Monthly Archives: December 2015

Closing out a great year 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 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! 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 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” Blog categoryEssay categoryMultimedia 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!)