3 RPG Maker Games That Show How Games Can Have Personal Art Too
It has become easier and easier during the past few years to make video games thanks to the rise of Unity and other easy to use development platforms. We’ve entered an era in which it is even possible to make a living making video games without having being a part of a larger development studio. Small teams of three, two, or even one person are making entire games in the comfort of their bedrooms. Some of these games are huge commercial successes, such as Super Meat Boy or Braid, some reinvent how we think of the medium in the case of games like Gone Home or Papers, Please. This says nothing of the space occupied by the rise of the free to play iOS games that take up so much of our times these days. But before all of this, there was RPG maker.
RPG Maker is a development tool originally published by the Japanese company Mamirin in 1988 with the intention of allowing its users to create, you guessed it, RPGs. Though the product has gone through many iterations since its first release, the basic premise remains the same; give the user a tool to create maps, a tool to create battles, and a basic scripting language with which the user could create events within the engine of the game. While much of what is created using RPG maker are traditional turn-based, 2D RPGs a la Final Fantasy and Dragon’s Quest, many users of the system create games that are anything but traditional.
These games are worth examining not only because of their often experimental content, but because of the people that made them as well. The RPG Maker community is a highly active but somewhat impenetrable group. This most likely arises in part from the fact that many of these games are made by just one person. These games are the brainchildren of somewhat reclusive auteurs working meticulously day and night on a game they aren’t even sure will reach people. As a result the games can end up looking like the diaries of their developers as much as they resemble the developers intended product.
Be it through subversive writing found in games such as Off or Space Funeral, the experimental gameplay of Yume Nikki and Clock of Atonement, or the out-and-out weirdness of Barkley, Shut Up and Jam Gaiden: Chapter One of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa, the games made using the RPG Maker engine all have something that makes them stand apart from the other free to play games of their era and now.
Barkley, Shut up and Jam Gaiden
To start off, here’s a game with a bit of a weird streak. Barkley, Shut up and Jam Gaiden: Chapter One of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa (which will henceforth be referred to as Shut up and Jam) is more than just the sentence equivalent to running a marathon, it’s actually a well constructed RPG similar in style to many traditional JRPGs, while taking some mechanical notes from the Mario RPG series, being that many of the attacks require timed button presses for correct execution. This is where the similarities to other games end. Kind of.
Shut up and Jam is a self-aware love letter addressed to the basketball of Space Jam. No references to EFFs, REBs, or PERs are found here; instead the basketball of Shut up and Jam consists of dunks and little else, so much so that one such “Chaos Dunk” performed by the titular character brought about something akin to the end of the world. Confused? I’ll try to explain.
The world of Shut up and Jam is what can only be referred to as a “post-cyberpocalyptic Neo New York,” the year is 2053 and basketball in all forms is outlawed. You play as the once great Charles Barkley, who in 2041 accidentally performed a chaos dunk at a basketball game, killing most of the crowd in attendance and resulting in the banning of basketball in all forms in the United States. You are just trying to enjoy what is left of your life while avoiding the “B-Ball Removal Department” lead by Michael Jordan, when another Chaos Dunk occurs in the middle of Manhattan, and the world blames you. It’s up to you to clear your name and restore respect to the world of B-Ball! Still confused? Yeah, me too.
The writing is hilarious, jokes range from being pop-culture references that were top of the line in 1994 (the year of the game’s release) to observations on the meaning of basketball and the purpose it serves in human life. Coupled with the fact that much of the sprite art is stolen from other games leads to a truly original comic experience.
There’s something refreshing about how self aware the game is. It reflects the feeling of nonsensicality one experiences from reading a semi-coherent thread on a web forum. Lots of jokes get tossed on the screen all at the same time, and you get the feeling that each one only really cares that it gets heard, even if it is to the detriment of the others.
This reflects the nature of the space in which the game formed. Development of this game, and the subsequent forming of Tales of Games studios occurred entirely within the confines of the Salt World Forums. Playing the game you can almost see the amateur game developers reflected in the flow of the writing. Manic grins lit up by the soft light of a computer monitor. Hands shaking as the vestiges of last night’s Mountain Dew binge begin to wear off. No idea is left out simply because there was no one there to tell them that maybe it should be.
This sort of slapdash and almost improvisational style of game development is something that could only have formed in this group of dedicated hobbyists. Without the pressure of deadlines, sales numbers, or even the desire to please an audience beyond the developers themselves, the game was able to grow into something truly unique.
This is the first game by the always irreverent Tales of Games studios, and hey, there’s actually a sequel due to be released this year.
With the next game, things stay just as strange, but become a little more frightening.
Yume Nikki is a game whose name you might have heard being whispered in some of the darker corners of the internet. In places like 4chan’s paranormal /x/ board or the various storehouses of creepypasta (stories of usually indeterminate authorship that are passed around the internet, usually with a creepy theme as the name suggests) that are found on the web.
You play as a little girl named Madotsuki. You live an apartment. You can turn on the TV and go outside on your balcony. When you try to leave your home through the front door, Madotsuki refuses, shaking her pixelated head back and forth with an emphatic no. Well, what now? Your bed looks pretty comfy, why not just go to sleep? What better way to escape the horrors of life than to sleep, and in that sleep, hope to find solace in your dreams.
This is where the game begins. You see, Yume Nikke literally means Dream Diary, so where else should the action of the game take place other than in one’s dreams. After going to sleep Madotsuki arrives in an exact replica of her room, but something is different now. She is willing to open the front door and go outside.
But the door doesn’t lead to the outside, oh no, the door leads to much more than that. You (as Madotsuki) now find yourself in some dark limbo, surrounded by twelve doors, where do they lead? Well there’s only one way to find out.
Yume Nikki is a game about exploration, and little else, but this doesn’t really matter since there is just so much to explore. Through each of these doors lies a different dream which is more often than not actually a nightmare. As you explore these dreams you begin to find objects that go by the name “effects.” They range from a bicycle that you can ride to increase your movement speed to a frog that turns your head into a frog’s head. There are twenty-four effects in the game. Find all the effects, beat the game. Sounds simple, but in reality, not so much. These dreams can get pretty large.
Through one door, a sea of hands reaching up from a seemingly endless void. Through another, a desert that extends into forever in all directions. Yet another, complete darkness. And this is only the beginning. Within each of these twelve worlds you’ll find other doors, that lead even deeper into the labyrinth of Madotsuki’s mind. Sometimes they don’t even resemble doors. Perhaps a portal is tucked between two lamps growing out of the side of a staircase. You may open the door of what seems to be a simple cottage, only to find that a forest stretches out from within the threshold.
One thing is constant no matter where you go. You are alone. The other denizens of the dream world want little to do with you. Feel like asking that walking taiko-drum where the door you came in through was? Well too bad, it’s just gonna keep walking. Those triangles with googly-eyes look like they might be friendly, will they help you make sense of all this? No. Madotsuki is alone with her thoughts so to speak, and from this stems one of the key aspects of this game, the absolute terror.
That thing about nightmares earlier? Yeah, that’s a pretty consistent theme no matter where you go in the game. Sometimes as you walk through a desolate hallway in the maze of a subway system, the drawn face of some otherworldly demon will jump from the shadows accompanied by a digital scream. Or perhaps as you ride your bike down a snow bank you will find yourself greeted by the remnants of an occult ritual.
The game follows the logic of deep REM sleep, pushing and pulling you from one location to another with little care for your sanity. Those moments of actual fear are relatively rare, you can go for hours without encountering one. Instead you anticipate their arrival as you listen to the sound of dripping water, lost in a room of candles. And the waiting is the worst part.
Sometimes there’s music, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes the enemies hurt you, sometimes they don’t. At times the game seems to be alive, pulsing in its own, unknowable rhythm.
Little is known about the game’s enigmatic author, known only to the English-speaking internet as KIKIYAMA. But one thing is for certain, this game contains a piece of their soul. The game is massive. Entire areas exist with no other purpose besides their existing. There are no effects to find in them, but yet they persist, fully inhabited, completely realized. Every asset in the game was hand-placed, even if the likelihood of a player actually seeing it is seemingly impossible.
It is obvious that Yume Nikki is a labour of love. The more you explore, the more you find of what the creator gave of themselves to the game. After playing for long enough, you realize that the titular dream diary probably rests on the bedside table of KIKIYAMA themselves.
Off is a strange little game made by a French developer who goes by the name Mortis Ghost, and found its first release in 2008. The game plays like any RPG from the 8-bit era. Your guy gets a turn. You choose for you guy to hit the enemy. The enemy get’s a turn. They choose to hit your guy. Pretty basic stuff. That is, until the battle ends and you realize that you’re playing one of the strangest games on the face of the planet.
If Yume Nikki is the surrealism of dreams then Off is the surrealism of the final moments of life. You play as you. As in the you sitting in front of your computer. Throughout the game different characters will directly speak to you, recommending courses of action you might take in controlling you ever aloof avatar, The Batter, as you guide him through the world.
Separated into four zones labeled 0-3, the world of Off is controlled by its elements. But they are not the four elements of ancient Greece, they are the elements of our modern world; smoke, metal, plastic, meat, and since this is an RPG there is of course a secret fifth element, sugar. Your objective is to move The Batter through these zones on a quest of purification. It is the goal of The Batter to make all of the zones of his world “pure,” but the questions, is it your goal as well?
Herein lies the beauty of Off, it forces the player to question their agency in relation to the game. Do you control The Batter, or does The Batter control you? Are you just another tool at his disposal in the quest for purification, or do you ultimately call the shots in yet another power-fantasy brought to you by the world of video games?
It seems that Mortis Ghost has chosen to follow in the footsteps of other great French creators by choosing to make Art with a capital A. The message of the game is present in every detail, with The Batter calling the shots by downright refusing to do the tasks you request of him, and at times superseding choices you thought you had set in stone.
While Off is a scary game, it’s not scary in the way that Yume Nikki is scary. The dangers of Yume Nikki are the violent and lonely dangers of a mind that refuses to interact with the world around it. In Off, you (or maybe The Batter) are the most dangerous thing on the screen. The fear that Off inspires is that of a loss of control while the world looks at you. The NPCs in the game want things from you, but you are not always able to comply.
Mortis Ghost taps into a fear that we all feel in our everyday interactions with other people. The fear that we may disappoint them.
Why these games should get you thinking
How often is it that on the news we see video games being decried as mere distraction at best, and as murder simulators at their worst. Since games are clearly growing as an industry, the mainstream cannot deny that they have an impact on our culture. But it seems that they are still reluctant to give games the same status as art.
If you are someone who follows indie development, it is more than clear at this point that this will see a change. The indie scene has seen a rise of games exploring the tough ideas often expressed in other art forms. Those of family in games like The Novelist and Gone Home, border politics in Papers, Please, and the hardships of poverty in Cart Life. Even mainstream gaming is seeing a rise in artistic choices with games such as The Last Of Us and the Bioshock series. Games as an art form is not a new idea. There are many examples already present in current culture, they only need to be recognized.
What sets the games made in RPG Maker apart from these games is their highly personal and avant-garde nature. RPG Maker allows for the Wesley Willises and Daniel Johnstons of the world to make games. People who live on the outskirts of the gaming community still have a chance to make an impact on it through the development of RPG Maker games.
When making a game in RPG Maker, the developer doesn’t have to follow any rules set down by the mainstream of games, also they do no not have to ascribe to the sensibilities of the indie market. The developer who chooses RPG Maker chooses a form that allows for more of themselves to be present in the game. They don’t need to worry about the end product being “too personal” because there is no need to establish that boundary in RPG Maker. It is just you and the game you are making. Whoever ends up playing doesn’t have to factor into the equation.
The RPG Maker community is one that allows its creators full control of that which they create. It allows for a full range of creativity to be realized by game makers that might not be able to do so if they were working for a larger company. While the indie space does allow for developers to explore what games might be, they still have to worry about the audience they are trying to reach. RPG Maker allows developers to make games that may not have an intended audience, allowing for a more personal and challenging work of art.
Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa. Computer software. Vers. 1.08. Tales of Games, n.d. Web.
KIKIYAMA. “Project YUMENIKKI.” Project YUMENIKKI. Project YUMINIKKI, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
Off. Computer software. Vers. 2.0. Mortis Ghost, n.d. Web.
Rknol. “Tales of Game’s Studios.” Tales of Games Studios RSS. Tales of Games, 2 Mar. 2010. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
“Starmen.Net.” OFF by Mortis Ghost « Fan Games and Programs « Forum «. Mortis Ghost, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.
Yume Nikki. Computer software. Vers. .10. KIKIYAMA, n.d. Web.
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