Genre is a slippery concept. Audiences tend to think of genres as separate shelves where every book, every movie, every song has a definitive place. In videogames, this is reinforced every time a company capitalizes on our shelving compulsion to sell us stuff, or every time an indie hit spawns a thousand derivative games, giving birth to a genre that is more an awkward formula for success than an organic system of expressive devices.
I’m about to tell you how refreshing it feels when I come across what feels like a True Genre, however absurd or insignificant it might be, but don’t let anybody define “genre” for you. Games are experiences. You’re not supposed to buy into marketing-born, feature-based experience classifications. I mean, you are, in fact, but what I’m trying to say is: don’t. Instead, go out there and play some games. Eventually some of them will seem to be born out of the same curiosity. It’s no shelf like you’ve seen before, they’ll just look good when you think about them together. You’ll realize this by yourself. True Genre comes from within.
They wanted a video of Polish developer Sos Sosowski making games. He began tickling the keyboard in the silliest way imaginable, probably with the complicity of the filming crew, and the clip actually ended up in the TV report.
The realism most big budget games strive for is frequently cut short by the dissonance, usually invisible before your attention is brought to it, that the character is seeing their world even with their peripheral vision while you can only see what fits inside a tiny glowing rectangle.
The Virtual Reality solution to this is expanding that rectangle all around the player’s face. Atari Hacker’s solution is contracting what the player character is looking at to the same tiny rectangle you have access to. Your screen shows what the character’s screen shows, and thus you can fully embody them.
The point of the mechanic, it seems, is that hacking is as natural for your character as typing gibberish is for you, so literally typing anything causes l33t in-game hacking. Like hackertyper.net, Atari Hacker mocks the Hollywood hacker archetype while helping us participate in the fantasy prejudice-free.
Who wouldn’t want to?
Little Office Troubles (Géraud de Courrèges, 2014) tells a different story. Instead of hacking into, we’re defending a system from external, relentless attack. The game even ditches the fantasy: the player character might type fast and know how to program, but everything else indicates he’s rather the clumsy type.
What does persist is a certain mechanical familiarity, though the rules are slightly more complex. You’re still supposed to type nonsense but different parts of your keyboard represent three different in-game keyboards, each of them with independent timers setting off at random intervals in the form of red-colored cyber threats. Yes, the kind of red-colored cyber threat that only fast typing can neutralize.
The same mechanic appeared earlier in Drop a Beat, Giuseppe! (Major Bueno, 2013), though the game bears no other similarity. There are no computers or code of any kind. The in-game keys belong to a piano, and nothing suggests we’re operating it with any mastery or even competence. The game has several different endings and, save for the tutorial, the first person viewpoint is abandoned completely.
Finding games born out of the same curiosity looks exactly like this. No big company is putting “asdfasd mechanics” on the feature list for their latest release. No online games portal is oozing clones of last week’s hit Keyboard Smasher 3. It’s just a bunch of mostly unrelated developers using their work to answer similar questions about what videogames can do:
What if every key pressed by the player represents an actual key pressed by the player character? What if the player character interacts with their fictional world through the same input device we use to control them? Do we start to wonder if we’re a character in someone else’s game or do we just find it funny? What does it feel to play a game that doesn’t care exactly what button we press? How did Giuseppe get the gig if he’s so bad at the piano?
Knowing asdfasd’s been used more than once helps me build conceptual bridges between these wildly different experiences. It helps me enjoy them not only as standalone pieces but also as parts of a whole. I literally cannot play a game with this mechanic without thinking back on all these other games and smiling.
So I smile, sometimes frenetically raining fingers upon the keyboard, sometimes flowing nonchalantly across it. There’s a curious dissonance in all of them: while you’re supposed to pay little attention to the order of the keys you press, the player character seems awfully concerned by it, and by their own actions’ every detail actually.
These games might be appealing for a lot of reasons. Some will find sadistic pleasure in their characters being worried by actions we find so simple. Some will feel good about offering them a hand (or two) in a time of need. I personally like the act of typing without having to care about the text that comes out, and I particularly like that all these games purposefully break most standard rules of good game design.
In a world where each button has its own special purpose, Atari Hacker asks us to press whatever we feel like pressing, provided we do so quickly. In a world where design hours are devoted to never having us touch the wrong button when we know what we want to do, Little Office Troubles delights in us messing it all up when the instructions are so damn simple. In a tradition bent on synthesizing our clumsy input to return the impression of fluidity of action, Drop a Beat, Giuseppe! makes us hear every awkward keystroke in exquisite detail.
Maybe it’s not that convincing, I get it. It’s just a couple of games with a similar mechanic. But it’s also much more than that. That mechanic pushes for a very specific way of representing player input in the game world. It sets a common tone, more or less, and has a (brief) history of wacky, unorthodox design.
Besides, there is something tragically beautiful about the idea of videogame genres being so insignificant that one managed to die without anyone realizing it had ever existed.
More than anything, thinking about asdfasd as a valid videogame genre (and one of my favorites, to be honest) serves the purpose of enriching my playing experience of each of these games in a way that ignoring the threads connecting them would not. And games should be all about enriching human experience.