Goodbye, Star. I’ll always remember you for your sweet temperament and gold-flecked coat. We’d count the times people would call you beautiful, walking together around town lake. (Your record was five.) You kept me sane during a rough time in my life. Everyone loved you, expert swimmer and tennis ball chaser.
I just had the chance to play CAPSULE, the space (?) horror game by Adam Saltsman and Robin Arnott. It’s amazing, the kind of experience that only comes from the tiny subset of games that work on me.
Stark and understated, it’s the interactive medium’s answer to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The sound effects and art direction in the game are stylish, but in the service of the game’s desperate, doomed mood – discolored glass (or is it icy?), creaks and groans, darkness closing in as you run short on air.
Playing with the UI, learning the mechanics and controls, involves the kind of ‘sense of discovery’ that only some games provide. And this is a sensation that seems increasingly uncommon, as game developers continue to strive for clarity and “ease of use,” usually at the expense of the most powerful parts of the interactive medium. Through all the years, I still seek out this experience: The early days of experimenting with the physical forces in Lunar Lander, learning the give and take of the systems; that first stealth encounter in Thief, where you’re trying to gauge the acuity of the senses of the guards, the effects of lighting on stealth, and the distance at which you’re safe; a clever puzzle solution snapping into place in Portal as you manipulate the geographic flow of space itself; moving time back and forth in Braid, ears attuned to the associated changes in music; simply exploring the world in Sword & Sworcery; realizations exploding in your head the first time several of Far Cry 2’s systems close on you like a noose – fire propagating through tall grass, distant enemies being drawn into a fight, listening to your downed ally crying for help from (somewhere!) nearby, herd animals getting caught in the crossfire. (This murkiness and that uncertain exploration of controls and mechanics was one of the goals Raphael Colantonio and I discussed for Dishonored. Whether we achieved it or not, it’s rare in games now and CAPSULE does it incredibly well.)
The game mechanics are simple, but brilliant, forcing the player to balance oxygen and engine power. Unless I’m inferring too much, when you’re rich in air, you can afford to go very slowly. And when you’re up on fuel, you can burn it fast to save oxygen. None of this is relevant until you’re ready for it, because another thing the game handles superbly is the ramp-up curve; each time you dock with another in-space entity, the mechanics change, making the game harder and more complex. The only thing I struggled with in CAPSULE was breaking my brain away from interpreting the game as 3D first-person navigation. That, and the heart-stopping tension. (Play with headphones, in the dark! Alone!)
Part of Austin’s indie scene for a while now, Saltsman is kind of a cosmic superhero boy scout and Arnott is like that thing that has been following you through a scary forrest, with bells and bits of bones interwoven through its hair, only later you realize it’s some kind of friendly spirit guide. This is my way of saying that they’re both amazing creative people, making interesting games that I’ve been lucky enough to play.
So far, I’ve only played CAPSULE up to the point where I got meters away from the Science Lab before asphyxiating. The desire to play again – right now – is gnawing at me in a good way, but I’ve learned to savor games like this.
Special thanks to Brandon Boyer for helping to motivate this sort of project, all Gertrude Stein-like.
PS) As others have pointed out, it’s not necessarily (or not even probably) set in space.
Download CAPSULE here:
Statements from Saltsman and Arnott:
Charles Lieurance is an incredibly gifted writer and cultural critic, something that stems in part from his breathtaking intellect but equally in part from his intoxicatingly rich life.
I’d almost forgotten about this, but he asked me to list 5 desert island movies. My response:
Question: Why are we so obsessed with deserted islands? Answer: Because no one wants to be alone.
If I could take 5 movies with me (and none of them could be porn), I’d choose the following:
1) Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998)
I love this movie because it evokes some of the same multilinear feelings that I experience when playing a well-crafted video game. In a game, you often stop and save your progress at a specific point in the timeline. Then you can race forward, trying various tactics and exploring new areas. And if you die or if the exploration cost you too much in terms of resources, you can back up to the point in timeline where you saved then proceed again. Often, after backing up, you move forward optimally. (A side effect of the unique way players experience their own narrative in games.) As a result, when you get to the end of the game, you’ve got this long linear experience, right? Your memories of what happened from beginning to end. Except that what’s missing are all the moments when you advanced, then died and backed up to the point at which you saved your progress. Those are like moments that happened, but didn’t happen. At the end of the game, your memories cannot be untangled; you remembered the things that happened in the actual playthrough timeline and things that happened in the discarded, aborted side timelines. Run Lola Run left me feeling the same way. And I have an intense and inexplicable love for German women like Franka Potente.
2) Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
I love the nihilistic ethos of this film. And I love the music. Brando here is one of the great villains. I like the original version btw. The Redux version is too long and contains some side threads that I found largely irrelevant.
3) The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
There’s something about small, dying towns that I love. If I ever survive an apocalypse, I will probably choose to live in a small town rather than an urban center. Growing up, my great grandparents had a farm in Moulton, Texas, and it was already dying back then in the 1970s, so I’ve got an innate longing for the spirit of such places. So much happens in this movie, and the scenes and dialogue imply a lot more…years and generations of lives lived with partial success and the accompanying regrets.
4) Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
It’s a cliché for someone of my generation and tastes to choose this movie, but it’s so undeniably great, such an obvious labor of love and vision, that I’ve got to include it. Roy Batty has some of the best lines ever delivered. There’s some lesson in here about a director or screenwriting elevating an actor. Half the movie’s appeal is the vision style and graphic design, but really all the elements serve the whole in a way that’s rarely accomplished. As a 16 year old boy, I wanted a Pris replicant of my very own. I’m actually torn on which version I’d take; I know what I’m supposed to say, but I feel there are strengths to both the original and the director’s cut. From the director’s cut, the darker, more ambiguous ending is a complete win for me. From the original, the monologue adds a lot of depth to Deckard’s character. Sure, we all loved the director’s cut *after* gaining familiarity with the original, but I have to ask: Would the more stripped down version have been as powerful without the context provided by the original, heavier-handed version? I hate it that Ridley Scott feels like he’s answered the question definitively about whether Deckard was a replicant, because—first—the director’s intentions are far less important to me than the audience interpretation, and—second—because the ambiguity and doubt that the character felt about the possibility of false memories, of not being *real* were more powerful than a definitive answer either way.
5) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
I’ll admit that I don’t normally like movies made before the 1970s. People like Scorsese, Cimino and Coppola brought so much grittiness and depth to film that it’s hard for me to go backward. Casablanca is one of the exceptions. I love fiction that focuses on a specific point in time, when a mixture of events and pressures up the ante for all the standard elements of human life. The love story still chokes me up.
I love Kubrick, and The Shining might have made the list except that if I had to watch it over and over on an island, the nights would be unpleasantly unnerving and I’d probably end up hanging myself from a coconut tree with a rope woven from my hair. And—for the mood, cinematography and sex—I might have included Eyes Wide Shut if, you know, anyone actually got properly laid in the movie.
Zack Booth Simpson gave an interesting lecture last week at the Blanton Museum on UT campus…the Evolution of Evolutionary Design. I met Zack when he was technical director at Origin Systems, years ago. Since, he’s taken himself away from commercial games and into scientifically-influenced art and molecular biology, among other things.
At the talk, I got to see Richard Garriot for the first time since his return from space. (I got to say, “Welcome back to Earth, man.” Not something I get to say to friends often, except in the cases where I mean it figuratively, after someone has gone off on a delusional tirade or a severe bender.) We touched briefly on Ultima IV–due to recent commentary across the ‘net–which always gives me a thrill, imaging what a modern Ultima IV would look like.
The subject(s) of the Blanton talk were informed by Zack’s position at the nexus of science, art and bricklaying and the speech was excellent; catch it via video or repeat performance if you can. Pleasing nerds of all flavors, Zack covered, no lie:
Ornamentation, history of
Craftsmanship, death and rebirth of
Art, definition of
Culture, development of
Cell phone towers
Life, meaning of
Toward the end of the talk, Zack showed off some of his new procedural tech-tool-toys, which always fire the imagination.
(Technically, this post is a day or two late, but had I completed it the day following Zack’s speech–as I planned–the subject line would be accurate.)
The Alamo Drafthouse is one of Austin’s current cultural treasures. I saw a Swedish film from this year’s Fantastic Fest over the weekend, called Let the Right One In, and I loved it. Avoid spoilers, but definitely check it out. Alternately dark and touching, creepy and sweet.
I went with my standard Drafthouse meal…no experimentation this time: White wine, hotwings, hummus with pita chips. I’d just shaved and–in the dark–ended up with hotwing sauce all over my face. Note to self: Avoid hotwings on days that you shave. Face. On. Fire.
In gaming news, I finally got the card game Zombie Flux, and I’m excited about trying it out soon.
I’m still playing Spore and Civilization Revolution…I hope to write up some comments on both soon. I tried to play Just Cause and couldn’t get into it at all.