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.
In some ways, most video games are what you might consider abstract. It takes some degree of suspension of disbelief to interpret the carefully grouped pixels on your screen as spaceships, guns and people, no matter how realistically they’re rendered. This is especially true of puzzle games, where you arrange colored blocks or connect dots endlessly with no narrative purpose, and older games with primitive graphics.
Look at games on the Atari 2600, like Howard Scott Warshaw’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The former was considered a hit, the latter, one of the worst games ever made; yet they’re both so abstract, the whips, market bazaars and aliens represented by the most rudimentary geometries imaginable, as to be barely comprehensible, especially compared with the films from which they were adapted. To me, that’s what Strawberry Cubes is like.
There’s a lot to unpack in Strawberry Cubes, but damned if I even know where to start. You play as what appears to be a little girl, wandering through flickering landscapes of skulls and flowers and The Matrix-like glitches. Doors lead everywhere and nowhere; seeds sprout climbable vines, while various keyboard taps subtly alter the aesthetic, cause you to teleport around and spawn plagues of leaping frogs. Floating numbers punctuate each new scene, seeming simultaneously random and brimming with hidden meanings.
That describes the entire game, actually, but its creator, Loren Schmidt, convinced me that it’s definitely more of the latter than the former.
“There is very little in the game that’s really, truly random,” Schmidt told me.
Strawberry Cubes began its life as a project for a 48-hour “game jam"—where game creators around the world are challenged to make games with certain themes all within a time limit—called Ludum Dare. "I didn’t want to start doing any preconceived ideas, but I had a couple of little seeds, one of which was that I wanted to make a game about my relationship with my grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease,” Schmidt said. “I had a couple of ideas for ways that might work mechanically, like vague ideas about screens made of tiles that didn’t all load accurately.”
“That was sort of a launching off point,” she said.
All the little touches that make Strawberry Cubes seem “weird for weird’s sake"—which Schmidt insists it is not—stemmed from those initial seeds. The result is a game that feels hopelessly obtuse, with unclear goals and mechanics, breaking many of the cardinal rules about how games should communicate with and convey ideas to their players. Some of that is alleviated, though, when you learn about its origin in Schmidt’s personal life.
Suddenly all that randomness seems deliberate, if no less confusing. Playing Strawberry Cubes is like peering into Schmidt’s experience with her grandmother, or, probably more accurately, seeing how Schmidt imagines her grandmother may have experienced the world. You ask yourself questions: "Where am I? What am I doing here? Who are these people? What is the meaning?” Yeah, Alzheimer’s sucks.
“She was a really tremendously powerful, knowledgable, wise person. In many ways she was like a third parent to me. I was quite close with her during my early childhood. She contracted Alzheimer’s Disease around ‘99, I’m going to say, and she was in kind of a slow decline for the last seven years of her life,” Schmidt said. “There was this feeling of slowly losing every connection with the person she used to be, you know?…there’s something very total about losing someone that way, piece by piece.”
Strawberry Cubes may have started as a game made over just a couple of days, but Schmidt ultimately wound up working on it much longer. She said she was motivated by a need to revisit her memories of her grandmother—both the happy ones and the memories of losing her gradually over seven years.
That was her personal goal; she’s aware that it won’t come across to most players.
“It felt from the get-go that it needed to be a little bit out of reach,” she said. “I think some people interpret it as deliberately obfuscated, but the goal was more for the game to invite that deep exploration of aspects of games that aren’t necessarily normally mechanically relevant.”
“You’ll see these fascinating conversations between people speculating about how the underlying rules work, like someone says 'Oh, I’m sure that if I type this number that appears, it causes this effect.’ And it does, every single time, but you could just hit asterisk and it would do the same thing. People build their own set of superstitions,” she continued. “It felt very natural to pull away from normal game vocabulary a little bit and hang out more in this zone of like, dissecting mechanics down to atomic pieces and re-combining them in slightly different or unfamiliar ways.”
And the name? From where in the anatomy of Schmidt’s life with her grandmother was “strawberry cubes” incised?
“This is a little bit tangential to the game, but it felt right,” Schmidt explained. “So, a long time ago astronauts were sent up into the void with really disgusting cubes of compressed, freeze-dried food, and 'strawberry cubes’ was one of the menu items from, I think it was Gemini flights. That one’s an example of more of a collage-style connection—it’s something that feels resonant with the structure of the game, which wasn’t drawn directly from the subject material of the game.”
Even knowing all this, playing Strawberry Cubes can feel more confusing than anything else. Half its features feel like bugs, and it’s impossible to tell which ones were designed deliberately, and which were simply actual bugs that Schmidt “tamed,” as she put it, as they cropped up during development. This is probably not the type of game you’re going to return to time and time again. But if you stick with Strawberry Cubes long enough, you will get something out of it, Schmidt believes.
“There is no distinct end state,” she said. “I think there is closure to be had.”
Pay $1 or more for Strawberry Cubes at lorenschmidt.itch.io.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games, especially the really weird ones. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
RELATED: Gamers Next Door Pam and Amelia are on a 'Mario Maker’ Mission