FEATURE: The Strangest Things Can Make Great Games

When I was growing up, games seemed to be a wonderland of sports and carnage. There were side-scrolling shooters tasking me with blowing things up, platformers where I had to blow things up or a balloon simulator where I definitely had to blow things up. Okay, maybe not that last one, but at this moment in time, games like balloon simulator really can happen, and what do you know, a quick Internet search reveals that it does already exist!

I’m taking a look at some of the stranger things that have been made into games, the things that on paper sound crazy but once played make us wonder why nobody thought of it before! You may notice the dominance of PC games in this feature. This is because the PC has been doing left-field stuff for years. Even though consoles caught up when they started offering indie stores and other marketplaces, the PC led the way, and still, in my opinion does. As a consequence, any game that seems to be a bit strange or “out there” is usually birthed on PC first.

The first game I wanted to look at is Papers, Please, a game that bills itself as a dystopian document thriller. It places you in charge of a border checkpoint in a repressive country and tasks you with letting the right people in and keeping the undesirables outside. The way you do this is by reading the rule book and comparing this with the documents each person presents to you, picking up on incorrect information or stuff that just doesn’t match, such as expired dates and false gender. Add to this the relatively small area you have to click and drag the various booklets around and the ever ticking time-limit that dictates if your family eats that night, and it becomes a very tense slice of paper-shuffling. This is my first example of a game that sounds dull on paper. If it had to be summarised in one sentence, it might have been “Analyse documents on a border post to decide if entry is permitted”. Obviously there is more to the game in way of story and twists but looked at on a basic level, it doesn’t sound amazing. It turned out to be one of the best indie games of recent years.

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Papers, Please

Second on my list of unlikely games is Viscera Cleanup Detail, a game set after the proverbial faeces has hit the fan. This game sees you take on the role of a space janitor who must go around bloody and messy corridors and air-vents, scraping human and non-human remains from the walls and floors, finally disposing of them in the furnace. On top of this, you have various tools such as a mop, viscera finder and other things laying around the level, all with their own quirks and usage limits before they get too dirty to use or just start spitting out more grime to clean. So again, our one line summary might read “Science-fiction cleaning simulator where the player is assessed on how clean he or she leaves the level.” I know, stifle those yawns…but it’s really good fun if you are of a certain mindset. There is a certain satisfaction to be had in walking around a new level, assessing where the furnace is, the fresh water bucket machine etc. and trying to work out the best way to go about your clean-up with the minimum of tracking bloody footprints everywhere. Take a few screenshots before you start and then again when you are finished and I defy you to not feel a twinge of pride at how much nicer everything looks now.

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Viscera Cleanup Detail : Before the cleanup

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Viscera Cleanup Detail : After the cleanup

This fascination with turning more mundane actions into games doesn’t stop there however. We’ve had simulators for a long time, flight sims, submarine sims and many others. Many are focussed on warfare however, which reinforces my point about blowing stuff up. Over the last few years, more peaceful sims have made their way into the gaming consciousness, especially via the Steam download service. Not all of them are created equal however, but most of them share a basic desire to do something for the sake of doing it, not with the goal of killing. Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a prime example, giving the player a pretty good approximation of driving through the European countryside, obeying the rules of the road and endeavouring to deliver their load to its destination safely.

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Hitting the open road in Euro Truck Simulator 2

Another example is OMSI 2 (Omnibus Simulator), a game which lets the player take control of a MAN NG272 and drive the German Spandau omnibus line. Viewed as a more realistic simulator game, driving a bus, giving tickets and keeping to a timetable might not sound appealing to some but to others it’s heaven. Again on paper, these more mundane sims don’t really sound riveting: “The player takes on a driving job, shuttling people/goods from A to B.” The games themselves provide a large amount of relaxation, once the core mechanics have been mastered, and seem to appeal to a large section of gamers who often surprise themselves with how much they enjoy them.

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OMSI

There are simulators to suit most tastes, even ones purely developed for humour, such as the much talked about Goat Simulator, in which you take control of a rampant goat and have to cause as much physics-based havoc as possible, racking up the biggest score you can manage.

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A goat in free-fall in Goat Simulator.

The last game on my list seemed to come out of nowhere, for me at least. Hatoful Boyfriend, a game that follows the story of the only human student at a school for talented birds. Roam the halls, chat and find love with all kinds of birds. Certainly a game that seems outside more mainstream tastes but it has had a tremendous reception by gaming fans. Much of this is probably due to the effort that went into making a decent game rather than just cobbling together basic assets around a comical idea. The game’s Steam page is worth a read in its own right, with the many bird puns and gags artfully worked into its description. Our last summary might read: “Player plays human in bird school and must find love and achievement.” While that doesn’t sound boring, the strangeness factor is off the scale. Again, another surprisingly good game from the realm of the bizarre.

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Plenty of birds in Hatoful Boyfriend

I know that there have been games in the distant past that would also sound crazy on paper; who would want to be a paper boy or a jumping plumber? If nothing else, I hope that this feature shows that the spirit of coming up with things that seem strange but just work is still alive and well. Who can guess what games might surprise us in the future? Maybe a geek sim in which you have to control a geek’s life so that he or she has enough time to watch those box-sets, play those games and write those opinion pieces on the internet…

GS Blogger: Casey Douglass

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