One of the things that is too often lacking in Games Studies, and almost completely in popular writing about games, is comparison of work by different creators across the mosty obvious lines of "genre." In less than a month, Play this Thing has reviewed Tr00jg's turn-based strategy/puzzle game Roach Toaster, Remar's multiplot platformer Iji and Sigvatr's condemnation garnering Robotron-like Muslim Massacre as if these highly contemporary games were completely irrelevant to each other. (nota bene: in addition to being contemporary, these games are all single-programmer freeware)
I'm not condemning costik or the99th for this. Play this Thing exists to draw attention to interesting and worthy independent games, not to perform comparative analyis of them. Costik and the99th's dueling reviews of Muslim Massacre draw attention to this basic premise, as well as to the need for resources like Gameology, as the argument hinges on whether we should "play this thing." Either the game is derivative in gameplay and both immature and unforgivably offensive in content and therefore doesn't deserve our attention (costik's argument), or the game is a clever satire of prejudice and violence in games, not to mention a good play (as the 99th maintains).
Muslim Massacre has made the nightly news for two reasons, the first being its name. The other reason is because the premise of play, as explained by the carefully spliced voice of G.W. Bush in the game's intro, is a war on Islam and Muslims. I'm going to leave to one side whether it is a well-designed game or not. Minimally, it seems obvious that both costik and the99th are right. The game is patently offensive and in terrible taste. It is, at the same time, obviously satire. The satire, however, is monotonous and quickly wears thin, leaving one wondering what all the fuss was about.
I doubt that either Roach Toaster or Iji will draw any mainstream media attention, which is a shame, as either one says a lot more about our current political and cultural situation, as well as the issues of game design, than Sigvatr's game.
Costik's review of "Roach Toaster" treats the game as pure ludology - you place heavily-armed soldier-exterminators in order to wipe out roach populations, and each turn the roaches multiply and then your extermiators open fire. The graphics are incredibly simple, the animation minimal, and the strategy of gameplay fairly compelling. Only the more so because of these things, there is something profoundly disturbing about Roach Toaster. On the game's website, Tr00jg notes that the game was named after "a Powerpuff Girls episode... Dont (sic) ask."
The episode in question would be "Insect Inside," part of the series' first episode. In that episode, the Professor teaches the girls that "It's not right to harm an insect just because its yucky on the outside." But when a loser called "Roach Coach" rallies the city's cockroaches against people, the girls learn that "the Professor said not to harm an insect just because it?s yucky on the outside, but this one's yucky on the inside!" "Roach Coach" turns out to be a humanoid robot piloted by a cockroach.
More to the point, on the same page, Tr00jg says that "The concept came from watching a riot on TV. I had originally intended to develop a Riot Control game."
Riot Control. It bears noting that Tr00jg is, at least according to his facebook page, a white South African. Without accusing the game's creator of any intentional prejudice, let's take a second look at the game. "Roach Toaster" is a game in which "elite soldiers" (as they are described on Tr00jg's page), all of whom are white, bearing equipment including rifles, shotguns, riot shields, "repeaters" (machineguns) and grenades, have to wipe out the "roach" population in various people's homes (the homeowners all have Afrikaner names). The black, semi-anthropomorphic roaches multiply every turn and will quickly overrun the player if their population isn't controlled.
Roach Toaster has won awards (one South African, one International, according to the website), and I haven't been able to find any criticism of it in terms of its (implicit) racial and class politics. On some level, this is a game about white soldiers mowing down black South Africans in order to make the country safe for its Afrikaner elite (who still control almost all of the nation's wealth). The moral of the Power Puff Girls episode is that the biggest threat is the roach who pretends to be human makes the situation even more disturbing.
Perhaps the lack of visual gore has spared Roach Toaster from condemnation. Maybe its the placid pace of the game (it is turn based, unlike the frenetic Muslim Massacre). But it seems most likely that it is because the in-game opponents are "only roaches." After all, even Will Wright's cute and family-oriented Spore rewards players for nuking civilizations into submission and blowing up entire (inhabited) planets, but is only controversial because evolution (and social darwinism) is part of the game.
Genocide is so common in video games that it's hardly worth a note. Even when games intend to give players a chill (such as with nuclear war games like Introversion's Defcon), you still play out the disaster (or you don't play at all). Very few games actually deal with genocide or the consequences of violence, and most of those are clearly didactic.
Remar's Iji is more engaged with the present moment (and the past four years - the game's copyright is "2004-2008") than either Muslim Massacre or Roach Toaster. Iji's eponymous heroine wakes up from a coma after an alien invasion. After only a little gameplay, one discovers that the alien Tasen have used a WMD called an "alpha strike" on the Earth, killing most of the population. Your goal isn't to prevent this: it's part of the backstory. Despite this atrocity, Tasen are not generic videogame cannon fodder - instead, they are humanized as the game progresses, but most of that takes place only if the player chooses to read the various log files that Iji finds.
Iji's brother, Dan, is an unreliable authority figure, hidden somewhere in a control room and only present as a voice over a speaker. Iji, who has been involuntarily modified with Tasen nanotechnology by Dan and his allies, to decide how to procede.
The easiest thing to do is follow shooter/platformer convention and shoot everything that gets in your way. This makes the occupying forces fear and hate her, and starts to take a psychological toll on Iji. You can try to sneak around the Tasen, but that's more difficult, as the game offers few stealth powers and you gain experience for kills but not for avoidance. In the end, there's no way to keep your hands completely clean, but trying is easier on Iji and the increasingly sympathetic Tasen, who are being lied to by their leaders. When another alien race, the Komato, enter the picture, everything becomes more complex. First referred to as intergalactic police by Dan, the Komato seem to be bent on the genocide of the Tasen. Iji can discover things links between the Tasen, Komato and humankind, but new information doesn't directly lead to an end to hostilities.
In short, Iji is a platform shooter with complex politics. You are thrust into the position of a "freedom fighter" which is, from the Tasen perspective, a terrorist. Do you hope to convince them to leave Earth peacefully, or try to drive them out by force? Given a choice of foreign powers, do you try to ally with either, or do you count on their fight with each other to weaken them both? Do you trust Dan's summaries of the situation, or do you try to make sense of the conflicting accounts given in Tasen and Komato logs?
The game does not feature obvious narrative selection: there is no "trust Dan" button to click or "spare the Tasen" dialog box. Instead, the narrative forks depending on your in-game behavior: the means and the ends bother matter in Iji.
Iji is an entertaining platformer that, like its stylistic and spiritual predecessor, Another World is full of consequence. The political and moral issues of today are offered up in a poignant but not preachy form. A game in which you wonder if the alien grunt you shot two screens ago was the girl whose personal log you just read may not suit everyone, but, faced with Muslim Massacre and Roach Toaster, it gives me hope.