With the rise of new platforms for games–especially in the mobile circuit–some developers are actually taking several steps backward, moving away from a more expansive, immersive type of game and toward an miniature, addictive one. It reminds me of the old Game ‘n’ Watch model, or the Tiger Electronics version of, say, Double Dragon–when time is the commodity, something short and sweet sometimes wins. The problem is that the market is glutted with sour products; the deep freemium titles are all knock-offs of one another, meant to suck in new users before they realize that, say, Spellstone is basically Tyrant Unlimited with a Hearthstone aesthetic, or that Bond: World of Espionage is a reskinned Underworld Empire, and that all of these games are designed around an unfair PvP mechanic that forces players to pay to win.
As I work to compile a best-of list for 2015, then, I wonder about what sort of unspoken rules, preferences, or conventions dictate the type of game that actually deserves to be nominated, let alone chosen. And today, my attention rests on Terry Cavanagh’s Grab Them By The Eyes.
(1) Does a mini-game qualify to stand alongside more fleshed out titles? Or, to put this another way, if the game you’ve designed could fit within another game–no matter how good Triple Triad may have been, for instance, does it deserve to be nominated outside of Final Fantasy VIII?–should it be on par? Consider: if Michel Gondry, a filmmaker, directs a 15-second Doritos advertisement or an 8-minute concept short for a music video, we would not nominate them for the Academy Awards, so shouldn’t the shortest of games perhaps be relegated to a different category? Shouldn’t there be an absolute minimum length?
In the case of Grab Them By The Eyes, we’re talking a five-minute campaign that has no real surprises from game to game, no real depth. Within those five minutes, it might be the best thing ever–it is not–but in honesty, it’s just Flappy Bird with another mechanic. You might make that argument about certain AAA titles, like yet another Assassin’s Creed or even Batman title, but these have the benefit of multiple gimmicks and, more importantly, a story to give it weight and at least mask the flimsy core (about which substance we’re likely to disagree anyway).
(2) Is it a game first and foremost, or is the medium of a game simply the approach that the artist has taken to relate a certain message? Papers, Please, for instance, seems to be the line between the two worlds, in that it has an evolving difficulty curve and a through-line of recurring challenges and ethical questions; Grab Them By The Eyes has nothing beyond the fact that it points out the shallowness of advertisements which, well, grab you by the eyes and then feed you nothing. That’s literally the message of Cavanagh’s game: when you beat it, your humble food stand is upstaged by the sign-maker himself, and you’re criticized for having not actually fed anybody. The real appeal is in the advertising, runs the punchline. Strip away that single message, however, and you’re basically left with a programming tool that allows you to create and animate a sign. If you strip away the mini-games that come bundled with Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, you’re basically left with Microsoft Word, and the latter at least is not recognizable as a game.
(3) Is there anything beyond the novelty? This last question applies beyond all consideration of length or quality or artistic intent–it simply asks us whether we’d actually want to continue playing any of the games on our “best of” list. I love Guitar Hero Live, but will there be enough there to keep me coming back to it in 2016? In 2017? If I were given the choice between playing that and some other title from 2015, which would I pick? Grab Them By The Eyes has nothing that encourages me to return to it, and I feel that this is a flaw of many narrative-heavy indie titles, where once you’ve experienced the story or sampled a few branching narratives (enough to see their similarities), you’re done. Until Dawn is one of the rare games that I might actually return to, if for no other reason than to scare friends in a party setting, or because I’ll eventually have forgotten some of the cheap thrills; Grab Them By The Eyes is a game I can theoretically exhaustively review in a 140-character tweet.
Now, don’t get me wrong–I love the experimental style of Terry Cavanagh, who has brought us Super Hexagon and VVVVVVVVV (which I’ve no doubt misspelled). It’s great that game jams exist (like hackathons) to try out new concepts, and it’s impressive that Cavanagh has found a way to gamify sign-making, even if this freeware version’s hook actually has more to do with figuring out how to beat an auction system (when buying new sign options at the start of each day). But come the end of the year, these are experiments, the rough drafts that inspired other artists to take the next step toward realizing a more compelling, well-rounded title. I look forward to seeing what becomes of grabbing someone by the eyes. But in the end, it’s not enough to simply catch someone’s attention and then leave them hungry for more. A game, for me, must be more than a distraction, and to talk seriously about Candy Crush as a game rather than in the context of a social fad is to demean and trivialize other titles, and to encourage a race to the bottom, instead of finding ways to rise to the top, as with the way The Talos Principle helped two entirely separately gameplay models transcend their roots.