Secrets and Sugary Drinks: Unraveling Soda Drinker Pro

Secrets and Sugary Drinks: Unraveling Soda Drinker Pro

The video game industry is no stranger to terrible games. The medium is littered with infamous examples of buggy, visually unappealing misfires, from 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 to the wannabe PC racer Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing. A game made without artistic cohesion or technical skill is a game doomed to a fate of a minuscule player base and tremendous derision. Jim Sterling’s “Best of Steam Greenlight Trailers” series on YouTube documents the modern legacy of such games: ugly, janky messes that stand as a testament to the absolute worst that interactive experiences can offer.

sdp level 5

At first glance, Soda Drinker Pro is one such game. Released earlier this month for the PC and Xbox One, Soda Drinker Pro is a self-described FPS – first-person soda[1] – in which players explore a series of bizarre environments while drinking a cup of soda. The levels are short – no more than thirty seconds, if the player gets right to drinking – and numerous. Its menus call to mind nightmares of an inexperienced graphic designer armed only with MS Paint, while the menu’s voiceover cries “Soda Drinker Pro!” in a manner that echoes Zombo.com. The hour or more that it takes to beat the game is joyless and one-note, a cheesy joke that turns sour almost instantaneously.

Hidden underneath Soda Drinker Pro’s surface, however, is a completely different game: Vivian Clark, a frenetic Wario Ware-esque series of minigames wherein the player’s character constantly shifts based on the objects that the player touches. Vivian Clark is ostensibly the real game behind Soda Drinker Pro: while still ugly, its core mechanics hold greater depth than Soda Drinker Pro’s “hold a button to drink soda” gimmick. As players dramatically shift from being a spaceship to a snake to a watermelon, the nature of Vivian Clark’s gameplay bounces between genres ranging from platformer to shooter. It’s as diverse as it is overwhelming, an audiovisual assault of rapidly changing input schemes and gameplay styles.

vivian clark

Through sheer variety, Soda Drinker Pro/Vivian Clark aspires to transcend classification, challenging our taxonomy of video games and blending genres together into a work of avant-garde madness. It’s a bold artistic decision that mirrors the twists and turns of Frog Fractions, a masterful flash game from 2012 that poses as an educational game about fractions before revealing itself to be an absurdist fusion of different genres.

The idea of a “trickster” game, something that poses as a mundane work before revealing an infinitely more complex core, holds an inherent appeal in its mystique. Such games tantalize the player by offering them a glimpse at a secret world, tempting them to ponder just how deep the rabbit hole goes and question what the hidden meaning of it all is. Frog Fractions successfully caters to this curiosity by slowly upping the ante as it reveals its madness. When players start up the game, it initially appears to be nothing more than a simple five-minute diversion where players help a frog on a lily pad catch bugs, all while fractions appear with seemingly no rhyme or reason. As the game progresses, players unlock a variety of visually engaging but mechanically meaningless power-ups for the frog, until the player gains the ability to unlock a warp drive. Suddenly, the game becomes an Ikagura-­­esque bullet hell shooter by way of Star Fox, as players take off to the faraway planet of Bug Mars. Within a few moments, the player is knee deep in a “choose your own adventure” where the titular frog (known as Lt. Hop) becomes a naturalized citizen of the bug planet. The next gameplay beats take Lt. Hop across a text adventure, a rhythm game, a business management sim, and a fictitious story about the history of boxing.

frog fractions

In a short burst of time, Frog Fractions is many games, all of which feature fully fleshed out (and largely fun) mechanics and a shared narrative of Lt. Hop’s journey from Earth to Bug Mars and beyond. Like Soda Drinker Pro, the game is encroached in mystery and dependent upon its unpredictability. Unlike that game, however, Frog Fractions presents a unified narrative that, while unabashedly silly, maintains a sense of cohesion that allows the game to shift style without being disorienting. Major story beats signify shifts in gameplay: when Lt. Hop is brought to Bug Court, we anticipate a change from shooter gameplay to Telltale-esque dialogue trees, and when he finds an abandoned ship at the bottom of the ocean, we are conditioned to expect that the gameplay will change once he goes inside. Furthermore, Lt. Hop is the player character from the onset of the game, allowing him to serve as an anchor that ties the game’s many disparate modes of play together.

Soda Drinker Pro offers no such cohesion. Vivian Clark doesn’t seem to offer any connection to the titular game; instead, it feels like a game that has randomly been shoehorned into a weak shell of a game to make it feel substantial enough to be worth ten dollars.[2] Even if taken as a separate entity from Soda Drinker, Vivian Clark doesn’t seem to be able to maintain any sense of consistency, let alone any sense of narrative. As the player hops across methods of play and playable avatars, the individual levels feel largely independent of one another. What does a space shooter have to do with a platformer involving a balloon? Why is a squiggly skateboard…thing…shooting green monsters? For Soda Drinker, there doesn’t seem to be an answer beyond randomness. Whatever points the game gains for creativity are lost by its complete lack of unifying design.

frog fractions 2

Frog Fractions unites its different genres through a common theme: it is a playfully weird love letter to bygone genres. Its outer surface is that of an “edutainment” game, a genre of educational content that accompanied the emergence of the CD-ROM. Its other genres within, from the text adventure to the rhythm game, all hearken to once-beloved genres that have since achieved a niche status. It is at once a trip down memory lane and an invitation down a path that is best enjoyed with mind-altering substances. Soda Drinker seems to only cater to the latter aspect, and even then, Vivian Clark‘s actual gameplay is more of a buzzkill than anything else.

Soda Drinker Pro nonetheless deserves admiration for its commitment to existing outside the box. Too many modern games rely on the familiar to bolster sales: for a long stretch of time, most every mainstream game felt like it was trying to be Call of Duty, while everything is now trying to be Destiny or The Division. A game that openly defies categorization and seemingly invites being called an “anti-game” is laudable and worthy of recognition. However, the game is a poor man’s Frog Fractions; a game with all the weirdness of that amphibious parody but with none of the attention to artistic coherency. The game is a bold experiment, and its presence on not only Steam but the Xbox One is an encouraging sign that the definition of “video game” is continuing to broaden as critics and purveyors of the medium continue to sharpen their skills.

But it’s still a failed experiment, the kind that leaves players with the same empty and unfulfilled feeling that accompanies gulping down a sixteen-ounce soda.

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[1] The game’s humor features some of the sharpest wit this side of an Adam Sandler Netflix original.

[2] For the record, in a world where Frog Fractions is free, Soda Drinker Pro is absolutely not worth ten dollars.

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Safe Spaces, Scary Faces: The Underappreciated Brilliance of Silent Hill 4: The Room

Safe Spaces, Scary Faces: The Underappreciated Brilliance of Silent Hill 4: The Room

It should come as no shock to people who are familiar with my taste in video games to know that I absolutely adore P.T., the precursor to the ill-fated Silent Hills. I’ve written at length about what makes it such a gem: the manner in which it constructs an endless space as claustrophobic, its method of telling a story through audiovisual cues, and its unabashed commitment to shattering the fourth wall. A first person noncombat experience, P.T. builds horror with an ingenuity that surpasses any Silent Hill game before it – with one critical exception. And no, I’m not talking about Silent Hill 2.

Amidst the eight major installments in the series, Silent Hill 4: The Room[1] is something of a black sheep. The last installment to be made by the franchise’s original developers, Team Silent, The Room[2] was met with a middling reception upon release, with a Metacritic score of 76 compared to the 85+ scores of its predecessors. It would mark the series’ slide into poorly reviewed irrelevancy, with future installments marred by clunky narratives, plodding gameplay, and horrendous glitches. While not quite at that level of all-out disaster, Silent Hill 4 nonetheless bears many early warning signs of decay: its combat and controls fail to meet the already low bar set by the series, its characters are flat and unmemorable, and even at a relatively tame nine hours, it feels unbearably long, with repetition of areas and enemies run amok.

Yet, for all its many failures, Silent Hill 4 succeeds in the one area it really needs to: its titular room.[3] The central premise of the game is thus: Henry Townshend, a smug looking everyman with the charisma of Jim Gilmore, awakens one day to find that he is incapable of leaving his apartment and, furthermore, that he cannot make contact with the outside world. His only method of escape is through an increasingly decrepit hole in his bathroom wall, which leads to the hellscape of Silent Hill. While the Silent Hill sections of the game play in the series’ standard third person style, these moments in the room[4] unfold from a non-combat first person perspective. Sound familiar?

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Five Games That Demonstrate the Potential of Virtual Reality

After a long road adorned with the corpses of terrible 3D movies and even worse gaming systems, the promise of virtual reality appears to have finally come to fruition. The past few weeks have seen the launch of both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, two of the three major VR headsets to launch this year (the third, Sony’s PlayStation VR, won’t be out until October).

VR still has a long way to go: current generation headsets fail to simulate a player’s real-life peripheral vision, while freeform movement is still a riddle that has yet to be solved. Nonetheless, a few notable games have emerged from the dust of VR’s consumer launch. These games, though largely imperfect, demonstrate the potential of virtual reality to reshape the way we imagine games, building on the promise of total immersion that has tantalized players since the first iteration of Pong. They are:

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This Is Not a Test: Platinum Demo – Final Fantasy XV and the Demo as Short Story

This Is Not a Test: Platinum Demo – Final Fantasy XV and the Demo as Short Story

Platinum Demo – Final Fantasy XV released last Thursday on the PS4 and Xbox One marketplaces to much fanfare. The tease of a game ten years in the making, Platinum serves as many players’ first playable exposure to one of the most anticipated sequels in gaming history.[1] The demo follows a childhood version of the main game’s protagonist, Noctis. who finds himself in the midst of a nightmare. Guided by Carbuncle, a fox/unicorn/cat hybrid creature who communicates via Emoji[2], Noctis attempts to break free from his nightmare and awaken safe and sound. Throughout the half hour that it takes to finish the game, players are introduced to the game’s visual style, combat system, and general mechanics.

It also won’t be found in the final game. Platinum’s dream world of toy-sized perspectives, human-to-beast transformations, and mysterious hallways exists only in the context of the demo, serving as a self-contained story whose purpose is to highlight the game’s technical achievements[3]. Much like a good piece of downloadable content, Platinum features an experience that players simply cannot get anywhere else. Whereas games like Metal Gear Solid 2 or BioShock, which utilized demos masterfully to generate player excitement, found their teasers redundant after release, Final Fantasy XV’s will be worth playing even if one completes the full-fledged release in its entirely.

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Play Me a Song: The Case for the Musical as an Interactive Narrative

Play Me a Song: The Case for the Musical as an Interactive Narrative

A radical terrorist group takes control of an Alaskan military base. The dead are walking among us. The only hope for humanity is a group of high school kids who must balance homework and dating with dungeon exploring and demon hunting.

No, that’s not the latest Swery65 experience[1]; it’s a small sample of some of gaming’s most iconic stories (Metal Gear Solid, The Walking Dead, and Persona, for those wondering). Like any artistic medium worth its salt, video games offer a wide range of narrative experiences and settings. However, unlike passive mediums such as literature and film, interactive narrative experiences can be victims of the very active nature that fuels their standout qualities. The most successful games engage players in a way that makes them feel at one with the game’s diegetic world, an integral part rather than a mere spectator. Watching Ellen Ripley evade and outwit the Xenomorph in Alien is thrilling, but it’s a far more immersive and terrifying experience to play as Amanda Ripley in Alien: Isolation and realize that survival isn’t a predetermined outcome. Taking a character’s fate into your own hands promotes a deep-seated sense of identification, raising the emotional stakes of the narrative.

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“A Woman Has to Suffer Some Things”: Body Horror and Transgender Narratives in Outlast: Whistleblower

“A Woman Has to Suffer Some Things”: Body Horror and Transgender Narratives in Outlast: Whistleblower

The following essay contains spoilers for Outlast and its expansion, Whistleblower, as well as a graphic discussion of transphobia and gender confirmation surgery.

For a period of time stretching roughly from 2007 to 2015, horror cinema found itself at the center of a quick-and-dirty form of guerilla storytelling: that of the “found footage” subgenre. Taking liberally from the faux documentary nature of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, found footage films generally follow the formula of chronicling the final moments of a doomed, camera-obsessed protagonist, who never stops filming even under the direst of circumstances.[1] From supernatural forces in Paranormal Activity to giant monsters in Cloverfield to evil moon rocks in Apollo 18[2], found footage films encompassed the genre’s highs and lows to the point of oversaturation.

It came as little surprise, then, when an independent developer by the name of Red Barrels realized that found footage horror translated perfectly to first person narrative gaming. The resulting product, 2013’s Outlast, ran the found footage gamut in interactive form, putting players in the role of Miles Upshur, a reckless journalist armed only with a night vision camera, whose excursion into a notorious mental hospital uncovers a supernatural Nazi conspiracy.[3] Despite winning no points for originality – even its gameplay is a hodgepodge of Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s noncombat stealth and Slender’s “find x number of objects” – Outlast’s presentation was slick and effective, successfully translating the grit of found footage movies to an expertly paced roller coaster of tension and jump scares.

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PlayStation Now is Either the Future of Gaming or the Death of It

PlayStation Now is Either the Future of Gaming or the Death of It

 

Tokyo Jungle was first released on the PlayStation 3 in the summer of 2012. A survival action game with a strong focus on fast thinking and strategizing, the game places players in the role of one of the survivors of a mysterious apocalyptic event that has scrubbed humanity from the face of the planet. The player must survival the harsh conditions of a crumbling Tokyo, fighting for food, shelter, and survival along the way.

The player is also a Pomeranian dog. Or a panda, or a dinosaur, or one of a wealth of other animal breeds ranging from the everyday to the extinct. It’s a charming blend of challenging gameplay and wacky absurdity, and one of the PS3’s most charming and outright strange titles. It also demonstrates the ability of video games to craft vivid and whimsical worlds with a vocabulary that eschews traditional narrative beats.

You can’t play Tokyo Jungle natively on the PlayStation 4, however. In fact, you can’t play any PS3 games on the PS4, nor can you play PS1 and PS2 games.[1] As part of the hubris that led to the PS3’s obscene price and relative failure, Sony utilized an expensive, difficult to emulate microprocessor for the PS3, referred to as the Cell. As part of its wiser, humbler approach with the PS4, Sony jettisoned the Cell in favor of an internal architecture that more closely resembles that of a common PC. Consequently, the PS4’s ability to play earlier generations of PlayStation games went out the window in favor of reaching a mainstream price point. Unfortunately, this means that the only way to play a game like Tokyo Jungle natively is to do it on the PS3, which necessitates either owning the device or tracking down one of the increasingly aged systems that are out there in the wild.[2]

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