The Sandbox: Breathing New Life Into Old Formulas

The Sandbox: Breathing New Life Into Old Formulas (photo)

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Like indie films, indie games are free to take chances that their mainstream competitors can’t, but in exchange have to work with limited financial resources that put a crimp on grand stabs at novelty. Because of that, indie games tend to stake out a unique ground where convention and experimentation meet. As seen in “Braid” and the wealth of kick-ass downloads for the iPhone, they tend to take risks within the confines of recognizable genres, whether they’re “Mario”-esque run-and-jumpers, puzzlers or combat-strategy games. Putting fresh twists on the familiar has seen some thrilling results from these under-the-radar works. That’s definitely the case with “Trine” and “Machinarium,” two excellent new indie releases that show what a bit of imagination and artistry can do for the same old formulas.

“Trine,” developed by Frozenbyte and published by SouthPeak Games for the PC and, as of two weeks ago, the PS3, is about the efforts of three heroes — a wizard, a thief and a warrior — looking to locate a mysterious soul-binding object known as the Trine that holds the key to restoring their evil-plagued world. On the surface, it’s just a side-scrolling platformer, one in which you navigate a character from left to right, fight similar-looking enemies, jump over chasms and onto moving ledges, and solve puzzles in order to proceed to the next stage. It’s a tried-and-true recipe that’s far from revolutionary, and that’s part of the point — “Trine,” like so many other indies that don’t have a marketing budget, has to make itself immediately appealing to an audience weaned on traditional big-ticket franchises. It entices with a well-known structure, but underneath its old-hat exterior lies a deceptively rich adventure, not to mention one of the year’s most purely entertaining gaming experiences.

One of the first ways “Trine” separates itself from the pack is its beauty. With deep, vibrant colors and graphics that stunningly replicate the sort of fantasy-world look of “The Lord of the Rings” (or a Terry Brooks novel come to life), Frozenbyte’s game is gorgeous. That’s also true of its character animations, which boast fluidity and personality, and blend seamlessly into landscapes of dark caverns, rolling hills and underwater canals. But “Trine” is more than just a pretty face — it also offers subtle tweaks to standard mechanics, like gameplay that requires you to switch back and forth between the three “Gauntlet”esque protagonists on the fly in order to complete obstacle-course puzzles custom-made for different abilities (the warrior’s strength, the thief’s leaping and grappling hook, the wizard’s power to move objects and create others from thin air). “Trine” combines genres in order to create something at once old and new — it’s innovation on a modest but inspired scale.

That’s also true for “Machinarium,” created by Amanita Design and available for PCs and Macs. Unlike “Trine,” whose luscious 3D characters have to make their way through a 2D environment, everything in the Flash-based “Machinarium” is two-dimensional except for the story itself, which begins as a peripheral concern but soon becomes incredibly absorbing. The game puts you in control of a nameless robot who, at the outset, has been thrown out of his crumbling hometown city and must find a way back in. Once that’s completed, other tasks follow, all accomplished by way of a point-and-click style that’s been around since the dawn of gaming, and that, faithful to the genre’s roots, is put in service of puzzles that can be screamingly challenging.

“Machinarium”‘s riddles generally require you to locate key hidden items on the screen and then use, combine or manipulate them in some way in order to allow the robot to make it to the next screen, at which point a new puzzle crops up. It’s a rinse-and-repeat template that’s eased by a helpful hint system, which can provide both a generalized idea of what needs to be accomplished as well as a detailed diagrammatic walkthrough. Structural variety kicks in about one-third of the way through the game, when you’re presented with a more wide-open landscape full of multiple, interrelated paths.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.