Giants of Our World: Terry Cavanagh

The video game industry is packed full of talented and creative people. With dozens of AAA titles hitting shelves every year, even more AA titles, and ever-more independent developers taking their creations to the net, it can sometimes be difficult to know where we should be paying attention. It’s even harder to look outside of our comfort zones to find something new. That’s why I would like to begin highlighting some of the most gifted men, women, and studios that should get us all excited. They’ve been able to make lightning strike twice, and we heighten our understanding of our medium by better understanding them. All of that being said, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather kick this all off with than Terry Cavanagh.

Terry Cavanagh is an Irish game developer living in Cambridge, England. His citationless entry on The Independent Games Wiki describes him as “bisexual on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Wikipedia.” He develops his games as distractionware, his moniker as an independent studio and developer. Since he helps run a freeware website, FreeIndieGam.es, it’s not surprising to find that he makes many of his games available for free on his website. Cavanagh has made a splash with a few of his games, mainly VVVVVV, At a Distance, and Super Hexagon. I am going to talk about a few of my personal favorites: VVVVVV, Don’t Look Back, and Pathways.

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VVVVVV – Look how happy Captain Viridian is!

VVVVVV is one of my favorite games of all time, as evidenced by my reference to it in Greatness in Games. VVVVVV was Cavanagh’s first commercially released game, premiering on sale for Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X in January of 2010. A port for Linux, rewritten in C++ by Simon Roth, debuted when VVVVVV was featured in the Humble Indie Bundle 3 on July 26, 2011, and is now also available for Nintendo 3DS. Cavanagh has tweeted that that he is working on an iOS port for the game; here’s hoping that happens in the near future! VVVVVV follows Captain Viridian, the player character, who explores a strange alternate dimension to save his crew and return to their own dimension. It is a platformer which feels as though it could have run on a Commodore 64, but manages to be a fresh and aesthetically pleasing experience. Unlike most platformers, the player is unable to jump. Instead, the main navigational mechanic is the player’s ability to reverse gravity, alternating whether Captain Viridian is running on the floor or ceiling of the level. This mechanic makes playing VVVVVV a novel experience, allowing the player to solve platforming puzzles in entirely new and unique ways. The visuals are beautifully nostalgic and surprisingly expressive. The soundtrack of uptempo chiptunes was composed by SoulEye, and fits in perfectly with the retro-aesthetic of the game while still being good enough to stand on its own as an album. All of this comes together for a gaming experience that is simple, approachable, and enjoyable while still offering challenging enough gameplay to keep even the challenge gaming community invested. It even features an intelligent narrative that is effectively expressed with all of the tools it utilizes. Characters witty and interesting, and even serve relevant roles in gameplay where possible. I can’t stress enough how satisfying and fun VVVVVV is; I’ve broadly smiled, much to my own malice, every time I’ve sat down to play it. The only other games that have had a similar effect on me are Psychonauts and Portal. You can buy VVVVVV from its website, Steam, or the Nintendo eShop for 3DS Downloads.

Don’t Look Back was Cavanagh’s first game written in flash, and was completed back in 2009. It is available to play for free at distractionware, Kongregate.com as well as for iOS and Android on their respective app stores. It is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice Greek legend, and features Cavanagh’s characteristically effective narrative communication through play. Also characteristic for Cavanagh’s games, it has classically stylized graphics, is easily understandable and approachable, and provides a moderately challenging experience. Don’t Look Back is a comparatively short game, often being completed in well less than an hour. It opens with a man standing at the grave of a loved-one, and the player controls this character as he descends to the underworld in a quest to recover her soul, just like the Greek myth. It efficiently retells the story to the player using no other tools than providing the tools for the player to experience it. This means music to set the mood, a color-palette of dark reds, and gameplay. While a pleasure to play, the appeal of Don’t Look Back lies not in how fun it is, but rather in the power of the experience it offers and the philosophical kindling it serves in the player’s mind. Whether going in with or without prior knowledge of how the myth plays out, Don’t Look Back always seems to form connections in the players mind that are relevant to that player’s mind. The greatest strength of the game is that it brings enough to the conversation of what the legend means so as to make the legend seem comparatively less substantial when approached from any other medium.

Pathways is another game Cavanagh completed in 2009. Available for free download for Windows on at distractionware, Cavanagh only briefly describes it as “an experiment in interactive storytelling.” It takes maybe a half hour to complete, but makes a profound statement about narrative in games as well as independently of them. Pathways follows a man’s journey, and each session begins with the man in the same room with the same woman. The woman always tells him “I worry when you’re away…” before the player moves the character to begin his journey. As the player, you can follow the path in a straight line or take any of the divergent paths along the way. The specific path that you take determines the plot of the session. Through dialogue, setting, and gameplay, vastly different and mutually exclusive plots are communicated to the player. Each of these plots are natural extensions of the opening scene drawn to their conclusion, and they are each informed by the settings of the specific path the player takes. At times heartbreaking, each individual plot eventually comes together with the rest in a reality that is philosophically jarring. Pathways communicates minimal amounts of narrative through dialogue and setting, leaving gameplay as the primary device through which the player understands the narrative. Utilizing only these bare tools, the game compels the player to become amazingly invested in the game’s characters. I would go as far as saying that it is so effective in drawing the player into the narrative as to rival the majority of AAA games, even those critically acclaimed for their narrative (such as the Uncharted series.)

Terry Cavanagh’s games have many strengths in common with each other. They are typically efficient without sacrificing effectiveness for narrative or gameplay experiences. In fact, Cavanagh’s games draw attention to the idea that “too much stuff” can distract from or dilute the overall experience. He is often known to collaborate with talented musicians and game developers, and establishes himself as a good example for the independent gaming community. Other notables of Cavanagh’s games include Judith (2009) for its suspense, At a Distance (2011) for its nature of sharing experiences, and Super Hexagon (2012) for it’s pure and fun gameplay. If you want to begin taking a more careful and meaningful look at modern games, I cannot think of any better place begin than with Terry Cavanagh.

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