Monday, February 11, 2019

Black and white and re(a)d all over: on SOD (1999), Half-Quake (2001), Jeux d'ombres (2007), and NaissanceE (2014)

Last week I finished playing through the entirety of NaissanceE (2014), an avant-garde walking sim / platformer game inspired by brutalist megastructure manga and filled with subtle callbacks to new media art. NaissanceE has a bit of a cult classic reputation among level designers and modders, due to its heavily reliance on abstraction, lack of concrete narrative, and punishing platformer sections.

To this day, the game still defies easy categorization and demographics. Who is this for?

The walking sim aficionado of that time (the Dear Esther remaster was in 2012, Proteus and The Stanley Parable remaster were in 2013) would've hated the platformer sections with instant-death traps, while the action jock might've been tempted to rage-quit with every coy architectural riddle and impossible-to-navigate dark room. Back in 2014, only a few critics dared to defend this design clash.

I think the work still holds up pretty well in 2019, and to understand why, we should take a brief trip back to 1999.

The masochistic black-and-white walking sim mod genre began with net artist collective JODI's Wolfenstein3D mod "SOD" (1999), one of the first "art mods" made. It simply replaces the familiar world textures and UI sprites with disorienting geometric patterns. While it is only a texture replacement mod and leaves the gameplay / levels / sound effects intact, the work is still comprehensive, and re-skins every single graphic and glyph, even in the game menus.

It all brings to mind another avant-garde experimental first person mod that combined monolithic goth ("mono-goth"?) sensibilities with gamer reflexes. I'm thinking of the unique "Half-Quake" Half-Life 1 mod series (2001-2010) by Philipp "muddasheep" Lehner, which had the boldness to juxtapose punishing gauntlets of traps with a literal waiting room that forced players to wait in a small room for 20 minutes.

As early game studies scholars grappled with the implications of an "ergodic literature", experiments like SOD and Half-Quake were fluidly exploring multiple modes and understandings of difficulty and legibility. I think NaissanceE continues this legacy, saying very little, but still content to walk the walk.

The high-contrast black and white aesthetic in all these games is like a brightly striped snake signaling its poisonous venom; do not fuck with these games. You quickly learn to engage cautiously and to expect mechanical difficulty, as well as conceptual and perceptual friction. All three of these mods are also at ease with their game-like framing, and embrace the typical trappings of puzzles, challenges, and failures.

They might look like notgames, but they definitely operate as gamegames, full of violence and death.

NaissanceE has a well-documented origin: it began as a 2007 CryEngine 1 mod by a third-year art student named Mavros Sedeño. This prototype was called "Jeux d'ombres" (literally French for "Games of Shadows", but more poetically translated as "Shadow Play") and it was probably the most memorable CryEngine mod ever made. In a blog post more than a year later, Sedeño reflected on this project:
"What I wanted to express here is the arrival in an unknown and abstract universe, leaving free the imagination of the “player” who goes through it. The absence of colors, the simple rectilinear shapes of the architecture of the place give clues to an interpretation of the environment. The real life experience, the reactions and references of each one will make this experience something personal and variable according to the manner of apprehending it."

"The player will be prisoner in this virtual universe, in its abstract decoration, in the imagination that it inspires, and the memories its forms evoke. He's a prisoner, but free to imagine, think, go forward and understand, or why not remain in his thoughts, in reflection rather than action. To remain like the two vagrants of Samuel Beckett ("Waiting for Godot"), who waited every day for somebody who never came, they can't do anything else but think and speak, plunging themselves into an infinite spiral."
What was Sedeño doing before? Well in 2006, he was painting guns and texturing characters for Perfect Dark Source, a remake of Rare's N64 underappreciated follow-up to Goldeneye 007 (2000). We can only speculate that polishing gunmetal was, perhaps, not quite fulfilling enough, to the extent that none of his future work is in the Source Engine. Instead, he shifts toward CryEngine.

With any mod, it is crucial to understand what exactly the mod is modding. Jeux d'ombres ignored the open world tropical island aesthetic of Far Cry 1, in favor of a stark black and white urban rectilinear universe inspired by the film Sin City (2005) and other such late '00 things that inspire teenagers.

The choice of engine is vital here. Far Cry 1 was loved for its outdoor proto-open-world sandbox combat, and utterly hated for its underground bunker lab sections -- and if you were to open the level editor, you'd quickly find out that it had great island sculpting tools but basically nothing for assembling interiors.

In this way, he reminds me of another French indie designer Pierre Corbinais, who miraculously twisted Adventure Game Studio into running the stunning sex-positive musical action game NSFWare. It's surprising how some of the most visionary game design practice occasionally emerges from the tools that seem least equipped to bring it all about, which is definitely an argument for auteurs and their creative force of will, struggling against the grain of the game engine technology. In 2007, Sedeño builds Jeux d'ombres in spite of the engine, and also likely in spite of a hostile Far Cry fan community that would've quipped: This Isn't A Real Game.

Still, it's enough to get his foot in the door. Based on his portfolio, Sedeño finds work as a AAA level designer from 2007-2010, working at Darkworks on I Am Alive (2007) and at Crytek on Crysis 2 (2011). His time using Unreal 2 at Darkworks seems formative -- in 2010, Sedeño switches from CryEngine to Unreal Development Kit (UDK, Unreal 3) as his tool of choice.

Over the next four years as an independent game developer, he collaborates with various musicians and built out what would become NaissanceE.

And now we're back to where we started.

Here's a link to the full YouTube playlist of my playthrough of NaissanceE, all 5 videos. Keep in mind this was my first run ever, so my surprise and reactions are mostly genuine, and I only had to resort to cheat codes a few times to progress! The jump difficulty draws unflattering comparisons to Half-Life 1's Xen except somehow it manages to feel even more alien, but at its best, it is still a brilliantly realized world that still awes jaded level designers several years later.

My only real disappointment was the more representational and literal sections of the game, specifically a seedy futuristic undercity that feels like an untextured Jedi Academy level. These hallways rely heavily on well-worn sci-fi level design tropes filtered through the nerdy detritus of Star Wars and Blade Runner, down to a "strip club" made by someone who's possibly never visited a strip club before in their life -- so, a video game strip club.

Once you see this game's cartoon version of an apartment, you begin to wonder who lived there and how their society operated, and then you realize the game has zero interest in thinking about that. It just has this little environmental storytelling bit because it felt obligated, thus stooping down to what Every Other Video Game Does Too. The most charitable reading sees this misstep as an ironic gesture, intended to remind you how boring this game could've been. It knows it is strongest when it doesn't bother trying to explain itself.

That strength forms a fantastic magic trick: it is basically a 3D world made of thousands upon thousands of crate-sized cubes, but it still does stuff with boxes that no one else has explored, even in 2019. A few months ago I just wrote a few thousand words on how much I hate boxes in level design, and this game has changed my mind: maybe boxes are OK if you lovingly light and animate them as Sedeño has done.

There's barely any NPCs or inhabitants in here, but the architecture itself is alive, and it emerges from the cracks that come from fracturing the traditional tenets of level design. Narrow doors hide around corners, dim hallways dwell behind tricks of light, vistas rarely provide navigational insight, and countless rooms forego any discernible surface altogether. It's about squinting at your screen, wondering if you see the faintest hint of a hallway, like a headache or a black hole. It defies easy reading. It's shadow play.