DYSTROPICANA- Itch Game of the Week

3 games, a short film, an EP, a buzzword bot, and some ASCII art

Dystropicana is a multimedia anthology compiled by Tristain Neu, Gabriel Helfenstein, Merle Leufgen and Troy Duguid. It can be found at the time of writing at this page.

Dystropicana isn’t one single game, it’s described by its creators as a “digital multimedia archipelago” but multimedia anthology might be the most descriptive terminology for it. Born from the collaboration of 4 individuals out of experimental media meet ups in Berlin, Dystropicana is surprisingly cohesive considering its experimental forms. If you put a gun to my head and demanded me to give a thesis for the entire project, I’d probably say it’s a kind of environmentalist protest about how humanity treats it’s water resources. Or at the very least a kind of rumination of how digital portrayals of natural places and events are insufficient as replacements for the real thing. The short film included in the compilation, “Your Life But Every Time They Say VR It Gets Faster,” puts in contrast the supposed death of the Great Barrier Reef with tech’s current VR fascination. Ultimately that film shows VR and digital places and experiences as inauthentic, which is a thread found throughout Dystropicana’s three individual games and additional materials.

I’m going to take the time to highlight each of Dystropicana’s three games individually, but I don’t want to diminish the non-game elements of the collection. The ASCII art, the short film or the @cybertropics twitter bot are just as much a part of the larger collection as the three games. While I will spend most of my efforts focusing on the games here, I recommend you sample all the multimedia elements if you want the complete Dystropicana picture.

Of the three games in Dystropicana,Tristain Neu and Gabriel Helfenstein’s Déluge is the one that most meets the traditional understanding of what constitutes a videogame. I also feel that it has the most direct messaging of all the parts in the larger project. In Déluge the player is situated on a small island shared only with some industrial machinery, a vending machine and some green coloured stone statues of other humans. Interacting with objects around the island causes pollution, which in turns causes the water to rise. The statues periodically flee toward the player and dry land to avoid being submerged. The water in Déluge kills the player instantly upon walking into it. So instead of the water being a life-giving force, it is a constantly encroaching inescapable death march. Déluge seems to be a pretty straightforward critique of society’s pollution habits, and the game builds thematically on the included short film so I don’t think of its directness as a problem.

Merle Leufgen’s _XOISLANDS marks Dystropicana’s step into more experimental practices. Mechanically, _XOISLANDS is a small little wander game, the player moves through a small little environment full of untextured grey palm trees. Plus there’s this cascade kind of visual effect applied, like the one found in the windows solitaire game that smear the cards across the screen upon winning. Dragging the trees across the screen breaks them as natural objects. Sure the lack of colour does some of that, but filling the screen with the same tree over and over cuts it off from any link to its organic design origin. Carbon copied over and over the grey trees feel more like city lamposts produced in factories not grown from the earth. There’s some plugins kicking around the unity files of _XOISLANDS that suggests it might be intended for VR. That would make sense considering the short film but I don’t have the equipment to test that. I’d be interesting to see if the supposed immersion of VR makes _XOISLANDS more disorienting still or if it’s too far gone for that to matter.

Sunshine Coast is the work of Troy Duguid and it serves as a blast to the senses as the last interactive piece of Dystropicana. The game is a series of procedurally generated islands and buildings that the player flies over or whips around to look at from every angle. If _XOISLANDS contorts the natural with smeared repetition, Sunshine Coast does it with overwhelming colour. All the elements in the world rapidly switch between colours at seemingly random intervals. The colours it switches between are the purest shades of blue, green and red. The rapid switching is incredibly hard to look at for any length of time. The brightness of the colours and the contrast between them forces the player to limit how much time they can physically even look at Sunshine Coast before they’ll need to turn it off from discomfort.

The landscape in the game otherwise is calm, still and the buildings can twist in all kinds of interesting shapes. Sunshine Coast should be a calm, pleasant little game but the infusion of these strong colours prevents this. These hues are associated more with the digital than the natural, if you’re reading this on an LCD screen you’re staring at thousands of tiny lights emitting these hues at you in the thousands. Much like _XOISLANDS, Sunshine Coast perverts the natural space with the digital. If _XOISLANDS blasphemies the natural through repetition, Sunshine Coast accomplishes this through the exaggeration of nature’s colours.

I can’t promise you my interpretation of this anthology is the intended one, or that the creators even had a single thesis in mind to begin with. But making connections between the works certainly interested me. If anything, Dystropicana is confident in itself, it puts a strong and fascinating foot forward. These are the kind of works that brought my interest to itch.io in the first place, and it is the kind of stuff I hope to find whenever I peruse its offerings.

Dystropicana was the game of the week for February 5th, 2017.