Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
Gaming and rioting seem like pursuits entirely at odds with one another. Gamers, while in the zone, are concerned only with whatever fantasy is on the screen in front of them, while rioters are roused, politically engaged, angry—and outside. But they actually have a fair amount in common: gaming and rioting are both populist platforms, they function on feeling and physicality, and both are corporeal expressions of emotional states.
Exploring that overlap is Riot: Civil Unrest, a strategy game by French developer Leonard Menchiari, who experienced rioting firsthand during “No TAV” protests in Italy. The movement, which opposes the construction of the €25 billion Turin–Lyon high-speed railway, has spanned decades and involved thousands of protesters. The experience affected Menchiari deeply, and afterward he began months of intense work on the prototype for what would become Riot.
TELL ME WHERE WERE YOU?
The game he set out to make was a real-time strategy experience that, with creative oversight, simulates the ebb and flow of crowds, and how those crowds intersect with law enforcement. Once he had a functioning core in place, Menchiari turned—fittingly—to crowdfunding to bring the game to life. He didn’t mince words on the game’s campaign page, either: “Living in a country drowning in debt and corruption, it is practically impossible for Team ‘Riot’ to find way to fund the project in Italy, and we are therefore asking for your help,” reads the Indiegogo, which ultimately raised over $36,000 to help fund development of the game. “We need you to spread the voice on an important issue through the medium of videogames.”
From the start, Riot was designed “to tell the stories and express the feelings experienced during these clashes,” as the official description states. The player can assume the role of either rioter or riot police. The game is being designed to ask: what is it that ignites crowds, and how do these encounters play out—from both sides of the conflict?
Inspiration from within the medium came from a decidedly less political game: Hotline Miami, an acid-washed fever dream with ‘80s vibes and copious pixelated murder. “It was incredible,” Menchiari said. Previously an editor and cinematographer at Half-Life developer and Steam creator Valve Software, Menchiari found inspiration elsewhere as well: “Sword and Sworcery made me realize how much potential pixel art could have,” he said. “Also, games like Cart Life or Papers, Please made me see the power of serious gaming.”
Sword and Sworcery is an atmospheric pixel art phone game. Cart Life is a realistic portrayal of the struggles of street vendors. And Papers, Please casts players as a passport-checker on the border of two war-torn countries. Their influence over Riot is unsurprising. But the game also explores new terrain, both thematically and in its unique pixel art aesthetic— a raw, dirty spin on what’s generally a more tidy visual format.
Pixel art, easy to learn but hard to master, provided a set of limitations that expanded the creative potential of Menchiari’s one-man show, but ultimately proved more vexing than expected. “Initially, I thought it was the most efficient way forward for [development], [but] eventually I realized that it’s not all that easy to replicate things when your art is restrained by so few pixels,” he said.
The abstraction that the stylistic choice brings to the experience, however, proved fruitful. “The main [benefit], though, is that by using pixel art, you can fill in a lot more space with your imagination, and the graphics will probably be seen similarly over the course of [time].” In other words, like Jurassic Park today, Riot will still look good in 20 years.
WANNA LET IT BURN
Seeing massive, dynamic crowds clustering outside capital buildings—and the inert, white, male politicians dutifully oppressing those crowds from inside those capital buildings—through Riot’s low-res lens is a revelation. Watching an abstracted, squared-off molotov cocktail fly from the outstretched hand of a ski-masked rioter and explode on the street borders on sublime.
Menchiari wanted to unpack what happens during riots—not just why, but how. “I started to understand many more [of the] strategies that the police usually use to control crowds,” he said. “Of course my main ideas about how this is done, after personally seeing some extreme brutality, remain unchanged.”
Riot is still in development, and the current plan is for it to include six single-player campaigns (plus some multiplayer features). These campaigns are set on the backdrops of the NoTAV movement, the Egyptian Revolution centered on Tahrir Square, the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, and scenarios in Spain, Greece, and the Philippines.
The game was in development long before recent, strikingly relevant events in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, and these scenarios will not make it into the final product at Menchiari’s hands. But that doesn’t mean players won’t be able to experience them: the game’s level editor will make it possible for players to design their own riots and share them with other players around the world. The inevitable results seem destined to make some headlines of their own.
“Like any art form, video games have the potential to express pretty much any concept,” Menchiari said. That can sometimes get games, gamers and game developers into trouble, but in Riot’s case that’s pretty much the point.
Riot is scheduled to be released later this summer.
Evan Shamoon is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Visit his website at giantmecha.com.
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