The first time I saw Space Giraffe, I didn’t realize it was an excellent game. Jeff Minter was showing it off at the Game Developer’s Conference, and it looked just like Tempest, except you could push guys off the top of the web sometimes. And Jeff kept saying it wasn’t Tempest. But he was not sufficiently able to communicate to the audience why the game was interesting (which I verified, through several conversations, after his lecture. People pretty much thought it was just Tempest with some psychedelic stuff).
When I first started playing Space Giraffe on the Xbox 360, I thought it was okay. If I were a reviewer who granted scores, I’d say it was a 6/10 or 7/10 game. It was cool, but nothing too special.
But as I played some more, I came to understand the game. And now I am bubbling with enthusiasm for it, such that I could only give it a 10/10. Maybe it’s still a little bit early to make such a high judgement — I can only competently play up to level 18 or so — but what I’ve gotten out of the game has already been worth well more than the measly $5 purchase price.
Maybe you heard of the mild controversy that’s erupted around this game. The first published review came from the Official Xbox Magazine, where the reviewer, Dan Amrich, gave it a horrible score of 20/100. He claimed the game was ugly and unplayable.
Jeff Minter, on his blog, wrote a somewhat angry rebuttal claiming that Dan A just didn’t understand the game and wasn’t playing it right. Normally when developers do that, it’s a sign that they are just checked out of reality — their game isn’t very good, and they are refusing to accept reasonable criticism. That wasn’t the case this time, though. Minter was right — the reviewer failed to understand the game.
That excites me, in a certain way: a game has come along that, just maybe, will raise the bar for game criticism; not because it’s trying to be all intellectual or anything, but just because it’s willing to break out of the mold and be something different, something unusual, something that requires effort to appreciate.
You’ll see that the user reviews on Metacritic for Space Giraffe are fiercely divided; people either rate it 9-10 (those people mostly understand the game, I claim), or 0-2 (don’t).
I realize I’ve been beating around the bush and haven’t yet said why the game is so good. Well, I don’t feel that I could do it justice. You just have to play the game, and feel it. By way of cursory explanation, I can say that the interaction you have with the enemies is really neat, and has its own distorted-world logic that is internally consistent and makes for compelling gameplay. And also…
… yes, it’s often hard to see things. You’ll often get killed by bullets you couldn’t see through the flashing background colors, and sometimes you won’t even know where your Giraffe is. Usually that’s the sign of a bad game. This time, though, it is a major part of the point. As you proceed through the levels, the enemies not only get more numerous, faster, and more devious, but the game also pushes you deeper into the land of warped perception, and then demands that you see through that. Well, often you can’t. At first. And then you start to see the patterns, and then you break through, and then you are sailing through this batch of levels, dancing the whole time. This game is about expanding your perception. It demands that you learn to see. Most of the reviewers who gave the game low scores, I claim, were too closed-minded; they weren’t receptive to this kind of teaching, which the game is obviously telling you it wants to do, if you are quiet enough and listen.
The game could be much clearer about its intentions. There’s a tutorial, but it only teaches you the basic game mechanics (and not very clearly, at that). The tutorial never says anything like “this game is going to throw ever-more visual insanity at you, and your job is to make sense of it all”. That would have been undesirably heavy-handed, but I know that if Jeff had structured the game so that this intent was somehow clear to the player from the start, there would be many fewer bad reviews.
Space Giraffe would be an interesting addition to the curricula of game studies courses, because it brings the process of game literacy acquisition into sharp focus. Most people these days who would take a video game class understand enough about games that the literacy part is taken for granted. But Space Giraffe pulls the process into sharp focus, because even as an experienced player you must go through a long process of discovery.
(Dare I say that Space Giraffe is something like the arcade game analogue of Ulysses? Is that controversial enough? Will it sufficiently piss off the reviewers who gave it low scores?)