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Adventures in Cat Land
And other multiplayer experiments.

A rare sighting of the GM.

Sometimes there are games you expect to like but don't, and other times there are ones you're not sure why you're playing; but you end up loving them, and they expand your understanding of what makes video games fun. ChatChat is one of those games. It's a stripped down multiplayer game in which one plays a cat roaming about a neighborhood filled with back alleys and a few mice. Goals are few and simple. You can catch the mice and bring them back to the house at the center of the map, to leave on the doorstep, but it's not clear what the value is of the point you get from completing such a feral and potentially disease-transmitting operation.

The interface suggests an MMO. There are a few emotes -- you can type "/screech" and "/meow" and "/purr" in the chat prompt to make cat-sounds and "/nap" to slumber -- and walking over special tiles causes canned messages to broadcast map-wide, as if you'd typed a message into zone chat within a more traditional MMO, such as Everquest.

If I stayed with ChatChat longer than I might have otherwise, it's because it was created by Terry Cavanagh, a particularly good indie developer whose punishing platformer VVVVVV was an underdog hit a couple years ago. That, and the zones and pixel art were varied enough to keep me looking around the next corner, to the red brick area, the forest area, and the funky blue mushroom area.

Meanwhile, I was noticing a number of other kitties and watching how they were responding to the lack of direction -- no bobbing yellow exclamation points here. Eventually, after I'd explored all of the areas and bumped fruitlessly into a large bitmap of a treasure chest (no thumbs), I migrated back to the house and fell in with a cat by the name of "frozenstar." Whether this referred to an anime thing, or something, I didn't know. Like real cats, we took turns following each other around, puttering about until we broke the ice, and I suggested forming a "cat gang." This was well-received, and frozenstar volunteered to be the leader.

She (he?) also took on the role of lead recruiter, and we gathered a couple other members, many of whom had just spawned onto the map. In the early stages, "roams" became our favorite pastime (because this was what the game seemed setup to allow), and danger seemed nonexistent, even after frozenstar warned me that the dogs hanging out by the house could bite you, if you stayed within range long enough. (It's also possible to play the game as one of these dog-creatures.)

I called for "mouse hunts," but the gang seemed more interested in teaching the various commands to our newer members. Screeching was an important skill to impart because most folks could only figure out on their own how to /meow and /purr, despite an explanation that runs when you start the game.

More advanced actions were possible using the /me emote. Anything following "me" was read and displayed as a verb-plus-whatever, meaning you could move your cat around behind a bush and "/me takes care of her business behind a leafy ficus," if you were serious about living out your role as a cat.

Like any gang, we needed a clubhouse, and for that we settled in the top of what was supposed to be a climbable tree, where new cats would occasionally wander in and say, "What's this?" or "Why?" when we told them that we had formed a cat gang. What marvels! Most cats settled down to a /nap at this point, which seemed like the thing to do, and someone began having nightmares and emitting strange sounds.

Eventually, and this drama had the feeling of a setup, the troubled cat woke up long enough to tell us the story of how a ruthless predator had driven his last group of cat adventurers off a cliff -- leaving him as the only survivor. Frozenstar, still fancying herself the leader, instructed everyone not to harass PTSD Cat (as I started thinking of him), and we all returned to walking around in the tree and occasionally purring.

This was a session where ten minutes spilled over to thirty, and thirty into an hour and a half (I'm not embarrassed to say), all without much developer-generated content to fill the time.

Here's to strong evidence that there are few grounds more fertile for sandbox fun than -- maybe you guessed it -- the litter box.

The scene of the griefing.

Also check out Griefer, which is Cavanagh's own modified version of ChatChat. It somewhat encourages players to prey on each other as everyone struggles to gather enough crystals to level up.

And as long as we're on the subject of multiplayer experiments, read about Space Email if you haven't yet. It got shut down in August because of feared legal issues, but it was hugely disturbing, dull and yet delightful while it lasted.

What would you write if no one was listening?

In space, no one can you hear you emote.

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