Gaming and gamers aren’t what they used to be. In the '80s, strict gatekeepers foisted action-flick-derivative moneyspinners on children; now, one-person indie devs suggest conceptual art experiences to midlife wage-slaves. Nerd Monkeys is hunting that time-poor customer with games “that you can play through from start to finish and still have time to enjoy other fine things in life”. This is Nerd Monkeys’ first collection and a second is already in the works, but for now the five games on offer in SGC - Short Games Collection #1 are Swallow the Sea, Ghostein, A Game Literally About Doing Your Taxes, The Good Time Garden and Uranus.
The games aren’t presented in a particular order but we’ll start with Swallow the Sea, in which the central conceit is the compounding of experiences to build scale and significance. You are a sea organism, preying on smaller organisms while being hunted by larger ones. As you devour prey you grow, as does your potential to eat the big things that were previously terrorising you. The reflexivity of coming to consume things like yourself leverages the participatory essence of games: your own emotions and actions are packaged and served up for bitesize consumption, making every gulp mean something. It’s like Katamari if you could somehow collect yourself, or Donut County if you could somehow make a hole fall inside another hole. However, while this is a great idea to get going it finishes abruptly. It was tasty, but we were expecting to swallow the whole sea, as promised. Instead, we were left feeling peckish.
Ghostein, meanwhile, explores an idea for controlling the protagonist of a game. Your button presses move a character who posts messages in the environment to indirectly command the story’s hero. The closest thing to come to mind is 1992 Simpsons spin-off Krusty’s Fun House, in which the player has Krusty the Clown kindly help rats achieve their extermination. Where Ghostein overreaches, though, is in its application of this mechanic to a boy’s escape from a Nazi concentration camp. The character you control directly is the ghost of the boy’s father, who is taken to his death at the start of the game.
The gameplay mechanic does nothing at all to serve this scenario or any relevant themes. It’s a short and shallow experience, which would be fine in the context of this collection, but is not anywhere near the sophistication that is needed for even the most basic treatment of the subject matter. Combined with cartoony pixel Nazis and Jumpman-style animations, it just trivialises things. It’s a clever concept that could have been applied to absolutely any other topic. How about the apparition of a game writer guiding a programmer away from a bad idea, for example?
Next, A Game Literally About Doing Your Taxes is the shortest, most mechanically basic game in the collection. It has an idea to show, shows it, then finishes, which is admirably to-the-point. It leaves you wanting to have another go, and being so brief, makes that a very doable prospect. The ratio of thoughts provoked to time spent is the best of the collection. Since there’s so little to it, it’s hard to say much more: you should just play it.
Then, for a blast of wondrous weirdness, we have The Good Time Garden. It creates a truly distinctive, surreal world of saucy cartoon body parts that can’t be unseen. It’s a basic 2D, nearly-top-down exploring adventure, with big, high-res, hand-drawn characters and backgrounds. Rendered in shades of pink, everything is organic and a bit cheeky, resembling, with varying degrees of similitude, bums and willies and boobies. The gameplay has modest ambitions – a handful of tiny fetch quests, essentially – but meets them quite clumsily. You will stick to scenery, traverse mapped routes that don’t always quite match that scenery, and experiment fruitlessly with what is interactable and what isn’t. However, it’s sufficient as a way to present what the game’s really about, which is its deliriously fun art, sound (those voices!) and music. Memorable? Yes: a little nude pink man gets taunted “Butt-hole! Butt-hole! Butt-hole!” by creatures that are themselves butts.
Which leads us neatly to Uranus. We approached this with some trepidation after The Good Time Garden, but needn’t have worried: this strobing, hyperactive, neon meltdown presents a different kind of flashing. It’s an abstract competitive action game, playable against CPU but better with a friend. Each player directs a growing, snaking line around the surface of a cherub’s eyeball, aiming to be the first to grow to the winning length. The catch is that if you cross your opponent’s line then yours is reset. It’s intense and frenetic, and quite hard to discern effective strategies, but it works. In this context, it delivers on a promise of a short blast of entertainment. Having a multiplayer game in the collection rounds out the package as a solid night in with company exploring a few game ideas.
And how does Short Games Collection fare as a package? While our score isn’t based on price – after all, prices change – the collection is launching at a steep ask (£16.99 / $19.99). If you have a PC then three of the five games are available to play right now for free, Uranus is 79p on Steam, and it seems Ghostein has previously been free, although it wasn’t available when we searched for it. Do note, too, that these really are short – you could get through all five in a couple of hours. To justify itself, the collection needs to add up to more than the sum of its parts – and unfortunately it doesn’t.
While the convenience of Switch gaming compared to PC is not to be underestimated, nothing has been done here to enhance the curation of the collection. Why are we presented with these games? What context do they provide for one another? Where is the curator’s voice? There are so many low-hanging fruit here: a foreword, short essays on the games or interviews with the creators, for example. Even just a defined running order that spins an interpretive thread through the collection. These things would have been very easy and cheap to implement – and Ghostein in particular could do with some very convincing commentary to justify its inclusion.
More sophisticated curation would have made this a genuinely new way to engage with games and gaming: a prompt to see all games in a new light, promote the whole indie game proposition and popularise the appreciation of gaming as – ugh, dare we use the word? – “art”. But the star feature is instead just an animated menu. As it stands, Short Games Collection is great if you can bring some inquisitiveness and insight of your own to the table – the games themselves are worth the time – but it’s nothing more than the sum of its parts.