Mark Essen’s worlds without maps

Indie game artist Mark Essen (“messhof”) has achieved almost mainstream recognition since this writer last wrote about him in 2009. Four of his games have been released through Adult Swim’s popular online arcade. His work has been featured by the New Museum and The Creator’s Project. His 2010 game Nidhogg, a surreal two-player tug-of-war that blends fencing and football, has earned him a rabid following—and a Nuovo Award at the Independent Games Festival. For an iconoclast who has made games about illegal organ harvesting and devouring tubs of raw hamburger, this kind of success is incredible. What, exactly, is his secret?

It is tempting to attribute it to his bizarre aesthetic, in part a mash-up of underground art, memories of 8-bit video games and a degree in experimental film. However, this is neither the whole story nor the most important element in it. The truth—and this is rarely recognized by the press—is that Essen’s work is characterized by brilliant game design. His ideas regarding interface, interaction and multiplayer are among the most advanced in the independent scene. One of his central concepts, which recurs in nearly all of his games, is a refusal to hold the player’s hand. This is in stark contrast to the practices of the wider industry, such as the common use of focus groups and flowcharts to guarantee that the player is always satisfied and never confused. The paradox is that Essen’s games—which baffle and frustrate at every turn—might fairly be considered more satisfying than these titles.

Take his latest work, Surprise Bullfight, as an example. The premise is that the last ”forest giant”—a flailing, baby-like creature—, has only moments to live. The player’s goal is to extend the giant’s ever-fading life by feeding him fresh hearts, taken from the increasingly dangerous bulls that wander the forest. Armed with a sword and muleta, the player engages in bullfights that eventually, inevitably lead to the deaths of both the protagonist and the giant. The only questions are how long the player survives and how many points he or she accrues during this time. (Points are gained mainly by leading the bull with the muleta and by picking up excrement.)

The last forest giant.

It all seems strange and somewhat pointless at first, until the player discovers that Essen, per usual, has told no one how to play the game properly. (This might account for its low rating from players.) To achieve a high score, the player must keep an invisible combo meter full by leading the bull in a tight circle, which results in a delicate balance between large reward (points) and the extreme risk of getting too close to the bull. A further risk-reward dynamic is the player’s decision of when to finish the bull: too early, and potential points are lost; too late, and the player may not get the heart to the giant in time. Bulls get stronger and faster as the game wears on, and the number of points they offer grows as well. Difficulty, stress and excitement rise as the player’s score increases, since more and more is at stake. It’s a very well-designed game that Essen expects no one to understand, at least initially.

Essen discussed the no-hand-holding approach when this writer spoke with him in 2009. He explained that the strange controls, disjointed gameplay mechanics and extreme difficulty in his games—which return in Bullfight—are meant not to repulse players, but rather to engage them. “I think the games that were the most fun for me growing up were the ones where figuring out how to move your character was the most challenging part, or the part you could inject the most personality into,” he said during the interview. In other words, Essen wants players to learn his games for themselves because it makes them participants; it puts their personal touch on the work. It’s an idea that he has used since his 2004 game Bool, whose menus and dialogue are written in a coded language that the player is forced to decipher. Essen creates environments for the player to explore; but they come without maps.

(The reader is challenged to top this writer’s Surprise Bullfight high of 3.7 million points. It currently occupies first place on the scoreboard.)

Still Eating Oranges


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