t wait to hear more about these games, the preservation process, and their place in feminist gaming history and broader culture. Expect a write-up afterwards…
If you’re in the NYC area and reading this blog, this is definitely an event you’d be interested in. Buy a ticket and come by! It’s a rare chance to learn about a very special slice from CD-ROM history.
Playing obscure games can be difficult and exhausting. First you have to find a game, then buy or download a copy if it’s available, then figure out how to run it on a modern computer. That’s no small task. I’ve always taken for granted that I’m good with this, and part of it is certainly my background. I’m from a white middle-class family, and I’ve been immersed in the world of gaming for close to my entire life. I have always had the time, money, equipment, skills, and knowledge to dive into this stuff. Not everyone does.
People who can get into obscure games should be making it easier for everyone who can’t. We should all be pooling our resources to ensure that anyone can find, play, enjoy, and learn from obscurities.
In that spirit, I’ve put together a new Resources guide available at the top of the page. It contains tons of high-quality resources for finding and playing obscure games (with a strong focus on classic computer titles). I use these same materials for this blog and my research. I’ve divided the guide into three sections:
- Discovering – learning about obscure games from lists, collections, reviews, and enthusiasts
- Obtaining – getting ahold a copy, physical or digital
- Playing – making the games run on your system
All three areas can be difficult for some people, and I hope that at least one person finds the resources I’ve put together useful. It was a lot of work, and I think it’s one of the most complete guides to obscure games out there.
I plan to continue updating this guide, so if there’s anything you think would be worthwhile to add, please drop me a line!
Deduction board games permanently live in the shadow of Clue, a masterclass of patient strategy. Knowledge matters more than action in Clue. You can’t organize any sort of power play, and you could feasibly win by watching other players and taking notes. The steady drip of new information allows anyone paying close attention or with sharp logical skills to stay on top.
Almost every game of deduction owes some debt to Clue, and Fooblitzky proudly wears that influence. Fooblitzky was created by legendary interactive fiction company Infocom, so of course their digital board game plays as an extended logic puzzle. It’s a shaggier beast than Clue, often crazy, cluttered, and confused where similar games are lean. With so many components to handle, Fooblitzky lives and dies off-board in players’ notepads. Read more »
You are stranded on the planet Stambul. To escape, you have to order tickets for a space flight over a public videophone. You’re meant to dial the operator and ask for the spaceport, but you can also prank-call the emergency line or find the number for the local bar. Then you can visit the bar, order your choice of alcoholic drink, and get thrown out onto the street. Open as those options seem, they’re only facsimiles of freedom: unless you incite the police to kill you, you’re inevitably going to the spaceport. So why not have a little fun and insult your cab driver along the way?
You can’t write the history of the adventure game or the interactive movie without mentioning the operatic sci-fi thriller Spaceship Warlock. As one of the first ever games on CD-ROM, it had the privilege to define what a modern cinematic game would look and play like. Without a roadmap of genre conventions, the game crafts a bizarre template that is somehow roller-coaster-esque in its linearity while still open-ended. Spaceship Warlock barely, barely pulls it off. Not everything gels – especially not the combat scenes – but what works stands out as a high-wire act of guided interactivity. Read more »
Even without its prominent endorsement from Tetris‘s Alexey Pajitnov, ClockWerx would still be a minor success. Its rotating, clock-inspired mechanics put a clever twist on typical puzzle game movement. As many with many games of its kind, ClockWerx groups its various challenges into a few different thematic sets, each with its own graphics and some new background music.
Most of these songs are peppy lounge tunes, all of which are quite catchy. The piece for the sixth set of levels, unimaginatively titled “Song H,” stands out for its slower groove. Read more »
When visiting the mall as a kid, I’d usually stop by Spencer’s, a novelty store that specialized in crass and raunchy joke gifts. Among their usual fart-related T-shirts, the store always kept the back aisle dimly lit and well-stocked with plasma balls, blacklights, lava lamps, strobes, and other trippy decor. In retrospect, it was clearly intended for stoners, but I was too innocent to get that. It just felt cool. And I liked the glowy things.
Like a naive kid’s version of the back of Spencer’s, The Groove Thing is an in-your-face light show for its own sake. This kaleidoscopic art-and-music software would probably pair well with any sort of substance enhancement but is too earnest for that. It’s here to put you in a trance with the only tools in its bag: colors and patterns. Read more »
No game would benefit more from a built-in map than Obitus. Disorientation is Obitus‘s baseline, and your sense of place rarely improves from there.
This exploration-driven RPG has some neat parts, like simple combat and some very pretty, muted visuals. An oppressive sense of directionlessness overwhelms almost anything else the game tries, though, and it’s hard to look past that. Read more »
Last week we got the very sad news that legendary developer Maxis closed its doors after 28 years. The Maxis name and its related brands will live on for years under new stewardship, but the end of the original Maxis studio is a great symbolic loss. The company is rightfully most loved for SimCity and The Sims, two games that pushed the medium in exciting, unexplored directions. Those titles twice redefined the simulation genre and exposed gaming to millions who might not consider themselves the right audience for gaming. If Maxis’s contributions to gaming stopped there, they would still sit among the titans of gaming history.
But Maxis’s secret weapon (and the reason I’m mentioning them here) was their steady output of stranger, lesser-known stuff. Outside of their most notable franchises, Maxis released roughly a dozen other Sim games and served as publisher for many independent titles. They somehow made compelling experiences out of ant lifecycles, farm management, and hotel development, and they tackled simulations of such ambitious scope that they had to be named SimLife and SimEarth. The studio also invested in similarly spirited one-off oddities like Widget Workshop, an experiment-driven edutainment sandbox program. Maxis’s milieu (so to speak) proved that games could go anywhere and be anything – for everyone. Their signature blend of approachable design and endless depth ensured that anyone could play and have unexpected fun. Almost no one else has mastered that balance.
Maxis of course excelled at the little things, like sensible interface design, clear graphics, and friendly tutorials. At the same time, they tackled huge, insane ideas. Consider their experiment with SimCopter, a flight simulator that meshed with content from SimCity 2000, maybe the first game of its kind to meld content from multiple titles. Sometimes this ambition didn’t quite work, as arguably happened with Spore. But they shot high and weird, and they deserve ultimate respect for that.
To celebrate Maxis and their more obscure output, I want to look at the craziest Maxis games that you can’t play, whether because of cancellation, discontinuation, or rarity. Maxis was prolific, and their footnotes are as fascinating as their successes. Read more »