The 2008 video game Vin Diesel’s Weasel Easel is the interactive equivalent of Joy of Painting, except instead of Bob Ross your instructor is a beret-sporting Mark Sinclair, and instead of happy little trees, you’re learning how to paint weasels. Sounds oddly relaxing, right? Well, no one knows for sure, as Vin Diesel’s Weasel Easel, sadly, doesn’t exist.
The game is one of 100 fictional ones that weave together an alternative history of video games as imagined by writer Nate Crowley, and recently published as 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), marketed as “The world’s first post-truth gaming book.”
Published by Solaris Books, the title is an incredibly impressive exercise in creativity, with Crowley providing extensive, earnest but utterly made-up descriptions of games he invented, from their premises to their receptions and legacies. Making his vivid commentary even more convincing are illustrations of each game rendered by the team of game artists at developer Rebellion, which owns the publishing imprint.
In about 250 pages, Crowley takes us from the 1980s to the present day, decade-by-decade. Although fake, these games do paint an accurate portrait of gaming in a number of ways, capturing the zeitgeist of each era. Not only do they reflect the aesthetics and technologies of their time — beginning with clunky, 8-bit graphics and moving to the sleek images of VR, and progressing from cartridges to CDs — but many of the games also poke fun at how the industry has leaned towards certain stories or tropes for marketing reasons.
“Writing this fictional history of games gave me a great chance to pluck out some of the big milestones in the history of gaming, and show how weird they were by fictionalizing them to remove familiarity,” Crowley told Hyperallergic. “For example, it was odd how in the early 1990s, console companies were desperate for mascot characters, or how, in the early 1980s, publishers were putting out any old crap to feed the buying appetite of Atari players.”
Hence, games like Jimmy Bumshow — where you’re a seven-year-old boy whose sole goal is to expose your butt without getting caught — or the Moth Expert, where you’re an entomologist with the exhilarating task identifying moths.
Yet, while the book is, as Crowley said, “a love letter to the games industry, there’s some gentle criticism in there too … about the values that games unthinkingly reinforce.” One clear satirical example is Fratboy Angels, where beer-chugging, gun-toting archangel bros sporting backwards caps lead a war in heaven, which is filled with babes. Many of the games, unsurprisingly, highlight the industry’s penchant for violence in over-the-top ways: Beachmaster pits you, a five-ton elephant seal, against walruses and other seals in bloody battles; Hungry Hungry Hippos Crisis is a shooting game where you defend London against four insatiable hippos.
“For all the infinite variety open to developers, commercial and societal pressure keeps forcing them to pump out games about angry men beasting each other with guns,” Crowley said. “And I’m not taking some stance where I think all games should be free of conflict — it’s just that there are so many different possibilities for games, which I think only the indie market is just now beginning to explore.”
Filled with innovative narratives, unexpected characters, and off-beat objectives, his alternative history makes clear just how zany the real-world video game industry can be.
“What about a game where you help a bunch of worms train for the Olympics? That’s Earthworm Gym,” Crowley said. “What about an AR game where you hunt out miserable crabs in bins? That’s Bincrab Destiny. So many possibilities.”
100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed) originated with a single tweet of Crowley’s: “One like = one fictional video game.” He received over one thousand likes and posted fake game ideas for two months on Twitter, which then led to public demands for a book. For now, the games are immortalized only in its pages, but Crowley hints that a game jam based on the publication may happen. Here’s hoping that we’ll get to paint by numbers with Vin Diesel in the near future.
100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed) is available through Solaris Books.