Welcome to my twice-a-month (haha oops maybe 6-times-a-year) series, Sean Han Tani’s Game Of The Years, where I critique a recent game that is good.
The first Sean Han Tani’s Game Of The Years is David Kanaga’s Oikospiel (early 2017, PC), created in Unity with tools from a past programming collaborator Fernando Ramallo (Panoramical). David has done amazing game music for games like Dyad, Proteus, Vignettes, and Panoramical. You should check out his other work, especially if you are a musician!
I am going to preface this piece with the fact that I love Oikospiel. In fact the more I write criticism or analyze a game the more I probably enjoy it. It means there’s a lot to pick apart and think about. Anyways…
IS OIKOSPIEL A GAME?
Oikospiel has multiple existences.
Oikospiel is commonly considered to be a game.
But it exists as a number of works.
- A “libretto“, which is a textual description of the game’s events.
- An original soundtrack, broken into four parts,
- A standalone music release
- The game itself.
- And (like other games) it exists as people’s reviews, discussions on Twitter, let’s plays, etc.
I like a lot of things about Oikospiel
1. Camera angles, wow there are so many camera angles. I love this. Each camera angle is a doorway to a bunch of interesting perspective ideas. From the initial off-the-rails airplane surgery camera. To the dog camera. To the bullet camera. To the wild kokiri forest item-collecting camera. and so on. Cameras matter so much but the majority of developers tend to prioritize that of the Perfect Platformin’ Camera or the Super 3rd-Person Fightin’ Camera or Big Boy FPS Shootin’ Cam. Or as I like to say, the descendants of the Hell Design Spawn Trilogy of Mario Zeldo and DOOM, a nostalgia ouroboros from which our culture may never recover.
2. The music and sound. If I write in detail on the music I will never finish this piece, so please trust me on this one. There is a ton of experimentalism in the game from how music is formally triggered and how sound appears, to the music itself.
3. The different ways you engage with written text. E-mails, novels, text on the screen, ‘cutscenes’.
4. The use of other games within the game. Kokiri Forest appears. Recontextualizing other videogame spaces is an infinitely interesting idea.
5. It is a game that has clear intent and purpose yet is put together with pre-existing 3D assets. To make fun of it is through the traditional method – “this shits weird” – is to make yourself look like a fool. Oikospiel helps contribute to the existing canon of games whose visuals are not pretty but nonetheless convey meaning and prove that a meaningful game has no need for realistic or traditional sorts of aesthetics.
Oikospiel is the DARK SOULS of Something
Let’s Talk About Difficulty…
Is Oikospiel Difficult?
Oikospiel is a confusing game , it is a wild game – it is obtuse and hard to understand. These aren’t negative criticisms but “Objective” (lol) observations. I now present evidence in support of my Objective Observations:
- The game’s political ideas are overshadowed (or on the other hand, maybe enhanced?) by its (intentional) ‘messy’ gameplay/visual aesthetic built from free/paid 3D models and textures available to purchase from the Unity Asset Store. It is easy to get distracted by this or wonder if you have missed something. It’s funny, because the point of some of the game’s themes are to make you think about all the work that goes into these assets – but in some way the cobbled-together visual aesthetic tends to trigger our brains to think the game is just being weird. We are cursed by gamer culture.
- Counterargument: the messy visual style contributes to the theme of how unionizing can be powerful or important. I don’t know where this thought thread is going towards, because the messiness of the visuals works well in some ways… anyways
- The game has various modes of displaying textual information (e-mails, documents outside the game, music scores, advertisements, even scans of books). So it’s hard to really understand the work the first time through without knowing the relation of these things to the overall game’s arc. Engagement with the written text can take place nonlinearly, you can overlook something, it’s hard to prioritize what written information is the most valuable. In some cases I interacted with some things and ended up at an earlier level of the game.
- The game also has many modes of gameplay, from shifting your control between different animals, to making the camera angles change drastically, to changing your movement speed. The combined effect of this is confusion. We lack a constant player perspective since we are inhabiting many virtual bodies (often a dog, though.) It is hard to keep track of the relation of one scene to another.
- We have been conditioned, as Gamers ™ to find everything about Oikospiel “weird as heck, man!” That is, as a Gamer, I found I had to actively fight the urge to dismiss sections or text as “weird.”
You may notice the bullet points above are also what I liked about the game in some ways
Now, confusion and the previous two ideas are not bad, but they do make Oikospiel a difficult work to engage with. You need to put in time to understand the game, and not just within the game – but checking what you play against the libretto, or reading David’s thoughts on the development. I’ve only played through a few times and tend to skim the libretto to keep track of what’s going on.
I think Oikospiel could have been a little clearer / organized at times without losing much. I think I read in an interview that some scenes were more loosely connected, or shuffled around. Maybe if there was a more consistent framing narrative to the various scenes, that could have helped – or including snippets of the libretto in each act of the game. I say “maybe” because there is a lot of personality in this kind of disorganization to the game.
At this point I need to mention that I love how the themes of unionizing and labor are accentuated by the game’s use of free assets and assets other people made, as well as some wordplay with the name of the game-making software used to make the game, “Unity.” It’s the first time I’ve seen the asset store stuff used in thematic way that goes along with a game’s content. I also love the appearance of spaces from other games, like Kokiri Forest, which appears early in. Being in these 3D spaces constructed from not only Kanaga’s but others’ labor is an interesting feeling to think about.
Hard-to-understand is a type of difficulty
Oikospiel is difficult game along the lines of comprehensibility. I don’t advocate for every game being easy and clear. God forbid our standards for narrative end up in Mario’s endless hell cycle of Princess Pear being kidnapped.
I think of difficulty as a quality a game can has. If it has more of it, the game is less accessible and less people can engage with it. We tend to think of difficulty in the dexterity or strategizing aspect (Super Meat Boy / MOBAs or roguelikes, etc). But Oikospiel is difficult in a comprehension sense – it requires closer study, repeat plays, and patience. It is dense of ideas. You can’t just play it once and expect to understand everything.
I have been assigning Oikospiel to my game design class for a while now, and it’s tended to be a game that’s hard to discuss because there is so much happening in the game and students may be quick to dismiss it. So I now assign the interviews as well to read alongside playing the game. I love games being difficult in this way – to require re-reading. We should cultivate careful reading from our players more in our games.
Perhaps there can be some theory of ‘difficult comprehensibility design’ just like we have 10,000 theories how to make the perfect Supa’ Mario Brother intro level. Just a thought
One of the things I think about a lot with narrative design is that it’s so easy to forget narrative snippets in a game when you transition from reading to various modes of gameplay. It’s very easy to become ‘lost’ in the themes/ideas a game is trying to present. I don’t advocate for games all having clear narrative arcs for all their ideas, but it’s good to think about the ‘difficulty’ of your narrative and if there are ways you can make a narrative more accessible without compromising your style or ideas too much. (Much like how making a dexterity-difficulty game have accessibility modes, like Even the Ocean, can be a really good thing.)
You don’t need a walkthrough to ‘beat’ Oikospiel, but you almost have to rely on external texts (interviews, friend commentary, etc.) to get the most out of the game, just like you need an encyclopedia to play Monster Hunter or learn how to play Dark Souls.
And in a sense these other texts form a sort of walkthrough, or even an extension of the game itself. Most of the game didn’t really click till I read Kanaga’s thoughts on game labor unions and his philosophy about the Asset Store. You can find one of those interviews here.
I don’t mind this. I like reading external texts. That’s why I made a big book about my recent game All Our Asias, to offer players another way of considering the game.
The ideal way to play Oikospiel, I think, is to merely latch on to what fascinates you about the game. The sound effects in an area. The strange broken nostalgia of walking around Kokiri Forest. Trying to unravel your thoughts about hearing Celine Dion samples. And to read some of Kanaga’s thoughts so as to help you parse and put together the game’s events.
All Our Asias
A lot of this ‘disjointed fabric’ of gameplay interaction and Oikospiel’s thematic content informed my recent game All Our Asias. In fact, All Our Asias started out with me coding a jetpack-like 3rd-person movement system inside of a 3D level I dragged in from Dark Souls (Firelink Shrine if anyone is curious.)
I loved the idea of using older games’ levels but changing the way we traverse and interact with them, and what Oikospiel did with Ocarina of Time’s Kokiri Forest was really cool. It makes us think about our nostalgic experiences and memories of that space, which was something I was thinking about with AOA’s “Memory World” concept – how can we recontextualize spaces, either physical or digital?
Oikospiel’s multiple camera angles let to me wanting to use interesting camera angles in AOA to convey different things. I didn’t do a lot of this, but I did start to more seriously think about the importance of visually framing spaces, and all the different effects you can get. One of my favorite visual moments in Oikospiel is falling from a flat surface in the sky, all the way down to the ground in front of some kind of concert hall.
I was inspired by the idea that people could take seriously a game that does not traditionally look attractive, which gave me a lot of confidence in pursuing AOA’s lo-fi art style and trying to pack it full of narrative themes and meaningful art/spaces.
And… that’s all for now. Go play Oikospiel!