Welcome to the first installment of what will be a monthly series of reviews of “outsider videogames” — games that are created by people who are outside the mainstream of videogame development. We can think of outsider games as being akin to outsider music like The Shaggs or Wesley Willis, or to outsider artists like Henry Darger.
I’m talking about games that are made by complete non-professionals: folks who are really just learning to make games and obviously have a tenuous grasp on the form from either the design side or the technical side. These people may have something to say, or they may be messing around with a game creation tool for no particular reason. They may aspire to be the next Kim Swift, or they may have very little interest in games beyond their one project.
I try to play a lot of outsider games, in particular those you sometimes find on Xbox Live Indie Games (formerly Xbox Live Community games, a name change I may return to discuss in a future piece). A lot of these outsider games are just dashed-off and uninteresting. But some of these games are compelling for one reason or another, and those are the games I plan to talk about in this series.
The first game I want to talk about is The war of the end of the days (The war, for short), an XBLIG game developed by Diego Salazar that I invariably show to every single house guest who has even a passing interest in videogames.
At 80 Microsoft Points (about $1), The war is very much “my first first-person shooter” from the start. It’s evident before you even get to the game itself: the loading screen is the word “LOADING” with the letters turning from yellow to green, one by one, to indicate progress. The game’s story, as it were, exists entirely in its XBLIG text description: “Beings of another galaxy want to conquer the Earth Don’t try to speak with them…” [sic].
Once the game begins, you’re treated to an empty room with a repeated wood grain and brick texture, with flat lighting that makes you feel like you’re inside a kids’ playhouse wielding a very large, low-poly gun. The controls themselves are pretty standard for a console shooter, but the tuning of movement/turn speed is way off. The HUD is incomprehensibly bad: giant words in all- caps tell you things like: “HEALTH: 100”, “ENEMY: IN RANGE” and “ENEMY HEALTH: 100” – with that last bit of info appearing and disappearing from the upper-left corner depending on whether you happen to be in range of an enemy or not.
The kicker is, the game is brutally hard unless you really exploit the level geometry and the power-ups, the latter of which bizarrely act like infinite health recharge stations that you can always backtrack and return to. It’s essentially impossible to win a one-on-one fight with an enemy unless you’re constantly circle-strafing, which is a tricky proposition given the poor controls. As there are no animations in the game, if you do manage to fell an enemy, you’re treated to watching it teleport from upright position to sideways on the floor.
However, I hesitate to call the game bad, because it’s actually kind of interesting — not in spite of its technical failure, but rather because of its technical failures. For example: in level 2, you arrive at a building which has a maze inside. The maze itself would normally take you about 2 seconds to traverse — it’s not much bigger than a high school classroom, and contains approximately 3 turns from start to finish. Ah, but nothing is as easy as it seems in The war. The twist is that the walls and floors of the maze are textureless and entirely flat-lit. Without textures and shadows to guide you, the maze becomes a vertigo-inducing challenge. It takes you about a minute to navigate an incredibly simple maze. You might as well be shrouded in complete darkness. What’s interesting is that this clearly wasn’t an intentional design choice; it’s just a natural consequence of the developer’s inexperience.
That one minute of confusion is worth the price of admission alone, but there are other things to recommend the game besides the “hey, look at this disaster” factor. For example, the incredibly hard combat combined with an incomprehensible UI feels like playing some crazy Call of Duty mod where there’s a flashbang going off in your face every 3 seconds. The fact that some walls completely lack collision detection gives the game an old school “secrets-behind-every-wall” feeling like Wolfenstein 3D. The weird power-up system combined with the (apparently) infinitely spawning enemies can create an interesting attrition dynamic during combat.
The war of the end of the days is neither a good game, nor a fun game, but it is an interesting game, and one that is worth your time. Diego Salazar has five other games, four of which are newer than The war. It’s interesting to see how he’s improved as a developer (there are now health bars instead of numerical displays!) but none of the games demonstrate quite that same attempt to reach beyond one’s own abilities that so permeates The war of the end of the days.
Darius Kazemi is a Boston-based videogame developer who blogs at Tiny Subversions. He works at Bocoup, where he focuses on HTML5 games and game technology.