Virtuoso, the dead end of the rockstar fantasy Shooter category

Title screen from Virtuoso

Rock is dead. Not the music, because the music continues to live on. It’s taken on other forms like punk and indie rock, or even been absorbed into the big umbrella of pop music. But as a cultural movement, rock is history. As music journalists have noted, the idea of “rock” is aging and has fallen out of relevance. It’s no longer the cultural institution that it was 50 years ago in the era of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, or even 30 years ago, when bands like Guns N’ Roses were a polarizing force in pop culture.

And it’s difficult to imagine anything about rock that’s more dated than the idea of the rockstar. Fame has never stopped being attractive, especially in show business, but the specific image of the rockstar – the hedonistic bad boy in a leather jacket who turns heads on- and off-stage with their self-destructive antics – feels hopelessly out-of-date. On the one hand, the aesthetic of looking like David Lee Roth is uncool now, which is nothing he could’ve helped because coolness always becomes uncool with time.

But what’s really shown its age is that there’s a kernel of ugly selfishness in the rockstar fantasy that’s become more pronounced over the years. It’s cute and a little glamorous when it’s just Mick Jagger getting high and thumbing his nose at authority, but as the genre wore on into the late 90s into the pissed-off era of nu metal and its ilk, the self-righteous anger behind the rockstar persona became more palpable. Maybe it’s a cheap shot to invoke the specter of Woodstock ’99, a music festival that was infamously marred by violence and destruction, but it represents a low point for rock. Twenty years later, when the biggest stars in music are using their fame as a platform to draw attention to injustice, the image of a famous rich white dude singing about getting mad and breaking shit like he’s still owed something, well, it sucks – the greatest condemnation one can make of rock.

Virtuoso predates that era by a little bit, but it imagines rock ‘n’ roll going down a similar road, and it has an absurdly bleak vision for the future of rock. The hero of Virtuoso is the ultimate badass world-famous rock god, and he hates it. » Read more about Virtuoso, the dead end of the rockstar fantasy

Breakout roundup Arcade category

Screenshot from Spore

Breakout is such an obvious idea that it’s weird to think somebody had to invent. The ball-and-paddle game formula is super simple, and countless games have copied it, notably a huge number of older free and shareware games, often by new developers starting out with something less complicated.

It’s difficult to talk about Breakout clones on their own, because they’re all copying from the same well-trodden template. And for the sake of this blog, I didn’t want to write half a dozen short posts about games that are so similar.

So instead, let’s talk about a bunch of them all together! For this article, I wanted to cover a variety of games inspired by Breakout that I’ve been meaning to play and talk about what makes them interesting. These games try to jazz up the ball-and-paddle game genre, either by adding new features or changing something about the genre itself. Maybe we’ll learn something by looking at several different Breakout clones at the same time! » Read more about Breakout roundup

5 A Day Adventures Educational category

Introduction screen from 5 A Day Adventures

For better or worse, 5 A Day Adventures was originally given away to elementary schools and libraries for free.1 The program was meant to encourage kids to eat healthy food, but it’s also, unavoidably, an interactive ad for the Dole Food Company.

I realize that a promotional CD-ROM about fruit is sort of a ridiculous thing to write about. It almost doesn’t matter whether 5 A Day Adventures is any good at teaching kids about fruits and veggies, because the interesting part has less to do with the food pyramid and everything to do with the bigger colliding forces at work in the worlds of education, software, and public relations that produced this thing. » Read more about 5 A Day Adventures

Faces …tris III Puzzle category

Title screen from Faces ...tris III

After the runaway success of Tetris, the game’s designer Alexey Pajtinov made a few sequels.

First, there was Welltris, a three-dimensional variation of Tetris.

And then… there was Faces, a game where you make faces.

Technically, it’s called Faces …tris III, with the “tris” unconfidently tacked on the end as a reminder that this is actually supposed to be a sequel to Tetris. In reality, the two games have very little in common. » Read more about Faces …tris III

L-ZONE Adventure category

Title screen from L-ZONE

There’s no dialogue in L-ZONE, or any words for that matter. To the extent that this game has a narrative, it’s incredibly vague, like an impression of a story without any specific people or places. A city on another planet. An underground lab. Colossal machines and living robots. A nefarious plan. A chance to escape. » Read more about L-ZONE

Mind Walker Action categoryPuzzle category

Title screen from Mind Walker

In Mind Walker, you go inside the human mind. The whole game is one big mishmash of symbolism about the subconscious, where a concept like “bad thoughts” will take on a physical form and attack you.

The game was designed by Bill Williams, who liked to create ambitious, complicated worlds that operate according to their own rules. Mind Walker is one of those ambitious worlds – the brain of a scientist, wracked by nihilism and paranoia. In a last-ditch attempt to save himself, the scientist enters his own psyche, trying to repair his sanity from the inside. While certainly interesting, the metaphor is so convoluted that the game loses track of it. » Read more about Mind Walker

Introducing Obscuri-Tuesdays! Blog category

A modified screenshot from Delrina Daily Planner 3.0, a planner program for Windows 3.1. The planner page says "Obscuri-Tuesdays. New posts on Tuesday! For now! Begins on 8/25/20"

Modified screenshot from Delrina Daily Planner 3.0

Welcome back, and welcome to the start of something different for The Obscuritory!

For a long time, I’ve wanted to figure out a more stable writing schedule. One of the things I’ve always struggled with is working at a consistent pace. It’s been especially difficult this year, with new exciting sources of stress popping up every week. Part of the issue is that I tend to publish things as soon as I finish them, which leaves me on a constant treadmill to keep writing. At the same time, I recognize that as blog readers are waning in popularity and more people are going first to social media or YouTube, following a blog in 2020 is more difficult than it’s ever been, and it would help readers if I had a more reliable schedule.

So for the last couple weeks, I’ve been drafting a bunch of posts in advance instead! I have about a month’s worth of articles ready to go, which gives me a much longer runway to keep writing, or, if I need it, to take a break for a while. It also means I can set up a regular schedule, rather than just publishing posts as they’re completed.

From now on, new articles will be going up on Tuesday mornings! I’m calling this Obscuri-Tuesdays. (It was suggested that I do Thursdays instead so I could call it Obscursdays, but I like sharing them earlier in the week.) I hope that posting new articles at a regular time will make this blog a bit easier to follow!

This won’t be every week, but it will be on Tuesdays. I can’t promise that I’ll be able to keep up the pace of writing one article per week. Sometimes they take longer to write and research, or I’ll get sidetracked by other things in life. But I hope that taking a quick reset like this will help out in the long run. I’m proud to be able to do this blog on my own terms, and I’m excited about making it more consistent in a way that’ll be better for both me and you!

(On a side note, the fall is usually a slower period for this blog because I’m busy working on special events. Given that just about everything in the world has been canceled, I don’t think that’ll be an issue this year. Silver linings?)

The Obscuritory will continue tomorrow with an article about Mind Walker, a bizarre Amiga game by Bill Williams (Knights of the Crystallion) that takes place in the human brain. See you then – and see you on Tuesdays from here on out!

Learn about multimedia adventure games at virtual Mysterium 2020! Blog category

Stambul City from Spaceship Warlock

Stambul City from Spaceship Warlock

It’s been a quiet month over here. I’ve been a little burned out recently – life is really hard right now! – so I’ve been taking a break again. I’ve also decided to try something new by writing articles in advance, rather than publishing everything as it’s finished, to give myself a longer runway of regularly scheduled posts. Hopefully this will help me write more consistently while this country’s health crisis keeps unfolding. Things should pick up again in a few weeks.

. . .

In the meantime, there’s a fun event next happening next week! I’m talking at this year’s virtual Mysterium, the annual Myst fan convention. Mysterium is one of my favorite events, and I’m excited to be presenting this year.

Like every event, Mysterium has been forced to move online, but that’s given them a chance to put together an incredible event program featuring a reunion with most of the major players in the Myst franchise, including Presto Studios’ Michel Kripalani and Phil Saunders, developers for Myst III: Exile and The Journeyman Project!

As part of Mysterium 2020, I’m giving a talk about multimedia CD-ROM games from the Myst era called “Ages Before Myst”! It’ll be a crash course for the Myst community on the games, software, and technology that led up to Myst, featuring games I’ve discussed on this blog including Hell Cab, Spaceship Warlock, Enchanted Scepters, and more. Myst was a milestone game, but it didn’t come out of nowhere, and it’ll be fun to share some of this historical context with the community.

My talk will be Saturday, August 8 at 6:30pm EDT on YouTube. For a full list of the events Mysterium has in store this year, check the official schedule. See you then!

Obsidian Adventure category

Opening screen from Obsidian

If you wanted to cut to the chase, you could say Obsidian is a game where a computer goes rogue and tries to destroy the world. There’s lots of stories like that, and technically, that’s where Obsidian ends up too, but the path it takes to get there is mind-boggling.

The longer version is that Obsidian is a game where a computer learns how to imagine, where dreams take on dizzying, literal form, and the end of the world is just a chance to reinvent it. Adventure games have a history of packing complicated puzzles into strange places, and using that same format, Obsidian asks the question whether it’s a good idea to dream at all. » Read more about Obsidian

Helious Action categoryPuzzle category

Title screen from Helious

The developer of Helious claimed he didn’t actually make the game himself. He got it from aliens.

In the introduction to Helious, designer Sean M. Puckett said he was visited by a UFO at his home in Florida on a stormy night in May 1993. A column of green light opened outside, and an alien stepped out who looked exactly like him. He fainted in shock, and when he regained consciousness, the game had mysteriously appeared on his computer. The instructions for the game are written like an archaeologist’s notes trying to decipher how it’s played. Puckett said he added an intro screen and audio effects, but otherwise, he claimed the game is presented as-is, with clashing, disorienting graphics and everything written in an indecipherable runic alien language.

It’s a pretty great story, and the game uses it to make itself more interesting. Helious is bizarre, but it’s a calculated sort of bizarre.

Screenshot from Helious

Extraterrestrial level design

Looking past the jarring visuals, it’s actually a fairly normal maze game. You control a ball that glides around by releasing air like a balloon. With a limited amount of air in the ball, you have move cautiously while collecting gems and avoiding traps. Some passages are too small to pass through until you’ve released enough air, which adds some order and strategy to how you move around the maze. It sounds simple because, surprisingly, it is simple.

The difference is that Helious tries to make it as unintuitive as possible. The game purposely underexplains itself, and it avoids a conventional user interface in favor of geometric icons with vague descriptions. The ultimate goal is to learn all the glyphs in an alien password, which would’ve been easy to remember if it was a human alphabet, but it’s much harder to memorize a bunch of weird symbols.

The game really does feel alien at first, but the effect quickly wears off once you realize what type of game it is. It’s a good example of the different ways something can be “weird.” There are games like Knights of the Crystallion or Eastern Mind that disorient the player by placing them in a completely different world with its own value system to learn. On the other hand, something like Helious is more like a weird overlay on top of a familiar concept.

You can imagine what the plain, non-alien version of Helious would be like, and it’s entirely possible it started out that way too. The weirdest thing about Helious – a game made to look like it was designed by aliens – might be how normal it is!

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