Thursday 25 September 2014

Notes on 900, and The Image

I was playing Barnaque's 900 for a second time today, and I thought about how Barnaque games have engaged with "image" as a device, and the spaces they create with it. I made a tweet not long ago about the different kinds of spaces and 'scapes' we find in videogames, in parallel with the "soundscape" identified with music, and I guess I'd say that Barnaque games make me think about "imagespace," the way in which images, specfically the sprite, is used to create a sense of space, proximity, and embodiment. 

Images in Barnaque games are often low quality, with a low number of frames that cycle quickly in animations. There's a question of staticism in how these sprites don't seem like moving images, but a collection of static pictures that shift and stutter erratically. But what Barnaque games do that's most interesting to me is they reveal their images as images. Many 2D games design sprites and images to meld together, to communicate a unified whole and pass as credible setting, a "real place" where players can easily embody themselves. But Barnaque games are spaces where the individual parts are clearly discernable, and in disharmony. 900, then, is somewhere close to collage, where its presentation of figure and ground, of image and its context, is in continuous conflict and disarray. 900 may seem craftsy, but it isn't the same as King-Spooner, who uses drawings, photos and clay to create depth in his settings, literal spacial depth, and subtext in his fiction. In a space where images appear tacked on, making contour a strong, visible thing, the sense of layer and depth that mediates objects in a space are in constant negotiation. And unlike King-Spooner, the sense of material is ambiguous and difficult to parse, bringing 900 closer to Polansky's SUPERMOONS than the group of clay-craft RPGMaker games.

900 is a radial scroll shooter where you use a rotating laser-like to clear or "absorb" other galaxies, and allow your own galaxy-self to grow in size, though I'm not completely sure if they're actually galaxies or just freakish space objects. When you touch another galaxy, you trigger a lose-state, and a number displaying your 'size' will show on the screen. 

Improvisation Klamm by Wasily Kadinsky, 1914

What makes 900 different in its depiction of space is how it aggressively resists the universalism of landscape. It's sort of an Anti-Destiny. There's no balcony for us to perch on, or hill to mount that would give us a romantic vista, an assembled frame of strategically placed planets, stars and structures to please our eyes, and calm the shooter impulse. 900 uses a very warped sense of perspective. It's not clear if we're looking downwards, upwards or toward this centered object. We don't know it comes from or what its base traits are, since the sprite is constantly changing. What we do know, perhaps the only thing we know about 900, is that there is a Thing, and that this Thing is getting larger. The screen rattles as it grows, like a bacteria. It's feels both microscopic, through the game's depth of field, and cosmic in its increasing scale. With freakish contradictions and spacial conflicts, the disarming beauty of typical space is replaced with a space that's ugly and aggressive, an unpleasant space that cycles without a sense of context.

The game is very uncomfortable. It's abrasive, it's anxiety-inducing, and it's actually quite difficult. Clearing 360 degrees of approaching objects feels like a multitask, and you become uneasy dealing with an radial area with the knowledge that you're neglecting another. That sense of neglect, the back knowledge that something is there or that something is coming and that I'm going to have to engage with it, is how 900 reveals an anxious unconcious in our play. 900, then, is a game of looming. Its imagespace is a combination of images that look very detached and awkward, and the distribution of these images that makes the screen feel incredibly dense. Like a glass box filled filled with tiny insects, 900 at once feels crowded and peculiar. But it's not the same as being crowded in a hallway, or crowded in a small room like in Resident Evil 2. We're being crowded in a space we can't manage to parse. There's this vague sense that we're being surrounded by something and yet we can't seem to comprehend the ways in which this is happening, how objects are moving and acting in relation to us. 900 is technically 2D, but its messy use of images, as well as its depth of field effets, its animations and its very harsh approach to color (reminding me a bit of Solaris), allow it to transend typical 2Dness or the tired 2.5D spaces. It makes playing the game disorienting and stress-inducing. As I allow the galaxy-thing to grow larger, and get closer to reaching the 900 score, I don't feel more relived or excited but increasingly nervous. Everything just seems to be getting more intense and after a few tries, I stop the game. 

So 900 does this incredible thing, of obscuring and dulling the senses we use to understand our context, then bombarding us with weirdness, contradiction, and incredible amounts of energy. Barnque have always done interesting things with their cropped-up, low-res images, their moody soundspaces, and  but here they do a really good job concentrating their "style" into something straightfoward and succint. It really chalenges what we expect a 2D space to feel like, and how we conceptualize that space. 

900 is a huge accomplishment. It's my favourite Barnaque game so far, and I'm excited to play whatever the group comes up with next.


1: While thinking about 900, I was inclined to look through my book of expressionist paintings, and I found this really good one by Kadinsky that I think does a good job illustrating what Barnaque does with image. I always appreciated how Kadinsky challenges our sense of shape and depth. Like 900, it's not easy to tell what kind of space we're operating in. And again, through the strong sense of contour, this painting puts layer, depth, and shape into negotation, making for a really cool experience, like 900!

2: I'd also say 900 is a lot better than Nuelle Part, which felt a bit overextended, and had that same weirdness dissapate quite early, through very dull areas and a muted tone that was lacking in energy. Huge webs of brownish caves and very low-mood synth tracks that were creepy and off-putting, but very repetitive. 

3: I highly recommend that you click that header image for the full size, and try staring into it. I think you'll understand what I mean when I say how game looks and feels uncomfortable.

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