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.

_______________

[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.

Advertisements

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?

Continue reading “Safe Spaces, Scary Faces: The Underappreciated Brilliance of Silent Hill 4: The Room”

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.

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

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.

Continue reading “Play Me a Song: The Case for the Musical as an Interactive Narrative”

“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.

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

“Savage” Racism: Where Borderlands 2: Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt Goes Horribly Wrong

“Savage” Racism: Where Borderlands 2: Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt Goes Horribly Wrong

The following essay contains spoilers for Borderlands 2 and its expansions.

Here’s a thought exercise for you: if humanity successfully achieves the technological advancements necessary to travel to and inhabit other planets, will we find life on any of them? If we do, will that life be intelligent, able of communication with us? And regardless of the answer to that question, would we go ahead and enact the same acts of colonial oppression that have defined exploration of our own planet, all the while implementing the same destructive institutions of racism, classism, and hatred that feed into real-world political disarray?

Alternatively, a more optimistic Option B: would such achievements be characteristic only of an advanced society, the kind where egalitarianism thrives and we live peacefully with our fellow humans in a world of puppies, rainbows, and Starship Troopers-style communal showers?

Hint: it’s probably not Option B.

_______________

BLbanner

The Borderlands series first emerged in 2009, a top-tier title from the otherwise mid-tier Gearbox Software. A slick fusion of first-person shooter and Diablo-esque role-playing game, the game was marked by its emphasis on co-op gameplay and its striking cell-shaded art style.[1] For these reasons, the series has become a tremendous success and one of the most iconic shooters in the modern video game canon. It’s a success that is largely deserved[2]: the world of Borderlands is a vividly realized portrait of an outer space madhouse. Its primary setting, the faraway planet of Pandora, is Mad Max through the lens of absurdist humor, populated by a frenetic cast of zany sociopaths from numerous walks of life. Borderlands 2, by far the most successful game in the series to date, is particularly standout. Its environments are sharp, colorful, and varied, from arctic tundras to volcanic outposts, and its script is punctuated by morbid wit, notably in the form of its antagonist, the megalomaniac Donald Trump/Patrick Bateman hybrid[3] Handsome Jack.

Beyond its sprawling main campaign, Borderlands 2 is host to some of the most creative and diverse expansions put forth in a video game. Want to take a break from the core story to go on a swashbuckling pirate adventure? Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty has you covered. A Valentine’s Day themed expansion based on Romeo and Juliet? Load up Mad Moxxi and the Wedding Day Massacre. Feeling like a stroll through a meta fantasy world where the protagonists take a break to play a tabletop role-playing game? There’s the hilarious and surprisingly touching Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dungeon Keep. Through a commitment to the explosive variety and lunacy of these expansions, Gearbox manages to make a hundred-plus hour game feel constantly new and engaging.

And then there’s Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt.

Continue reading ““Savage” Racism: Where Borderlands 2: Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt Goes Horribly Wrong”

Controller Trouble: Player Agency and Depictions of Gender in Catherine

Controller Trouble: Player Agency and Depictions of Gender in Catherine

The following essay contains spoilers for Catherine.

New advances in technology have led to a rapid advancement of the capabilities of video game consoles, and with it, an eruption of potential for narrative possibilities within interactive media. The heightened graphical strength of modern video game consoles coupled with the comparable advances in audio recording, such as the possibility for fully voiced narratives allows for the visual storytelling capabilities of current interactive media to theoretically be on par with non-interactive animation from the likes of Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Consequently, the scope of narrative within video games has expanded beyond merely rescuing the princess in Super Mario Bros. or shooting countless waves of demons in Doom. Modern video games tackle a wide variety of hot-button issues, ranging from mental illness to the moral quandaries surrounding the use of military aggression. Perhaps one of the most controversial topics to be tackled by interactive media is the representation of women and non-hegemonic identities. The history of the video game industry is sadly laden with examples of truly problematic representations of women, the poster child being the much-maligned handling of violence against women by the Grand Theft Auto series. In such games, women are not so much characters as they are interactive objects, used for scoring in-game bonuses or as a juvenile method of delivering eye candy. In this way, they have more in common with in-game cars and guns than with the male player character.

In light of these troubling representations, certain video game developers have begun to experiment not only with expanding the role of female characters in interactive media, but with actively engaging the topic of gender differences and conflict. One of the most prolific titles to engage these themes is Japanese developer Atlus Games’ Catherine, a 2011 title for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 consoles. Catherine, a self-labeled “romantic horror” title, is at its core a puzzle title that harkens back to arcade games of the 1980s. Wrapped around this gameplay, however, is the game’s main attraction and selling point: its narrative of infidelity and sexuality. In stark contrast to the brain-teasing segments of gameplay, Catherine’s narrative portion closely mimics the gameplay and layout of a dating simulator, a popular subgenre of Japanese adventure games that play like a “choose your own adventure” novel and ask the player to make decisions in order to pursue one or multiple women. The game uses the dating sim formula as a way to explore relations between the sexes (painted as largely binary and entirely heterosexual) and to balance the gender ratio of the game in a way that many traditional titles fail to do. Unfortunately, Catherine’s dating sim gameplay is also its undoing in terms of positive gender representation, for the nature of this gameplay forces its female characters into positions of objectification, where they are either trophies to be won by the player or simply unattainable and thus portrayed as undesirable.

Continue reading “Controller Trouble: Player Agency and Depictions of Gender in Catherine”