In the mid-1980s, a small French game publisher called Froggy Software, founded with the promise of “aventure, humour, décalage et déconnade ” (adventure, humour and tongue firmly in cheek), created some of the strangest video games in the medium’s history. So much so that founder Jean-Louis Le Breton was once called the “Alfred Hitchcock” of gaming.
They intentionally moved away from the dominant power fantasies and science fiction games coming from the US at the time, and focused on titles with surreal humour and political overtones.
Their work included adventures such as Même les Pommes de Terre ont des Yeux (Even Potatoes Have Eyes) which, according to game historian Tristan Donovan, offered “a comic take on South American revolutionary politics”.
Left field: (clockwise from top left) The Cat and the Coup; Dinner Date; SpyParty; A House in California.
Gaming’s weird movement has remained largely underground, swept aside by big studios making big-budget games. But the success of left field indie titles such as 2008’s World of Goo or 2010’s Recettear and the rise of app stores has made strange, small-scale development more viable than it’s ever been. We look at five new games that are keeping weird alive:
The Cat and the Coup
In The Cat and the Coup, a “documentary” game being developed at the University of Southern California, you play the cat of Mohammad Mossadegh, the first prime minister of Iran. You can “coax” Mossadegh to revisit significant events in his life, such as the coup that engineered his downfall from power, by interacting with objects in his presence. The game has fantastic art inspired by Persian miniatures and offers a compellingly fresh way of experiencing recent world history.
This game offers an interactive unpleasant experience—that of being stood up on a date. In the game-maker’s words, you play as the “subconsciousness of Julian Luxemburg, waiting for his date to arrive”. You can look expectantly at the clock, stir the food that’s been prepared and laid out, and eavesdrop on Luxemburg’s inner thoughts as the situation becomes clear to him. Dinner Date is like a slice-of-life short film—a whimsical, cynical look at the moments of frailty that consume us in real life.
Papa Sangre is a video game without video. The game relies on a three-dimensional audio engine that envelops the player in a landscape of sound (you’ll need good headphones, of course). You navigate the game world (the monster-ridden palace of Papa Sangre) by listening to audio cues—what’s that scratching sound in the distance? Should I head towards what sounds like a carnival or is it a trap? Are those...knives being sharpened? It’s a challenging way of experiencing a virtual world, with downright fantastic audio effects and quality—just don’t play it at night.
The instructions screen in Papa Sangre.
A House in California
A House in California is a short, minimalist adventure game inspired by Imagist poetry. Imagism was a movement in 20th century American poetry that favoured direct, precise prose and off-kilter structures over the verbose, flowery language typical of the romantic poetry of the time. In it, the game’s four main characters attempt to bring a house to life. The game’s script is evocative and tightly crafted, and it makes many clever, subversive inversions of the usual characteristics of the adventure genre.
This is a multiplayer game with a devastatingly simple premise. One player is a spy at a party, hiding among partygoers and trying to avoid suspicion. The other player is a sniper hidden at a convenient vantage point, tasked with finding the spy. To avoid detection, the spy must try and imitate the behaviour of the other partygoers, who are computer controlled. In other words, he must trick the other player into thinking he is merely one of the computer-controlled characters. It’s a clever, tense little game of pattern recognition and deception, one that relies on perceiving subtle behaviour patterns.