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Talkin’ bout Jason Nelson’s art games

Right before I started playing Jason Nelson’s games, I had been reading an article by some neurobiologist about the connection between agoraphobia and “spatial estrangement” and modernity and urbanity. I was in exactly the right mental room already.

Then Mr. Nelson emailed me about his “odd art games,” many of which you can play right in your web browser by visiting Arctic Acre. (In his email, he also suggested that I visit Jason Nelson’s School of Games. You should probably go watch his video lecture series, too, because it is hilarious. There are currently 16 episodes, each only seconds long.)

Maybe ‘odd’ is almost the wrong word for his games: they’re straightforward 2D platformers, with moving and jumping and spatial circumnavigation and an end destination in sight, so that the way to play is immediately discernible even to your mom. But as you run-and-collect, the screens become cluttered with prose noise, taking on the likeness and verve of treated text. Everything feels very inaccessible and obfuscated despite the mechanics’ simplicity.

I got a little bit nervous when I googled Mr. Nelson and discovered he is a “lecturer on Cyberstudies, digital writing, and creative practice at Griffith University,” which itself is located in another country etc. (Everything I know about both digital writing and other countries, amounting to peanuts, I learned from 253.) And I am not a lecturer. Also, you probably already know more about Nelson’s games than I do. So I was pretty nervous about approaching his work at all.

Anyway, a bit about each: I started with the first one (?), called game, game, game and again game, or: belief systems are small clumsy rolling-type creatures. As I played, I typed into my note-taking software, “I am a spider or hairball or some kind of space-time tumbleweed,” and so when I went back to the first screen and noted its title I was relieved.

And as game, game, game’s story comes to the surface, sometimes the new scribbles onscreen will obscure (or totally change) your intended pathway to the end goal, and you are forced to reconsider and regroup. Just as in the game of life! And in some stages, choosing one avenue subsequently walls off another. Very philosophical and nice, OK.

Next I tried i made this. you play this. we are enemies, which I appreciated right off the bat because I am usually wondering as I am playing a game why the game designer hates me so much when we haven’t even met. I did enjoy the exhilarating physicality of hopping around Metafilter and Fark, but also I liked that the things to run-and-collect were hyperlinks and search terms. That is how we read! That is how we search the web! As in the first game, this one had a lot of portals in it, zapping your little rolling ball from location to location. The portals don’t actually make the games nonlinear, but that’s fine.

Evidence of Everything Exploding is the third game Jason Nelson links to at Arctic Acre, I think, and since I am predisposed toward a certain liturgical orderliness, I went to that one next. From the start this one is a lot more polished than Nelson’s other games, but it shares the same scrappiness that makes them credible. It is also more challenging and more playable, and so it is more fun.

It’s similar in makeup to the other two, except you swim around the mazes of text instead of hopping from platform to platform. And you blow stuff up! That’s cool. I’m pretty easy to please, though, because this is a game for people who play games and like the secret language of games. Of Mr. Nelson’s games, EoEE is definitely my favorite.

In each of these works, maybe the author is satirizing video games’ cutscene “reward system” when he includes his hair-tearingly meaningless videos. You don’t have to watch them, and I am pretty sure he is making fun of you for watching them, but I watched them.

Alarmingly These Are Not Lovesick Zombies woke up my family because I was playing it pretty late at night. It is bombastic and action-packed. I liked it least, in fact, even though I liked the branching “play as living or undead” option best in terms of mechanical ingenuity. Still, a playthrough is well worth Nelson’s “hidden secrets of the video game industry” game design whiteboard series, which appear during level intermissions.

But all of Jason Nelson’s maybe improvised? whiteboard demonstrations, which I entirely watched, are collected at Jason Nelson’s School of Games. Again, check those out. Seriously.

Some of Jason’s older work is available at Secret Technology dot com, below.

One response to “Talkin’ bout Jason Nelson’s art games” »

  1. Jenn Frank says:

    Curly braces: Of course, also, Arctic Acre’s link off-site to the death spinner game, which I played and then willfully pretended to have not noticed. It would have been all Russian fatalism this and games-of-chance that, and “this one time, in a Pushkin story,” and nobody wants that for Infinite Lives. Someday I will start up a whole “video games and 19th century Russian lit” tumblr or something.

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