The Friday Game: Ugly Games
Games have always been a beauty pageant. From attract screens through to hi-def displays, a laser-sharp focus on technology means that aesthetics have long been a central part of their appeal.
And yet now, even as games employ technology which makes them more beautiful than ever, the return of the one-man studio has ushered in an Indian summer for the ghastly and malformed. Nasty art styles are back, as are botched interfaces, hideous fonts, and character design so misguided your avatar already looks like he’s survived something by the time he first wanders out onto the opening level.
In a spirit of brotherhood, I’ve gathered together a few unsightly titles that are worth a second look. They’re games with nothing flashy to hide behind, in other words: games that will just have to make do with “good personalities”.?
With a primitive cartoon style and a brisk absence of anything that could be classified as animation, nobody’s asking Travian home after the prom. That’s probably a good thing too, because you’d be ready for Mantovani long-players and a second hip operation by the time this ponderous browser classic made up its mind anyway.
Travian is the game in which every single decision takes an astonishingly long time to play out. A massively multiplayer strategy, even the simplest actions, like gathering basic resources and fitting your village out with a granary, will leave you watching the clock for the next half hour before you’ve built up the energy to do anything else. And all of this is delivered, naturally, with the kind of colour scheme that normally only gets an airing when someone’s repainting a prison.
It gets away with the long waits and revolting looks because – if you have the patience to get through the early stages – Travian’s actually a really good game. The choice of factions balance strengths and weaknesses imaginatively, and there’s a quiet satisfaction to be found as you upgrade your village, forge allegiances, and generally stick it to your close neighbours. With a pace that means it slots in pretty nicely with your general browsing habits, and a refreshingly brutal community just waiting to tear you to pieces as soon as your brief beginner’s grace period is up, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than you might initially expect. It’s not hard to make an ugly game, then, but it’s probably quite hard to make an ugly game that a lot of people want to play for months on end.?
It’s ironic, given the elegant curves and glossy, stainless surfaces of Apple’s products and software, that they’ve become home to some of the most gruesome pieces of software around. While iPhone games are getting prettier all the time, it’s a strange pleasure to track down an offering that’s unapologetically grim to look at – especially when it’s also a delight to play.
Cube Runner, by Andy Qua, was an early App Store title, and clearly something of a proof of concept. Its ugliness is a shining example of programmer art: it’s functional, certainly, but form doesn’t appear to be in particularly urgent pursuit.
None of that really matters, though. A speedy obstacle course game with tilt controls, Cube Runner doesn’t need much more than an arrow to put you in charge of and some simple boxes for you to avoid in order to work its way under your skin. It succeeds, in fact, because of all the things that programmers can put their mark on – nice handling, excellent collision detection, and a lovely sense of movement.?
Games can be ugly by mistake or ugly because looks aren’t important, but they’re rarely ugly on purpose. Enter Upgrade Complete, an arch little browser title in which the wonky visuals are all part of the design.
Upgrade Complete, like Achievement Unlocked, is a parody of games’ fascination with – and reliance upon – meta systems. At Armor Games’ simple scrolling blaster’s core, you don’t just have to pay to power up your ship – although dragging and dropping new components is a distinct pleasure – you must first buy loading screens, a save system, and even a title logo. You’re also given the option to upgrade the graphics, shifting you from blocky Vic-20-style monstrosities, through a quirky vector approach, and on towards something a little more refined.
It’s a better joke than a game, inevitably and, as a shooter, Upgrade Complete isn’t particularly brilliant. The whole thing still manages to deliver a sharp examination of the appeal of mechanics, however, and a damning testament to the quiet tyranny of the aesthetic.