The discerning modern gamer has more expectations from a game than they ever did before. Long gone are the days when all a game needed was a an enemy and a goal. Kill the centipedes. Cross the road. Dig that dug. Now we want to get into the headspace of the main character, we want to feel what he feels, celebrate his triumphs, and mourn his defeats. Many developers accomplish this through fantastic writing and voice acting, or creating an environment so realistic and compelling that it’s like we’re really there. It can take hundreds of man hours just to create an experience that really draws the player into their world. So why is it that I keep getting drawn back to bernband, an indie game with no dialogue, no mood music, no goals, all done by a single man in his spare time? It doesn’t make any sense. The graphics are super pixellated, a bit like if you played Duke Nukem 3D with severe myopia, and there’s not a single enemy to destroy. And yet, I can’t seem to stop thinking about it.
When you first boot the game up you’re dropped into a room with one other occupant, a weird alien who looks like something you’d scrape off your shoe. He quickly leaves, opening the door to the rest of the game. Once you leave the hallway you’re confronted with a strange world that’s reminiscent of Coruscant from Star Wars. Strange beings walk in crowds going on their business. There’s a bar nearby with some aliens playing in a band as patrons sit and enjoy their drinks. It’s utterly mystifying and there is no context. You don’t know who you are or what you’re supposed to be doing. Other than a set of alien hands permanently stuck out in front of you, there’s no hint as to what or who you are.
As you explore this strange new world you come across several branching paths, some of which you can’t go back to. I felt real anxiety as I took one over the other, wondering if I was missing something amazing. Some exits are completely hidden and take some trial and error to discover. It’s not a purely relaxing experience, but it’s amazing, and if it sounds like I’m a bit in love with this game, well, it’s true.
Some games where you’re a stranger in a strange land seem to hold you by the hand. Despite the writer’s insistence that this is a new and weird place, you always seem to find the inn or the weapon shop exactly where you expect it to be, whether you’re exploring an asteroid-turned-hideout or a post-apocalyptic city set hundreds of years in the future.
Big name developers could take a few cues from Tom van den Boogaart, creator of bernband. Without a single line of dialogue, and with graphics that make Superman 64 look good, Tom managed to recreate the feeling of culture shock that one experiences when traveling to a new city for the first time. Loneliness. Anxiety. Awe and wonder. I can’t say for certain that it was his intent, but sometimes the best games are happy little accidents.
Go check it out. It’s free and runs on multiple platforms, so you really don’t have an excuse. Maybe you’ll be inspired to create something better.