Those of you deeply involved in the goings on of video games may have noticed that an increasing amount of big-budget titles are startlingly similar. Destiny 2, Call of Duty WWII and Star Wars Battlefront II are this year’s big-hitters and all of them essentially boil down to wielding some guns in different environments.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a spot of Borderlands, Wolfenstein or Overwatch but sometimes it feels like the industry needs a shake up. Enter Nate Crowley, a man bold enough to go on a journey digging up the utterly ridiculous, and wonderfully refreshing, avant-garde games designed to rumble the very foundations of the global game industry’s rote ideas.
Of course, none of this is real. In his new book, 100 best video games (that never existed) Crowley takes a retrospective look at some of the best British games that never made it beyond the confines of his own brain.
Taking aside the more inventive stuff being done on the thin-end of the indie wedge, there’s still a fairly limited pool of ideas that people make games around, explains Crowley over a Skype call. “Just because Doom was a thing, suddenly the first-person shooter has rules that people have to obey in order for them to sell. So, yeah, it’s really easy to break those molds.”
Sex Orcs and Chess Wrestling
Titles in Crowley’s retrospective come in the form of the long-forgotten 1982 classic Noah’s Rough Month, a game where you play as Noah maintaining his ark after the waters of the great flood fail to recede; the unforgettable Wrestlechess which, as the name suggests, is chess where pieces grapple each other for supremacy; and the 1992 EastEnders tie-in BeastEnders, where Phil Mitchell takes it upon himself to brutally clear out an alien invasion from the fictional Central London borough of Walford.
One of Crowley’s favourite games in his series is a twisted take on ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ “It’s hard not to love Thomas the War Engine. My game of the year was Horizon: Zero Dawn and I just thought, ‘what if this was about trains’?
“The art that Edward from Rebellion did for it was fantastic – Thomas the Tank Engine’s gurning boy-like face on a Warhammer 40K Space Marine mecha, it’s hard to see that and not want to play it.”
If that doesn’t sound like the sort of game to tick your boxes, a couple of his other favourites are certainly coming out of the leftfield. “Captured by the Sex Orc sounds really seedy, and it looks really seedy as well – but, I really enjoy the idea that it’s a text adventure where you’re captured by the Sex Orc but it turns out he’s massively insecure.
“It turns out it’s just a really bad nickname he’s been given and he’s desperately trying to shrug it off. It’s an Arabian nights situation where he’s fled into captivity to talk around his crippling self-esteem issues and find a new identity. I think that could be a pretty slick text adventure.”
“Instead of cartoonish martial arts, you’ve got desperate people battering each other into horrible injury behind a supermarket”
Interestingly, there’s more to 100 Best Video Games (that never existed) than meets the eye. It’s not simply just a regurgitation of lots of game ideas, it’s a strange parallel to the evolution of video games. “[I realised] I’d unconsciously paralleled the landmark moments in gaming history in Tweets,” he explains. “Instead of Street Fighter II, you’ve got Behind the Bins at Burnley Co-op Warriors, which could have changed how modern fighting games looked.
“Instead of cartoonish martial arts, you’ve got desperate people battering each other into horrible injury behind a supermarket.”
Twitter-inspired game design
Crowley’s latest book comes hot off the heels of a tweet that spiralled out of control, resulting in Crowley coming up with over 1,000 completely bizarre games. “It was a bit of a fashion at the time,” he admits, “I don’t know where it came from but you started seeing people saying fairly sincere stuff like ‘one like equals one underrated TV show’. I thought fictional video games would be a laugh, possibly get 40 or 50 likes and then things just went really badly out of control.”
Instead of bundle the tweets up into a book, Crowley decided to team up with some of the game industry’s great creative minds to compile a lush compendium of his ideas. “I always make a situation more complicated than it needs to be.
“I could have just put a bunch of tweets in there and, to be honest, the art from Rebellion really sells it and it could have still been really good. But I thought it would be really interesting, a way to look back at the world of games from a slightly skewed perspective. That’s a cliche, I know, but it’s an oddly British tragic perspective on the history of games if they’d all been made in Swindon garages.”
Thankfully he’s well aware this isn’t going to be some international bestseller or a Booker Prize-winner. “Don’t get me wrong, this is a book designed for people’s toilets. My real hope is that there will be a lot of people around the New Year laughing through hangovers while reading this on the crapper.”
Crowley’s work brings to mind the work of King Baggot, a Flash and Unity game designer and cartoonist, who has created over 600 strange game ideas, complete with hand-drawn design documents and put them together as a book. With Baggot and Crowley helping expand the medium of what a game can really be about, hopefully we won’t have to endure yet another Gears of War sequel anytime soon.