Calcu-Late is an RPG Maker game.
It takes about 30 minutes to play through. It has a bat shit insane story where a girl tries to kill her self because she’s failing Math. This makes more sense in-game, but not by much. Despite being called “Calcu-late” , and despite having a plot focused on math, only a few of the puzzles in the game are math based. It has music and graphics.
Now, with that out-of-the-way:
When I started this blog, I signed up for Twitter to promote it, something I swore I would never do. When Twitter first came up, I was real critical,
“Why do people even have Twitter, it’s basically just a Facebook status update!” is something I may or may not have said… roughly a hundred times, while drunk and belligerent.
“I don’t know man!” the stranger at the bar would say, “But I wish you’d shut the fuck up about it! I’m on a date here!”
He’d turn away, back to his beautiful date. I’d turn away, and order another whiskey. Then, I’d put a quarter in the jukebox, and listen to “I Want to Know What Love Is” slow dancing – alone – and crying silently.
Now that I’m older, and no longer cry while slow dancing alone, I realize the value of Twitter. It’s not just like Facebook Updates, it’s actually pretty cool, especially once I figured out its secret prime use…
Twitter is exceptionally good for letting you harass people whose work you admire in the hopes that they will validate you.
Let me tell you, I need all the validation. As soon as I joined, I found the account for all the folks who have created something I love, and started throwing @ Tweets at them faster than people throw Sacagaweas at strip joints. Extremely, and dangerously, fast.
One of the people I found on Twitter was Felipe Pepe, the creator/editor of the CRPG Book.
I am a big fan of his book, and think everyone should check out. Seriously, take a look – https://crpgbook.wordpress.com/, it’s exhaustive, and it’s free for gods sake!
Felipe commented on Eidos Montreal and the controversy over the new Deus Ex. I tweeted him about it – entirely unsolicited of course – and he responded. We got into a brief back and forth, when he said this: (and which I’m paraphrasing here)
(Gaming’s) problem is we have no middle ground between Halo and Sunset.
And this is true! Also it was something I hadn’t really thought about.
Don’t get me wrong, the quality of stories in gaming has grown dramatically over the last ten years or so. Even AAA games now have more ambition then “the President has been captured by ninjas”. Look at “No Russian” in Modern Warfare 2, or the giraffes in Last of Us. Developers are trying, there’s no question.
Still, the one thing all these AAA games have in common: violence. I’m not anti-violence in gaming by any means, my favorite game of all time is New Vegas, where you can hit people so hard they literally explode, so it’d be hypocritical and against my interests to call for its head. I am, however, pro-variety. The problem is, despite the variety in actual game genres, there’s little variety in story genre.
The default mode of interaction in gaming is violence – from Mario squashing Goombas, to Nathan Drake shooting a small country’s worth of thugs. Sure, there are exceptions, Adventure games wrap their story in puzzles and conversation, “Walking Simulators” through exploration – I love both genres -but there aren’t many Adventure games getting made these days, and Walking Simulators are hardly “Middle Ground”.
When your primary method of telling a story is interaction, and your primary method of interaction is violent, there are only so many stories you can tell. As a result, gaming is stuck in genre fiction. When you go to a bookstore, you aren’t only faced with options for Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Horror, and Crime – and yet that’s basically the field for gaming. Lists of the “best” and most popular movies of all time include Pulp Fiction and Lord of The Rings, sure, but they also include Forrest Gump, The Wizard of Oz, and Casablanca. If Casablanca was a video game it’d be a FPS, and every time you shot a Nazi, Rick would say “Here’s looking at you kid,”. Wizard of Oz would be a crap plat-former , and Forrest Gump wouldn’t exist.
The point is, there’s no middle ground.
There’s a whole world of story and mechanics in between hyper violent shoot em’ ups and esoteric slow-paced walk em’ ups. Where are the romantic comedies, the inspirational sports stories, music bio-pics, dramas, musicals, comedies, etc, etc, etc?
Inevitably, in this kind of conversation, a hypothetical person will show up and say: “Those types of games don’t exist cuz there isn’t a market for them”- well, you’re wrong, hypothetical person (As you usually are, after all being hypothetical and unable to argue).
Look at that list! Of the 40 games listed, 12 have no violence in them at all*, and another 10* have ancillary violence. And yet, they all sold bu cos. Obviously games without violence can and do sell. The old hat argument has always been that these are games for filthy casuals, and they don’t sell anymore, so there’s no point in making them. I think that’s a chicken-egg scenario – are they not selling now because casuals moved on to the next gadget, or because no one is making these types of games?
What is clear from the sales figures is that Minecraft, a game less about violence and more about creativity, has sold a staggering 42 million more than Grand Theft Auto V – the closest “Hardcore” game available. Now, not all of the 42 million represents potential buyers – but it does suggest that this is a completely under-served market section. So called “Hardcore” games aren’t appealing to this market, because they’re overtly violent, and the “art” games aren’t appealing because, unless you’re really digging their subtle grooves, they are boring.
Now, please don’t misunderstand, I am not advocating for shovel-ware, to me, I look at that list and I see a foundation for an entire world, an untapped oil field for developers who want to expand Game storytelling. The Blind Side made a buttload of money at the box office. Why is no one (NBA 2k16?) exploring legitimate storytelling in sports games? Meld the football mechanics of Madden with what is already present in sports – dramatic tension, overcoming adversity, meteoric rises and falls (Johnny Football), create an actual honest to god story – not just mini games where you choose how to respond to reporters. Marley and Me was a huge success, as was Nintendogs, surely a talented writer can find a way to meld the Pup simulation into a tear jerker? Hard Days Night and other music bio-pics are both critically acclaimed and commercial successes and yet music games get released without any story mode. Such a waste of potential.
Beyond the preexisting genres that could be expounded on, there are ideas and mechanics that could be developed for other genres.
Calcu-Late‘s story is insane, and poorly written, but it’s at least exploring what it’s like: to be a kid, the pressures of school, basic everyday kindness. It’s refreshing to see a game attempt to tell a story about things not often touched on, without violence as the motivating factor in some way, and without violent action as the main mechanic. You navigate Calcu-Late’s story entirely through solving puzzles – and it’s not just filler, the story is on equal footing. Blazing Fanfish might have made a bad game, but at least deserve credit for trying something different.
The rest of the gaming world is in stasis, myopically fixated on the same genres it’s always made, with the same mechanics of aggressive interaction. I understand that these mechanics are used because they are proven, and fun. Not every game needs to change – Doom, for example, is perfect the way it is, you don’t need to”Talk to the monsters” per the infamous Edge review. Still,that idea, though silly in specifics, is completely legitimate in broader scope – developers should be trying to break outside their normal interactions of shooting shit in the face till it crumples up in a pile on the floor.
I know it’s easier said then done to create whole new ideas of mechanics and interaction, especially when the old ways work so well – but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. We need more games like the Ace Attorney Series, To The Moon, and yes, even Calcu-Late to shape this middle ground into a cohesive whole.
There’s a set of people who identify themselves with gaming as their sole hobby, and I understand that – I do.
I’ve never identified myself as a “gamer” – obviously I love video games, but I don’t consider them part of my identity – just a big, huge, hobby. But, I do get the passion people have towards a medium most have literally grown up with. Unfortunately, sometimes gamers misdirect their passion- there is a reaction that the introduction of new types of games, “casual” games, or “consoleization” is going to somehow box them out of their hobby. If that were true, I’d never make the case for an increase in variety – I don’t want to live in a world where turn-based strategy games, or CRPG’s aren’t getting made anymore – but that’s not going to happen, nor is it in danger of happening now.
In the post digital world, the ability to fund and market a disparate mix of games has never been easier – companies like Otherside Entertainment are actively targeting niches, creating games like Underworld Ascendant and System Shock 3, that would have seemed impossible years ago. Not only are they creating those games, they’ve basically established it as their entire business model, it’s not going to stop as long as the niche is still profitable. Gaming is not a Zero Sum Game – developers that can successfully create new genres and story telling opportunities will capture new and under served markets – widening the pie, not taking all the slices. The genres and styles people still love, will still be there.