Face-Stabbing; Or, why Nidhogg is so brilliant

To imagine an old technology as something that was once new means, therefore, to try to recapture a quality it has lost.
Tom Gunning, “Re-Newing Old Technologies: Astonishment, Second Nature, and the Uncanny in Technology from the Previous Turn-of-the-Century”

Anyone looking at my PlayStation library may be confused as to what types of games I actually enjoy.  There a few first person shooters (Spec Ops: The Line, Far Cry 2 and 3), several puzzle-type games (Super Puzzle Fighter 2: Turbo, Fez, Ibb and Obb), many triple-A games (The Last of Us, Uncharted 2 and 3, Grand Theft Auto V, Bioshock: Infinite) and more indie games than I could probably play in a year (Thomas Was Alone, Braid, The Unfinished Swan).  Okay, so many of those indie games are also puzzle games, but I really like puzzle games!  And indie games seem like they gravitate towards the logic aspects of puzzle games, which is why there are simply so many, not only for consoles or Steam but for handheld devices, too.

But this isn’t an attempt to defend the relationship between puzzle games and indie developers.  Instead, this is about my fascination with one particular, non-puzzle indie game: Nidhogg.  This action-oriented fighting game has quick pacing with great back and forth across the horizontal map.  Bold, boxy yellow and orange avatars stand out against the simple but beautiful backgrounds of the game.  Players can face-off against one another or the computer, stabbing and running and throwing swords to kill their opponent in splatters of bright yellow and orange blood.  They battle and run across three screens in each direction to the victory screen where a cheering audience waves their approval and a giant worm devours the victor.

Part of what makes this game so great isn’t just the absurdity of being eaten by a worm at the end, it’s the decades-long journey it took to get here.  Although this game was officially released in early 2014 on Steam and late 2014 on Sony consoles, it has a uniquely 1980s game feel due to the simple mechanics, pixelated avatars and environments, and limited color palette.  The most modern component of this game—besides its release—is easily the music.

Nidhogg’s success isn’t based solely on the fun gameplay, but also these classic components.  At this point, gamers have traversed a process of familiarity with the industry.  Very little surprises us about the medium because we’ve become so keenly aware of its conventions (which is probably one reason many of us are anxiously awaiting the Oculus Rift and similar devices).  Video games are a familiar medium, that regularly go through technological updates that result in a temporary amazement from audiences while the consoles or computer upgrades are still new, still “fresh.”  Plenty of gamers shared their excitement over the original graphics for The Last of Us when it was initially released on PS3; those same players (myself included) expressed more than giddiness at the announcement of the same game’s re-release on the PS4, which led to higher quality graphics, brighter colors, a higher frame rate, and faster loading times.  Audiences express similar excitement for HD remakes of older games on a regularly basis.  Players simply love experiencing their old favorites with upgraded technology; the old classics are made new again through technological upgrade.  The games, while familiar, can astonish the audience solely through the new technology and how such technology can change their experience.

Tom Gunning uses astonishment as part of his framework for understanding developing technologies; noting “One finds it difficult to be continually astonished by the same thing.  Astonishment gives way to familiarity,” which perfectly describes one problem with the AAA game industry: familiarity (41).  The works, the technology is generally familiar enough that audiences neglect the general astonishment of a single game.  According to Gunning, “Astonishment acts as a sort of threshold experience…  But once within, once past the threshold, astonishment gives way to curiosity and investigation and eventually to familiarity” (41).  Gamers may be struck with amazement at the first several games on a console, or even those favorites that are remade for quality on new consoles, but that quickly gives way as they investigate more games, and eventually knock themselves out with how familiar, how consistent, the process has become from game to game.

However, Nidhogg works directly against the trend of updating classic games by mimicking the conventions of those same classic games; it is immediately unfamiliar to modern gamers. Your only motivation: defeat your opponent, travelling across to the victory circle (where you’ll be eaten alive, but that is neither here nor there–it’s on the right, in fact). The controls are simple: walk, run, jump; adjust sword height from low, medium, high; punch, stab. Avatars are single colored, boxy, pixelated human figures (probably men, based on their low scream when they’re killed, but I won’t touch on that right now). All four levels (at the time of this post, at least) have slight obstacles like hills, platforms, tall grass, pits—all conventions common to classic games, going as far back as Pitfall on Atari or Mario Bros. on NES. Nidhogg is unique because it captures the quality and charm of an old medium and disregards the modern technologies available in order to do so. Nidhogg’s ability to astonish grows entirely out of its ability to recapture lost gaming qualities amongst new technologies.

(additional links to come…)