Brendon Chung designs the sort of games that I would design if I had the talent, the time and access to enough weed to cripple Tommy Chong. The man behind the one-man show that is Blendo Games, he's best known for designing Gravity Bone, a first-person adventure that showed us that you don't need photo-realistic graphics to create a compelling narrative, Flotilla, a simultaneous turn-based wargame built on the scaffolding of a choose-your-own adventure that seems to be based on the Myers-Briggs test, and Atom Zombie Smasher, a zombie simulation with evacuation helicopters, snipers and land mines thrown in the mix. The above-mentioned games are marked by the sort of absurdist humor which one usually associates with special brownie binges or extended periods of sleep deprivation. Add into the mix some pretty off-beat choices in music coupled with solid game-play and you've got games which are different.
And I mean that as a compliment.
I first learned about Blendo Games when I stumbled upon Gravity Bone. It's a free down-load and well worth checking out. Using NPC's with giant cube-heads who talk like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons and situations and narrative cut-scenes that border on the surreal, Chung created a game whose climax packs more punch than some commercial releases I've played. I think the final cut-scene in Gravity Bone could be one of the most talked about endings in a computer game. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little but Gravity Bone is something like the computer game analogue of a David Lynch movie: Everybody who's played it has something to say about it and nobody can quite agree on what it means.
Flotilla and Atom Zombie Smasher are almost pedestrian by comparison but they are marked by the same sort of bizarre humor that permeates Gravity Bone.
In Flotilla, you're the captain of a flotilla of starships (hence the title). You've got seven months to live and you're determined to go out with a bang. The game is part solitaire game-book and part tactical puzzle. The player travels from planet to planet and is presented with situations responses to which trigger present and future encounters. There doesn't seem to be a “right” or “wrong” response to many of these; one situation that comes to mind is one where you must choose between helping an old friend cover up a bloody murder or turning him into the authorities.
You get the idea.
Many of these encounters result in space battles, which are played out in a wargame where ships maneuver in three-dimensions in thirty second bites of time and are only vulnerable in their rear and underside (at least against missiles and torpedoes). This translates into plotting out maneuvers to get behind and below your enemies and shaking your fist at the screen as your plans fall apart in real-time.
In Atom Zombie Smasher, the player attempts to stem a zombie outbreak in a fictitious Latin American country in the 1960's. It can best be described as Risk with control over territories being settled not by the roll of the dice but by a mini-game, played on a randomly generated city map, that seems to have been inspired by zombie outbreak simulations. The graphics are rather minimalist. Zombies are purple squares, civilians are yellow squares and scientists are blue squares. Giant zombies are big purple cubes. Despite the simplistic graphics, the action is strangely compelling with lots of nail-biting moments being generated by actors who are just a bunch of colored squares; I guess I shouldn't be surprised, seeing as how Atari 2600 Adventure can still make me jump in my seat..
Besides Chung's bizarre sense of humor, these games share something else in common, which is their length. They're short. Gravity Bone only has two levels and both the adventure in Flotilla and the campaign in Atom Zombie Smasher can be completed in about an hour. Some see this as a shortcoming. Frankly, I think it's better to leave people wanting for more rather than overstaying your welcome.
But that's just me.