Monday, October 31, 2016

Cartoon Illogic and Collaborative Delight at Hand Eye Society Ball 2016

I spent a considerable chunk of time admiring Cuphead at the 2016 Hand Eye Society Ball held on September 24 at the Masonic Temple. In part because it was projected onto a movie theatre sized screen, making it hard to ignore. Also, Cuphead is basically a playable cartoon from the 1930s, making it far more visually compelling for spectators than a typical videogame.*

The only problem with sustained observation is that eventually you start to spot flaws.** The most obvious is that Cuphead is a run-and-gun*** bolted to a surreal, Fleischer brothers, dream world. The result is a visually inventive game powered by standard-issue game mechanics. You might fight gourds, onions and carrots, but they’re still bosses, a trope that dates back to the 1980s.

It might seem cruel to critique an independent game maker, especially since I’ve seen the risk and struggle involved in DIY via Indie Game: The Movie. But I found the cartoon aesthetics without cartoon illogic to be constraining and unsatisfying.

Pico Park, meanwhile, will never be described as beautiful. But it only took two minutes with this 10-player, cooperative game before my dear friends Surprise & Delight appeared. The right amount of unpredictability and spontaneous problem-solving, coupled with group communication and strategizing, made this my favourite game.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I attended Society Ball last year, which featured multiple lineup snafus. (To their credit, Hand Eye apologized rapidly and thoroughly.) This year the organizers worked so hard not to repeat mistakes that it felt like a bizarro-world parody of 2015. During my time at the Society Ball, there were no lines of any kind (bar, bathroom, tickets, coat check). Yes, lineups to play the games, but that’s to be expected.

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*Approximately 90 seconds after writing this sentence I realized there’s a cottage-industry built around people watching gamers do their thing.

**This tendency might be uniquely mine.

***This is not a hot take: the creators describe Cuphead as “A RUN & GUN GAME FROM STUDIO MDHR.”