Failed Revolutions: A Peter Molyneux Profile

Steve Jobs: European artiste model.

Steve Jobs: European artiste model.

It’s hard not to love Peter Molyneux. He seems like a really nice guy, he’s got cool ideas, and he’s genuinely passionate about games and their potential in a way that very few people with his level of power in the industry seem to be. Here’s a 53-year-old man who wears a suits a bunch and is absolutely, 100-percent in love with video games and is always encouraging others to take pride in their craft and stretch their artistic limits. More than maybe any other developer, he seems to be constantly trying to find new things for games to be, and constantly pushing the medium to new, unusual places.

The problem is that very few of those places have been good in about 12 years.

That’s not really fair, honestly. Molyneux’s only made a small handful of games we’d call flat-out bad. But, ever since he became the head of Lionhead Studios and started being the lead developer of his own dreams, they’ve all been huge ideas that promised to change gaming and then profoundly didn’t. And so, let’s take a look at the strange, imaginative failures of Peter Molyneux (technically, Peter Molyneux, Officer of the British Empire– which is pretty cool).

Black and White (2001)

Black and White was the first game by Molyneux’s Lionhead Studio, and the first game to really embody what would become Molyneux’s guiding

The most beautiful "endlessly throwing rocks at kids" simulator you'll ever play.

The most beautiful “endlessly throwing rocks at kids” simulator you’ll ever play.

principles as a designer: a focus on myth and fairy tales, archetypal morality systems, and player choice. You could tell it was about myth, morality and choice because it was a game where you played as a God and was named after the binary morality you could choose from. It’s… not a subtle game. You literally have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

Picking it up recently, it was surprising how well the aesthetic elements of it have held up. The visuals– which were incredible for 12 years ago –are clearly dated, but still have a good look to them, and a lot of little things (the game’s atmospheric use of lighting, the  surprisingly good physics) help give it a sense of grandeur and scale that fits it well. For all the emphasis put on the man’s choices in regards to narrative or agency, it often goes unmentioned that Molyneux and his team have an incredible skill for making a game look and sound really, really good.

The problem with Black and White is that its biggest weaknesses were what were supposed to be its biggest strengths. For all that it was supposed to put the God into God Games, there’s never really a sense of power. You can pick up your villagers and throw them around, but even getting a hut built requires resource-gathering and micromanaging. The average Sim City mayor feels more powerful and omnipotent than the divine hero of Black and White. This isn’t helped by the fact that the campaign casts you as a perpetual underdog battling more powerful gods, including crippling core gameplay elements for long sections, meaning that the player never has a chance to actually revel in their power. Similarly, the game’s morality system offers extreme choice, but no real reason to choose. Being pure evil is going to do nothing but screw you over (because if you can choose between keeping your followers well-fed and strong or burning them alive, one of those options is the smarter plan), whereas most of your benevolent actions are fairly dull and unnecessary (you’ll spend a lot of time and energy healing people who aren’t sick).

Black and White isn’t a bad game, but that’s its core problem: its premise should be there for pure escapism and moral anarchy, but it’s ultimately a fairly slow and rote experience. The campaign is only five levels long, and the core mechanic of that campaign– convincing other villages to worship you –is fairly simple. There’s lots of toys (complex miracles, an AI that was breathtaking for its time, all sorts of questionable actions) but no real reason to use them. It’s a game driven by huge dreams and staggering ambition that, in the end, makes you miss the down-to-earth focus and ordinary professionalism of Sid Meier.

Fable (2004)

SOMEONE'S been reading their Joseph Campbell!

SOMEONE’S been reading their Joseph Campbell!

Oh lord, Fable.  Not only could you write a novel on the gulf between Fable‘s ambition and the end product, that novel would honestly be fascinating and we would buy it and tell our friends to read it. Fable was like an artist set out to paint the Sistine Chapel and instead produced… we honestly can’t complete that metaphor because a work of art as workmanlike and fundamentally inoffensive but unexciting as Fable doesn’t get remembered by history. Don’t believe us– the previews for the game are still up, and every single feature listed is something that didn’t make it into the game.

It’s Molyneux’s fault, honestly. The man promised a game that was going to be like Morrowind crossed with Ocarina of Time, which you might recognize as our favorite games ever made. What makes Fable‘s hype somehow admirable instead of just embarassing is that it clearly came out of love: Molyneux was swept up by what videogames were doing and so enthralled by the potential of the medium that he forgot it was 2004 and not the magical future where computers can make games out of pure hope and whimsy.

All criticisms aside, it's impressive what this game got out of the original Xbox.

All criticisms aside, it’s impressive what this game got out of the original Xbox.

In the end, Fable was a fairly pedestrian but ultimately fun game. The core morality mechanic– that your character’s morality was reflected in their face and body, meaning you could grow horns or sprout wings –was simplistic, but a really nice way of demonstrating the mythic, fantasy-hero sense of good and evil that the game was going for. Like all of Lionhead’s games, it was visually stunning and had a unified and lush style to it.

At the time the fact that this “industry-changing, open-world, every-action-has-real-consequence, live-an-entire-other-life” game was a fairly linear fantasy action game was seen as hugely disappointing and shameful. Looking back, it’s honestly endearing. It’s clear that Molynuex wasn’t intentionally lying or trying to mislead (unlike some games), but that he was so excited by what he was doing and so hopeful about his game’s potential that he just wanted all of us to share in his excitement. This is why, despite having severe grievances with almost every game he’s done, we honestly really like the man: he’s so completely motivated by a love for his art, even when that might not be the best idea. When a developer literally, word-for-word, says that his project is “gonna be the best game ever,” it’s hard for their excitement not to be somewhat infectious.

Fable II (2008)

We got no real issues with Fable II. It’s not the game that Fable I promised it would be, but it comes closer than any other game in the series. It’s

Look at that! An antagonist with realistic motives and character development!

Look at that! An antagonist with realistic motives and character development!

the only Fable game with a fairly interesting plot, real moral nuance, and interesting side characters, helped along by very well-used celebrity voice actors (Stephen Fry in particular stands out as a character who’s half Oscar Wilde, half Blackbeard). It has a really good villain and combines everything that worked in Fable I with a bigger scope, better combat, more open world, and, most importantly, a better sense of what it wanted to be.

Its greatest strength is that there’s a real human connection. Whereas most of Molyneux’s other games can feel somewhat cold and distant, you really care about the characters of Fable II. The story is interesting, and has a lot more going on than “hero confronts bad guy.” The villain is a great example of how to write a villain that’s hate-able, disgusting, but also human and sympathetic (whereas the first game has, basically, The Devil and the third has a motiveless shadow monster). And there’s a real sense of epic scale to the game that was missing from the first. It’s still mostly linear, but the settings are varied, the spectacles are huge, and the story is suffused with a sense of grandeur and mystery. The ending of the game in particular, in which the player is faced with an almost impossible moral choice and in which the narrative pulls back from its huge epic adventure to some very simple human moments, is probably the best thing Molyneux’s ever done as an artist. It’s still not a masterpiece or a revolutionary game that changed everything, and if you don’t like some of the core Fable mechanics  this game won’t win you over, but it’s a really solid action RPG that never disappoints.

Fable III (2010)

Fable III is a really mediocre action RPG that perpetually disappoints. As much as we like Molyneux and respect the man’s vision, we cannot get

WHY DOES THIS MECHANIC EXIST?

WHY DOES THIS MECHANIC EXIST?

behind his decisions on this game. Then again, neither can he.

At least some of its failures are interesting. There are a lot of ideas here no one ever thought of doing before. The problem, though, is that unlike his previous innovations, no one thought of them for good reason. When you pause the game you get teleported to a magical room where you can go to your armory, inspect a map, and all the other things that are normally on the pause menu. It’s a neat way of giving the pause menu narrative justification, except that it also adds at least three button presses and five seconds between basic actions like changing what spells you’re using, checking the map, and changing clothes. The fact that you actually overthrow the king halfway through and the game becomes focused on making decisions as a new king is cool, except that it means that there’s half as much RPG-action as the last games and the moral choices stop being part of your character’s growth and just become you listening to two arguments and then hitting a button. Fable III may honestly have the biggest ideas and the most dramatic changes of any game in the series, but the way in which it tampers around with core gameplay mechanics, not just of its franchise but of game design in general,  is baffling and undermines the game’s potential.

There’s also more conventional failings. Whereas the previous Fable game had used its notable voice actors to great effect, this one squanders an

Remember that sad, interesting-looking old guy above? His replacement is a shadow monster who eats people.

Remember that sad, interesting-looking old guy above? His replacement is a shadow monster who eats people.

unimaginable amount of talent. Michael Fassbender, Stephen Fry, John Cleese, Simon Pegg, and Sir Ben Kingsley are all in this game. The only one you’ll even notice on a playthrough is John Cleese, and only because he has the most recognizable voice– Lionhead decided that the best use of a Monty Python alumnus was as the stiff-necked straight man to other people’s jokes. (Stephen Fry is recognizable, but only because his character returns, reduced from an interesting amoral rogue with to “man in top hat who represents the evil moral choice.”) The game is smaller, shorter, and easier, and the gameplay is identical to Fable II but simpler. Even the core mechanic of the Fable series, player choice, feels neglected. The Hero (who the game can’t seem to decide is a mute protagonist or not, as sometimes they speak and sometimes communicate in gestures) no longer changes depending on their skills and alignment, and the idea of choosing who you’ll be has no impact when it’s almost impossible not to have every skill maxed out by the end of the game.

As much as people criticize Molyneux for his overarching ambition. Fable III, though, shows why that’s not fair. Fable III is the only Lionhead game not to feel ambitious, and it suffers for it. Whereas the faults of Fable and Fable II felt somehow excused in the face of how much they were trying, Fable III‘s smaller scale and relative polish just makes its faults seem ugly. The game’s not much worse than the first Fable, but because it aims so much lower it’s a lot harder to love.

Fable: The Journey (2012) and Project Milo (RIP)

We love you, Peter, but there's no way we weren't using this picture.

We love you, Peter, but there’s no way we weren’t using this picture.

In all fairness, Fable: The Journey is the only game on this list we haven’t played, because we’d have to be much more successful bloggers before we buy a Kinect (and, regardless of everything we’re about to say, it’s shameful that Lionhead used a Kinect-exclusive spinoff to tie up loose ends and explain mysteries that had been running through the entire trilogy). But that’s sort of the point: it was a rail-shooter for the Kinect. It got mixed reviews, Molyneux’s promise that “it’s not on rails!” was proven to be a flat-out lie rather than onverenthusiasm, and the general critical consensus was that it was a good story– one of the best in the series –undermined by mediocre gameplay, dodgy motion mechanics, and an unnecessary reliance on the Kinect.

How did this happen? How did a man like Molyneux, who always seems to be trying to go bigger and more creative, end up making this game? Did the man who is, more than maybe any developer but Suda 51, keenly attuned to the potential of technology to further art and story look at Microsoft’s questionable motion-sensing Wii knockoff and say “this new and challenging technology would be best used to turn my beloved open-world-RPG franchise into a linear rail shooter”? Or did Microsoft say “the Kinect is not doing great, especially among non-casual gamers. Let’s get that respected developer who’s under contract with us to create a non-casual game designed to showcase it, using his most popular franchise?”

We can’t say for certain, but there’s two good pieces of evidence for the latter. The first is that Fable Heroes, an Xbox-Live side-scrolling beat-em-up, exists. The second is Milo.

Whether or not it's a good idea is debatable, but it's definitely a new one.

Whether or not it’s a good idea is debatable, but it’s definitely a new one.

Project Milo was a project Molyneux showed off at E3 2009. It was intended to use the capabilities of the Kinect to really make the player feel like an active participant in the game’s world– you would interact with a ten-year-old boy, speak to him with the built in microphone, teach him to skip rocks using the motion sensor, and generally play with things that were unique to the Kinect (which, it should be noted, rail shooters are not). It built on AI from Black and White, it drew from Fable‘s idea of guiding the life of a single person and that person’s dog. By all accounts, Molyneux looked at the Kinect and thought of a game that he wanted to make that could never exist without the technology.

And then it was announced that Project Milo had never been intended for release as a game– despite numerous people on the development team saying otherwise –and was instead a tech demo. Technology used to create it was used to make Fable: The Journey instead. And that’s what makes Fable: The Journey so depressing. We know that it’s not the game Molyneux wanted to make. We know that when he saw the Kinect he had big, bold ideas of how to use it in new ways, just like how the Xbox’s processing power and memory space inspired the huge potential of Fable. But the game he wanted to make was the kind of strange, small-scale, offbeat thing he would have made before he started working for Microsoft, and it wouldn’t have helped convince people the Kinect was worth buying. And so instead, the man’s dream franchise got shunted into an out-of-place linear shooter game designed to sell hardware. We can get mad at Molyneux for Fable III, but Fable: The Journey just inspires pity: one of gaming’s most imaginative and enthusiastic dreamers, putting out a product he didn’t want to in order to sell hardware.

The Future

That’s not going to happen again, though. Molyneux has left Microsoft, gone independent, and is making games following his own visions. He recently announced and financed a game on Kickstarter and– while we’re skeptical about him using a platform based on the idea of “you need to deliver on your promises” –we wish him luck. The man is one of gaming’s true dreamers and we can’t help but love him, even when he stumbles.

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Terry Cavanagh: Less is More

One thing that we at Cardinal Virtual can always respect is when a game designer is able to do a lot with a little. It’s always satisfying to see a solid game concept taken to it’s full potential without any unnecessary gimmicks bogging it down, and indie game designer Terry Cavanagh has mastered this skill to a fault. His games often have very simple, traditional mechanics with one or two slight twists which the game itself is built from. His minimalist approach doesn’t end with game mechanics though– the art style and sound design of Cavanagh’s games all have an equally pared back feel. Here are some examples:

Don’t Look Back

Trapped.

This short flash game is the first of Cavanagh’s library that either of us played. The game is based on the Greek myth in which Orpheus descends into the underworld to bring his wife back with him, on the condition that he doesn’t look at her while they are escaping. This condition that Orpheus receives in the myth is one of the things that makes this game unique, as for the entire second half of the game, you must preform typical platforming stunts (running, jumping, shooting) without turning around, or your wife will vanish and you’ll be sent back to the last checkpoint (which thankfully are frequent). This simple additional rule will cause you to think about basic platforming challenges in a totally different way and adds a refreshing twist to the more shooting heavy first half of the game (apparently Orpheus traded in his lyre for a pistol). It’s probably the best example of Cavanagh’s signature technique– imposing one or two limits and pushing the player against them in every way possible.

All the colors you will see in the game.

The art style is about as minimalistic as you can get but still manages to leave an impression. Don’t Look Back uses a total of three shades of red against a black background and still manages to create an immersive experience. The blocky Atari 2600-style graphics (all in red) help emphasize how alien and disorienting a place the underworld would be, while also giving the game a washed-out and bleak feeling to match the protagonist’s grief. It also makes the game more memorable and recognizable, since with this color pallet, you’re not likely to confuse a screenshot of this game with any other out there. Many of the sound effects are also more realistic than you would expect (most 2D games for example don’t have realistic sounding footsteps) which, along with the somber music, help with immersion and set it apart from other games that use a retro art style.

The game’s certainly not perfect. The difficulty ramps up fast and since the game respawns you without much warning, cheap deaths will occur. Also the ending, while hard-hitting back when the game first came out, might not seem as original these days. Still, Don’t Look Back is definitely worth playing and if nothing else, will be a memorable experience.

VVVVVV

The hardest challenge in the entire game, caused because you can’t step over a waist-high block.

This is not only Terry Cavanagh’s most important and well polished game, but one of the best indie games ever made. VVVVVV is a metroidvania-style game where the player controls Captain Viridian, who’s on a mission to rescue his lost crew members from a strange dimension that they’ve landed in. Unlike other metroidvanias, you don’t look for weapons or gain new abilities to progress. In fact, other than moving right and left, you only have one maneuver in your arsenal the entire game: rather than jumping, you have the the ability to reverse your own gravity (or flip). This skill instantly allows you to do things you never thought possible in a platformer, like escape a deep pit by flipping up to the ceiling or crossing a gap by using the bottoms of moving platforms. It also makes other platforming challenges much more difficult, like when you have to go up and then back down a deadly spike laden shaft to get over a tiny block in your way. Like only being able to travel in one direction in Don’t Look Back, flipping completely changes the way you experience a platformer and the game is structured around this unique ability brilliantly.

You wouldn’t see these kind of manners from I Wanna Be the Guy.

In VVVVVV, Cavanagh’s expanded his color pallet to six colors (eight if you count white and black), one for Viridian and each of his other five crew members. Each screen in the game has one background color (with numerous shades) and these colors change from screen to screen. In addition to creating a unique feel, this artistic choice shows what a jangled mess of a dimension that Viridian and his crew-mates are stranded in, creating a more cohesive and interesting world while still using very simple graphics. The soundtrack is also incredibly catchy, that kind of video game music that you’ll find yourself humming later. The the additional game modes (like Time Trial and the infamously hard No Death Mode) help add a lot of replay value making this easily the biggest of Cavanagh’s games (which makes sense since it is a commercial game).

Overall, we can’t recommend this one highly enough. If you’re interested in indie games at all go pick it up now. It originally cost around $15 but you can easily find it for much cheaper now.

Xoldiers

The chaos of war, in 8-bit form.

This game was actually a collaboration between Terry Cavanagh and Cactus (subject of last weeks entry) back in 2008, before the two games we just discussed. The minimalistic and brightly colored graphics certainly evoke the other projects of these designers. In Xoldiers, you control small squadron of troops who must destroy a specific target on each stage (always a purple temple like structure) while fighting their way through enemy tanks and soldiers. You move the squad as one object, meaning the more xoldiers you have alive the less maneuverable you are but the more firepower you have. Controlling the xoldiers as a squad helps evoke the sense of war surprisingly well. The xoldiers all shoot, duck, and move as one, and individually they’re helpless. No xoldier has any identity– it’s entirely about the squad. The massive explosions and giant plumes of blood (which can obstruct your tiny xoldiers from view) adds to the sense of chaos that the game presents and also makes destroying enemies more satisfying.

The following mission is easier if you let some of your xoldiers die, because you have too many to fit in the door.

And yet, instead of just reveling in its extravagant violence, the game has a harsh satiric edge. The incredibly over-the-top General who briefs the player before each level is hilarious but also is clearly intended to show the callousness and brutality of war. In one mission, the General declares that “A xoldier never retreats, and never looks back!”, and then you enter a mission where you start on the opposite side of the screen, only to find that your xoldiers can’t turn around to shoot. So you have to advance into enemy fire backwards all because a xoldier “never looks back!” In another mission, your xoldiers’ adherence to a solid block formation makes infiltrating a base nearly impossible. It’s not exactly subtle satire, but it fits for the style of the game.

All in all, Xoldiers is definitely a fun little game to pick up and spend a half hour or so with, and manages to be one of the only anti-war games out there.

Other Games by Terry Cavanagh:

Self Destruct: An entertaining vertically scrolling SHMUP where you try to survive  as many waves of enemy fighters as possible.

At A Distance: A two player puzzle game ideally played on two computers side by side.

Radio Silence: A first-person game where you have to locate and collect several radios based on the sounds they release. Great atmosphere.

Hexagon: Hard to describe this one. It’ll really test your reflexes. Very hard, but very addictive.

My Brain It’s Swollen: A Cactus Primer

[We’re back from hiatus, and ready to spend all month talking about our favorite indie games and developers!]

A little while ago, Jonatan Soderstrom, aka Cactus, announced his first for-sale, distributed, studio-made game. It’s called Hotline Miami, and

Get ready for fun!

it’s a fusion of several of his loves: neon colors, brutal violence,  the horrors of consumption, trash culture, and psychological horror.

There aren’t words for how excited we are about this. Cactus is amazing. You need to know some of his games. He’s right up there with Ken Levine, Valve, or Suda 51 for people who are taking games forward as art. And, while all of them are doing large, well-funded, mass-market projects, he’s doing tiny psychedelic nightmares on the fringes. His main focus seems to be using games– often with deliberately ugly graphics, controls, and themes –to explore the dark and ugly parts of ourselves. He’s said before that, in the realm of art, he considers himself more in line with Jodorowsky, Lynch, or Burroughs than the James Camerons that most mainstream game designers picture themselves as. But, like those artists, his work can seem a little unwelcoming and requires an introduction to its more palatable examples. That’s what we’re here for.
Norrland

Norrland  is, at first glance, a game about the mundane. You play a blue-collar Swedish hunter going on a trip to the wilderness to shoot animals (or, if they get too close, punch their heads off). There are minigames where you drink beer, piss, and swat mosquitoes. Then, after a full day of hunting, you go to sleep and have a dream where you’re forced to dance to a beat you can’t keep up with and are screamed at when you inevitably fail.

Also, the sound is horrifying. Because Cactus.

As the game goes on, it becomes pretty clear that the hunter is filled with some pretty ugly issues. His dreams inevitably end in his destruction, and escalate in violence and anger– one early one has you driving a car through a city where the only way to wake up is to crash, whereas a later one involves slowly pushing a hunting knife into your own skull. Every dream is loaded with creepy imagery and fairly unsettling symbolism, and gain a lot from the basic controls. You always know what buttons you’ll use, but what they do and what your goal is are made up each time. The overall feeling is one of helplessness, frustration, and uselessness: you end up feeling like you can’t do anything right and the world is actively against you. It becomes fairly clear as the end approaches that the hunter has gone into the woods to die. (There is, to be fair, a fairly rich vein of absurdist humor running through the game as well).

Where these gain their power, though, is in contrast to the “normal” game. You’ll still spend most of the game hunting, fishing, drinking beer, and taking care of your bodily needs, but the fun leaches out of them when you know what you’ll have to face at the end of the day. When you’re outside his head, the hunter seems like a normal guy who likes shooting birds and reading porno, and if you had never seen his dreams the game’s dark ending would come as an absolute surprise. There are countless indie games about depression and isolation, but they’re almost all melodramatic and obviously bleak. Norrland is about how depression and self-loathing creep in through normal life, and how ordinary, seemingly well-adjusted people can still have a huge amount of fear and pain in them.

One minigame has you playing Russian Roulette. Even after five clicks, you have to keep playing.

Hot Throttle

See? Perfectly sensible.

If Norrland is about the dignity of a troubled soul, Hot Throttle is about pointing and laughing at how ugly the soul can be. Released by Adult Swim games and collaborated on with Doomlaser, it’s probably Cactus’s most playable and “fun” work. It’s a kart racing game about naked sweaty men who think they’re cars and crawl around at top speeds, brutalizing pedestrians and eventually traveling to Hell. It’s grotesque and colorful and wacky, pairing the themes of J.G. Ballard’s Crash and the style of Yellow Submarine.

This demonstrates one of Cactus’s greatest skills: to wring real substance out of gibberish. Even the most narratively deranged of his works (probably Stallions in America or Stench Mechanics) have some real meaning and satirical meat to them (the inanity of action movies and the transformation of sex into an illicit commodity, respectively). Hot Throttle could have just been an insane and surreal kart racer, but there’s a real sense of both humor and dread to it. It carries the modern world’s obsession with cars and better living through technology to their logical ends: a man for whom anything that isn’t a car is a waste of time, who loves driving and cars so much that he wants to become one.

It’s an ugly game, and the deliberately off-putting art style is only part of that. Every race you win takes the hero one step deeper into his delusions, as his increasing belief in the fact that he’s a car hurts more and more people (in one level you trample someone during a race, injuring them further as you try to carry them to the hospital on your back). If you win most of the races, you leave your wife and children, take all their money, and spend it on surgery to turn yourself into a car. Whereas every other racing game on the planet is about how cool cars are and how fun they are to drive, Hot Throttle questions our automotive obsessions.  Whereas most driving games don’t even have characters beyond the cars, Hot Throttle puts us in the mind of a character for whom that’s a utopia, where literally the most important thing in the world is racing better than anyone or anything and being the best car.

The most bitter ending since GTA IV.

Mondo Agency

Mondo Agency is our favorite Cactus game, and for good reason. Whereas most of his games have kind of a breezy, amateur feel (given that a lot

“MY BRAIN IT’S SWOLLEN.”

of them were made in 24 hours or less), Mondo Agency has a level of polish and of narrative depth that many of his others lack. It’s also one of his only games that is hardly ever laugh-out-loud funny, using his usual surrealism instead for an atmosphere of extreme dread and oppression.

The premise is that you are a secret agent trying to preserve modern civilization by preventing the murder of the President (because, in the game’s deliberately distorted English, “president am much like world!”). You do this by navigating monochrome, agoraphobic levels, fighting Natives (the only things in the game that are brightly colored), combating cancer, and shooting everything. Even if the game didn’t have a lot of meaning to it it would be remarkable– the atmosphere is Silent Hill 2 levels of  creepiness,  the puzzles are interesting, and the sound and art design are some of the best we’ve ever seen in a freeware game. But Agency also has a pretty heavy amount of cultural commentary in it.

Because despite your goal of saving civilization, the game is a walking tour through the horrors of the modern world. The entire world is gray, sterile, and made of cubes– the “mountain” you have to climb in the second level looks more like a city skyline. Everyone you speak to has a TV for a head and communicates in garbled static. You are given your “shooter” by a gun-obsessed bureaucrat who thinks everyone should be armed all the time. Cancer is explained by your boss as a “mistake” that can be removed by building a better world. One of the later missions (fittingly titled “Massacre”) sends you to the home of the Natives to murder them for sabotaging the security technology (“what is a natives?” muses your boss in the briefing. “Is it worth much money?”). When you finally meet the President, he’s a horrible shrieking monster made of televisions. The game views western civilization as fundamentally evil and soulless, driven by violence, obsessed with technology, and ultimately self-destructive. Even though you’re doing action-hero duty– curing cancer, killing natives, and saving the world –you feel like the world you’re saving is toxic and wrong.

“What is a mountains?”

Also try (a lot of these are in the Cactus Arcade packs on his website):

Xoldiers: a collaboration with VVVVVV‘s Terry Cavanaugh, which criticizes the absurdity of war and is also full of explosions and showers of blood. We’ll be talking more about this game next week in our profile on Cavanaugh.
Space Fuck: A short, simple game with 2-bit graphics and a pretty cool twist ending.
Mondo Medicals: Agency’s predecessor– a lot less fun to play, but still horrifying, smart, and creative.
Psychosomnium: A quirky platformer that predates most of the modern wave of quirky platformers. One of his most popular, but the cute, gentle graphics and whimsical tone make it not very representative of his style.
Clean Asia! and Burn the Trash!: two very well-made shoot-em-ups with unique art styles and inventive mechanics. Great games in their own right, but don’t have as much narrative depth as the three we singled out. If you’re a fan of shmups, though, definitely worth playing.