Gaming and gamers are no longer what they used to be. In the 1980s, strict gatekeepers pushed kids with action-flick derivatives; Now, one-person indie developers are proposing conceptual art experiences for mid-life wage slaves. Nerd Monkeys chases these time-poor customers with games “that you can play through from start to finish and still have time to enjoy other beautiful things in life”. This is the first collection from Nerd Monkeys and a second is already in the works, but right now the five games on offer in SGC – Short Games Collection # 1 are Swallow the Sea, Ghostein, A Game Literally About Doing Your Taxes, The Good Time Garden and Uranus.
The games aren’t presented in any particular order, but we’re starting with Swallow the Sea, where the central idea is to combine experiences to gain scale and meaning. They are a marine organism that hunts smaller organisms while being hunted by larger ones. Devouring prey increases your potential to eat the big things that previously terrorized you. The reflexivity of consuming things like yourself harnesses the participatory essence of games: your own emotions and actions are packaged and served for bite-sized consumption so that every sip means something. It’s like katamari when there is some sort of gathering you yourself, or Donut County if you could somehow drop a hole in it another hole. While this is a great idea to get started, it ends abruptly. It was delicious, but we expected to swallow the whole sea as promised. Instead, we stayed hungry.
Meanwhile, Ghostein is investigating an idea to control the protagonist of a game. Your keystroke moves a character who posts messages in the area to indirectly command the hero of the story. The next thing that comes to mind is the 1992 Simpsons spin-off Krusty’s Fun House, where player Krusty the Clown kindly lets rats help exterminate them. Where ghostein spreads, however, is the application of this mechanic to a boy’s escape from a Nazi concentration camp. The character you directly control is the spirit of the boy’s father who is brought to his death at the start of the game.
The gameplay mechanics do nothing at all to serve this scenario or relevant themes. It’s a brief and superficial experience that would be fine in the context of this collection, but nowhere near the sophistication required even in the most basic treatment of the subject. Combined with cartoon pixel Nazis and Jumpman-style animation, it just trivializes things. It’s a clever concept that could have been applied to absolutely any other topic. For example, how about the appearance of a game designer who leads a programmer away from a bad idea?
Next, A Game is literally the shortest and mechanically simplest game in the collection, about your controls. It has an idea to show, shows it and then ends, which gets to the point admirably. It makes you try one more time, and being so brief makes this a very doable prospect. The ratio of the thoughts provoked to the time spent is the best in the collection. Since it’s so little, it’s hard to say much more: you should just play it.
Then, for a blast of wondrous madness, we have The Good Time Garden. It creates a truly distinctive, surreal world made up of cheeky cartoon body parts that cannot be seen. It’s a simple, almost top-down, 2D exploration adventure with large, high-resolution, hand-drawn characters and backgrounds. In shades of pink, everything is organic and a bit cheeky, similar, with different resemblances, butts and willies and boobies. The gameplay has modest ambitions – essentially a handful of tiny fetch quests – but fulfills them pretty clumsily. You will stick to landscapes, traverse mapped routes that do not always fully fit that landscape, and experiment unsuccessfully to determine what is interactable and what is not. However, it is enough to showcase what the game is really about, namely its insanely fun art, the sound (those voices!) And the music. Unforgettable? Yes: a little naked pink man is mocked “Asshole! Asshole! Asshole! ”Of creatures that are butts themselves.
Which leads us cleanly to Uranus. We approached the matter with some trepidation after The Good Time Garden, but we shouldn’t have worried: This flashing, hyperactive neon crisis presents a different kind of lightning. It’s an abstract competitive action game that can be played against the CPU, but better with a friend. Each player runs a growing, winding line around the surface of an angel’s eyeball to be the first to reach the winning length. The catch is that if you cross your opponent’s line, your line will reset. It’s intense and hectic, and it’s pretty hard to spot effective strategies, but it works. In this context, it keeps the promise of a short conversation. A multiplayer game in the collection rounds off the package as a solid night out in which companies explore a few game ideas.
And how does Short Games Collection fare as a package? While our rating is not based on price – after all, prices change – the collection starts off with a steep demand (£ 16.99 / £ 19.99). If you have a PC you can now play three of the five games for free, Uranus is 79p on Steam, and it appears that Ghostein was free before, even though it wasn’t available when we searched. Also note that these are real short – You could get through all five in a couple of hours. To justify itself, the collection has to add up to more than the sum of its parts – and unfortunately it doesn’t.
While the convenience of Switch games cannot be underestimated when compared to PC, nothing has been done here to improve the curation of the collection. Why are we presented with these Games? What context do they offer each other? Where is the curator’s voice? There are so many low-hanging fruits here: a foreword, short essays about the games or interviews with the creators, for example. Even just a defined running order that pulls an interpretive thread through the collection. These things would have been very easy and cheap to implement – and Ghostein in particular could use some very compelling comments to justify its inclusion.
A more sophisticated curation would have made this a really new way of engaging with games and gaming: a call to see all games in a new light, to promote the full range of indie games, and to popularize the appreciation of games, how – um, dare we use the word? – “Arts”. But the star function is just an animated menu instead. As it stands, the Short Games Collection is great if you can bring your own curiosity and insight – the games themselves are worth the time – but it’s nothing but the sum of their parts.