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.

_______________

[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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