But I’m now going to tell you what I consider a punk game to be, and I’m going to give you some examples that you can go off and play, too. Last week, I went to A MAZE. in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I gave a Pecha Kucha on Punk Games. A Pecha Kucha is a rapid-fire presentation consisting of twenty slides, and the speaker has twenty seconds to say what they have to about each one. I’d never done this before, and it was pretty intense, but I managed to spew out most of what I wanted to say.
[A short video showing off some punk games]
Afterwards, the people who were sitting in front of me, subjected to the spitting of my words into a microphone, requested that I put the list of punk games I had provided somewhere online. So I’ve decided to do one better and put up each slide with what I said about each of them so everyone can understand the Pecha Kucha and play the games. So let’s talk about punk games!
The Schatz Effect
I think it was around the time that Andy Schatz, creator of Monaco, got up on the stage at IGF 2013 and said that there are “no punk-rock games any more” that I decided that “punk games” had to definitely be a thing. I have nothing against Andy Schatz or Monaco (I love both), but they exist in that place that I call the “made it” section of indie games. These are the huge indie games that get loads of coverage and sell big. They’re known by many, and rightfully so, usually.
But, please, don’t start saying that indie games aren’t obscure, undervalued and punk any more, Andy. Through your eyes, that MAY seem to be the case, but I know that’s far, far from the truth. It is true that indie games get more attention than ever these days, and “indie” also means something to some people now that isn’t just “shitty, pointless game” (not an actual quotation), but there are so many underground, underappreciated, and weird games being produced still. SO MANY.
Punk’s Not Dead
Funnily enough, about two weeks after Andy’s throwaway statement on the IGF stage this year, Zak Ayles released Punk’s Not Dead, which I like to think is a reaction to Schatz, and one of the quintessential punk games. Punk’s Not Dead is heavily inspired by JW of Vlambeer’s Karate, but it’s entirely pink-and-black and involves running down a street punching everybody in sight to send them flying across the screen.
Little details like the lamp posts bending out of shape, being able to punch bullets back to those who fired them and smashing up cars and fire hydrants adds to the destructive feel of the game. It has a punk attitude, a violent one, sure, but a very no-shits-given approach. As you play, a garage punk song sounds off underneath the fist-against-flesh noises, and expletives are spelled out over the backgrounds with your actions.
Finding What Fits
Above is what I suspect you visualize in your head when thinking about the word “punk” – something like that, at least. Ripped clothes, spiky green hair, nose rings, safety pins through cloth, crappy guitar strums…all of that.
The question is how all of these elements (the music, the fashion, the attitude) get into games. What does a punk game feel and look like?
The transfer is probably a lot smoother than you may think. Punk games aren’t all that hard to identify, and the shredded, scruffy, grimy, no cares, angry, violent, liberating, glorious and anti-everything nature all fits in somehow. I’ll show you. I will.
Game Title: Lost Levels
Though I could probably argue that everything Michael Brough creates is a punk game, I’ll settle for talking about Game Title: Lost Levels for now. Game Title is a dungeon crawler. It’s a little unusual, as you’d expect, but it’s a fairly standard dungeon crawler. Game Title: Lost Levels, however, is very unique.
Lost Levels emerged when Michael noticed that one of Game Title’s bugs could be used to exploit the game, and instead of eradicating it, as is the usual practice, he fiddled with it and turned it into a feature. He continued to do this with other manipulative bugs that broke Game Title apart, and when he started designing puzzles around these, Michael decided that it was appropriate to release a follow-up to Game Title.
To beat Game Title: Lost Levels, you have to utilize bugs and exploits of the original game. It’s bugs as features, glitches breaking the game world, finding new existence and trashing the system. It’s punk; don’t you see?
I live in an imaginary world in which I don’t have to explain what Space Funeral is to anybody. Alas, I do. Space Funeral is a strange RPG from the fantastic mind of thecatamites. You play Phillip, who lives among the rivers of blood and walks around in stripy pyjamas. Together they head to the City of Forms to try to restore order to the world in which they live.
There are blood ghouls, wizards, muscle hedonists and swamp knights to talk to and fight along the way. It looks DIY and depicts a world of gore cultism and fantasy unlike any other, and none of it seems coherent until right at the very end. In the final moments of Space Funeral, the game reveals that it’s actually a typical fantasy RPG; it’s even cute. It’s just that you’ve been playing through it while it was corrupted by broken systems and glitches; it was ugly.
Space Funeral is brought up among its fans alongside the chant, “BLOOD, BLOOD, BLOOD,” while Japanese noiserock sounds off in the background. It’s underground, peculiar, gore-fantasy. It’s punk, for fuck’s sake.
As you can see in the image above, John Candy’s Miracles Magpie is, well, look at it! There are none of those “realistic” 3D graphics here, just garish colors in which you can easily get lost within as you try to work out where the walls and paths are. Interestingly, Miracles Magpie starts off in the pitch black and requires you to wander around constantly, tapping Z until you find a light switch and turn on the visuals.
After this, you find more switches that alter room layouts and palettes, and among them are peculiar characters stuck in corrupted animation loops. There are pink seas of glitch foam and dirty textures rubbing against the outline of forms. It’s easy to get lost in Miracles Magpie, and its design is unwelcoming from the start; it’s ugly all around, purposely. It doesn’t want to be anything more than what it is, and it doesn’t care for your idea of what a game can be, should be or is.
Crypt Worlds: Your Darkest Desires Come True!
Crypt Worlds is a game out of the ’90s, today. It lets you soak yourself in “uncomfortable dream geometry” as you attempt to find your way around the “blocky hell labyrinths.” What’s particularly noteworthy as an example of Crypt Worlds punkiness is the screenshot above. This is one of the maintenance levels that goes beyond the fourth wall.
When you fall through a certain hole, or are punched through the graphics by some brutes, you end up here, where you can find developer Lilith and Clifford Baseball (Cliffy B), among other developers. There are rows and rows of nerds sitting at computers, who are said to be holding the game together with their coding skills. It’s a moment that’s no stranger than any of the others in the game, but it’s a location within Crypt Worlds’ realms that’s interested in the behind-the-scenes of how games are made and what game development can do to human beings.
Crypt Worlds is punk all around due to its visuals, concept and game design. It celebrates glitches, low-tech graphics and digital corruption.
Memories of a Broken Dimension
When I shared Memories of a Broken Dimension during the Pecha Kucha, it caused quite a few people to come up to me afterwards to find out more about the game. It’s a great concept. You start off by typing in command lines of an archaic, alien system. You might work it out by yourself, or you may seek help, but eventually, you’ll find a way to go in first-person view into a corrupted, grey world of bugs and broken code.
Your task in the “broken dimension” is to restore the world back to its former state, which is essentially the same plot as Space Funeral, but realized in a totally new and impressive fashion. As with other games on this list, Memories of A Broken Dimension is interested in exploring the parts of games that are usually deemed trash and thrown away or fixed by developers. It knows that games are built by people, and it accepts the mistakes they make and finds them fascinating.
Five Minutes To Kill Yourself
A slightly different flavor of punk games appears here. Five Minutes To Kill Yourself is violent, self-mutilation violent. You’re a typical office worker stuck in a nine-to-five job that you hate and getting by with life, with nothing exciting ever happening. You’re alive, but you’re not living.
So you grab a paper shredder and put your face in it. Screw this shit; you’re going to kill yourself, and you’re going to do it before any more of the dull nonsense that you have to keep up every day can haunt you once more.
The punk attitude sees a problem with corporations as they don’t let people be themselves and create freely, or even be truly happy. Punk isn’t quiet about its hatred of the way people are forced to live at times. It’s loud, violent and punchy. Five Minutes To Kill Yourself is all of this.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG
Following on from Five Minutes To Kill Yourself and its anti-establishment attitude, we have Super Columbine Massacre RPG, which is a much more considered take on one of the biggest tragedies in recent American history. Two schoolboys, armed with guns, went on a suicide run through the school, killing as many teachers and fellow pupils as they could.
The news stories bumped the blame onto various media, like video games and Marilyn Manson, instead of addressing what else might have caused these two boys to go on a murderous rampage. Super Columbine Massacre RPG was hated by those who didn’t play it, who thought it was a video game exploiting a horrific event and making celebrities of two murderers. But when you play it, you realize that it explores the backgrounds of these kids and what may have caused them to do what they did. It has you killing other innocent kids in typical RPG battles, but this is not a particularly pleasurable act.
What makes this punk, then? It’s that it’s a game that’s willing to delve into topics that we’re told games aren’t fit to explore, and it does so with no holds barred and comes out with a much more profound statement about society and media than most other coverage of the Columbine shootings was ever able to.
Going even further with the politics and violence direction, here we have Joyful Executions, which is a parody of North Korean propaganda used to lure children into extreme national pride, so much so that they’re taught how to look out for and kill traitors. You play a young girl who commands a firing squad. By preparing the right ammo and giving the right orders, you’re tasked with executing as many foreigners as possible in order to please the Supreme Leader.
The result is a glorified murder romp. Joyful Executions points out the problems with dystopian regimes that actually affect millions of people today, and it also explores how players will do anything if a game tells them, no matter how grim or violent.
The in-your-face presentation of the game and its direct interaction with real-life politics, with a readable criticism of them, makes it quite the noteworthy punk game.
Bear with me. Punk games delve into mature and taboo topics with no holds barred. Violence is one of those. Sex is another. But this isn’t exploiting sex. At least that’s not Orgasm Simulator‘s intention. One of the reasons why Orgasm Simulator exists is because it reverses the role of most games, which sees us playing males in typical power fantasies.
In Orgasm Simulator, you play a woman in a very vulnerable position. The idea is to match the grunts of the male so that he feels like you’re having as a good a time as he is and is able to, you know, finish. Once the build up is in place, you will fake an orgasm, much to his delight. It’s pretty satirical if you think about it hard enough, and it certainly stands out, and that’s what punk is good at.
Punk games, as you have seen, are quite often anti-traditional game design. They don’t care about notions of what’s right and what’s wrong. The idea of not including a process or part of game development as the final game itself is absurd to punk games. They want to allow the player to enjoy the full breadth of games, including their broke states. Volta isn’t one of those, but has the same sentiments in that it takes a familiar game design, Tetris, and punks it up a little.
Instead of dropping the tetrominoes neatly on top of each other, in Volta, you get to slam, push and force the blocks into one another as they’re all physics-based and aren’t solid, stable objects. Volta doesn’t care for the neat lines and design of Tetris; instead, it goes in and flips tables. There’s no time for being prim in Volta, so you should show some aggression when trying to match the colors of these blocks.
Remixing old game assets and creating something new out of them is pretty punk, if you ask me. We’re not talking about clones or games inspired by others here; we’re on about games that just rip other people’s graphics and code, mash them together and create something completely new and radical out of them. It’s cool as long as the game is released as freeware.
SHOOTERHOUSE is one of my favorite examples of this. Quite clearly, many of Splatterhouse’s art assets have been stolen and screwed around with to create a horror-themed horizontal shmup. Death techno accompanies the travels of this mask as it blasts its way through hordes of demonic and goo-oozing enemies. The best part is when you grab the chainsaw power-up and have a few sharp blades spinning around you at high speed.
It’s loud and a little messy. It’s punk, and some people find that scary. It’s SHOOTERHOUSE.
Unlike many popular games and other media, punk games care about real people who are struggling in life. Punk games take an interest in the daily lives of these unfortunate lives and lets you explore them and feel emotions you didn’t know existed, and the experience is profound and hopefully changes your perception of life a little. Cart Life does all of these things.
You can play three different characters, each of whom are struggling to make ends meet, and your input probably won’t change that much. The biggest challenge in Cart Life is ensuring you can cover your costs of rent, your child or your pets, the things you care for and need in order to survive. The systems are always working against you. It’s frustrating work trying to ensure you take the right order for a customer, give them the product in good time and ensure they have the right change. To survive, you’re forced to learn the ins and outs of menial tasks and master them with precision.
Cart Life is one of the few games that shows us life at the rough end of the stick and allows us to experience the struggle.
Revenge of the Sunfish
In a list of games that doesn’t care for notions of traditional game design, it’s impressive that Revenge of the Sunfish manages to stand out as one of the most bizarre and enthralling experiences among them. There’s no real way to lose or win Revenge of the Sunfish. It’s a series of seemingly random and often nonsensical mini-games that can be completed or failed within seconds.
The artwork is amateur and garish, and the music is similarly noisy and grating at times. But it’s great. There’s so much surprise to be found, and it feels like you’re wandering through all of the random thoughts, dreams and nightmares of the game’s creator. In one moment, you’re pleasuring your keyboard. The next, you’re battling angry serpents, and then you’re trying to select the right date for a monster. None of it’s connected in any way; it’s entirely nonsensical.
Revenge of the Sunfish is utterly interesting, and it pukes over traditional game design and any idea of what a quality game should be, while remaining one of the most unique games ever made.
Honestly, anything from Increpare’s huge library of games could be sitting here, but one of the most recent and truly insane is Untitled. You start off by collecting your friends from their house on a large skateboard. Then you head out of town and do a crazy stunt over a bridge jump. Then, suddenly, you’re driving a car in a world of just one seizure-texture. That goes as quickly as it came, which leaves you in another town at night, where your supposed friends run off and make life hard.
It seems like an almost seemingly random sequence of events, with gameplay segments linking together the important plot points and the in-between bits too. There’s no care given for uniformity, making sense or explaining itself. It’s just a game with crazy aesthetics and bits of gameplay stuck together with duct tape. The ending is raining underwear, naturally. Hard to explain, this one, but it’s punk; that’s for damn sure!
Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf
Let’s finish up with a game from one of the most punk game developers there is, cactusquid. Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf is a punk music video game. Actually, the music is provided by Fucking Werewolf Asso, which is headed by Denis Wedin, who has since teamed up with cactus to form Dennaton Games, who, yes, created Hotline Miami.
That aside, Keyboard Drumset is also comprised of mini-games that flutter by quite quickly, and they’re synched with the music and lyrics. The music is grungy, shouty and quite intense; so is the gameplay. You play a young guy who turns into a werewolf, and then slices up citizens of the world, because that’s what werewolves do. Again, themes of violence are present, but the connection to punk music is important in our consideration of punk games here, as well as the punchy presentation of the game.
So, What Are Punk Games?
I compiled a little list of what I consider to be some of the features of punk games. We’ve seen all of these present across the examples of punk games above. Of course, this is just my interpretation of punk games, and no one else is probably using the term. It’s just what I’ve decided to call the games that appeal to me the most, and I hope you’ve got some insight into what I mean when I say, “punk game,” and maybe you’ve found some cool games to play as well.