Tech by VICE

This Anthology of Short Sci-Fi Video Games Is Too Weird for the Mainstream

Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz give small games power in numbers.

by Emanuel Maiberg
Mar 3 2015, 7:36pm

​Image: Sophie Houlden's Planet of the Poison Past

​Whether it's an Ikea furniture simulator or a recreation of the Jurassic Park operating system, there's something about game jams—short game development marathons—that produces the most creative nuggets of interactive media, but the majority of these games go unnoticed. With Antholojam, a game jam that concludes with a curated collection, Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz aim to give the little games that fall between the cracks a proper home.

It's a simple solution. Rather than give developers only 48 hours to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, Quinn and Lifschitz sort through pitches first, choose the best ideas, and give developers a month to put a game together. Each game is also supposed to last no more than an hour, making it easier for players to get through the anthology.

The theme for this first Antholojam was "The Golden Age of Sci-Fi," and the end product is more like a complete, carefully curated collection of short stories than a crate of misfit toys. It gives small games and good ideas power in numbers and structure.

Tom McHenry's ​Tonight Dies the Moon​ is a hilarious game made with Twine, a text-based game creation tool, about Earth's war with moon colonies, but really it's about mundanity, your parents giving you anxiety, and filling out Excel sheets for your cubicle job. Micah Johnston and Matt Starsoneck's Fire ​Theft is a touching adventure game about an NSA agent investigating an adorable but suspicious AI.

My favorite of the bunch is Ice Water Games's The ​Absence of Is, a creepy first person game in which a group of researchers explore the afterlife as if it were an alien planet. The story begins with you putting your fellow explorers to death in a lab, then reality begins to twist like those final scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There are 15 sci-fi games in all, picked from close to 100 pitches.

They're all interesting little experiments, but each one of them alone doesn't fit into the existing ways games are packaged for players. They're too short and weird for consoles and even digital distribution platforms like Steam. Together, they make perfect sense.

Image: Dualhammers and Mint's Orison of Mercury

"The idea came out of weird place," Quinn told me. "We were crashing in Leeds with this amazing guitarist and friend of Alex, Jon Gomm, and we were just smoking weed and talking about sci-fi and sci-fi anthologies from the 1950s and how all these short stories that were just amazing. We thought why not just do that with games?"

Quinn says she's an advocate for games in different formats, especially shorter games distributed online because they're more accessible. Quinn's own Twine game, Depression Quest, is part of the reason she's been the target of vicious online harassment since GamerGate reared its ugly head in August of last year. For Quinn, Augus​t never ended.

Antholojam is an attempt to take some of that attention and turn into something positive she can give back to the indie game development community.

From the very beginning, the plan was not only to give these games more exposure as a collection, but to hopefully get the developers paid. It's been less successful on that front, Quinn and Lifschitz admit, because players only pay what they want, including nothing, and whatever does come in is split 15 ways.

Quinn's unconventional game 'Depression Quest' is part of the reason she's been the target of harassment

Still, Quinn and Lifschitz say they're pleased with the attention the games have been getting, and that the participating developers didn't only walk away with a great portfolio piece, but also the relationships they formed with each other.

Quinn and Lifschitz plan on holding another Antholojam, even if they're not sure when. "We're kind of waiting for the rest of life to calm down," Lifschitz said. They had to delay our first meeting because Quinn and Lifschitz had an "all hands on deck situation" with Crash Ov​erride, a new organization they've set up to help other people who are being harassed online. "One of the only real snags we hit Antholojam is that everything else is going on with Zoe and myself, but we're totally angling for a second and more beyond that."

Antholojam I is ava​ilable here

Lead image: Sophie Houlden's Planet of the Poison Past.