Theta Game's Ceramic Shooter: Electronic Poem is in many ways the game I wished Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez and Jonathan Mak's Everyday Shooter had been. It's an anti-shooter: a top down, constant firing scroller with a fantastic score in which your objective is to avoid shattering the dribs and drabs of musical notes, poetry and images that pan down the screen - and it integrates narrative and gameplay in as smart a fashion as I've seen. Sort-of-widely-reported last month as being criminally overlooked, it clearly wasn't widely reported enough - it still has barely more downloads than I have fingers and toes on its official site, and less than 1,000 at it's biggest portal. It's a ten minute play, well worth it, and if you don't I'm about to spoil it for you. Oh, and don't do what I did first time and try to shoot everything. Best bet's to stay in the middle of the horizontal axis, carve left to right, and if / when you've had enough, watch the rest of the game here.
The poem itself is nothing desperately ambitious, but why need it be when the vision is so coherent? The moment where you disobey your orders, turn on your boss and are able to bring colour to the world is as dramatic a switch as I've seen, foreshadowed smartly by Kavita's kaleidoscopic name displayed tantalisingly moments before. It's an intelligent piece of gameplay / narrative integration that leaves you literally shooting down your enemy's words, and it's the core of this game.
The way in which the poetry manages to instill the gameplay with meaning, integrate with the graphics and reflect the tone of the soundtrack demonstrates the very best of the multifaceted approach only the interactive medium is capable of. While each element is simple and familiar enough, the tight interplay left me with a fantastically rich experience. I can even forgive that elements of the soundtrack are arrangements of Kei$ha's Tik-Tok. Who am I kidding? I love that track - but I prefer Theta's version.
I'd make just two criticisms. For one, the end game boss seems disharmonious with the otherwise inventive and unpretentious whole. Either ideas ran out, or there's something very obscure at work here. Secondly, and more damningly, it's disheartening to realise that even in a game which puts so much stead in having story and gameplay inform one another, the two remain at odds. With the poem being so tough to complete on a single playthrough, and the poetry itself not fleshy or involved enough to reward repeat plays, it comes as no great surprise that the youtube playthrough has had five times more hits than the game itself. Obviously a large proportion of that will be people checking out the game before deciding to download, but it does make the point - if we can't make interactive poetry that's not better enjoyed non-interactively then aren't we kind of missing what we're shooting for?