We don’t talk about Gridrunner Revolution much.
I kinda understand why. It’s a fairly easy game to play but it’s a difficult game to get into. It’s a difficult game to see the beauty in too. It’s awkward.
It was a rough time, really. Space Giraffe, despite being THE best game ever made no arguments no backsies, hadn’t done too well in the old cash stakes, NeonPC had hit a wall. Gridrunner Revolution is a game born of a kind of desperation. It was a teeth grindingly stressful time for everyone involved and there’s fewer works where it shows quite so plainly. It’s a game that aims for elegance and beauty but if you squint you can see the dark clouds hanging over it. It’s in stark contrast to the later mobile Gridrunner, a game that’s at peace with its heritage and bold as all fuck.
Released after Space Giraffe and there’s none a game made with more intent to fuck with you than Space Giraffe, none a game so fucking bold and SPACE FUTURE. How do you even follow that up? But oh, if it were even that simple. How do you follow up a game that’s both widely praised for its inaccessibility, its visual noise, its sheer unadulterated COME WITH ME ON THIS TRIP OR FUCK OFF game design but equally, a game that’s not selling well precisely because of all those things and something’s got to pay the bills? Where do you go next?
In retrospect, probably not here, y’know?
Not because Gridrunner Revolution is a bad game. It really isn’t. It gets itself off to a slow and awkward start but once it settles into a groove, it’s quite an incredible piece of work. It’s a game based around making pretty shapes with your bullets to score higher, that alone is a pretty special thing and worth treasuring. Thrusty mode, hidden behind an unlock, is a great game all in and of itself, never mind the rest of the stuff.
But because it’s a game where the cracks are at their most public. It’s a game that’s caught between a confidence in mechanical design and the need to make money, to appeal to more people, to be something it isn’t. It’s the videogame as compromise when it should have been the videogame that sang. And I get it, I get that the time, the place, the pressure meant it could never really be anything else but still.
It’s got its rough edges with somewhere in the region of 500 different fonts, a bizarre-o world unlock system and the SHUT UP AND LEAVE ME ALONE of the tutorial designed to teach the mechanics by someone who’d clearly prefer it if you’d just learn the mechanics instead and why am I doing this stop making me do this. It’s also a game that lets you fly a giant cock around the screen spunking multicolour bullets and COME ON, you don’t get many games that let you do that now, right? (It’s also got what looks like a giant sperm spunking bullets and I’m not sure how that works other than it’s spunk all the way down). Its concessions to accessibility make it tougher to love and perversely, it ends up less accessible because it takes a whole lot more time and effort to find the game. The cutting edge of techno-shooty-things is a weird place to be at the best of times.
I like the game, I really do. Here’s me playing it earlier and I still really enjoy it, even if I am a bit on the old rusty side with it these days.
After Gridrunner Revolution tanked, Jeff skulked off to iOS to make a series of absolutely brilliant (-David Darling) little arcade games that AGAIN didn’t sell anywhere near where they should of which leaves me in the curious position of looking at the human race with a “what exactly is wrong with you?” expression. And no secrets were made of how little the games were selling, of how few Gridrunner Revolution sold too. Wherever the complaints arose, the response was often the same.
Picture the scene. Jeff Minter’s landed on an alien planet, he’s gone exploring and got into a bit of a pickle and got a bit of the old poisoning and only had enough of the antidote to give to a passing sheepy. It’s time for Jeff to regenerate and as he lies there clutching a fluffy sheepy, the process about to begin, a bunch of curious disembodied heads start floating into view.
“Lose the animal noises, Jeff”
“You don’t fit with the times”
“You need to polish your games more”
“Stop making them look like old arcade games”
“No, really, stop the fucking animal noises, Jeff”
The heads keep spinning round, muttering away to themselves. “Make a game like other people make games and everything will be fine”, they whisper. It all goes a bit blurry and Jeff’s played by Colin Baker now.
Or something like that anyway. The point being that since Space Giraffe, it’s been a fairly constant refrain and one I’m fairly sure I’ve joined in with myself at points in time which I feel a bit of a noddy for, to be fair.
Five years on and it’s hard not to look at Gridrunner Revolution as a sort of reactionary game, a game struggling to find its place in a world where what you do is maybe not considered A ThingTM anymore and it’s a step in working out how to address that. There’s many pushes towards that-what-other-games-do often at the expense of that-what-Yak-games-do and in so many cases, they’re the bits where the game falls flat on its face. What makes Gridrunner Revolution appear less special is that it exists in some sort of weird halfway house between a definite Yak game and everyone else’s game and that’s clearly not a comfortable place.
A few years back, someone popped a question over my way and said words to the effect of “Rob, what do you think Jeff would need to make the best game ever?” and I paused. For a moment, I remembered Gridrunner Revolution, the stress of its development, the noise and the clatter. I remembered what came after, so much asking Jeff to not be himself in his games. For the market.
“To be comfortable and left the fuck alone to do what he does best”, I thought. I politely rephrased it because I can be polite sometimes for reals. OK, I used a slightly milder swear. Same thing.
These days, when I think of Gridrunner Rev, I think of it as a warning for what happens when you go reaching out for a market that your heart isn’t into serving because it’s not you, it’s just not who you are or what you want to do with your life. I find it helps me understand that not everyone is built to fit in with what everyone else does and that’s OK and trying to make some things fit is an exercise in futility.
I accept that we don’t talk about Gridrunner Revolution because not many people play Gridrunner Revolution and yeah, I’m actually fine with this although I honestly believe it’s worth gritting your teeth through the slow first half hour for the rest. Just maybe if we can’t talk about the game much, we can remember that when making anything, videogames, doodles, music, whatever, our biggest asset is we are who we are and that is what makes our work special, not the polish, not fitting in with the market or anything like that.
We’re the important part of what we make and that’s oh so easy to forget sometimes but worth clinging onto, always.