Crossposted from The Triangle. This game is a special case.
Xbox Live Arcade
A hard game to describe, Space Giraffe is like if the classic arcade game Tempest had a baby with OMGWTF-Sweet-Zombie-Jesus-seriously-what-the-hell-is-going-on., and that baby was a KLF fan. Space Giraffe is a game that sure looks poorly designed but is actually staggeringly clever. Space Giraffe is very divisive. Space Giraffe is magic.
One has to mention Tempest when talking about Space Giraffe, since the game is so strongly reminiscent of that classic. In point of fact, the game’s designer, Jeff Minter, designed the popular Tempest sequel, Tempest 2000. And indeed, on first glance, the game appears to be nothing more than a cheap clone of Tempest with overly busy graphics. This is a trap, the game’s first subversion, because when one first plays the game, one wants to approach it as if it were Tempest. Even if a player has never played Tempest, anyone familiar with twitch shooter video games will instinctively want to play this game using tactics that just won’t work because Space Giraffe goes to lengths to defy traditional patterns of play. The first key to Space Giraffe is understanding that, appearances to the contrary, this game is truly not Tempest.
Space Giraffe’s next subversion is it’s graphics. Some will love them, while many will hate them. Space Giraffe has a uniquely crazy landscape. It looks like it is set inside a music visualizer, inside the last 20 minutes of 2001, inside a psychedelic trip. This is very pretty, but it is horribly cluttered, and it makes the onscreen action very hard to follow. A classically grave design sin, Space Giraffe has carefully and deliberately given this game poor visibility, and this partial blindness is essential to the Space Giraffe experience. The second key to Space Giraffe is accepting that not being able to see what is going on can be a good thing.
If somebody told me that a game APPEARED to be poorly designed but that it gave that impression on purpose, and that if you didn’t like it, this was because you didn’t “get it,” well, I would be skeptical. Space Giraffe requires a leap of faith. It breaks cardinal rules of design and this makes it an uncomfortable experience. A Space Giraffe player is going to die “cheap” deaths. A Space Giraffe player must play first and understand later. A Space Giraffe player must learn to abandon reliance upon that which they see. Only when a Space Giraffe player has shed their preconceived notions of gaming can they accept the game on it’s own terms.
The game starts with a tutorial, and it is a cruel thing. It teaches the mechanics of gameplay, while it purposefully obscures the game’s required techniques and strategies. One starts the game with no indicator of what to do. From the beginning, a Space Giraffe player is expected to teach themselves what they need to navigate the game. There is no roadmap.
Players are nudged into learning different techniques one at a time. After they have the basics down, they must learn that sound is very important in Space Giraffe. Your eyes will fail you. One can’t see the entire field at once, so one needs to listen for important cues of what is happening while one’s eyes are elsewhere. The game will lead the player into placing greater and greater trust upon what they hear. Once you have learned to balance the auditory with the visual, once you are comfortable, this too will fail you. Players don’t get to be comfortable playing Space Giraffe.
The threats in Space Giraffe feel less like enemies and more like hostile ecology. Players need to learn to intuit the threats’ behaviors, as in the later stages, what one can see and what one can hear will not be enough to navigate the game. Over time, a dedicated Space Giraffe player will learn how the various elements move and interact, and the player will come to react in a way that bypasses conscious awareness. Intuition informs movement, balanced by what one sees and what one hears. The entire game is spent learning how to play it.
The game is filled with a steady stream of nonsense and non sequiturs in the form of text and sounds and visuals. It is filled with references to chaos and to chaos worship and to the practitioners of such. It is played in a psychedelic environment, a deliberately poor environment for a structured game. All of this creates an atmosphere of Discordian mystique that I feel is reflected in the gameplay. I truly feel that Space Giraffe is a work of chaotic magic.
The whole of the experience of Space Giraffe is one of finding order in apparent chaos. The game is a journey of enlightenment disguised as a twitch shooter. You are in an environment with rules unlike the ones you understand, and every step of the way, the road changes. And as you travel the path, you learn. You find yourself able to play something that looks unplayable. It forces you to alter your perception to gain enlightenment. It transcends gaming and becomes mysticism. Many people will not enjoy this, and many will not understand it. But for the right sort of person, this is perhaps the most amazing game ever made.