Video games can get dark quick, what with all the guns, military ops and monster-like creatures in space. The big games of fall and winter are no exception. Franchises such as “Metal Gear,” “Halo,” “Destiny” and “Call of Duty” provide plenty of wars to be waged on consoles and home computers.
So where’s the love?
Two newer games put forth the theory that interactive entertainment can be a little bright and cuddly, and do so without losing their edge. “Slam City Oracles,” in fact, turns to punk rock’s riot grrl movement of the 1990s for inspiration, while “Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime” laces its high-intensity action with themes of adoration.
“At least in games, it’s so much more acceptable to be gray and serious and dark, so I really feel like it’s rebellious to be happy and exuberant and cheerful,” says Jane Friedhoff, creator of “Slam City Oracles.” “Those are somewhat more vulnerable emotions than anger, or whatever emotion you’d want to call shooting.”
Both games necessitate cooperation yet take a different tack in their quests to be nice.
“Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime” is laid out like a giant intergalactic rave, complete with a pulsating heart and an electronic soundtrack. The beat gets scratched, however, when the party is busted by the jaded forces of anti-love. Consider them a deep space police force — or simply meanies with lasers — coming to jail the revelers, only they look like insects. The lovers who had the universe grooving were bunnies.
It’s up to two players, or one player with the help of a virtual cat or dog companion, to get the world dancing once again and restore order, in this case peace and love.
In “Slam City Oracles,” players bounce among clouds and treat buildings, as well as the occasional giant slice of pizza, as if they’re toy blocks. Work together to bounce in time, and you’ll inspire a bigger commotion, since there’s more power in friendship.
Developers cite popular works of sci-fi and fantasy such as the “Star Wars” trilogy for inspiration, but also don’t deny they were reacting against all the dourness in the pop-culture landscape. Today, the pop music that dominates is the existential heartache of the Weeknd, and top films involve dinosaurs and superheroes involved in mass destruction.
But if there’s room for an “Inside Out” at the multiplex, surely the game space can benefit from a giant circular pink spaceship?
“The sci-fi genre has been done to death with gray, rusty ships,” says Jamie Tucker, one-third of the core development team at Asteroid Base, which created “Spacetime” for the Xbox One and home computers. “Even before we envisioned making the art style accessible, we wanted to kind of go against the gray spaceships. We were like, ‘What’s a ridiculous color for this spaceship that’s going to pop?’ Pink. We didn’t want to use any pure blacks or anything.”
But a brighter palette doesn’t equal an easier game. “Spacetime” is best with two players, since the game encourages — well, downright necessitates — constant communication to take down enemies. Characters will have to incessantly run around the circular ship, as each shield, gun and engine will have to be equipped individually. Be quick! Bunny lives are on the line.
“We wanted something that you wanted to save that’s not the typical trope of damsels or whatever,” says Tucker. “Everyone loves bunnies. So we have bunnies and frogs and foxes and birds that you can rescue.”
“Slam City Oracles” is similarly cooperative, but essentially does away with competition altogether. Friedhoff, whose day job is in a research and development lab at the New York Times, wanted to make a game that was welcoming and echoed the sense of community she found in the riot grrl scene.
“Be loud. Take up space. Be messy. It’s OK to be an amateur,” says Friedhoff. “I kept chewing on this idea of what it means to make a riot grrl game.”
In fact, those are the exact tenets that comprise “Slam City Oracles.” “If you’re loud, that’s OK. If you’re big or clumsy, or not super graceful, that’s OK. That’s going to get you points in this game. If you are loyal to your female friend, that’s going to get you a higher score.”
With color-filled, whimsical artwork courtesy of Jenny Jiao Hsia, “Slam City Oracles” is an interactive romp in which two teen girls make a mess of a fragile town. Utilizing just three keyboard buttons, each bounce brings about a mini-explosion.
It’s as if the world is created of construction paper. Available as a pay-what-you-want download for PCs and Macs, the game lasts as long as one hyper-paced song by Brooklyn-based band Scully, and despite being adorable and short, the game has some big ideas.
“I’ve described it before as a love letter to other women in games, which I still stand by,” Friedhoff says.
“Most women have these experiences of being told to be quieter, to take up less space, to be more dainty or elegant,” she adds later. “I know I did, and I got a lot of positive messaging from friends and family, but it’s really insidious.”
Her solution? Don’t run from those thoughts. Instead, she embraced them, flipped them and turned them into an arcade game.
“If I feel really vulnerable right now, I’m going to make a game where the women are invincible,” she says. “If I feel nervous and kind of sad, I’m going to make a game where everything is really aggressively happy.”
‘Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime’
Developer: Asteroid Base
Platforms: Xbox One, home computers
‘Slam City Oracles’
Developer: Jane Friedhoff
Platforms: Home computers
Price: Pay what you want