Strangers, by Jan Willem Nijman (a.k.a. Jwaap or JW) and Jonathan Barbosa Dijkstra, is a short platformer set in a traditional sci-fi world. Jan Willem excels graphically here, as always, but what really makes this worth the download is the story, which has an interesting twist that you may or may not see coming. Gameplay-wise, it’s fairly standard platforming fare with movement that feels great, due in part to its FPS style controls. The jagged edges and interweaving colors of the art resemble a bizarre watercolour, and this effect is enhanced by the unintentionally blurry fullscreen mode. Each setpiece and character is made up of a number of large boxes, which creates a fascinating visual effect that plays on our tendency to gravitate to geometric shapes. There’s no music in-game, but according to the topic in which it was announced, this song is intended to be listened to during play, which is quite suitable to the overall style of Strangers. In the game, the unnamed main character is accompanied by his dog, Columbus, and he encounters quite a few slimy, one-eyed monsters in his exploration of a rather small alien planet. To say more would give away the best part, but once you’re done playing, hit the jump for my thoughts on it.
Again, you can download Strangers here.
Strangers is one of a rare few games that implement moral choices in a meaningful way. Sure, you have games ranging from Fable to Infamous touting their merits as a representation of life and the difficult decisions that must be made in it, but nothing I’ve heard of so far has ever gone beyond bland and obvious story-based choices. Jwaap has mentioned several times how game designers should not be playing games, and this exemplifies that notion: because he tries to approach his games from an outsider perspective, he’s able to criticize their established tropes, and in the end create a more gameplay-based storytelling formula.
I saw the twist coming from the beginning. When I realized that the aliens weren’t shooting at me, I tried walking through them, expecting them to hurt me. They didn’t, which is when I realized that while I was playing the game, the reverse was also true. The “kill or be killed” motif present in so many games is here removed, but since it’s packaged in all the trappings of a traditional 2D platformer, there’s no expectation or curiosity on the player’s part that this might not be the case. At first, I thought it a fault that only one ending is present, no matter whether you shoot the alien’s children or not, but it appears that his reaction can act literally as well as euphemistically; perhaps his children are playing hide-and-seek when you choose not to brutally murder them. This versatility of meaning works towards the game’s advantage in that it allows Strangers to act as vignette rather than anything more. Jan Willem has made several “art games” before this one, but this seems to be one of his first non-parody ones, and it’s all the more effective for it.
Here’s JW’s initial mockup for the game, if you’re into that sort of thing; also check out his article on proper violence in games.