What do we gain when we abandon traditional ‘skill’ in games? The fascinating thing about all of the games in Ambient Mixtape 16 is that they provide new and terrifying modes of experience, and that they do so by abandoning the rules of design. There are few, if any, affordances throughout. Even veteran game players will find themselves occasionally baffled by the designs that Ambient Mixtape 16 draws together, so often the player is left wonderfully directionless. It is a sensation that is difficult – impossible even – to create with the tools that designers tie themselves to by creating within the traditional mode of the videogame. In worlds where a player is assigned ever increasing tasks, worlds which look increasingly like a spectacular to-do list than anything like escapism or fantasy, any obstacle that doesn’t announce itself as such is immediately an annoyance. Bad Design. Ambient Mixtape 16 feels like bad design by design – it’s admirable in that. These games are broken and strange, obtuse in frustrating ways yet radical because of them. While the much maligned (in some spheres) walking simulator may not fall into what so many consider a game to be, this collection unabashedly stretches itself to discover what a game can be: memory, media, fears, fatalism – Ambient Mixtape 16 doesn’t shy away.
“And so the 21st Century continues to put satirists out of business.”
The collection contains nine games, presenting 5-10 minute experiences. Mostly they are unusual. Mostly they are unnerving. Standout submissions include Media is dead, you are alive, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD and t- e ni htm-are of·`a c ty. Each of these seems to explore a psychological experience through a specific visual effect. In the prescribed, pixelated graveyards of Media is dead, you are alive the player understands the medium of videogames as one of power and placation, data and derivé. In its internal puzzles we are asked to move points of binary data from place to place – we organise light in order to progress – to unlock the catacombs of media we need only move information effectively. The digital world is a responsive archive of physical existence, it has yet to develop true life of its own. It cannot sustain itself without outside input – like a virus it is dead, if only in technical terms. It is an act of retrospection to interact with digital media, yet in Western society we can barely operate without it. In 2003 Matt Garite wrote:
“[W]hen we strip away the particulars of content, gaming is essentially an aestheticized mode of information processing, and therefore the digital economy’s ideal form of leisure.”
You could of course replace ‘gaming’ with literally any other human/animal/vegetable/mineral activity and the sentence would remain accurate. Try ‘defecating’. Media is dead, you are alive doesn’t seem to agree with Garite either.
Later in the above quoted article Mr. Garite invokes Foucault’s Panopticon, something which Panoptique does with gay abandon. This miniature, rather on-the-nose sketch of our hyper-surveilled society might utilise some pretty excellent imagery – and suitably fearsome sound design – but unfortunately portrays a world that is actually less Orwellian than the one we live in. And so the 21st Century continues to put satirists out of business.
Turning back to the phenomenological, t- e ni htm-are of·`a c ty – the most obnoxiously named of the lot – loses us in a hostile city. We, the player, are left to wander, seemingly aimless through the vicious, barely-lit streets of some unforgiving metropolis. Its architectural hints feel as much like central London after dark as the underbelly of LA. New York on a really bad day. A pan-European monstrosity that we’ve been planted in the middle of. The visuals scatter and sway whenever we move – drunken unease barely kept at bay, or slow-motion panic attack. Just wait ‘til you get hit by a truck.
“Some things are better left unexplained.”
In Exit 19 and I Have Been There Twice we’re shown some more ephemeral offerings from Ambient Mixtape 16. Both take place in deserts, of a sort, and that’s about where the similarities end. Exit 19 is a dirt encrusted, American Gothic journey of a lifetime. It certainly falls prey at times to a lack of direction, a prescribed lost-ness that is wonderfully at odds with mass-market game design. It even has the courage to chastise us – in its own way – for predictably rushing to the end. On the other end of the sandy spectrum: I Have Been There Twice depicts what feels part surrealist painting and part nostalgic memory. We wind through a deserted Eastern village to be consumed by the sea, leaving sand and light in our wake. Charmingly, I Have Been There Twice also gives the player an option to sit down.
On to the orphans and oddballs then. Touch me2 sees the player staggering and sprawling around an after-hours restaurant-cum-cabaret, it’s hard to say which exactly. To me it felt like one of the least finished pieces in the collection, though maybe there was something I missed. Touch me2 does however have the most hilarious twist on the first-person shooter I’ve seen in a long time, and it won’t cost an arm and a leg. Rotting Crescendo struck me as a beautifully constructed disappointment, filled with atmosphere and mystery, but ultimately relying on barely-earned shock and sadness to land its closing blows. The Migration makes fewer promises and offers even fewer explanations – pitching itself as a kind of interactive music video. I run into a Martian sunset to a celestial psych-fuzz soundtrack as this colony is established / abandoned, liberated / oppressed around me. Some things are better left unexplained.
Finally, the piece-de-resistance, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD. This is a harrowing experience. While a few modern videogames lay claim to being about depression (amongst other mental health issues) few come close to the visceral, breath-taking calamity that THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD manages in just a few short minutes. Where games like Depression Quest take an admittedly well-meaning but relatively distanced approach to these issues, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD bludgeons the player with the sheer distress and unmitigated horror of an unparsable, unnavigable world. Maybe I was primed by the game’s content warning, maybe I was just getting into the festive spirit, but I spent a full ten minutes throwing myself into the void before I figured out that wasn’t the trigger to progress through the game.