Nidhogg’s beautiful design

For every five things I add, I sand down four of them so they’re just little game-feel nubby-nubs.

On Monday, Mark Essen finally released Nidhogg to the general public. Since 2010 he had been showing early versions of the game in arcade cabinets, which doubled as art installations. Although the use of games as installations has a history in the independent game scene—and in Essen’s own career—, few other designers have dared to leave a game at “exhibit” status for so long. But, then, Essen has always been an odd duck in the indie scene; and Nidhogg is a very special game, even when one discounts the details of its release.

We have said before that video game design, when balanced and executed properly, can produce an aesthetic response in the player. Exploring and “gardening” in Waking Mars, jumping and running in Super Mario 64: these things have an aesthetic character. What makes Essen’s work tick is not simply its weirdness, on which most commentators focus, but its brilliant game design. The weirdness serves the design; and the design is beautiful. This is why so many have responded to Nidhogg: above the excitement, it is awe-inspiring to watch its design unfold. Essen and Nidhogg stand, with few peers, at the forefront of video game aesthetics. They show again that video games need not be laborious and abstruse to be meaningful.

Still Eating Oranges

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?

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"mEssen With Your Head"

I once drove a school bus against oncoming traffic. I had a hard time steering due to all the drugs I had consumed, and cars exploded around me in rainbow-colored bursts. After maybe five minutes, I crashed into a truck and died. But the experience kept going. What happened next involved Big Ben, a space station and a squid-like creature made of baby mouths and hands. This wasn’t just an isolated psychotic episode, either; I’ve relived it a number of times. And thanks to game designer Mark Essen, you too can endure this migraine-inducing odyssey by playing his surreal (and controversially titled) Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist.


An article by this writer, published in 2009 by The Escapist. It concerns the brilliant “art game” auteur Mark Essen, or “messhof”, whose work has appeared in numerous gallery shows.

The article was intended as a Q&A, but the editors asked that it be rewritten as a prose piece that incorporated Essen’s quotes. With only two days in which to perform this feat, corners were cut; and the resulting product was decidedly imperfect. The elements with which this writer was most proud—the opening paragraph and the title—were changed during the editing process. Regardless, The Escapist has this writer’s gratitude for giving a no-name freelancer the chance to interview Essen and to bring his work to a wider audience. (The sizeable paycheck cannot be forgotten, either.)

This writer will likely return to the subject of Essen in a future post; and this post will likely be related to his newest work, Surprise Bullfight. The complex mechanics that underlie its gameplay have gone undiscussed by the press, as is the norm with Essen’s projects. Stay tuned.

Still Eating Oranges