Game crazy

Publication date: 11 April 2011
Originally published 2010 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Consoles keep trying to catch up with PC games, but they're never going to manage it, in two important areas:

Technical problems, and total insanity.

Oh, the modern Internet-connected consoles make it possible for developers to release broken games and then try to fix 'em in patches. (If, of course, the known-to-be-broken game sells well enough!)

But the PC has a huge lead on the console world in this department. The Red Ring Of Death is nothing compared with its sibling, the Blue Screen.

While console gamers were arguing about SNES versus Mega Drive, PC gamers had been wrestling with config.sys and memory managers for ten years. Network gaming in the good old Win95 days was something of an adventure, too. And this honoured tradition continues today.

"You tried to run Saints Row 2 even though you have TWO MONITORS! You IDIOT! How could you EVER expect that to work?!"

"How DARE you run the Gamebryo engine on a computer with MORE THAN TWO CPU CORES!! It crashed at the start of your 10th birthday party because quad-core perverts like you don't DESERVE a Pip-Boy!"

(Note that both of these examples are games whose console versions worked pretty well. Once again: Unreliability advantage, PC!)

And then, there's the total insanity.

PC gaming has no gatekeepers. If you don't mind getting zero-star reviews from a thousand teenagers, or not being able to sell your game in shops, you can make a game about whatever you want. It can be as big as you can manage or as small as is necessary to convey one idea. And your game can be as mystifying or disturbing as you like. And modern PCs are so fast that you can write even quite complex games in extremely user-friendly languages, without choking the system with your clunky code.

The result of this is a snowstorm of indie games of all shapes and sizes, most of which are free downloads. Many fit in standard genres - FPSes, text adventures, scrolling shooters - but there are also numerous completely demented games.

Which I love.

This is partly because I prefer nutty games to "realistic" ones. Give me Saints Row instead of GTA, or Just Cause instead of Stalker, any day.

But mass-market games are almost never truly, astonishingly, entirely batty. Rico grapple-parachuting up mountains in Just Cause 2 like an inverted Spider-Man does not begin to approach the oddness I seek.

I want a game that looks like something from I Get Your Fail (Jeff Minter has made about a thousand of those). I want a game with ASCII graphics that uses more CPU power than Quake III (that game would, of course, be Dwarf Fortress). I want a multiplayer game in a sandbox space-station that usually ends up uninhabitable (Space Station 13!). I want turn-based Doom and steampunk air combat (DoomRL and SteamBirds!). I want art-games that exist only to make a point, or a joke (like Passage, You Have To Burn The Rope, Achievement Unlocked or p0nd), and RPGs that are just imagination-augmentation devices (Sleep Is Death, from the same author as Passage).

(I've shamelessly plundered many of these links from the PC-games blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun. So here's another bunch of 'em: WarioWare as re-imagined to be a cry from the bottom of an existential pit, Gravity Bone, light-hearted siblings Marvel Brothel and Beautiful Escape, Dinner Date, the upcoming Rock Of Ages, Space Funeral, The Infinite Ocean, and, of course, Octodad and "Icarus Proudbottom In: The Curse Of The Chocolate Fountain"!)

There are things a bit like this on consoles. Katamari and the regrettably lousy Muscle March look particularly nutty to Western eyes, but are clearly peculiar by any nation's standards. Electroplankton's another candidate - actually, I think Guitar Hero and its descendants qualify, because they may be vastly popular, but they're also quite deeply weird.

But until someone makes a console with an un-moderated download function - which Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo don't want to do, partly for security and legal reasons but mainly for financial ones - the PC will still win the strange-game race, by a very large margin. (Games that allow user-created content, while often amusing, are a poor substitute.)

If you play games on a PC without ever visiting the psychedelic odd-game buffet, you're like someone who buys a DSLR but only ever uses the kit lens, or someone who buys a Caterham but never goes to a track day. The crazy stuff is what makes crashes, glitches and bugs worthwhile.

Take a walk on the weird side.

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