Thursday, April 8, 2010

5 Real-World Oddities That Should Be Games

By Annie Wright

Since we humans have a relatively short lifespan, it is pretty impossible to expect people to know about ALL the weird shit that the world has to offer. That fact may have something to do with why any concept that gets made into a book, movie or video game usually falls into one of two categories: Either it's a well known thing (See: War, Rescue or Stealing Cars), or something completely, fantastically made-up (see: rolling up a bunch of crap on Earth into a ball, starting with a thumbtack and packet of soy sauce right up to entire land masses, and having it turned into a star.) (Also, this is where I insert my Psychonauts link. -Kirk)

But, as Buddha teaches us, there is a middle way. Between the mundane and the imaginary, there are plenty of bizarre things that actually exist on this earth. And some of them REALLY need to be made into video games, so I made a list. Here are five of my favorites, in no particular order:

1. Monkey-Picked Tea
Genre: Casual

When I saw this on a friend's shelf during a recent visit to my native land, I thought it was some kind of joke-shop special. Monkeys are no strangers to the world of novelty humor, after all. However, after reading the package, I discovered that this is an actual thing. It turns out that a very long time ago in China, people observed monkeys climbing up a sheer cliff face to pick tea leaves. A human got his or her hands on the tea leaves one day only to discover that the tea was delicious, and decided that people should take monkeys into their homes and train them to bring down more tea. The monkeys were in turn treated as honored family pets and given jobs and also, I like to imagine, stylish little monkey hats, thus paving the way for China's future preferred trade status with pretty much everywhere that is not China.

With that in mind, I can see this as the basis for a short series of mini-games, perhaps on the iPhone. A tea-picking monkey olympics, if you will. Simple, potentially addictive, and of course, the source code would be widely available for fans to build more levels. Play as one of two rival monkeys who are simultaneously trying to gather the most tea and thwart each other's efforts in order to win the "Honored Family Pet" gold medal. Levels would consist of a mix of Pac-Man-esque mazes and side scrolling obstacle courses with abilities gained upon ingestion of mystical bananas. Officiating over the event is the venerable Bob Monkey, who has the power to grant temporary bursts in speed by flinging the poo of invincibility while singing "I shot the monkey... but I did not shoot the chimpanzee, oh no no!". Yeah. Moving on...

2. Hart Island
Genre: Survival Horror

Located in Long Island Sound and considered part of the Pelham Island group, not many people who live outside of that particular region have heard of Hart Island. Though it is within spitting distance of City Island, a popular destination for vacationers, Hart Island is accessible only by ferry, and there are restrictions on visitation, largely due to the fact that it is a worksite for Rikers Island Prison inmates. What kind of work do these inmates do? Well, currently Hart Island is used primarily as a potter's field, so mostly gravedigging, with some light coffin-moving as well.

As if this isn't enough of a horror-survival scenario, Hart Island has also previously been used as a Confederate POW camp, a hospital, a lunatic asylum, a prison, a workhouse, and a missile base.

Imagine, if you dare, setting sail for a nice City Island retreat, only to be blown off-course by a sudden summer storm. When you wash up on a shore, it is almost sundown. You see in front of you a lush green forest (Hart is described by those who have seen it as quite beautiful, in spite of its unfortunate past), and believing you're simply on the wrong side of City, you head in to try to find someone with a phone or a hair dryer. Naturally, along the way you encounter various zombified spirits, some of whom give you information and some of whom attack you. At this point, standard survival-horror rules apply, including the fashioning of weapons from breakable objects, finding medkits to repair health, and perhaps some armor to shield you from the onslaught of bloody phlegm from the ghosts of tuberculosis patients past. Work your way up through increasingly difficult enemies, from homeless children to muttonchop-wielding confederates, and of course, the Final Boss: An Civil War internment camp warden who was struck by lightening many years ago on a night just like tonight, and who has been holding all the souls of those buried on the island as prisoners for the past century and a half. Beat his ass, set everyone free just as the sun comes up, and hike back to your boat just in time to find a Coast Guard helicopter to whisk you back to civilization. Possible twist ending: No one believes your story and you are subsequently put in an insane asylum yourself, your only visitors the former inhabitants you set free on (dun dun DUNNNN) HART ISLAND.

3. Deca Sports 3: Folk
Genre: Wii Sports (obviously)

If you are one of those individuals who believes that curling is the oddest sport ever dreamed up on this crazy planet, no one could blame you. Especially if you're not of Norwegian descent, since the first time you saw it in action, it probably came as a complete surprise:

However, prepare to have your mind blown, because this Wii Sports expansion pack will... expand both your game AND your horizons. In addition to new Mii customizations that will include the pants featured above, Deca Sports 3 will introduce a variety of lesser-known sports from around the world. Some of the featured events will sound relatively familiar, such as cricket, Kyudo (also referred to as "zen archery"), and of course, Cheese Rolling, in which participants race down a steep hillside attempting to be the first to catch a wheel of Double Gloucester. NOT to be confused with Haggis Hurling. Everyone knows that haggis does not roll downhill half as well as a wheel of cheese.

However, you might not be as familiar with the likes of more localized sports, such as Swedish Kubb or "Viking's Chess", Welsh Peat Bog Snorkling, Wife Carrying (Vikings again), Wellie Wanging (which is British for "boot-tossing"), Southeast Asia's Sepak Takraw or Icelandic GlĂ­ma. These events for whatever reason did not make the Olympic cut, but are no less grueling, and require no less honing of skill and strength of technique.

Now, I'm thinking this game should be a pretty easy sell for any readers who happen to be in a position to pitch to Nintendo, so YOU'RE WELCOME.

4. Haken Continuum Fingerboard Hero
Genre: Peripheral-Based Music

Chances are you're familiar with this instrument, even if you don't realize it. It has been used by the likes of Lou Reed, John Williams (in particular it was employed for the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull soundtrack), and Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess, who is possibly the instrument's most enthusiastic advocate.

Rectangular in shape, with a neoprene-coated playing surface, the Continuum is technically a MIDI device, and was originally developed by University of Illinois Engineering Proessor Lippold Haken. It is played with the fingers (as one might expect) using a three-axis system: The X axis determines ascending pitch from left to right, much like a piano, but without the keys. Thusly is derived the name "continuum", as the fingerboard is not limited to the western chromatic scale. Think of the pitch axis conceptually as a tactile theremin. The Y axis (top to bottom) determines the timbre or "voice" of the note. Sound quality ranges from dark and mellow to gritty and distorted depending on where the fingers are placed along the Y axis. Finally, the Z Axis determines the volume of each note. In other words, the harder you press, the louder you play.

I see this initially as a solo/versus game, but one that will lead inevitably to "(Prog)Rock Band" and its numerous sequels and expansion packs. After all, as we've learned from The Get Up Kids, once you learn to emulate a Moog, there's no limit to what your hipster ass can do. Controller comes standard with a backpack-style carrying case to make transport on your recently modified non-fixed gear bike hassle-free.

5. The Mystery of Somerton Man
Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure

I've totally saved the best for last. The facts of this particular oddity lend themselves most literally to an old-school point-and-click mystery game (remember Phantasmagoria? Hell yes!). (HELL YES - Kirk)

The Facts:

On the morning of December 1, 1948, the body of a man was discovered around 6:30 am at Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia. He was approximately 5'11" in height, with hazel eyes and ginger hair. The man had a number of acquired traits as well which indicated that he might have participated in specific, yet unremarkable activities, such as dancing and long-distance running. His clothes and few personal items were typical of a middle class male. There were no visible wounds on his body, and by all accounts it was initially considered a suicide. So far, not that odd. However, upon further inspection, strange details began to surface which led police to believe that all was not as it seemed.

Firstly, all the manufacturers' labels had been carefully snipped out of every article of clothing. A suitcase discovered in nearby Adelaide Railway Station nearly a month and a half later also contained several changes of clothes also with the labels removed. His dental records did not match those of any known living person (though to be fair, one questions the efficiency with which law enforcement professionals could search health records before the advent of the information age), and naturally, there were no I.D.s to be found, on both the body and in the suitcase. An autopsy revealed his time of death to be around 2 a.m. the morning of the 1st, but no toxins or wounds were discovered.

As if all these details were not weird enough, a coroner's inquest resumed in June 1949 yielded another confounding discovery in the form of a secret pocket within the Somerton Man's trousers. Inside the pocket was a piece of paper with the words "Taman Shud" printed on it. After analysis by area librarians, it was determined that this phrase was ripped from a rare edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The very next day, an area man, whose "identity and profession" was suppressed by the court with no reason given, came forward to announce that on the night of November 30, 1948, he had returned to his unlocked car, parked near Somerton Beach, to find this very edition of the book had mysteriously materialized in his back seat, with the last page torn out. Additionally, a bizarre pattern of letters, thought to be a code was handwritten in the back cover, as well as a phone number, belonging to an anonymous Adelaide woman. This woman, when contacted thought that the book may have been the property of an old boyfriend, Alfred Boxall who had served in the military as a sailor and matched the description of the Somerton Man. Everything was coming together perfectly, until police discovered that Boxall was still alive and well, with his own copy of the book completely intact, and somewhat miffed that his old girlfriend had married someone else.

There have been many ponderings and speculations over the last half-century as to who Somerton Man was and what the hell happened to him, as well as a few additional cases bearing similar details, but nothing conclusive has ever come to light. It would not be outside the realm of possibility that an enterprising game developer could take this story, tweak a few details, and make a hell of a game out of it. It worked for Dantes Inferno, right?

Perhaps Alfred Boxall is a twin or a zombie. Perhaps the reason that the profession of the book's recipient was kept secret is because he was the head of a secret postwar government cloning program. Perhaps Somerton Man is not actually dead, he merely uploaded his consciousness into an unbreakable Kurzweilian robot body. Just because the facts do not add up within the realms of what IS does not mean that they can't fit within the realm of what might be.

And indeed, if this is possible, what other oddities lie elsewhere in the universe, waiting to be made into diverting intrigues for our amusement? These are a mere fraction of the odd collection I gathered during my exhaustive research. But remember, the edge of the observable universe is 46.5 billion light years away, and that translates to beyond a metric shit-ton of strange occurrences out there for us to unravel. To join me on my unending endeavor for game-fodder, just lay it down in the comments.

After all, I'm counting on being able to upload my consciousness into an immortal robot body at some point, so I should be able to get to everything in time.


Daniel Bullard-Bates said...

Yeah, so I want to play the Hart Island game right now. Someone get it started, please?

Daniel Bullard-Bates said...

Although I think you should start the player out more gradually than running into ghosts, instead meeting the actual inmates at first. It can be a bit of misdirection, getting the players to fear the inmates on the island, followed by the inmates beginning to die under mysterious circumstances, as the player realizes there is something even more horrible at work on... HART ISLAND.

Awkward Silence said...

So that Hart Island idea is pretty cool. But I'd approach it a little different than you or Daniel. I'm big into prison and justice system issues so here's a slightly different take:

Instead of starting as an unlikely passerby who is trapped here by the winds of fate...You play the game as an inmate. And not some "oh I'm in jail but it was all a set up, I'm innocent" inmate either. You play someone who, years ago, did something very very bad. You're sent there as part of an inmate labor force, digging graves and that's when inmates start disappearing. Initially, guards assume it's some kind of escape attempt and there's a kind of lockdown situation. Things quickly turn bad and inmate and guard are forced to work together to try and get off the island as it turns into a free for all horror fest.

I think you could really play with a lot of elements including the horror of feeling cut off from society not only on the island but knowing that as an inmate, no one gives a damn what happens to you. Plus, I like the idea of a less typical main character. He's experienced with violence, but maybe he's older (like 40 because he's been in jail since 20) and has had a long time to think about what he has done. That way the horror elements could play on 3 levels: the supernatural (ghosts, zombies), the circmstantial (being isolated, being a member of society that no one cares about), and the personal (flashbacks to the horrors he's committed, relationships with other inmates or guards causing problems).

Daniel Bullard-Bates said...

Awesome. That works with what I like the most about the idea, too, which is the gradual introduction of fear. The game could start with the circumstantial fear, develop as we discover the supernatural elements, and become more intense as the personal connection is clarified.

Maybe the main character tries to convince a guard early on that he's innocent, and the player is lead to believe that he might be, but over the course of the story we discover that he definitely is not.

I'd like to work a sanity system into this as well, in which the repercussions of decreased sanity and exposure to horrifying creatures are personal. Instead of a normal situation turning more horrific, like in several scenes of Eternal Darkness, a horrific situation could become even worse as the player sees the zombies he is killing acquire the faces of his victims, friends, or family.

Awkward Silence said...

Oooh I like that. Maybe you start to see your OWN face on the zombies killing them too. Maybe it could even do something weird too like incorporate the webcam so that the player's image is used at some point. That could really screw with em.

Also, I think that you could have an interesting element where one of the guards or other inmates or both serves as much as a problem as whatever the supernatural elements are.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Oh, I really like the idea of a sanity bar - has that ever been done before? It sounds like something out of Condemned, but I haven't played that game.

Have you guys played or heard of the DS survival horror game Dementium? Renegade Kid made it, it's an FPS that sets you up as an insane asylum inmate. It's really cool - the sequel is coming out this month. A good friend of mine worked on it, actually, I'm gonna do an interview with him about it for GM.

Some of these ideas sound a bit like that game combined with an Alan Wake/Silent Hill sorta thing. Putting it in a real-world location like (dun dun dunnn) HART ISLAND would be cool, and would add an "unsolved mysteries" bent to the whole thing.

Daniel Bullard-Bates said...

Kirk, sir, if you are intrigued by this idea, you MUST play Eternal Darkness. If you or a friend have a Gamecube or a Wii, track down a copy. It has a well-implemented sanity system and a fantastic H.P. Lovecraft style plot. The graphics are a bit dated, but if you're playing and enjoying horror games on the DS, I don't think that will bother you!

Kirk Hamilton said...

Cool - I've heard a lot of good things about that game. I'll have to ask my roommate (our household Wii-owner) if he has it.

Daniel Bullard-Bates said...

If he doesn't, there are used copies you can buy online (eBay or GameStop) for $15.00 or less. Definitely worth it, as it is one of the most creative survival horror(ish) games of all time.

One thing I'd like to see in a horror game, maybe (dun dun DUNNN) HART ISLAND, is a complete lack of a "Final Boss" in any definable sense. There is no truly terrifying evil that can be defeated with a gun or human ingenuity.

It would be nice if the best you could hope for on Hart Island is the possibility of escaping with some shred of your sanity in tact. If any game would be able to give you a satisfying sense of accomplishment from a mere escape, it would be a game about being a prisoner. That's what most prisoners want, after all.

Awkward Silence said...

Kirk, all the Lovecraft universe games (Call of Cthulu) use that system, including the tabletop game. They're not all great games; Eternal Darkness is the best one by far.

Got my brain going now...

I also like the idea that most of the supernatural stuff is more to be run away from/escaped instead of defeated. I think there should be zombies in the game, and monsters as well, that can be fought and killed. But a lot of the horror should seem almost like a bizarre force of nature (or supernature?). You go inside an abandoned building and come out and all of a sudden it's winter outside and there's a blizzard inexplicably. Or you're wandering around when suddenly the sky goes black and wind picks up. Sounds whirl around you as trees begin bleeding. Vague shadowy figures appear and disappear like wrong frames in a film. Hands burst out from the ground. Suddenly a 15 foot shambling hunched over vaguely humanish beast is simply standing motionless 50 feet away. The moment you move it rushes at you and you must survive by running until you find a means to either kill or it escape and end the nightmare momentarily...

Jay said...

I have to second (or third) the greatness of Eternal Darkness. It's still the best game I've ever played on the wii.

But out of these ideas, I totally want to play your Somerton Man game. I think it has old-school adventure puzzle-solving written all over it. I've always been a fan of the genre (when there still was one) and I'd love to see more titles like this created out of the bizarre milieu of real-life mysteries. I agree Phantasmagoria was great (although my all-time favorite is still The Longest Journey). If you could create a narrative that's as rich and immersive as the environment (as those games did), I think you'd be halfway there already.

It's definitely fertile ground. If not a game then hopefully someone will at least base an episode of Fringe off this idea. Halfway through the synopsis of the investigation I thought to myself, "And there's no record of a well-dressed bald man with a notepad in the area at the time of death?"

Annie Wright said...

Wow, I step away from the internet for a few mere hours... This is some seriously rad feedback.

Re: Hart Island- I definitely like the idea of playing as an inmate better than a hapless, windblown stranger. It is more evocative of the fear of isolation/being part of a population that the mainstream has pretty much forgotten. I also think the idea of the inmate as someone who's out on work release for good behavior, and maybe close to getting paroled could have merit, since it ups the ante a bit. The idea of this character being confronted by the island's atrocities in combination with his own past/potential redemption would be an immensely driving force.

Re: Somerton Man- Yeah, I actually had to edit this down to the bare bones facts for the sake of (relative) brevity, but there is SO much more to the case. You would not believe how weird it gets. I think some of it has to be looked at through the lens of time and the fact that people could use a sense of propriety as a "legitimate" excuse to refuse to cooperate with the police (particularly with regard to the lady whose phone number was found in the remaining book). However, there are far too many coincidences for it to be as simple as a lovelorn suicide. I mean, what do you guys make of the later additional victims? Or the fact that witnesses placed Somerton Man at the scene of his death as early as 12 hours before his time of death, alive and well (but thought to be totally hammered)?

Kirk Hamilton said...

The Somerton Man story is fucking amazing. Just reading about it takes me back to when I was twelve and obsessed with Unsolved Mysteries. I can totally see it on the show - it'd be filed under "Unexplained Death," with the lines behind the text, and the creepy music would play and Robert Stack would tell us all about it.

The mere thought of a point-and-click version of that story makes me want to play it RIGHT NOW. Even if it were a fictionalization (with a possible solution to the mystery), the space that the X-Files used to occupy in my life has been sadly unoccupied of late. Sorry, Fringe.

Jay - I am so with you on The Longest Journey. My god, that game.

And Phantasmagoria is indeed a certain type of awesome, though as I'm guessing you'll agree, kinda awesome more for the camp value than for anything it did right as a game. The part at the end where you get chased by the demon still ranks up there for outstanding achievement in the category of "Funniest Game Sequence (Unintentional)."

Random side note - for some reason, my strongest memory of that game is that it came on like ten CDs and the plastic CD sleeves had this really, really strong plastic-y smell. It's a smell I will forever associate with Roberta Williams and super-cheesy FMV sequences. And side-boob.

Annie Wright said...

Haha! Yeah, the final moments when the demon is chasing you down the stairs and you have to click REALLY fast- the unintentional funny kind of offsets some of the other stuff in that game. Like, wife-rape aside, there are parts of that game that are WAY creepy. Did anyone ever play the sequel?

Jay said...

Oh craps. I think I'm confusing Phantasmagoria with 7th Guest. That's the horror-adventure I had in mind, which obviously had a much different tone (whoops!).

I will have to read up on the more intricate details of the Somerton Man and the other victims, but in general, it seems to share something that many of my favorite games/films/stories all share: focusing on an event that seems to punch a hole in our everyday, "real" world and introduce something apparently supernatural, inexplicable or impossible.

Unsolved Mysteries was a GREAT example of a show that tried to expose some of these alleged "holes" in reality under the guise of journalism (though more adeptly than something like Weekly World News for sure). The X-Files and its admittedly sub-par current incarnation Fringe, along with the mother of all prime-time mysteries Twin Peaks, are great examples of this theme on the fiction side.

The best of them seem to begin by offering the smallest peak into the unknown, leaving a foot firmly planted in the rational world during the initial fact-finding phase of the narrative. However, by the time you reach the conclusion, the protagonist is usually so overcome by the supernatural circumstances that they are barely able to get back to the rational world they started in. And sometimes, they don't come back at all (think Special Agent Dale Cooper laughing maniacally in the mirror in the TP finale. Fucking CHILLS). In many cases, it's like the event itself swallows them up, either psychologically or literally.

The Tetchy Snail said...

I'm rather smitten by the ridiculous sports idea. Sod cricket, though. Not least because after hurling myself down a hill in futile pursuit of a wedge of cheese, or spending some quality time wanging my welly, the old leather on willow would be rather mundane. Curling however, has to stay, if only for the mentalist brushers and THOSE trousers.

Room must also be found for kabbadi, which stands alone to my knowledge as the only sport played while holding your breath.

Other potentials include caber tossing (man hurls tree), plate spinning (not technically a sport but c'mon), ch'ajon-nori (two teams fight using an enormous battering ram), and buzkashi (essentially polo, but replacing the ball with a dead goat).

Also, that somerton man story is so freaking brilliant. I can imagine myself playing the point and click version of that right now. And I'd be loving it.

Annie Wright said...

7th Guest! That game scared the crap out of me! Loved it!

And yes, I think the "Agent Cooper" scenario could apply to both the Somerton Man and Hart Island games.

And seriously- CHILLS. It was ultra creepy to see sweet little Dale all cracked out and shouting "HOW'S ANNIE?" into his bathroom mirror. Damn you, David Lynch!

Jay said...

Snail, try Epyx's 1986 nes classic , World Games. It's not motion-controlled, but along with the Caber Toss, it includes some other great events that tend to be underrepresented in modern Olympics games :)

Kirk Hamilton said...

Oh, man, The 7th Guest. Creepy as hell, first CD-ROM game I ever played. I'll never forget the can puzzle:

"Shy gypsies slyly spryly tryst by my crypt."

There were some obtuse-ass puzzles in that game, if memory serves.

And you know, Alan Wake really does look like it might satisfy some of the desires we're talking about here. It's certainly got the "normal reality punctured by bizarre occurrences" thing going on, and the location is pretty Twin Peaks-esque. We shall see.

Annie Wright said...

I had initially thought of Mario Kurl, but apparently there is already a curling event in the Mario/Sonic Winter Olympics... This is not to say we can't include it!

Although I think in particular kabbadi has definite potential- perhaps a frantically repeated button (a la Mario Party's Wind-Up race) to simulate breath-holding by opposing players? Maybe while the opposite hand tries to follow a motion sequence to simulate the "raid". I can totally see this.

Re: Buzkashi- I'm envisioning a dead goat peripheral device, yeah? :D

The Tetchy Snail said...

Cheers for that Jay :). I clicked on the link not really knowing what to expect only to find that the entire game is there, free, and playable in my browser! Fabulous. Also intriguing that these were actual ideas kicked around by game companies and made into actual games, 20+ years ago.

Thanks to Annie, I now can't stop picturing that dead goat peripheral on someone's living room floor, y'know, casually propped next to the plastic guitar and the balance board. Priceless :D. I also can't figure out how they'd sell it, unless they made it inflatable which might cause some awkward moments.

Jay said...

Kirk - Yes, Alan Wake does appear to represent much of the good stuff we've been riffing on, especially on the Twin Peaks front. Unfortunately, it can never be Twin Peaks and thus I fear I am doomed to despise it. I worry that the similarities will be too close for comfort, inevitably leading to feelings of inadequacy and disappointment.

Hopefully we'll have a stand-out lead and narrative in their own right. I mean, for fuck's sake, wasn't Twin Peaks still on the air when they started development on AW? It feels like it. I should hope they'd manage to craft a unique IP in that time rather than rely on the themes and imagery that made other stories so great, you know?

I just hope we don't have another Too Human on our hands.

Annie Wright said...

Re: inflatable sheep- Actually, if there was a pouch to fill with water or sand to give it weight, it could actually work.

Re: Alan Wake- I also hope it's not too derivative, but it also benefits from being developed way the hell over in Espoo, Finland. Which, in addition to being the birthplace of "wife-carrying" is where Dethklok raised the giant troll .

Kirk Hamilton said...

"Re: inflatable sheep- Actually, if there was a pouch to fill with water or sand to give it weight, it could actually work."

The fact that I just read that sentence means that this comments section has been an unmitigated success.

Annie Wright said...

Also, a late submission for Deca 3: THIS, I am both amused and embarrassed to report, happens a mere county away from my sophisticated metropolis of Seattle.