In Merritt Kopas’s video game, Lullaby for Heartsick Spacer, a small figure in a spacesuit explores a pale blue cave formation. There are no enemies or power-ups; in fact, the figure is the only thing in sight. Their jetpack expels round puffs of smoke as it propels them around. When the player feels like it, she can tap a key to make the figure lie down. A synthesized piano plays a gentle melody while the figure rests.
Lullaby is part of a generation of games whose aim isn’t to simulate conflict, or offer problems to solve, but just to create a tiny, solitary space for players. These “altgames” are free from the demands of advancing a narrative or maxing out your stats or even competing with other players; instead they function as mood-makers, as little digital cloisters with narrow aims. They have simple control methods; usually a handful of keyboard keys to move your character around in a 3D space, and the use of a mouse to look around. In Kitty Horrorshow’s CHYRZA, the player trudges through sand dunes, collecting staticky recordings left behind by some explorer. A pyramid looms above her; monolithic structures, alien in form and function, dot the landscape. The explorer seems tired, and increasingly obsessed with the obscure and malevolent power of the pyramid. The player simply follows his footsteps, no matter how grim things get.
“Altgames” represent an ethos encompassing meditative peace as well as gut-churning dread. They offer players the ability to induce a feeling in themselves
Access to design tools has broadened in the past decade, empowering new voices to design and release their own work outside of the traditional distribution channels. Platforms like itch.io and programs like Twine and Unity democratize the process. Outside the existing hegemony there is a library of free and low-cost games, and there are tireless librarians — like the creators of the archive Warp Door, and self-described “trashgame curator” Steve Cook — cataloging this explosion. “If [a game] is really rough, but still manages to evoke a strange mood,” Cook told IGN recently, “then you probably have me, hook, line, and sinker.”
Mood is the key here, more than polish or mechanics or length. Altgames represent a revolutionary undercurrent in modern-day video game design, an ethos encompassing meditative peace as well as gut-churning dread. They offer players the ability to induce a feeling in themselves, like a song rather than a novel — a mood space unburdened by reminders of day-to-day life, and the power structures that make living difficult.
Freeform, objectiveless play can be traced to Nintendo’s 2002 Animal Crossing, whose biggest draw is its bevy of colorful townsfolk, who call the player by nicknames of their own invention and all possess unique quirks. The game’s systems enable a whole host of amusing interactions, like neighbors stealing items out of your inventory or blowing their lids if you bother them too much; you can also fish for a rare catch at the seashore, or stroll around shaking apples out of trees. But Animal Crossing also forces the player to toil under a miniature model of late capitalism: One of the townsfolk is a creditor who muscles your character into a series of mortgages you can only pay off by working at his store. The ever-present weight of debt on the player’s shoulders is a brutal touch of verisimilitude.
Newer games like Julian Glander’s Lovely Weather We’re Having, about walking around with your dog, and Tom van den Boogaart’s upcoming Digital Bird Playground, which is just what the title describes, strip Animal Crossing down to its core, letting players hang out with friends and poke at the world to see what happens. Often, their power comes from their lack of structure — from the potential of an alternative space to just be.
These strange, dreadful, and unnerving worlds offer malevolence in abstract, devenomized and untethered from its real-world significance
These worlds aren’t always soothing. Horrorshow’s CHYRZA is foreboding, unnerving. Her game ANATOMY, released in 2016, takes place in a haunted house: the game deconstructs both the domestic safety of a suburban home and the fidelity of its own images, as VHS haze and distortion choke the screen. Lily Zone’s SYMBOL is a dreamlike series of garish, lo-fi environments, like a gray field of flowers under a pitch-black sky. These games, with their exploratory surrealism, draw inspiration from the freeform 1998 cult Dreamcast game LSD: Dream Emulator, which is about wandering an inscrutable dream world. These strange, dreadful, and unnerving worlds offer malevolence in abstract, devenomized and untethered from its real-world significance.
This is not to say that altgames are apolitical; far from it. Richard Hofmeier’s 2011 Cart Life and Lucas Pope’s 2013 Papers, Please made waves for their uncompromising approaches to poverty and immigration; they were direct where mainstream videogames can’t, or won’t, be. Many altgame designers are people pushed to the margins of society, using widely-available tools to make themselves heard. There’s no friction between a designer writing a text game and her publishing it; no numbing, nulling process of focus testing and market research — it can be exactly what she wants it to be.
In her introduction to Videogames for Humans, the 2012 critical study of Twine games, Merritt Kopas says that “more human forms of digital play” incorporate communicating, healing, positivity, and a respect for the player’s time. This idea also comes up in the work of writer/programmer Brie Code, who has spoken about the radical potential of care in game design. These meditative, friendly games offer compassionate spaces for a player to invest themselves in; other altgames offer catharsis for players willing to play a more abrasive game. The quick bursts of emotion, fragmentary glitch poetry, and inviting, quiet chambers of altgames can work as self-care both for their creators and players. Content is important, but form is paramount.
A series of studies in the past few years has examined the utility of videogames in therapy, finding that familiarity with games is at minimum a reliable way of building rapport with clients; at best, games have myriad applications in patients’ coping and healing processes. Code talks about her friend Kristina, who doesn’t like videogames as a rule, but found something to love in Skyrim, a sprawling 2011 role-playing game that is no one’s idea of beginner-friendly. “She wants to experiment with who she is in a social context of characters whom she cares about and who care about her,” Code says. Skyrim takes dozens of hours to complete, but a player who dislodges herself from the game’s intended narrative flow can find her niche within its vastness. Kristina played Skyrim in a way that worked for her, as a sort of hangout game where she could build relationships; the rest she left alone.
It’s a cliche to paint videogames as escapism — a pejorative born of the idea that if you aren’t financially contributing to society, you’re wasting your life — and no game truly offers escape. What altgames can offer is a space made for you, a space that makes no demands on you. There is as little a barrier to entry as possible. You don’t need a console, a gaming PC, knowledge of the meta, or even any money. For a few minutes you can explore a new world: an eerie, abandoned oasis, a labyrinth of prose, a city of slime, or a clay-soft seaside to roam with your dog. A moment’s peace is all these games offer, and sometimes that’s more than enough.