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A Boy and a Boy and His Blob

Warning: The following article features game-ruining spoilers about the game INSIDE (Playdead, 2016). Do not read if you ever intend to play INSIDE.

Orwellian is a term that is frequently used to characterize Playdead’s INSIDE (2016). And so it is: aesthetically and thematically, with dystopian imagery of totalitarian mind control and genetic experimentation, all painted in a powerful monotone. But if the game has something to say about totalitarian regimes and freedom through labor, it’s all in the mechanics rather than the aesthetics.

Essentially INSIDE is a wordless, side-scrolling puzzle-platform game in which you assume control of a silent young boy. Whether he is escaping from or breaking into someplace is unclear. As is everything else in the game. Nothing is explained at any point, and the game’s brief five hours are utterly bereft of any expositional information. All a player can do is rely on the rudiments — keep moving to the right and try to stay alive — two of the primary skills one will have developed playing even a minimal number of video games.

You enable the boy’s survival by navigating consecutive sets of Mario-esque environmental puzzles, but INSIDE’s cause-and-effect mechanics, switches, and platforms are strikingly different from those in the Mushroom Kingdom. The boy is pursued by vicious guard dogs and armed men in trucks through fields and forests full of inky puddles of pig guts, bear traps, and razor wire. Aside from the tonal opposition to the brightly colored, cheerful worlds of the Mario games, not to mention the clear purpose of coin collecting and princess rescuing, another key difference is the placements of checkpoints. INSIDE is forgiving in this regard, promptly putting you straight back to your immediate challenge after each and every gruesome failed attempt. You are not supposed to come at these problems from a different angle; you are simply required to perform them correctly and exactly. There is no room for creative thinking: it’s either precision timing or crush, perfect jumping or splat. Imperfection is always punished with death. Dissidence doesn’t work, and the brutality becomes boring. Better to do exactly as the game wants and just try to move on. That the same horrific death repeatedly results from the same mistake is perhaps the best expression of the game’s sense of humor. This is Orwell’s boot stomping on a face forever.

However, INSIDE is more interested in something beyond mere Orwellian allegory. Rather, through a form of Orwellian proceduralism, the game’s intent is to force the player to reach a state of questioning video games themselves.

It does this in a number of ways, but three moments in its short playtime are crucial.



Early on, the boy comes upon a number of small, wormlike creatures that he can control with his mind. They become an element in solving a puzzle necessary to advance. The same is true with a number of zombified worker drones that the boy encounters a little later in what appears to be a human experimentation lab. In order to control the zombies, the player must have the boy put on a helmet device. Once he has adorned it, the surrounding zombies fall under the command of the boy and sluggishly mimic his movements. Certain puzzles are solved only though herding a mob of bodies into certain spaces or positions. The player pushes left on the directional pad, the boy moves left across the screen, followed by the crowd of possessed. It is a three-tiered chain of command with an explicit objective but an unknown purpose. At this point, the player may have noticed the Droste effect taking hold, but will be unaware of the deeper reason for this. She may simply read the process as a layer within the narrative of the game, an element of the sparse story that will surely become clearer in time.

The third and final moment of this matryoshka-doll-like framework is in the game’s twist ending. In a final scene, the boy encounters a sizable mob of scientists gathered around a huge tank containing a large, writhing, engorged blob seemingly composed of dozens of human bodies. The player leads the boy into the tank, who then becomes consumed by the blob. As the blob engulfs the boy, the player is suddenly and seamlessly in control of the blob itself. The blob handles with a significant heft, propelling itself with its numerous protruding limbs — like rolling a reluctant octopus up a steep hill. The undulating mass slowly groans through button inputs but offers the player no satisfying sense of purchase. Pressing down left on the directional pad starts a very slow roll of the blob leftward, which gathers a painful momentum. Then quickly pressing right initiates a slow rolling stop to a neutral position before shifting its mass toward the right.

Once the blob is freed, by smashing the mass against the glass of the tank, the player rolls the gurgling sac of soma further through the facility, dealing with various impediments and puzzles as they come. The player may think that once the boy is placed into the abyss of bodies, the mise en abyme is complete. After all, the boy is in there somewhere in the heart of the huddle and is perhaps the primary receptor of the player’s inputs that drive the blob.

Eventually, the player finds herself slamming the blob through what turns out to be the final wall. Breaking though this wall puts the blob outside the compound and at the top of a hill, which it rolls down until it comes to rest at the hill’s base beside a water’s edge. And then nothing.

It’s probably closer to two minutes, but it feels like five before the credits roll. The first few moments of this scene are spent furiously pressing every button in a feeble attempt to shift the blob in any direction. The blob pulses and respires perhaps, but otherwise remains utterly indifferent to every command — commands it has seemingly obeyed willingly up until this point. By completely relinquishing all control from the player, it becomes clear that the blob no longer requires the player. And perceived from the blob’s perspective, every action the player has made with the boy, for reasons unknown, was for the benefit of the blob. The game does have a desired outcome that can be defined as a win state — just not for the person playing the game.

Game State is a column by artist Oliver Payne covering the mechanics, aesthetics and ideas of video games. 

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What It’s Like to Be a Goomba

“Throw Cappy at a frog and Mario will disappear leaving the frog sporting both a red cap and a moustache. Mario appears to get sucked into the hat, though where that leaves the essences of both Cappy and the frog is an unanswered but philosophically fascinating question.”

Jordan Erica Webber,Super Mario Odyssey review: controlling a sentient hat has never been so fun,” The Guardian, October 26, 2017

Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo, 2017) prominently features a ghostly sidekick named Cappy, a friendly specter who takes the form of Mario’s iconic red hat. Cappy can be thrown onto various enemies and objects, enabling Mario to temporarily inhabit the subjects and to dominate and control them from within. The purpose of possessing these otherwise indifferent, or outright hostile, non-player characters (or in certain cases elements of the environment, such as a manhole cover or power line) is to adopt their skills, moves, or very thingness and to make use of those qualities for the task at hand.

The idea is a twist on an old Mario favorite. In previous games, he often had access to a variety of suits that would bestow upon him particular abilities. A Frog Suit would increases his jump and take the hassle out of swimming. The Tanooki Suit would transform him both into the eponymous, mythological Japanese raccoon dog and an invincible, unmovable stone statue. Yet throughout, the player was still always playing as Mario in costume.

The Cappy mechanism serves the same purpose as those suits — altering or enhancing Mario’s repertoire of abilities and movements so that he can advance successfully through the current puzzle however it entails a fundamentally different process, whereby Mario is no longer dressing up as someone or something but actually possessing that character or thing. With this the game raises the question of what it might be like to experience the Mario universe from the perspective of its multitude of incidental inhabitants. Or perhaps suggests that organisms can have different Umwelten, even though they share the same environment.

It would be misleading to go as far as to suggest that the experience of contemplating the mushroom kingdom from the perspective of a Goomba is intended to be an exercise in procedural empathy. The player may notice the Goomba’s grippy feet, lower jump, and waddling gait, but Mario remains unchanged by the experience once he has returned to his default form. But perhaps our personal experience of controlling Mario does change in some small way. As we possess a succession of separate entities over the course of the game, Mario becomes ever so slightly demoted from protagonist to default avatar.

The worlds of the Mario games are host to a large number of unfriendly inhabitants, such as the aforementioned, fungal Goomba, the turtle-like Koopa Troopa, and the squid-like Blooper. The only meaning assigned to these actors is as adversaries of Mario, obstacles to his current objective. Presumably, these residents go about their daily business, whether Mario is present to witness it or not. Chain-Chomps chomp, Cannons fire, Lava bubbles, Bob-ombs explode regardless of Mario’s presence.

Take Bullet Bill for example, the furious-faced oversized bullet who has been an enemy of Mario’s since the series debut, Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985). When fired from a Bill Blaster, he appears to spend his brief moments alive angrily searching for something to blow up. We assume it is his aim to maximize collateral damage before he combusts. The player has encountered him countless times before but only ever from the perspective of Mario, who has always apparently been the object of Bill’s ire. But when Mario assumes control of Bullet Bill, then there would be no external Mario left for Bill to blow up. And why would he want to anyway? After all, Mario is not playing as Bullet Bill; we are playing Mario in the form of Bullet Bill, and only for our own ends. As such, neither Mario nor the player can truly know the intentions of the Bullet or the Goomba or the Manhole Cover. We can only know how it feels to make use of the inhabitants for the needs of Mario. Which pulls into focus how Mario is also only there for us. He is, of course, the star of the show. He is the default, multipurpose avatar, who gets the bulk of the job done. And yet, by giving us access to the toolset of fifty-something enemies and objects, the game seems to suggest that Mario is also but one of many tools to work through the worlds of the game.

In order to really understand the way in which a Goomba might experience the mushroom kingdom, we must momentarily abandon Mario’s objectives, quests, and goals. Forget about rescuing Princess Peach and collecting Power Moons, and instead just be a Goomba, for the very sake only of Goombing, whatever that may be.

by Oliver Payne

Game State is a column by artist Oliver Payne covering the mechanics, aesthetics and ideas of video games. 

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Bottle Flipping and Pokémon Go

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

—Marcel Proust

The summer of 2016 will be forever remembered (particularly by those who were middle schoolers at the time) as The Summer of Bottle Flipping and Pokémon Go. And while the differences between the two pursuits are striking, they have more in common than is immediately apparent.

One showcases advancements in augmented reality; the other uses a plastic bottle. One has made the software development company Niantic Inc. millions of dollars, while nobody, as of this writing, has successfully monetized bottle flipping in any significant way.

The bottle-flipping fad involved simply pouring water into a bottle and propelling the bottle with a flick off the wrist in such a manner that it “flips” in midair and hopefully lands upright on its base. The game is governed by the laws of physics on Earth. The volume of liquid, the velocity and thrust of the bottle and its subsequent hang time, in which the bottle momentarily appears weightless mid-rotation, and the pull of the Earth’s gravity are the mitigating factors that control the spin and landing of the bottle.

For months children everywhere were carefully lobbing one-third-filled plastic bottles with the desired quantifiable outcome of achieving elegant landings — much to the profound annoyance of parents, teachers, nannies and anyone else that was paying attention.

It was a charming pursuit that joyously illustrated the pleasure in re-familiarizing ourselves with the mundane, finding different ways to engage with a “thing.” Plastic bottles, fluids and the Earth’s gravitational pull are intrinsic components of probably everyone’s everyday life. Bottle flipping merely ascribed new meaning and purpose to these actors and asked what else could be done with them.

Pokémon Go was the logical confluence of recent developments in augmented reality and a twenty-year-old fictional wildlife franchise. Through a smartphone app, the Pokémon game world’s fictional inhabitants are grafted onto the external world. Familiar surroundings and routines — the walk to school, the local park — all take on new significance as potential Pokémon habitats. Players temporarily adopt a new way of looking at familiar sights with the specific purpose of locating and capturing the Pokémon that walk among us.

Bottle flippers are “playing” the bottle in the same way that Pokémon Go enthusiasts are “playing” the neighborhood. Both activities pull into sharp focus two distinct frameworks, layered on top of each other, that are essential to our understanding of reality: the rules of society and the laws of nature.

By reorganizing these rules, players create a space that game theorists such as Johan Huizinga, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman refer to as a “magic circle.” “The arena, the card table, the magic circle,” says Huizinga, “are all in form and function playgrounds… within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

In the book Half-Real, Jesper Juul notes, “Huizinga is mainly interested in how such play activities persist after the game is abandoned: ‘the feeling of being “apart together” in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.’” Juul goes on to say, “rules separate the game from the rest of the world by carving out an area where the rules apply; fiction projects a world different from the real world. The space of a game is part of the world in which it is played, but the space of fiction is outside the world from which it is created.”

The fictional world of Pokémon as presented in the game Pokémon Go is equally experienced on an electronic device and in real-world locations. The fiction of Pokémon is on the phone but the rules that make the play possible are in both the phone and the world outside the game. And even once you’ve deleted the app, the Pokémon are still out there, roaming the streets.

Smartphones took on a different role in bottle flipping. Their function was more passive during play but integral to post-play activities. Flippers would record and share their most impressive flips by means of the phone, though countless gigabytes of storage space were doubtlessly taken up by video recordings of failed flips. The phone was integral to the craze going viral, but, crucially, the actual game was not taking place on the phone itself. It was not a downloadable bottle-flipping game to be played on a smartphone.

It so easily could have been. After all, the physics-based puzzles of the mobile game Angry Birds were phenomenally successful. Flipping imaginary bottles on a smartphones sounds like a thoroughly plausible and modern use of time. But if the touch screen interface of the mobile phone provides no substitute for the real thing, Pokémon Go has shown us how an augmented reality bottle-flipping game could work: flipping virtual bottles and having them land in real space. A hybrid of Pokémon Go and bottle flipping could be the game that pushes parents over the edge in 2018.

by Oliver Payne

Game State is a column by artist Oliver Payne covering the mechanics, aesthetics and ideas of video games.

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In Praise of Clunk

When the Western video games press gave The Last Guardian (2016) a set of disappointing critiques, they did so with reluctance. While harsh reviews of Japanese games are commonplace in the West, the creator of The Last Guardian, Fumito Ueda, had long been treated favorably. His previous two games (Ico, 2001, and Shadow of the Colossus, 2005) are considered masterpieces and are fixtures in “Are Games Art?” debates.

The Last Guardian seemed to suffer from the very thing that Western audiences most commonly complain about when it comes to Japanese games — a potentially enjoyable experience is undermined by an unforgivably clunky control scheme. They couldn’t handle the clunk.

What gets dismissed as “clunky controls” is often, in fact, a very deliberate design choice, purposefully intended to create certain player limitations. The Last Guardian has you assume control of a young boy who, in turn, is attempting to control a huge beast named Trico. The pair must work together to navigate a series of relatively simple environmental puzzles. Simple, that is, by the standards of modern puzzle-platformers, but made maddeningly frustrating by the limitations imposed on you.

The boy is small, slow and weak, and the monster is big, uncooperative and occasionally straight-up disobedient — as little boys and big monsters tend to be. Communication between the two develops and improves throughout the game but never advances beyond the painfully rudimentary. You gradually develop an understanding of what each button might be intended for, but you rarely see the the desired effect performed accurately. Press square to tell Trico to sit, and he just might. Call him over with the triangle button and, should he not cooperate, try again. Perhaps he’ll be more compliant on the third or fourth attempt.

Every chasm to cross, every collapsed Corinthian column to climb comes with the caveat that you can see what must be done, but the tool required to do it is unresponsive and unreliable, echoing Bernard Suits’s definition of a game: “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Herein lies both the fundamental challenge of the game and the very reason it is compelling — this is where the emotional payoff is won. It is precisely because Trico is uncooperative that he is, in pure video game terms, an interesting AI companion. The emotional bond the player forges with the beast is created by these mechanical impositions. Were Trico an obedient and compliant companion, he would mean as little to the player as the buttons on the controller — just another facet of play that fades into the background.

Modern Western players hate clunk, but clunk, it seems, is rather hard to define. Complaints of clunkiness pertain variously to player input, avatar movement and camera handling. At its worst it can break a game; at best it is something the player must come to terms with. But an unintuitive user interface that fosters deliberate play choices is not simply employed for frustration’s own sake. More often than not, there is a ludic logic behind the imprecise jumps and drifting cameras.

“Clunky controls” can be found in Japanese third-person combat and action games, such as the wildly popular Monster Hunter series and FromSoftware’s successful Souls series. The player’s avatar will perform brief wind-up and cool-down animations for each button command. As short as they are (milliseconds), the player is locked into the animation until it ends. The purpose of this is to encourage the player to learn specific move sets and to punish “button mashing.” Frantically pressing buttons becomes like quicksand, as the resulting animation for each incorrect input further removes you from your desired movements. In short, one must know precisely what each button does and when to press it.

The opposite of clunky is smooth, fluid and “clicky” — exemplified in the control schemes of first-person shooters. Crosshairs almost snap into place. It’s a bit like having autocorrect applied to your movements, making invisible the actual device one uses to engage and participate in the game. The idea is that as we untether ourselves more and more from complicated control schemes, we come closer to a meaningful sense of immersion in the game space. It’s an exercise in Apple-ism: making the user interface seamless and invisible.

Why are the Japanese so comfortable playing what the West derides as “broken games”? In part this can be traced back to the fact that the first-person shooter genre was born on the PC in the early 1990s, and would later migrate to home consoles. PC gaming was largely absent in Japan; first-person shooters never took root, and so neither did the associated demands of how they should feel to play. This is compounded by the pronounced absence of firearms in Japanese culture, with the result being that Western first-person shooters are seen as childishly simplistic and are mockingly referred to as “face clickers.”

The Japanese game industry has pretty much given up on trying to court the West, so nowadays they mainly make games for the domestic market. “Clunky controls” isn’t even a thing there. It is merely another mechanic at the designer’s disposal, a tool to be used as creatively as any other. Meanwhile, the standardization, across all genres, of the Western first-person shooter control scheme is intended to make all games feel the same. Everything in its place. Everything “clicky.” It’s the same expectation we bring to a room at a Holiday Inn or a can of Coke — to be procedurally forgotten while it is experienced.

The personality of a game can be found where it keeps its buttons. Ueda’s use of unresponsive controls and awkward camera angles differs in implementation from the forced lag and brief character animations found in Monster Hunter. But the intention is the same. One must adopt a “lusory attitude,” as, again, Bernard Suits put it, not only toward the rules of play, but also the means with which the experience of play is facilitated. This too is a part of play.

by Oliver Payne

Game State is a column by artist Oliver Payne covering the mechanics, aesthetics and ideas of video games. 

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Locomotion in an Open World Game

Open world games are about exploration. At first, the space between two locations is unfamiliar to the player, so one must travel between them in order to experience it. This is rather the point. Essentially, these games intend to open up this space and simulate its traversal—quite different to transit in our daily lives, which we aim ever further to truncate, reducing our commute wherever possible.

But it is also in video games that we find the loading screen, the placeholder for travel. Somewhere between exploring and loading, there is a zen state of being.

Desert Bus (Absolute Entertainment, 1995), for the SEGA CD, has you drive a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas in real time. Despite never having an official release (although ROMs circulate online), it is perhaps the best-known “anti-game.” To call Desert Bus an open world game would be a joke—it couldn’t be more linear. It is comprised of one encompassing environment, without loading screens between areas. Every inch of the drive looks largely the same, throughout its marathon, single-sitting play-through.

The game’s intentions are clear—do nothing for eight hours—questioning the very nature of video games and why we play them at all. But Desert Bus is actually very much a game about doing something, doing one thing—namely, driving the bus. And, perhaps more importantly, never not driving the bus. The vehicle’s wonky alignment requires constant player input. Merely allowing the bus to stall, by taking your finger of the acceleration button, will result in your being towed back to Tucson, again in real time. Its limitations create a remarkably narrow field of possibility, and its unforgiving system, coupled with its intentionally broken mechanic, create a simple but profound tension, mounting as you get closer to Vegas. When you’re seven hours into your drive, keeping the bus on the road is as high-stakes as it gets in gaming. Underestimating its own systems and rules, Desert Bus answers the very questions it poses: In trying to illustrate how boring and pointless games are, it creates a tense and exhilarating experience. As a game about nothing, it is fundamentally broken.

Perhaps the best-known open world games are the Grand Theft Auto series, in which driving has always been integral. It’s one third of the name after all. Here, time behind the wheel isn’t downtime, and even cruising for the sake of cruising will invariably result in an unfolding drama. However innocuous the intention of the drive, pandemonium is almost inevitable.

But unlike Desert Bus, the Los Angeles of GTA V (Rockstar Games, 2013) is a living, breathing, pulsing world. Far more than a mere backdrop, it is the figure of action itself. To put the landscape back in its place and appreciate it in a more leisurely fashion, the player must take to train hopping. By positioning oneself in a boxcar, and allowing the camera to drift naturally, you can observe the game’s perfectly rendered textures and its diminishing light particles in a way not afforded in the automobile.

If Desert Bus is about doing nothing for the sake of it, of exploring the potential for boredom the medium affords, then Final Fantasy XV (SquareEnix, 2017) is about doing nothing in order to postpone the doing of something potentially more boring.

Ostensibly, you take the role of a certain Prince Noctis, off on a stag-holiday road trip with his best friends, before he is to be married off in order to forge peace between two kingdoms. The reality is closer to a J-pop band doing odd jobs for strangers. In an effort to undo all the work which has been made in the open world role-playing game genre in the last decade, Final Fantasy XV finds new ways to automate boredom and twist it into purpose. Even the frivolous, fun stuff is a joyless graft from another era: tedious fetch quests and frustrating fishing challenges.

And this is where the game succeeds—as an exercise in putting off responsibility and deferring obligation. For a game rooted in the idea of a road trip, you have surprisingly little control of the vehicle itself, no more than you have of the eponymous desert bus. This is seemingly so that you choose the auto-drive function and let Noctis’s lackey take the wheel. Every system you engage with, from how the characters level-up, to the in-game currency, and the day-night cycle, or how driving the car itself works, all encourage the player to auto-drive between remote points. Some drives can take up to eleven minutes, which is a lifetime in video game terms.

During these long drives, the characters occasionally chat amongst themselves, but more often they are found to be doing nothing. They stare idly at their smartphones, or gaze out the window at the hyperreal patchwork landscapes of the American south, complete with muscle cars and diners. As they do nothing, you are invited to do the same. To make a sandwich or check email, glance occasionally at the TV, as they glance out the window. Distance times between locales are stated beforehand, enabling the player to plan accordingly and find the most efficient way to do nothing, whilst the game plays itself.

Whilst Desert Bus is accidentally and unbearably tense, Final Fantasy XV has somehow stumbled upon the perfect mechanic for sightseeing, meditation, and achieving a sense of calm in a digital realm.

by Oliver Payne

Game State is a column by artist Oliver Payne covering the mechanics, aesthetics and ideas of video games. 

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