[Originally posted on The Border House]
Sturgeon’s Law states that “90% of everything is crud.” If TvTropes is to be believed, there are a number of addendums to the law, such as: “if ever less than 90% of everything is crud than one needs to adjust their standards,” and “90% of people can’t distinguish crud from noncrud.” Almost everything created is a heap of load-bearing garbage to support the glorious minority of culture-forming genius. If you look at the brilliance of high art and find flaws than you aren’t reading it properly, if you see any virtue in the drivel beneath than you don’t have a high enough standard.
The attitudes enforced by these various “Laws” now associated with science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon prop up a status quo where creativity is a quality of the rare genius destined to speak on behalf of a generation and everyone else is just everyone else. The genius is born with an innate gift and duty to observe society, he—by sheer coincidence it is almost always he—produces culture from a vacuum and is rarely understood in his own time by anyone other than the keen publisher that collects the yearly harvest his work yields. Said another way, we are “raised to believe that a select few create and the rest are just fans. Rich white people create and we suck it up.” (Porpentine. “Creation Under Capitalism.” Nightmare Mode. Nov 25 2012.).
90% of everything isn’t crud, it’s just average. Average is, more often than not, good enough with greatness and annoyances peppered throughout. Most work comes with some measure of both genius and crud; arguing where and how each stand out on a case-by-case basis (ie criticism) is a long and laborious process. One worth taking but not one generally valued. The practice enforced by Sturgeon’s law is one of absolutes: a thing is beyond value or it’s worthless. Sturgeon’s “laws” and the attitudes at their root are about controlling taste and credibility to keep it in privileged hands.
Games have their own struggles over who controls “taste.” We know this. Fake geek girls, nerd cred, narratology vs ludology, formalism vs new journalism, casual vs hardcore, piracy, DRM and whatever this week’s issue is are all recurring debates that attempt to reinforce a structure where 90% of games and the people that play them are crud. Only a small number of games are valuable and only a small number of people can arbitrate the difference. Not accidentally, the top ten percent of “valuable” games cost a lot of money and heap of trash games it rests is recognizable from a distance because it’s cheap or free and therefore worthless. I quoted Porpentine earlier because Twine developers and players—perhaps more than anyone—have faced adversity for the accessibility of their material, and accessibility is the natural enemy of the tastemaker.
Developers using less specialized and inexpensive tools like Twine, Game Maker or even Unity are faced with scepticism. Games made with these engines have to prove their authenticity whereas no designed-by-committee, “core” targeting gun-porn has to prove a thing because a thousand fresh grads spend four years perfecting jiggle physics before being laid off.
The benefits of tools designed to be inexpensive and easy to learn should be obvious. But there’s a well-documented culture of tastemakers trying to delegitimize the work of small developers. Indies need to be judged by triple-A standards and they need to be as available and as public as triple A studios with an army of PR staff at their disposal. It isn’t that Indies can’t produce games of the same quality as major publishers or that triple A games don’t produce anything good, it’s just that the industry is judged by the standard of moneyed producers and quality is based on a return of investment. It’s no revelation to say that keeping up with games is impossible without considerable disposable income (Beirne, Stephen. “Poor Community Spirit.” Re/Action. July 12 2013.), so it’s frustrating that there’s such a stubborn elitist culture controlling what gets to be valued and what doesn’t.
When a game made with RPG Maker is available for free there are some default assumptions that come with it; chief among them is that RPG Maker is only capable of producing Final Fantasy fan-fiction. Fan-fiction has its own ongoing struggle with legitimacy—which I’m not at all qualified to discuss—but even outside of fan-games there’s a plethora of brilliant content that never gets a chance because of the elitist culture that dictates taste.
This is where I get to the point of this post: RPG Maker games are among the most original, clever and powerful I have played. So in the spirit of enjoying creativity outside the current “taste” structure I’d like to offer a number of games and developers based in RPG Maker that deserve an audience. Some of these games are under an hour and some are several dozen. Also, while there are a handful of very good RPGMaker available on Steam (To The Moon and Cherry Tree High Comedy Club spring to mind), I’ll only be listing games that are available for free. Each heading is linked to the game’s site where it can be downloaded.
Alter A.L.I.A. Genesis (2007)
A cross between 2D puzzle-platforming and active turn-based JRPG combat. Alter Alia Genesis takes place in a giant slum/prison complex of a polluted dystopia. The story is told through manga-esque panels of images that, while simple, really emphasize the Japanese inspiration of the aesthetic. Think of it as a manga crossover between Running Man and Blade Runner. Developer NeoK returns to this universe in a handful of other efforts in RPGMaker but this is the template for his later work.
Cherry PrInEcess (2013)
The player controls Liberty, a woman who’s magical cherry pies change the gender of whomever is struck in the face with them for one day. In this isometric dungeon crawler the player must fend off giant spiders and carnivorous eating trees in search of townsfolk to gender-swap with their pies. It’s a colourful, short and silly approach. Although it takes a gender binary for granted, it’s a good instance of having fun with gender politics without making fun of them. Cherry PrInEcess was developed in a week for the Lite Cook-Off contest (one of many orchestrated by the RPG Maker community) by a Welsh developer known as Caz.
Exit Fate (2009)
What starts as an apparent homage to JRPGs quickly becomes a beast of its own. Somewhere in the over 30 hour campaign, SCF’s Exit Fate starts subverting the conventions its paying tribute to. Ultimately, Exit Fate is about deciding who has the right to govern and how should they do that. There are some inherent classist issues to bear in those themes (Filipowich, Mark. “The Perspective of Privilege.” The Border House. May 1 2013), but it’s still a compelling political drama. Moreover, the elegant combat design and constant challenge makes it as appealing to first time JRPG players as to long-time fans.
Mainichi, the Japanese word for every day, is a biographical videogame-villanelle about the author’s daily public experiences. There are no tutorials or visual aids, just learned behaviours that the player must refine to prompt better responses out of strangers. Mainichi is a study in what is normal and what normality internalizes in people. It is the experience of a person’s interactions with subtle, ongoing systems that are learned through constant, oppressive exposure rather than through the conscious instruction we expect from games or from privilege. Brice herself has given a lot of context for Mainichi’s origins at about the time it was released last year (“Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game.” The Border House. Nov 12 2012).
Sunset Over Imdhal (2005)
The player controls Lohn, a 13-year-old boy and the lone survivor of a plague that suddenly swept through the besieged city of Imdahl in this title from developer Teo Mathlein. After failing to nurse his mother back to health, he encounters the—unknown to him—commander of Imdahl’s invaders, who offers to send him a year back in time to prevent the plague from happening. Once sent back, Lohn, though just a boy, is tasked with finding and killing the plague’s patient zero before the disease spreads. Imdahl is set to Italian composer Antonia Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” with each concerto matching the game’s current season. The pastel aesthetic and SNES-era sprites (many borrowed from Chrono Trigger) strongly contrast the darkness of Lohn’s mission. Most of the gameplay involves tracking down and investigating townspeople, forcing the player to get to know and become attached to the doomed city.
Starless Umbra (ongoing)
Like Exit Fate, Starless Umbra harkens back to the glory days of JRPGs but with a greater emphasis on roaming and exploration. It has its fair share of clichés, but it so faithfully emulates the best features of its source material that it’s hard to fault the game for treading familiar ground. It puts the player in control of a likable cast in a fleshed out world, its themes are extravagant and its narration is flamboyant. While the game is not yet complete, developer Andrew Keturi’s polished demo of the game is available for download. Much of Keturi’s work has been adjusting the game based on advice and criticisms players have had on Starless Umbra’s first few hours. It’s an ambitious but promising project based on refreshing the best conventions of the genre’s heyday.