[This piece contains heavy spoilers! Please consider playing the games linked in the text before reading on.]
Strangethink is a Manchester-based independent developer, and this is the only piece of biographical trivia he’s made publicly available as far as I could find. We follow each other on Twitter although we’ve barely spoken. His timeline gives off an air of single-minded creative dedication and professionalism, replete with screenshots of his in-production work and updates on the development process. In other words, it reads like a dev blog. His website, by contrast, provides almost no information. All we get is his logo—a white Rorschach-esque pattern that looks something like a brain on a hot pink background—a screenshot of his game currently in development, and a field for sending Strangethink your email address in case your would like updates for its pending release.
Strangethink, if I didn’t have some physical location to affix him to, would seem to exist entirely on the internet. His presence is ephemeral, tone almost always detached and maybe a little self-absorbed. But I can only extrapolate so much about how he chooses to represent himself on the internet before I start making uncharitable assumptions. I don’t believe in the platitude that you can really “know an artist through their work”, but I do think that taking all of his work together reveals a very passionate, very deliberate and thoughtful voice. This voice asserts itself in his candy-coloured, impish, subtext-heavy, often procedurally-generated worlds, in the statements those worlds make about how we can situate ourselves in alien spaces and how meaning can be derived through context and well-composed set pieces gently guiding player discovery.
I ask myself now if it’s worth tracing a throughline of Strangethink’s artistic voice chronologically, firstly because his games have all been released in relatively quick succession, with the first, The Pyramid Gate, appearing on Game Jolt in May of 2014, and the most recent, Perfect Glowing Bodies, having appeared on his itch.io page sometime around February 2015 (the last update is for the 10th of that month.) Strangethink doesn’t have a trace in games, it seems, before 2013. “I was working in traditional art and started working on using code to generate artwork and modifying old plotters to paint it,” he told me via email. “Somehow in that process I ended up playing with Unity and the idea of making generated environments for people to explore seemed far more fascinating than anything I was doing at the time.”
The other reason I question that approach is because these worlds, overall, have delivered on pretty consistent aesthetic preoccupations within this past year or so of their proliferation, and they all seem to depict places which are detached from any particular space or time occupied by human beings. Strangethink’s games seem to operate in their own dimension, with their own Escher-like impossible architecture, luminously gradated pastel palettes and eldritch, moody thematic undertones.
These games can be sorted into two broad categories in terms of composition, with some overlap in between. The first is what I’ll refer to as his “walking simulator” games, and the second what I’ll refer to as his “virtual toy” games. In the first are the aforementioned The Pyramid Gate, as well as Abstract Ritual, Error City Tourist and Secret Habitat. All of these games are first-person and 3D, and have a sandbox-like feel which encourages exploration of the space. They put the player in the role of a silent and unseen protagonist, much like Connor Sherlock’s The Rapture Is Here and You Will Be Forcibly Removed from Your Home, Ed Key’s and David Kanaga’s Proteus or the more recent Dream.Sim by OXAM. From this vantage point, the “player-character” functions nakedly as an extension of the player’s senses, like a camera lens. Meaning is derived from how the game insinuates passage through the space and guides loose action (including observation) upon the set pieces inside of it.
In the second category we can safely identify games like Perfect Glowing Bodies, Art Machine, and to some extent StrangeClimber. These games, like the others, guide but don’t insist upon how the player communes with the virtual world. Unlike the others, they focus conceptually on a kind of creative player activity rather than more specifically authored events for the player to discover or enact. In other words, they operate more like specialized creative tools, letting the player tinker as a method of self-expression. But like I already averred, these aren’t hard categories. In both cases, there are some undeniable preoccupations with opaquely-coloured pastel environments; tendencies toward abstract, geometric architectures that look like a cross between a parkour course and a Cornelia Parker installation; sparse, often droning music; occultish, metaphysical imagery and a wry, poetic sensibility; and open, indirectly guided interaction with tools or spaces rather than the game revealing itself to the player in an enforced, linear narrative structure.
Despite not really caring about chronology here, I’ll take a look at his first release, The Pyramid Gate (2014), because it at least provides us with some kind of basic template against which more or less all of his other games can be compared and contrasted. The game, made for Game Jolt’s #lowrezjam, begins by presenting the player with a black, 8-bit pyramid-shaped icon centered on a grey background. I stare at it for a minute, unsure, and then I click the screen. The game fades in from 2D to 3D, the black pyramid icon coming into focus as a blue-green gradated pyramid protruding from the floor bearing a black-and-white zigzag motif reminiscent of the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks. The sky swirls in varying shades of pink and purple in the background. As I move my mouse to look around, I count three other blue pyramids (which turn purple in the horizon’s shadow), each stoic and autonomous. These bold, angular polygons and contrasting colours, particularly with the pixelation makes the place feel potentially threatening. I feel like I’ve been plopped into a space in media res, with no explicit narrative catalyst to contextualize how I choose to act or move. These silent blue structures are indifferent to me; they don’t need me.
I walk up to one and near the base, suddenly and with a startling, crunchy mechanical noise, this long, white, narrow rectangle dotted with artifacted black squares appears, like a stage light fixture. The squares blink fuschia and then when I click on them, sky blue. I recoil a bit, and the fixture disappears. I turn around. Suddenly, several tall, black rectangular columns have appeared on the plane in two rows, equal distances apart. They look like void but they’re solid, part of some incomplete structure. I repeat the same process with the other pyramids, and when I look behind me, more solid black structures have taken up residence. From where I’m standing, the columns of void now point the way to an exit: a white portal centered on a black pyramid. I walk through, and I’m taken back to that 2D icon, but it’s upside-down now. I wait expectantly for a bit, and then I close the window feeling inarticulately rattled.
The Pyramid Gate is a short, haunting game that reveals so much of the raw material Strangethink will continue to hone and adapt in later works. It’s a little abrupt compared to those later works, lacking some of their poetic and thematic contexts, but the interplay between dimensions, the changes in perspective, make the game feel surprising and a bit ominous. Moving into 3D and then back into 2D again makes one feel inflated and then flattened out. I’m reminded of how much I’m constrained by space. The fade-in to the 3D space gives these 2D icons an illusory depth in every sense. It makes them feel actual instead of merely implied, while retaining a sense of abstraction and remoteness. The movement between the pyramids, watching each simulated pixel curl on the horizon as I move forward, is disorienting. It makes the place feel ephemeral, which is exactly what Strangethink tells me his games are rooted in: “dreams and fleeting thoughts.”
While I would call the opaque series of actions I’m moved to perform a kind of “narrative”, for Strangethink meaning comes more from the personal relationship the player has between their body, their perception, and the parameters of the space itself. He tells me, “I like the idea of emergent and transcendent narrative and meaning. I don’t trust stories. If I make something that comes from somewhere in my brain that I don’t even understand myself, and another person interacts with that and forms their own ideas and feelings, it feels far more intimate, honest and meaningful to me than a crafted story that has gone through all kinds of mental filters with the intention of carrying a specific message and provoking a specific response.”
The Pyramid Gate establishes this sensibility with what becomes mainstays of Strangethink’s work from now on: pink/blue contrasts, striking juxtapositions of grey and monochrome, slight but punctuated audio cues, and this architectural predisposition toward space-as-symbol or space-as-narrative in dreamlike, alien worlds. His next game, Error City Tourist (2014), keeps the low-res artifacting of The Pyramid Gate, but uses it as a motif to buttress a more defined thematic connotation. The rough edges and motley splotches of colour—in the sky, on the blocky, flat-topped mesas of the city—imply a glitch aesthetic, but also feel metaphoric of the discombobulating hurly-burly of this strange urban setting. Black and white figures race across town, ignoring me, permanently scowling. They jerk and frown, sometimes getting stuck in a wall. They’re kind of cute, these wry little send-ups of renowned metropolitan hospitality.
Monitors at consoles here and there in corners of the clustered mesas alert themselves to me with a white hand icon, but instead of helpful and brief tourist information I’m shown haiku-like, procedural-seeming poems telling me that knowledge is a crime. They suggest that I follow the parkour platforms and ramps toward the train that rides through the middle of the city, and so I do, waiting at a stop for this hulking brown car to appear out of the distance. I board, waiting to be taken somewhere, but all it does is move. I overlook the city and it all blends together. I seem to be going in a circle. No beginning, no end.
Again, I’m dropped into the middle of a space that seems to neither need me nor particularly care about me. According to the Game Jolt comments on Error City Tourist, the surly-looking denizens of Error City used to attack the player, and some lament the developer’s removal of some semblance of a skill test. But like all Strangethink games, I don’t think the main antagonists are the “people” so much as the spaces. In Error City Tourist I’m pleased to see a connection being made between poetry and spatial design, considering I’ve personally put a lot of effort into establishing a connection between the structure of poetic forms and the interpretive importance of architecture in virtual worlds. It’s natural that I would interpret a relationship being drawn between elusive, barely coherent yet evocative language constructs and the mish-mash of colour and geometric clusters that make up the city. Both give me just enough information to access this focal point—the train, cutting through the city eternally—without being straightforward.
These things barely exist in the world to aid or facilitate, but they don’t work against me either: it’s my responsibility to appreciate and interpret the space and its weird corners. This “poetic” architecture complements another quality that often appears in Strangethink games: these open spaces don’t really tend to “end” as such. Often, I’m the one choosing the terms of how complete the experience is. I open the game, I move through it at my leisure, I get frustrated or bored or awed or amused, and then I eventually close it. That “emergence” and “transcendence” refutes a progressive narrative causality in the vast majority of cases, and it suits Strangethink well. The Pyramid Gate’s abruptness is interesting, but the game lacks a wholeness, a full sense of autonomy that later games deliver on. His spaces which are more like virtual tours of magical and alien subconscious dimensions, of little dioramas to tool around in, are where Strangethink shines brightest.
Secret Habitat (2015) is, in my opinion, the best example of a Strangethink “walking simulator.” This game contains a lot of the elements found in the ones described above, but it’s also the product of another Strangethink central preoccupation: procedural generation. By the time Secret Habitat came out, Strangethink had already played with the technique in various works, and in each case used it to an effect which admirably captured the oneiric, gestalt sensibility of his spaces without feeling like a purposeless, trite gimmick. Here, in Secret Habitat, the algorithmic trick is used to generate an art gallery—or rather, several art galleries linked together in often improbable and sometimes impossible sets of buildings. As if awakening into the space, I find myself walking down winding halls, parkour jumping through and over malformed cubby corners, down and up ramps between buildings, catching glimpses of nude tree branches and rainbow-coloured puddles in the dewy, foggy afterglow of what might have been a chemical rainstorm. The sky fades from a pale, blushing pink to blue to purple in the distance.
The artifacting and pixelation has long been abandoned, its metaphoric potential captured well enough in Error City Tourist. Now I tour the smoothed facades of Unity textures commonly found in 3D indie games. But the fleeting feeling, almost formless, almost unembodied, of ghostly floating is retained. I walk through these lonely galleries, grey and like upturned, cut-out cardboard boxes, observing framed glitch art with randomly-associated nameplates, listening to sometimes droning, sometimes frightening audio recordings on tape machines. I’m not sure how to make any more sense of it than the nude trees and rainbow puddles. I think of the conceptual, spiritual implication of a gallery space, and how abstract art in particular has created this phenomenon of confusion, i.e., “Is that candy wrapper garbage or is it part of the exhibit?” I’m tempted to parse meaning out of the constrained and quite random “gallery” focal object, but the truth is that there is no part of Secret Habitat that isn’t “part” of Secret Habitat. This explains why there aren’t any people in this space. I never run into a painter or a musician or a docent, and why should I? Secret Habitat needs no in-game artist facsimile because the artist has already mediated the conditions of my experience long before I ever downloaded the file. The trees and the puddles and the weird cubbies and the vaguely-meaningful but still somehow stirring “art” can be taken as a whole, and I can relax.
Abstract Ritual (2015), which came out slightly earlier, feels in comparison more like a conceptual retooling of The Pyramid Gate and Error City Tourist in some senses, although I think it reinforces its own ideas with more impact. It expresses more of an attempt, albeit quite a loose and noncommittal one, to narrative. A city of interweaving white platforms, imposing green gems and a culture of arcane magicks and secret knowledge await my exploration. Surrounding the city in three directions are different gates: one of squares, one of triangles and one of circles. Here, the green-and-pink sky swirls about and the procedurally-generated platforms of the city weave and fan, tendril-like, chiding me almost as much as the snarky, procedurally-generated alien wizards whose assistance I seek out. I’m looking for them, waiting for a clue or a sign about which gate to go through. I hop onto thin platforms, sometimes falling off, sometimes hopping from one base to the other only to get stuck in some misshapen shelf. I’m looking for an alien who this time, I feel, doesn’t want me around. I’m never attacked other than verbally, but for the first time I feel like I’ve walked in on something not just vaguely blasé, but actively hostile.
Things in Abstract Ritual aren’t just “there” for me to explore, it’s hinted: there’s a logic to things but I’m not allowed to learn the meaning behind this occultish ritual. I’m really made to feel like a bumbling tourist in this strange land. I do not belong. When I finally walk through the gates the wizards gesture towards, I’m ejected into a strange, floorless, ceilingless sorbet-hued purgatory. There’s more build-up of tension here than in The Pyramid Gate to the climactic moment of discovery, and so there’s a more satisfying payoff. Walking slowly through the gates, in a straight line overlooking an empty plane creates genuine suspense and excitement. There’s also a nice contrast going on between the aggressive, Antonio Gaudí-esque elaborateness of the city and the spatial limbo of this new dimension: I go from being self-conscious about my body to transcending into a kind of weightless nothingness, and I feel as though this is redemptive.
Despite the cheekiness of the wizards and their obtuse, sometimes misleading words that the space, once again, poetically reflects, the journey of finding information I can intuit—walk through a gate and see what happens—comes off as a little half-hearted. The narrative catalyst as a motivator for action is almost too easy here, when the only motivator a Strangethink game ever needs is an enticing and complex collision of space and colour.
Arguably, though, it’s not a “walking simulator”, but a “parkour simulator” that ties Strangethink’s two earliest releases with the rest of his catalogue. StrangeClimber (2014) is the product of a creative response to a Unity engine bug. The game consists of relatively muted pink and blue contrasts, and a greyish-purple jumble of blocks and platforms that coalesce in the center of my field of vision. It simply loads, and I run to it, building momentum, looking for a foothold, a nook, a cranny. I feel its smooth faces, its blocky clusters, as if I were climbing the face of Habitat 67. I do this until I’m satisfied, or until the procedurally-generated, imposing sculpture rejects my advances, or until I become all too familiar with it. I reload, and a new sculpture appears for me to scale, to learn its shape, to feel its material.
StrangeClimber, as far as I’m concerned, is the link between those earlier low-res, blocky mesas and pyramids and the smooth, brutalist concrete boxes and elaborate, modernist Gaudí-like tendrils of Sacred Habitat and Abstract Ritual respectively. This game draws the real line between those pixelated works and the later, smoother 3D textures. The faces of the polygons that congeal into the virtual sculpture are smooth, but the overall texture is chunky, jagged, the edges of platforms sticking out all over like branches, encouraging the formation of craters all over its surface.
But StrangeClimber is also skirting a line between categories. Inasmuch as it’s an “exploratory 3D space” with a thematic subtext, outside of the procedural structure it renders it doesn’t give the player any other objects to interact with in the world. The result is that the structure is the only focal point, the only thing that puts the act of playing in perspective for the player. This singular focus enables the circumstances whereby meaning is derived from my ability to dissect, appreciate, comprehend, scale, conquer, connect with the nooks and crannies of the structure. This act of discovery becomes a kind of challenge, more against myself than the space, to realize some personal meaning from a programming kludge that appears to exist, joyously, for no functional purpose.
StrangeClimber treats the player’s engagement with this virtual installation art, architecture, and physics as a mode of creative expression, where the player is now tinkering with momentum, speed, jump height and spatial reasoning in order to interpret the structure in some affective way. This is a conceit that gets carried over into Strangethink’s more “toylike” games, Art Machine and Perfect Glowing Bodies, although looking at the release dates I don’t think this implies a straight progressive arc of creation, but rather the cumulative effect of several fertile ideas coming into play in Strangethink’s work within a fairly short window of time.
Art Machine came out sometime in September of 2014, around two months after StrangeClimber did. But considering how much depth there is to Art Machine, I doubt that the development of the respective games was perfectly consecutive. I almost get the impression, looking at Art Machine, that StrangeClimber served in some sense to distract from some of the no doubt painstaking design adjustments that the tool required. But I think it also impresses upon some notions of player expression that become much more explicit in Art Machine. Whereas the sculpture in StrangeClimber doesn’t really respond to the player’s inputs, what does seem to emerge are personal styles and patterns for tackling the climb. Art Machine, however, made in the context of quite popular art tools by Andi McClure (Become A Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds!, Icosa) and more broadly a rather long history of art creation software, is all about getting acquainted with a daunting array of options and controls enough to realize something by using them.
It’s important to note that Art Machine is the first of Strangethink’s games that doesn’t automatically produce an illusion of 3D. It’s possible to simulate three dimensions if one becomes proficient enough with the tools, but the game starts on a flat, clean canvas. It’s actually quite difficult to produce anything at first because of this, and because of the number of inputs there are to learn. McClure’s Great Artist at least starts with a pre-loaded image to modify, which can be pretty mindless and free-form and still end up as aesthetically-pleasing. Art Machine requires some cycling through the extensive UI and forming a vision totally one’s own in order to create anything satisfying. This would seem to be drastically different from any other of his games, and in terms of presentation it is. But thinking about it, a Strangethink art tool makes perfect sense. Here is a thing, esoteric and difficult to grapple with conceptually, that asks the player to engage explicitly with colour, spatiality and shape on their own terms, and in that self-challenging space to produce their own meaning. It’s the abstract art maker that his other worlds strongly point toward and it’s unfortunate that, as far as I can tell, Art Machine is no longer available for download. It’s now another memory in the distant and misty Strangethink ephemera.
It was a relative while between StrangeClimber, Art Machine and Perfect Glowing Bodies. Before Perfect Glowing Bodies came Abstract Ritual and Sacred Habitat, which explored culture and art through virtual architecture, implying some poetically, tonally and thematically contextualizing properties to those spaces. Perfect Glowing Bodies, however, treats the body as a space to explore. The game is balancing a good deal of Strangethink’s preoccupations, holding them all together in what is essentially an alien-and-or-robot dress-up doll game. This is another 2D game, although third-dimensionality is implied in the curves and lighting of several of its assets. In the center of a grey, shaded plane is a figure, humanoid but not human. On its left is a control panel to change its shape—the Manipulate Form Matrix. On the right, the Pre-Installed Ideology panel gives me meters and a topography that I map to change my figure’s colour scheme. In so doing, I change their ideology, which ranges on a spectrum between positive and negative traits.
This simple and amusing toy is taking just about everything, from the grey-on-pastel contrasts to procedural generation (a random figure spawns whenever the game is loaded), to the emergent, creative interaction, to the subtly sinister, sensuously exotic atmosphere to the oddly poetic, random associations of text, and repurposing them in a way which is both refreshing yet distinctly “Strangethink.” Generally speaking, a game designer would treat this setting as only the prelude to the “real game”; here, in the tradition of random and impossible-to-climb structures that lead nowhere, and trains that loop around the horizon forever, the character customization screen is the game. But not only that—making a character becomes an exercise in treating the body as a possibility space which is mutated and modified through external—and not always predictable, deliberate, or well-intentioned—application. The body is a shell, a vessel, a temple, a sculpture, a statue, a piece of architecture whose arches, supports and wings all become solid markers of lived experience and identity, the way that sound travels down a tunnel or light through a window.
Strangethink’s games have many aesthetic and conceptual calling cards. They’re all pink and blue and made in Unity. They’re all on some level preoccupied with player exploration of space, with designed, virtual space as architecture, and with architecture as guiding not just naked interaction but also the internal work of interpretation. They tend toward a tension between “magic”, the metaphysical and affective, and to the science of construction, the math of procedural generation. They’re charcoal grey Bauhaus compounds ramming into bubblegum-sorbet skies. They’re “art machines.” But Strangethink has also managed to spin some very distinctive, sometimes competing experiences out of what is an overall powerfully recognizable style. Procedural generation and wacky Unity geometrics aren’t just cool, jaunty gimmicks, they’re actually being used to make statements about what these virtual installations are capable of, and how we may be able to find some reflection of personal truth even in something very alien from what we’re used to.
But, these spaces and tools don’t actually beckon us. Instead we are dropped into places and cultures that seemed to be doing quite well without us, thank you very much. We move through them not because the games ask us to, but because they suggest an uncanny beauty that makes us want to. We are the actors seeking excitement, conflict, purpose, and Strangethink’s games smirk and gently guide us along.
In our brief exchange, I asked Strangethink if he wanted to reveal his name. He respectfully declined.