Every month videogame developer Darius Kazemi reviews outsider videogames — games that are created by people outside the mainstream of videogame development.
October was a big month for outsider games, thanks to the release of the 2012 IGF Pirate Kart, an event that got me thinking about what an outsider game really is. A term like “outsider game” compels us to ask: “outside of what?” One could come up with dozens of answers to that question, and I suspect that the correct answer will always be different depending on the game, the people who made it, and the context in which it’s released.
The Pirate Kart provides its own answer to that question. To understand what the Pirate Kart is, it makes sense to break down its name. First, the “Pirate Kart” portion: this is not just one game, but rather a collection of over 300 videogames bundled into one master menu system. Its moniker comes from pirated game cartridges of the 80s and 90s, which would often bundle together complete retail games, retail games hacked to be weirder or more difficult, and (usually terrible) original games written by the pirates themselves. The Pirate Kart is a free download for Windows systems and is available at its official website.
The “2012 IGF” part refers to the 2012 Independent Games Festival competition. The IGF functions more or less as the Academy Awards of videogames (with its scrappier cousin Indiecade performing the Sundance role). While any videogame can be entered into the IGF, creators must factor in the $95 entrance fee and the likelihood that their game will win a prize. Just like the Oscars, where comedies famously don’t win Best Picture, the IGF tends to have its own tastes, favoring games with a certain level of polish, and specifically favoring indie games that have a chance of being commercially successful. (Full disclosure: I was a judge for IGF 2010, and I am a judge for 2012 as well.)
The common thread connecting all of the games contained within the Pirate Kart is that they are considered by their own creators to be not worth the IGF entry fee to enter as standalone titles. The games may be too short, too weird, too controversial, or any number of other things. Maybe the author considers their game completely worth entering, but simply can’t afford the $95. Some authors included their work in the Pirate Kart as a protest of the IGF’s perceived homogeneity. Others entered their game because it seemed like a fun idea to have their game in the IGF. The important thing to remember is that every author has their own motivations for being in the Pirate Kart.
With over 300 games in the Pirate Kart, it would be impossible for me to review them all. (It’s worth checking out the #igfreviews hashtag on Twitter, which is a source of 140-character reviews of many of the games.) Instead I’ll cover a few of my favorites.
For me, the standout title is Murder Dog IV: Trial of the Murder Dog, by Stephen Murphy. This courtroom adventure game takes the premise of a game like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, but uses it as a vehicle for wildly funny parody and social commentary. You play a murderous, psychotic version of McGruff the Crime Dog, defending yourself on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. “My only crime is my love for absolute chaos,” goes Murder Dog’s not guilty plea, and from there the trial is a three-ring circus of murdered witnesses, devoured evidence, corrupt cops, mercenary journalists, and even a brain-in-a-jar. Instead of Ace Attorney’s famous “Objection!” we are treated to: “Murder Dog leans slowly over the table and growls, ‘Cirrrcummstannsssiallllrr’ through a savage maw evidently unfit for human speech.” The art style is perfect, consisting mostly of clay and paper dioramas that look like they were fashioned by our barely-sentient man-dog protagonist himself.
My First IGN Interview is a choose-your-own adventure game by Noyb. It’s about the experience of a young woman interviewing for a job at IGN, the videogame review outlet. It’s fictionalized, and bitingly critical, and consists entirely of text with vanishingly little gameplay. But it’s one of those games that I keep coming back to when people ask my what my favorite Pirate Kart titles are, largely because it’s the kind of game I’d never play without the exposure given to it by the Kart.
Other titles plumb the depths of the weird. Jazz, the non-interactive Jazz Simulator by Fabien Porée, does appear to be a non-interactive simulator of some kind — whether its output can be considered jazz is a matter for debate. Sos Sosowski’s Needlesoft Haystack Explorer finally brings the idiomatic experience of finding a needle in a haystack to your home computer. Pac-Man Without a Cause features a Pac-Man-esque doodle in the middle of an empty room, with nothing to do.
Owen Grieve’s Generic Turn-Based Video Tennis Game is Pong reimagined as a turn-based game. It’s actually pretty fun to play with someone else, as the entirety of its gameplay hinges on your ability to predict where the ball will bounce after an initial kick.
Another standout multiplayer title is Friendship in 4 Colours by Damian Sommer. While it’s less avant-garde than some of the above titles, to me its outsider status is cemented by the mere fact that it’s a multiplayer game where players are meant to share the same keyboard, rather than playing over a network. (Due to the social norms around the use of PCs, as well as the inherent awkwardness of two hands on one keyboard, shared-keyboard multiplayer will always be a niche.) Unlike Generic Turn-Based Video Tennis, where you can play against yourself and get the idea, Friendship requires another player to understand and enjoy. It’s a harrowing co-op platformer where every move you make can potentially explode, impale, or otherwise maim your partner. When played in a room full of spectators, as I witnessed, it’s a howling good time. I suspect that when played alone with a friend, it might lead to physical altercation.
The last game I want to briefly touch upon is Unexplored by Michael Todd. This game is a completely straight-faced TradeWars-style game, where you go from planet to planet trading resources, buying low and selling high. The catch is that nothing here has a name. You land on a planet, you name it. You talk to a local, you name them. Those resources the vendor is selling for 20 credits? Up to you to give them a name. Yes, there are hilarious ramifications to calling everything “poop”: “Hey, I landed on planet Poop and sold them Poop at a profit so I could buy Even More Poop from the market, haha.” But aside from that, playing Unexplored makes me feel like a demiurge, naming and thus defining some virgin universe with my every breath. It’s amazing how what you choose to name things can vastly change how gameplay feels from session to session.
In a way, Unexplored feels like the Pirate Kart itself: you’re given a dizzying menu of nearly arbitrary items to choose from. And most of the time, what you get out of your choice depends on what you put into it.
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.