You’re Playing It Wrong: a cold, hard look at the so-called Humble Bundle

Our regular You’re Playing It Wrong column offers an alternative view of industry matters. You can find the archive here.

Something as roundly admirable as the Humble Bundle is hard to make fun of. One of the best ways to keep your finger on the pulse of the online gaming marketplace, it delivers well-curated collections of new titles and underexposed gems, DRM-free and for multiple platforms. Users set their own mercilessly exploitative prices, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. Indie devs gain invaluable publicity and profits through sheer volume, forestalling suicide or starvation for a while longer. Rumour even has it that for every Humble Bundle sold, Jeff Rosen spends a minute singing Christmas carols to orphans in a soup kitchen. So, yeah, it’s hard to fault. But You’re Playing It Wrong loves a good challenge.

Turning a gimlet eye on the Humble Bundle, you might notice that its days as an anarchic creative platform for unknown developers are on the wane. Not for nothing did it drop the ‘Indie’ from its name. Recent times have seen a bundle of games by THQ, a company that finds common ground with indie developers only in its intimate familiarity with bankruptcy procedures; a decidedly un-humble bundle of EA games via Origin; and a Warner Bros Bundle that featured a pair of Batman games everyone had already played. As the overall scope of the Humble Bundles has grown, their contents have become more specialised, the genres more hidebound, and the retro-fondling more blatant. Must we endure five tower defence games for every Hotline Miami? If you think I’m exaggerating, let’s examine some recent Humble Bundles.

First there was the Humble Platform-Shooter That Is Nothing Like Contra Bundle. It included eight games of eight-directional-shooting, pit-jumping, giant-boss-fighting awesomeness that all totally distinguish themselves from a certain ’80s exemplar. In Shadowplex, you run and gun through a nightmarish dystopia of grey turrets and brown boxes. In Cybershank, you gun and run through a dystopian nightmare of brown sludge and grey girders. Shadowplex 2 and Cybershank 2 add fourplayer online co-op and stealth missions to the mix, while Shadowshank and Cyberplex… Oh, screw it. They’re all just Contra, all right? They’re Contra with cel-shading, mission trees and ragdoll physics. You know you’ll play them.

“As the overall scope of the Humble Bundles has grown, their contents have become more specialised, the genres more hidebound, and the retro-fondling more blatant”

Next came the Humble Déjà Vu Bundle. Indie devs are always breaking ground, even if it’s the same ground over and over again. Trine 5 features new character classes in the Fishwife, the Courtesan and the Homunculus, all buxomly designed by the art director of Dragon’s Crown. Eets: In Space! adds baffling wormholes and antigravity mechanics to a simple, addictive Lemmings-like core. Bastion 3 is virtually indistinguishable from the first two, but with an expensive score by John Williams and narration by James Earl Jones. You also get Cave Story+++, which sounds like a programming language, but plays more like Metroid than ever, and More Gratuitous Space Battles – now 300 per cent more gratuitous.

After that, things got worse. Take the Humble Arty Experimental Game Where ‘Deep Philosophical Allegory’ Just Means Some Dude’s Broken Heart Bundle. You’d already pondered the metaphysics of Braid, mulled over Limbo, contemplated Dear Esther, and mused upon The Binding Of Isaac. You’d experienced rising excitement as their various mysteries accrue and creeping disappointment when they turned out to be about some lost, generic princess or mother figure – with a stealth misogyny bonus if she’s dead or there are overtones of vague religiosity. Well, the HAEGWDPAJMSDBHB let you relive that bell curve all over again in a trio of titles that set new benchmarks for games as art. The Swallowing Of Jonah is a roguelike-lite where your beloved primary school teacher tries to murder you in the belly of a whale. In Salutations, Agnes, you wander around a featureless desert writing letters to your dead mother  (“impeccably depressing,” critics rave). And in Blanko, with its revolutionary white-on-white art, you travel by sound alone until the world begins to blur into focus as you approach something – or someone. Oh, it’s a girl.

Dear Esther

Dear Esther fans would do well to download the Humble Arty Experimental Game Where ‘Deep Philosophical Allegory’ Just Means Some Dude’s Broken Heart Bundle.

That gave way to the Arrogant Mainstream Bundle. HD, GOTY and GTFO Editions abound in this bundle of glossy mainstream pabulum. As the blurb read: “It doesn’t even matter what the titles are. Just buy it. It’s for charity, you piker.”

Finally, we’ve just received the Chastened Indie Bundle as an apology for the Arrogant Mainstream Bundle – with over $50 million in sales, we guess it can be hard to keep the Bundle humble. The contrite blurb reads: “We want to publicly state that our customers are not pikers, and they’re not as interested in games about blowing up villages in Apache helicopters as we thought. To make it up to them, the Chastened Indie Bundle gets back to our roots, offering up MerQury, an experience where you hold and release the Q key to raise and lower the mercury in a thermometer. There are also three different deceptively cute games in which you engage in mortal combat with gruelling timed microtasks, and Ms. Fez, which is Fez with lipstick and bow.”

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