Thought/Process: Time Keeps on Slipping Into the Future
For a long time, I only played one game on my PSP.
Sure, I gave other titles a whirl to stay on top of new releases or for review purposes. Once my assignments were filed, though, I went back to blowing myself up over and over in an effort to slow down time, if not reverse it all together. My eyes flitted over the handheld's dark screen, assessing the colorful, oddly-designed threats and checking my stock of lives, all the while collecting the gems that would only hasten my inevitable doom. I spent weeks, then months, trying to make a series of beautiful suicides mean something.
If I sound a little obsessed, that's because I was playing Every Extend Extra, and obsession's the only way to go when the only sense a game makes is that which you impose on it. EEE offers no narrative, no reason for existence other than to whip your neurons into a counterintuitive frenzy.
It's the release of a new HD iteration of the classic rave-shooter Rez on Xbox Live that's got me thinking about Every Extend Extra. EEE originally was a Web game developed by an amateur programmer. It was acquired by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the man behind Rez and the Space Channel 5 rhythm games. A PSP version of EEE was developed by his Q Entertainment studio and distributed by Buena Vista Games in November 2006. In yet another holiday season bristling with burly releases demanding the attentions of hardcore gamers and soon-to-be Wii fanatics, it struggled to find an audience. Indeed, the only way to market it was by virtue of its pedigree, and none of the games developed by Miziguichi-san's studio -- with the exception of the Lumines series -- have ever risen above the level of cult classic.
I love Every Extend Extra, but it's not a perfect game. It's a weird hybrid of puzzle and shooter where waves of enemies come at you from every angle and the only way to keep them at bay is to explode yourself. The game challenges players to figure out its Byzantine progression structure and taunts you for failing to do so. (?Try Harder? teases one of the messages after you underperform on a level. If the game takes place in an artificial-intelligence-infested corner of corrupt cyberspace like Rez, then I think we might have a clue as to GLaDOS' genetic roots.) There are no saves in EEE; if you die five levels in, you start right back at the beginning.
For all the chaos on-screen, what EEE really does is strip the gameplay down to a few basic core elements: time management and resource assessment. Asking players to engage in a game where they have to detonate themselves is a brilliant bit of inverse logic that, in and of itself, presents the game's first conceptual hurdle. It gets trickier when you realize that you can ramp up the number of enemies and their spawning by collecting items called Quickens. More enemies mean more time extension items to prolong your playtime, but it also means a greater possibility of dying. In this way, the risk/reward dynamic -- just an ingredient of other videogame designs -- becomes the central mechanic in EEE.
Well, my playtime came to an abrupt halt when I lost my PSP in the spring of 2007. (The fantasizing over the New Glorious PSP to Come that followed after my loss -- brought on by painful subconscious withdrawal symptoms, no doubt -- will be the subject of a future column.) The biggest blow was not losing the UMD disc, but the loss of my memory card. (No, I never backed it up, either.) After months of religiously playing EEE, I finally beat the boss at the game's uppermost echelon. The level leading up to that final battle felt like an acid trip, like many of the games that bear Tetsuya Mizuguchi's imprimatur do.
Every Extend Extra Extreme (or E4) slid into the Xbox Live Arcade pipeline 11 months after EEE. It plays like an attempt to take an undergound hit single and turn it into a pop phenomenon. Gone are the quirkier aspects of the PSP game -- no weird bacteria-looking bosses, no pop-art insectoid enemy clusters. The Quicken structure has been changed slightly; explosion chains can now be halted; players have unlimited lives and a timed shield after an explosion chain. The time management aspect of Every Extend Extra becomes the core principle in E4. Overall, it's an easier game than EEE; I played only one level for a whole hour. E4 met the same lukewarm reaction that its predecessor did and it seems that the Every Extend franchise may wind up as a niche curiosity, if it ever continues.
The thing about game development is that it's still a market-driven mode of creativity, and it's creativity by committee. As such, it's hard to build a body of work that evinces a particular aesthetic, a sense of where the creators' head/heart might be at in a moment of time. There's a reason that games like Rez get trotted out when the ongoing ?Are Games Art?? argument boils over periodically. Rez and, to a degree, its EEE cousins try to alter the user's perceptions of sight and hearing. By intertwining the two senses closely, it attempts to blur the lines between the two in an effort to simulate synesthesia. More importantly, the structure of those titles' collective gameplay tries to deliver an existential message: Whether or not life is structured or random, every single moment of experience is transient and full of sensations in which we should revel -- heady stuff, I know, but a playable meditation on survival, evolution and thriving in the here and now certainly qualifies as the stuff of art. (There's a reason I gave this column a high-falutin' title.) I will say that, for me, Rez, the Lumines franchise and both Every Extend games do induce a trancelike state of intense focus. Unlike other games where I concentrate by zeroing in on specific elements, these Mizuguchi/Q? Entertainment productions make me pull my focus out to see the screen as a whole organic identity.
The fact that time management figures so prominently in the Every Extend games gets me theorizing about videogame timelines in the real world, too. Games come to us after a period of preceding development where teams of people try to bottle a forward-looking innovation with the hope that it finds an audience -- in short, past and possible future looking to make an impact on the present. When I look at the industry with the same wide-focus lens that EEE triggers in me, it brings me back to the idea of a larger continuum of creativity that I mentioned in my last column. There's lots of talk about coining a language of gaming critique, one that's less beholden to the paradigms of other forms of media. One point to consider is that conversations about games don't have to end when a particular title hits the shelves and the reviews come in. In letting these conversations sprawl outward, we can think of games as cultural artifacts in a game-centric way. Each new endeavor could be a creator's avatar waiting to explode and ignite wave after wave of sequential detonations in other games that send us simultaneously forward and backward in time. A loose example: Rez begets EEE which begets Geometry Wars, flOw, Everyday Shooter, Super Stardust HD (and E4, of course), which go back to Asteroids or Tempest or Sinistar or? And, yes, the consequences of looking at things this way can be a little chaotic, like a 2,000-hit explosion chain in E4 that goes on for 45 glorious seconds. But, we play games to experience things, right?