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Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sundays: An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs

I was worried I’d have to cheat this week and write an article about something I played a while ago but never got a chance to review. I’m currently at PAX South, and after a two-week vacation in Poland, I’ve had about 12 minutes to play games between eating, sleeping, finalizing my schedule, petting my cat, and hopping on the plane to San Antonio. I’m currently staying in a haunted Airbnb, so figuring out how to keep a door halfway up my wall barricaded shut has been taking up a lot of my downtime. Luckily, PAX South is the smallest of the PAX conventions. It’s still big enough to fill my schedule from open to close with shit to see, but there’s also a lot of indie games on display. Shit you’d never see at some of the bigger conventions. Experimental games about extradimensional cafes, dating simulators where everyone is also a sword, unfinished shooters that will probably never make it past alpha, the kind of indie that wouldn’t even be shown at one of the E3 side events made to showcase indie games (shoutout to The MIX). Games that you might call… Ultra-Indie. But there was one game that stopped me in my tracks and drew me in like labrador rolling over and demanding belly rubs. That game was An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs.

Conceptual Meta-Wank:

We often see games that break through the indie fog on visual style alone. Games like Jazzpunk, 30 Flights of Loving, Return of the Obra Dinn, etc. The quality of these games range from barely playable demo to indie masterpiece, but they have the power to draw you in through just the glimpse of a screenshot. More often than not, these styles are the byproduct of extreme budgetary limitations. You work with what you got, and if you’re good you turn it into something special.

For An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, this concept of working within a budget is taken to its illogical extremes. They say that necessity is the mother of invention. By that logic, the neediest of developers could break the very fabric of what we consider a game. What can one create when the fundamental structure of a game is in question? I’m not talking about telling a story without dialogue or using the right analog stick only for gestures. Even more fundamental. Something as basic as needing 3D models in a 3D game. Begone foul thoughts of linear narrative. Hell, do you even need to have a narrative? What even is a narrative? It’s an airport. For aliens. Currently run by dogs. It’s in the title. What storytelling methods do you even need when such an absurd baseline is established. Does the airport even need a runway? Do you even need walls? Do you need to even justify having a floating island in the sky?

I had the chance to speak with the games creator Xalavier Nelson Jr, and the story behind An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs makes sense. Tasked with creating a game in less than a year for the NYU No Quarter event, he was inspired by all the time he had spent lost and bewildered in foreign airports. Knowing that his time was short and budget non-existent, he went to work with the materials he had. He took a stock photo of a dog and used it as a placeholder for the 3D characters. As this was the first first-person game he had worked on, he wasn’t initially sure how big to scale the character in relation to the world. As he stood in his newly created world, dwarfed by the looming figure of an 8-foot tall public domain doggo, he knew he had found something more magical than anything he could ever make of his own will. From there, he took further inspiration from the first run of Adult Swim cartoons. Sealab 2021, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, all cartoons with very low budgets using recycled assets to tell a new story. It’s a level of creative absurdity that cannot be forced, that only spawns from true limitations and being forced to work your way around them.

Non-Wanky Game Recap:

There’s going to be a bit of bleed from the wank to non-wank section this week. It’s impossible to avoid I guess when you’re talking about An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Xalavier himself describes the game as an open-world narrative puzzle game. You play as one of the last two humans in existence, the other being your distant fiance. Your goal is to reconnect with your love by boarding a flight to another world. Or not. You’ll also help a variety of dogs with delightful names like David Bone-ie, Jimmy Doughnuts, Briefcase Dog, Disgruntled Dog, Pedogstrians, Glasses Up (dogs need eye protection too). Solving their problems and completing other quests is done at your leisure. There’s no alien chasing you with a vibro-baton to send you to space-jail.

Of course, the real answer is that the core gameplay loop is taking in the sights. Your real enjoyment will come from seeing what weird shit the airport has in store for you. Completing side quests is just icing on the cake. To that end, An Aiport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs embraces this absurdist premise to a degree that few games have the actual creativity to pull off. It’s easy to be “just so random.” Being cleverly absurd takes talent. Looking around the airport, it’s hard to even recognize it as such. Planes are currently docked in a nearby sand dune, there’s a pool in the center of the walkway (where you can find a sign telling you your departure times), and a floating platform with seemingly no tethering acts as an elevator to a magically suspended island. And yet, there’s a logic to how things are laid out. It’s just not your logic. It’s run by dogs, after all.

What Works:

The appeal of An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs is immediately apparent to anyone with a soul. You get to talk to adorable stock photo dogs and experience a low-key alien world brimming with inherent absurdist humor. The mechanics play into this theme without any friction. If you fall off the side, a slide whistle plays and you’re right back on solid ground. You can press P to pet the dogs with a randomly generated hand. You can do this as fast and frequently as you want, and new hands will keep spawning to pet the dogs. At the same time, there’s satisfaction in figuring it out. As I said, there’s a logic to it. You can look at your boarding pass to find what gate your flight leaves from, look at the signs, match the symbols, and eventually make your way to your destination.

It’s also refreshing to play a comedy game that doesn’t rely on reference to make its humor. I can’t tell you how tired I am of seeing otherwise talented creators “deep frying” shit for a quick lol from the DankMemes crowd. What’s worse are the tired callbacks to shit that long ago lost its edge. Yes, I get it. The cake is, in fact, a lie. Also, Rick and Morty fans are annoying. And Game of Thrones S8 was a letdown. Mentioning these things is not a joke. It’s a punchline at best, but you better have a good setup.

What Doesn’t Work:

This is a tricky one. I’ll have to default to the wisdom of my friends, who have all largely responded to me talking about this game with confusion. While intrigued by the premise, they all are skeptical if the game will actually sell. Your enjoyment of An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs is largely up to personal preference. I acknowledge the fact that many people play games to shoot bad guys in the face. If you aren’t down for a narrative game, you won’t like An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs.

What Can Be Fixed:

There are plenty of ways to give An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs a larger appeal. Maybe add some cats? More seriously, you can always add elements that will spice up the game for general audiences. Put in a gun and have to balls to let me do what Blair Witch was too cowardly to do. The thing is, while it CAN be made more widely appealing, it doesn’t mean it SHOULD be. Anything you put in for the express purpose of making it more accessible detracts from the core absurdist concept. As it stands, I don’t believe that anyone is qualified to say what should or shouldn’t be changed about the game other than Xalavier. If he wants to add a dogfight minigame, that’s his call. It’s an art game. Take it as it is.

Wanky Musings:

We often look at absurdist media and wonder just how much acid it took to reach the point where making Birdman a lawyer seemed like a good idea. That’s rarely the case. Usually, acid just leads to you realizing the blanket wants to feel you just as much as you want to feel it. What intrigues me the most about An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs is that the story behind its creation tracks. Together, the elements make for a jumble of quirk that somehow congeals into a semi-cohesive idea. Taken individually, it paints the portrait of an artist with the creative breadth to work his lemons into lemonade. As a pseudo-creative type myself, it’s fascinating to see what happens when you not only throw out the book, but the entire concept of language itself. What can you create when starting from before square zero?

An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs is just the starting block for what I predict will be an incredibly exciting career for Mr. Nelson. If you want to support his creations, you can head over to his Patreon for his studio Strange Scaffold by clicking here. Check it out for more news on the release date, platforms, and eventual pricepoint.

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