The Games of 2012: Slave of God

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Stephen Lavelle – the man behind Increpare – is a fascinating and undoubtedly gifted developer. He’s also extremely difficult to pin down. The hundred or so games on his site are wildy disparate things. Some, like Missing and The Terrible Whiteness of Appalachian Nights, are brief exercises in building atmosphere. Others, like the blindingly intelligent untris and English Country Tune, are abstract puzzles based around tight, novel mechanics. And others still, like Kettle and Home, are strange combinations of the two approaches.

What’s most impressive is not that he dabbles in these different realms of game design, but that, more so than anyone other developer I know, he’s a master of them all. Not only does he routinely invent, use, and discard mechanics that other developers might base an entire career around, but his less mechanics-and-systems-heavy games are equally impressive. He’s an expert at capturing a certain feeling, or a certain place, or a certain moment in time.

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Slave of God is a game about a feeling and a place and a certain moment in time. Like Activate The Three Artefacts And Then Leave it’s an instant assault on the senses, with every sight and sound moving and contorting, doing their best at all times to leave you feeling lost. But where Activate The Three Artefacts could be best described as an abstract fever dream or some kind of geometric purgatory, this is a game about going to a nightclub while completely off your face. It’s a game about getting drunk, possibly more, and seeing the walls spin.

The game begins and you find yourself in the lobby. Colours are lurid and neon and absolutely everywhere. They cover every available surface, and they never stay still. It’s a frankly brilliant feat of visual design, and it’s immediately both arresting and overwhelming. But it’s not just there for show. It’s there to capture the feeling of being completely intoxicated in a safe, if unfamiliar place, and it does so perfectly.

If you were to insist that every game needs a central mechanic I’d say that Slave of God’s central mechanic is ‘knowing where you are’. Sometimes simply retracing your steps down a corridor can be the hardest thing in the world, and the moment you find yourself stumbling into some new place is often the moment you completely lose your bearings.  So, it can be remarkably difficult to tell where you are, or just what’s going on, but it never feels wrong. Sure, you may get the occasional bout of drunken paranoia, and it may even get so confusing at times that you feel like you’ve said a permanent goodbye to Euclidean space, but that’s really all part of a good night out, isn’t it? Without the lows the highs just wouldn’t be as high.

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And just as the game captures the confusion and disorientation of a good night out, it also captures the highs. Because not only does the game’s visual style work to make you feel confused and intoxicated, it also helps to recreate the illusive feeling of euphoria that can come to you, dumb and  light-headed on the dance floor.

As soon as you step up onto that dance floor everything changes. Lights and colours flare. The people around you shift and strobe rhythmically. The music, elsewhere a constant, mercilessly hypnotic background noise, becomes something altogether different. And then you lock eyes with that one person and, in an instant, it feels like you’re the only two people on earth.

It’s a game that recreates the feelings and the experiences of the entire arc of the world’s most intense night out, but it’s made out of small, wonderfully realised moments: from stepping onto the dance floor for the first time, to getting lost somewhere you know you’re not supposed to be, to heading for the toilets to cool down because everything is just too intense. These moments arise from such clever use of the game’s visual and audio presentation that it’s tempting to describe them all in detail, but unfortunately talking about them risks undermining their surprise, and their magic, so I’ll cut this short and let you discover them for yourself.

I’ll finish, then, by saying that this is one of the year’s most imaginative, impressive games, from one of the medium’s most consistently impressive, surprising talents. And by saying that you really should play it. Though, um, very much a seizure warning on this one.

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