The joy of the unknown Essay category

I’m currently working on a post about Popol Maya, a 1997 Japanese adventure game that has very little written about it. Its anonymity has caused some problems; I’ll usually reference a walkthrough when I’m stuck, but because of the language barrier, the only coverage about the game online fed through Google Translate keeps mentioning a “crab bicycle.” So that hasn’t been entirely helpful.

But it did remind Jeremy Penner (friend of The Obscuritory) about a similar experience he had trying to play White Sun of the Desert, a game adapted from a popular 1970 Soviet film. It’s a very personal story about Penner’s relationship with the game during an uncertain period in his life.

What got me was the end of his post, where he tries to figure out why he got so invested in figuring out this strange game. For Penner, it was about finding comfort in the seemingly bottomless well of questions it raises, the freedom of getting lost in an unexplained, buried corner you’ve never heard of – and recognizing that you could live your whole life without encountering it. Penner discovered White Sun of the Desert from its connections to the Soviet space program, which somehow led him deeper and deeper to this undocumented adventure game. White Sun of the Desert may not be a good game by his account, but good or otherwise, it’s a glimpse into another world. Who made it? Why did they make it? What is it about? And where do those answers lead next?

That’s what lights me up about obscurities too. When you dig into something unknown, it can be the tip of a gigantic, interdisciplinary iceberg, a gateway to spheres of knowledge and culture that you wouldn’t cross paths with any other way. Engaging with an unturned stone can send us down avenues we never expected. It broadens our understanding of how much there is in this world, how we can always still learn more about it, and what we’ll discover with a curious, open mind.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road: The Video Game Arcade category

Introduction screen from Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road: The Video Game

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road: The Video Game looks and moves like an office program. Mind you, it’s meant to be like Frogger, but the toolbars scream Microsoft Word. The title menu calls the game “Chicken Windows Application.”

Screenshots from Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road: The Video Game

A sample of Chicken Windows Application

For Windows 3.1 games, these interface quirks, like the reliance on a bulky help file, are part of the appeal. Nothing about them makes WDtCCtR an improvement on Frogger, though. The game’s stuttering, halting movement significantly reduces how easily your chicken can dodge cars… or spaceships or dirt bikes or airplanes or whatever, depending on the stage.

I love this Chicken Windows Application anyway. It knows how ridiculous it is. You play as a chicken named Joe the Chicken. The developer, the wonderfully named StupidSoft, wrote a nonsensical backstory about a secret police force and a mad scientist that the game immediately ignores. Every time you beat a level, you get a silly excuse for why the chicken crossed the road. On two occasions, Joe apparently wanted to “see the new 1995 cars” and “do a report on sharks.”

StupidSoft clearly had a lot of fun making this. Instead of a registration fee, they wanted fans to send them postcards. You can’t fault their good spirits. Joe the Chicken is just glad to be here.

Trivia!

The credits screen gives special thanks to Mark S. for level ideas. His full name is Mark Stinocher.  According to the readme, “We weren’t able to figure out how to spell his name at the time. Sorry, Mark.”

Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis Macintosh categoryRPG category

Title screen from Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis

There’s nothing new to the idea that, in a world overrun with grotesqueries, humans may be the real monsters. Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis, a role-playing game for the Macintosh, brings a level of specificity and empathy to that concept. Rather than swing into allegory, Odyssey roots its big ideas and moral choices in the lives of individuals.

The game has room to try different permutations of this theme – new people, new troubles, and new ways to end them. Though the confusing attempts to extend that variety to the game’s combat come close to ruining the experience, Odyssey‘s playground of extreme human behavior and its believable writing pair terrifically together. Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis » Read more

Enchanted Scepters stream with Keith Kaisershot: 2/25, 3PM EST Adventure categoryMacintosh categoryStreaming category

Screenshot from Enchanted Scepters

This Saturday at 3PM EST, I’ll be streaming the Macintosh RPG Enchanted Scepters with Keith Kaisershot (Other Ocean Interactive, The Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime, and all-around Mac enthusiast).

Enchanted Scepters was among the first games for the Macintosh, created shortly after the computer’s release in 1984. It combined text-based adventure and role-playing mechanics with one of the earliest uses of a mouse in a game. The ability to interact with an object by clicking on it has become a universal feature that feels strange to single out as an achievement, but Enchanted Scepters tried the idea (imperfectly) before almost anyone. Developer Silicon Beach Software later adapted the interface into World Builder, a popular game creation tool.

On top of its historical value, it’s also a sprawling, continually surprising game that I’m looking forward to sharing. Keith has a far deeper knowledge of Enchanted Scepters than I do, so I’ll probably need some coaching to get through it.

See everyone on Saturday on the Obscuritory Twitch channel!

UPDATE: Thanks for watching, and thanks to Keith for joining! A replay is available here. I really like this game’s stream-of-consciousness. Please don’t mistake my comparison of it during the stream to amateur game design as a negative; I appreciate that it channels the same liberating sense of blowing up the usual rules of world-building.

Alpha Waves Platform category

Title screen from Alpha Waves

Alpha Waves (Continuum in America) was one of the earlier computer games to allow players to look and move in three dimensions. Like other virtual reality analogues that run short on processing power, it’s abstract – simple, flat, and polygonal with no feints to the real world. The game takes place in a 16×16 grid of boxy, solid-color rooms, grouped into regions with metaphysical New Age-y names like Stimulate or Awaken. Your vehicle, called a “mobile,” has six different appearance options, and they all look like fancy triangles.

Appropriately, the player has abstract goals. You need to get somewhere. Anywhere. Alpha Waves » Read more

Executive Suite Simulation category

Title screen from Executive Suite

Executive Suite isn’t a conventional business simulation. You don’t track money or statistics or care about helping the company. Instead, you roleplay a newcomer hustling for the top seat at your company. You’re in this for yourself. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure story not far from the movie Wall Street and its stressful lifestyle. And although Executive Suite mocks the business world, it appreciates that your problems, no matter how small, don’t always have a clean solution. Executive Suite » Read more

An outlook on 2017 Blog category

Screenshot from The Labyrinth of Time

Welcome to the new year! After a break to focus on panels and behind-the-scenes work, I’m ready to hit the ground running. I’ll share more about the panels once videos are available, but for now, I want to talk about what The Obscuritory will be up to in 2017.

Last month, the excellent Melissa Ford wrote about why you should “post in your own space.” Ford offered up a New Year’s resolution: publish anything on your blog at least once a week. That’s a bit of a stretch for what I post here (and I’m already a few weeks behind!), but I’m at least going to try to write more often. There are so, so many games I want to share, so much overlooked history to learn, and constant developments in game preservation worth talking about. I have a lot of thoughts rattling around on those subjects that I’d love to nail down.

And as always, I’ll continue posting daily screenshots and other tidbits to the Obscuritory Tumblr. I might stream a bit more frequently, and I’ll try to share those events as they come up.

The response to The Obscuritory over the past year has been amazing. More than ever, I’m committed to this project and using it to make the world more interesting and thoughtful. Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to what we discover next.

Hell Cab Adventure category

Title screen from Hell Cab

Hell Cab isn’t short; it’s brief. The infernal Hell Cab whips through a Roman coliseum, the trenches of World War I, and a prehistoric jungle in only a few minutes before returning you to the present day. You’ll probably spend most of the game’s running time checking out the Empire State Building before the world’s worst cab ride begins.

The tone-setting and breakneck linearity of Hell Cab share less with the adventure genre than with a high-end theme park ride. As with many early multimedia CD-ROM titles, Hell Cab is above all else a spectacle, an outlandish idea staged as loudly as possible. It also demonstrates what a roller coaster of a game loses when it reaches a little too far. Hell Cab » Read more

A game preservation primer Blog category

Hi folks! You may have noticed a dip in post frequency in the last two months. I’m hard at work on my panel and exhibit for MAGFest 2017, which have taken most of my spare time. There’s a bunch of games I’m excited to write about, but I want to make this MAGFest showing extra special. I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned with everyone!

In the meantime, though, I wanted to share a great recent article by Heather Alexandra about the challenges of game preservation. Preservation and archiving are vital for continued discussion of older games – especially those that don’t receive much attention – and Alexandra does a good job outlining those challenges. Her article includes interviews with leaders in the field, including including the Internet Archive’s Jason Scott and the Video Game History Foundation’s Frank Cifaldi. If you’ve ever wanted to learn a broad overview of the topic, this is a must-read.

The article also briefly touches on curation, an issue on the save wavelength. On top of archiving old, forgotten games, we need to “keep games alive in the public conscience” to give them context, purpose, and currency. Everyone can help with that. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish here, and I hope anyone reading feels the spark to do it too.

The Obscuritory comes to MAGFest 2017 Blog category

MAGFest logo

Tomorrow is the eighth anniversary of The Obscuritory, and I’ve got some great news to share.

I’m excited to announce that I’m joining the MAGES panelist team at MAGFest 2017!

MAGES is the Music and Games Educational Symposium, a panel series dealing with academic topics and cultural issues in gaming. It’s a great mini-event for meeting people who like to engage thoughtfully with games, and I’m honored to be part of it.

MAGFest 2017 takes place January 5-8, 2017. If you haven’t gone before, it’s worth a trip. It’s less a convention than a four-day gaming-themed sleepover. This’ll be my sixth year attending.

The panel breakdown is still being finalized, but I wanted to talk about one thing in particular…

SimEverthing panel logo

As part of MAGES, I’ll be running SimEverything: Lessons in Curious Game Design from Maxis, a panel about the history and philosophy of Maxis.

When we talk about Maxis, we tend to focus on their two marquee games, SimCity and The Sims. With this panel, I want to dig deeper and explore the radical ideas about player creativity and education we can find across their entire body of work – not just SimCity, but less-renowned and harder-to-explain titles like SimHealth, SimGolf, Widget Workshop, and Zaark and the Night Team. It’ll be part history lesson, part analysis. This is the product of a year-long deep dive into Maxis, and I hope it’ll be both entertaining and insightful.

But hearing about it isn’t the same as trying it yourself. I want to get these games off the shelf and into more hands. So, I’ve partnered with the MAGFest Museum to let you play them throughout the weekend. I’m curating a special exhibit about Maxis with titles from my collection, including a playable showcase on vintage computers. After the panel, I’ll be at the Museum to answer questions and walk attendees through the games. If you’ve ever wanted to try any of the Sim games, this is your chance!

This is a surreal opportunity. I’m ecstatic to join MAGES, and especially, I can’t wait to share all the Maxis goodness with attendees in January. Stay tuned for specific dates, times, and other updates!

UPDATE: My Maxis panel will be at 3pm on Saturday, January 7th, followed by the Museum visit at 4pm. I’ll also be on the panel at Building Better Games Literacy at 1:30pm on Saturday. Please reach out and say hello!

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