Remember how playing Katamari Damacy felt? How it seemed like you could roll up nearly everything in sight onto your candy-and-cat-and-house-filled magic ball? One new game shown in New York City last week is sort of like that PS2 classic but with one big difference: you're slamming yourself into the world as hard as you can, over and over.
The single game mechanic in Slam City Oracles is being able to make its characters jump incredibly high off the ground and then bombard themselves down onto the ground. Many of the game's surfaces act like trampolines, propelling the cartoony heroines back into the sky. The higher you go in Slam City Oracles, the harder your impact is when you start speeding back downwards. Collisions with objects send them tumbling all over the screen, sometimes off buildings, Ferris wheels or clouds. You get achievements from interacting with certain objects or pulling off specific feats in SCO's four-minute rounds but, basically, it's all about breaking the world.
Jane Friedhoff's fun new creation is one of the multiplayer games commissioned by New York University for its annual No Quarter exhibition and, while its bouncy chaos is super-cute, it's also super-rambunctious. The similarities to Keita Takahashi's madcap object-collection classic are fairly obvious. This gameworld's a playground for super-powered physics tomfoolery, too, but it's an altogether more violent sort of interaction at play. When I played the PC-&-gamepad build of the game last week, I found myself wanting to jump ever higher, jostling and touching as much as I could. Friedhoff — who worked on weirdo meta-text-adventure The Second Amendment and Kinect-based vocals shooter Scream 'Em Up — says that a recurring theme of her game-making has been bodies taking up space in peculiar, positive ways.
"As a woman, you grow up with all these weird messages about your body and your presence in the world," Friedhoff said. "People get to say 'too much, too loud' to you whenever they want. I was really into riot grrl growing up and Slam City Oracles comes from the same place as that music did, where it's about reversing that vulnerability and turning the world's pressures back on it."
You rack up high scores in SCO — some of them so big they get into scientific notation — but that's not the point of the game, according to Friedhoff. "I like to design games that force people to have fun with each other," she told me last week. "This game is about surprising you and the person you're playing with, and making you both laugh."
It may not seem like it but Slam City Oracles has deeply personal motivations, but it does. "Being a woman in games can be hard, especially in terms of getting heard or feeling acknowledged," Friedhoff said. "I've shown games at conferences and have still had people asking if I was in the industry at the very same conference. There's a persistent sense of being alone." So, in Slam City Oracles, Friedhoff made a game about two best friends doing what they like, with no apologies. "You get a lot of games now that tell people's personal stories. This game is cartoony and not necessarily autobiographical. I haven't gone full Godzilla on a city yet. But it's still coming from a deeply personal place."