pacut1.jpg['The Z-Axis' is a bi-weekly column from game writer Michael Zenke, stretching games and gaming trends out planarly to poke, caress, and pinpoint the innards of what makes them great. This first week, he finds out how the folks from Penny Arcade laid their web strip end to end to make a deftly simple episodic game.]

Games are escapism. At their core, games offer the player a way to experience a place or moment in time which would otherwise be unattainable. Whether that moment is impossible (exploring a ruined dome city on the floor of the ocean) or merely highly improbable (living the life of a night vision goggle-wearing super-spy), games take us out of our time and place and put us into a new one.

The written word has done this for centuries, and over the years this has been concretized into the literal virtual worlds we now inhabit every day.

What I find fascinating is how modern gaming, having now turned many thorny design and technology issues into “solved problems”, has returned to the roots of the medium. The popularity of “all you can eat” gaming is ever on the rise, with titles like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Just the same, pure moments are quickly becoming the bread and butter of modern gaming - in the same way they were at the beginning of the pastime’s history.

Pac-Man and Asteroids don’t get much simpler, and games once again seek to once again offer that clarity of experience. Strung-together chunks of directed gameplay offer this up on the moment-to-moment level, while episodic gaming seeks to offer this sort of pure experience over a longer timeframe.

Nowhere is this vision or purity more visible than in last month’s release of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. The new title is the perfect example of an extended moment, a point in time distilled and spread throughout a greater whole.

On A Precipice

OtRSPoD, as it’s being called, is the first venture into gaming from the creators of the Penny Arcade webcomic. To say that Penny Arcade is wildly successful would be a gross understatement. Within the field of web comics, creators Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins are legends. It helps that they’ve proven themselves to be charitable, great guys and (with the help of the equally-mythical Robert Khoo) pretty savvy business-folk.

The first Penny Arcade title brings you inside the comic-world they’ve been creating for the last 9+ years. This strange and sometimes disturbing reality has been, up until now, only visible through the three-panel windows Krahulik and Holkins post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. These transitory realms are almost always self-contained. There’s no ongoing storyline, no continuity at all except for the appearance of the characters Gabe and Tycho. Even their participation isn’t required to make a Penny Arcade strip.

pacut2.jpgSo the very fact that their first playable offering is as identifiably Penny Arcade is notable. At roughly six hours in length, you’d be right in thinking that the transition from 30-seconds of humor to the equivalent of an epic poem results in some significant changes. The changes, though, are all fundamentally consistent with the comic’s internal reality. What results is an extended strip, three panels stretched and warped out to encompass a full-fledged story.

This extension of a moment in time is accomplished in a number of ways. The ‘padding’ of the gameplay time with combat would seem to be the most obvious method. Interestingly, I found the game’s combat to be very much in keeping with the PA ethos. Bloody, over-the-top violence interspersed with some genuine weirdness - just like your average strip. What could be an immersion-breaking element, drawing you out of the comic world, instead furthers your belief that you’re interacting with their weird little universe. “If things were to go down this way,” you think to yourself, “I’d fully expect to see Tycho attacking people with a book.” And he does.

Like Butter Scraped Across Too Much Bread

The key here is that these elements extend the transitory moment we all experience when reading the weekly strip. Instead of spreading the game’s essence thin across a wad of padding, the game offers regular moments of PA-quality humor. As a result, the game is more like reading a bunch of strips over and over again in a row. There’s the ‘combat’ strip, the searching for hidden objects strip, and then a number of story-focused strips that move the game’s tale along. The game offers one experience over and over again to the player, but the quality of the game is such that it doesn’t get old.

It could be argued that many popular modern games ‘make their bones’ by providing this very service. Repetition without boredom is inordinately rewarding for fans of particular game types. The stalking and creeping of Assassin’s Creed turns the title into an extended hunt, a macrocosm of the individual missions Altair completes. Gears of War seems to be one long, exquisite battle from cover-point to cover-point.

While both of these games (and the PA title as well) have their detractors, the audiences that enjoy these kinds of games have welcomed them with open arms. That would seem to fly in the face of the “everything and the kitchen sink” style of gameplay that’s growing ever more popular. Whether a truly open world as in GTA IV, or just a title with numerous styles of play (as in Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction) ever-more elaborate artifice seems to be the trend.

Simple is Sexy

The obvious question, then, is “what do these seemingly-simple games offer players?” The answer is just as simple: a single perfect moment. Stretched out over the length of an entire game, the endless hunt of Assassin’s Creed becomes a thing of crystalline beauty. The gunfight that permeates every scene in Gears of War isn’t repetitive, just unfettered.

pacut3.jpgIn an era where Xbox Live Arcade games and PopCap candies are becoming just as much a part of the gaming scene as 60+ hour JRPGs or hard-core violence shooters, this should come as no surprise. I personally view it as an epicurean turnaround. Just as many fine dining restaurants seek to emphasize the inherent flavors in their meals, so too do modern games seek to offer a palate-cleansing purity.

Don’t mistake the writing on the wall: there will always be room for Final Fantasy, GTA, and the varied gameplay of a Ratchet and Clank. These “extended moments” are, instead, a chance for gamers to focus their experiences. By paring down to the purest gaming components, the most important storytelling elements, titles like On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness offer an alternative to the all-you-can eat buffet. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.