Sunday, 15 July 2012

Good Question: The Games of Pippin Barr

Art: Pippin Barr (with permission)

What do you call an unwinnable game that players can compete to lose the most often? Or a game about our experience of art that simultaneously denies us the chance to experience it and simulates it perfectly? Or a physics platformer in which having complete control of all physics variables – and seemingly utmost power over the game – still leaves you with quite conventional puzzles to solve? You might call them a bit of a joke. You might call them experiments in paradox. You might call them horse shit (which is your prerogative, I suppose). But you might just call them the games of Pippin Barr.

Who is this masked man who abuses the patience of so many? Actually, I am not so much interested here in Pippin Barr the person as his games. “Pippin Barr is 5 foot 11 inches tall and he has brown hair and blue eyes and he bought me an ice cream and he was very nice…” – I think not. But it’s worth taking a brief detour into biography to note the genesis of these games. Barr is an academic, lecturing about interactive design at the IT University of Copenhagen. In a video interview over at Electron Dance, he says he started to make games because “the best way to think about games and talk about them was definitely to make them, and to give other people the chance to think about them as well as play them.” Sure enough, these bite-size one-shots have the character of a pedagogic exercise. Like Matt Madden’s Exercises in Style they are trying out new ways to work and thereby illuminating their effects and curiosities, a way of testing one’s own medium, playing games with games.

Take Let's Play Ancient Greek Punishment, which simulates a set of mythological trials from Sisyphus’ boulder-pushing existence to the tiring life of eagle-pecked Prometheus. The thought experiment here is: what if a game really did just try to simulate punishment? Each minigame is a button-mashing exercise which you cannot hope to win – except sometimes you can. As Zeno, for example (not strictly a punishment), you must tap G and H to run a race. Every time you get to the halfway point, it slides backwards, becomes your new starting point, and a new measurement appears between you and the finish. Your target of 50m becomes 75m, then 87.5, then 93.75, then 96.875, and so on into eternity. And yet it’s quite possible to use these numbers to track your ‘progress’, counting the increments, getting closer and closer to the end. For persistent gamers the measure of ‘success’ soon becomes the number of consecutive 9s after the decimal, counting down from 99.9877929687m to 99.99999403953552m and beyond, towards a perfectly imperfect .999999… the 9s tick upward. You’re closer and closer to victory. There is actually a win condition: at the point where the counter stops counting the numbers turn into two simple text prompts, ‘ALMOST HALF-WAY’ and ‘HALF-WAY’. At that point you’ve got as far as you can get and can justly say that you have completed Zeno’s Paradox.

Danaids and Tantalus have no win counter, so they don’t work in this way, but both Prometheus and Sysiphus can be ‘played to win’. In a sense, players don’t stop playing the Danaids or Tantalus sections because they can’t win, but because they sense that they have already won, already exhausted the possible states of the game. The perverse but enduring appeal of this kind of behaviour was illustrated perfectly in a Rock Paper Shotgun comments thread. “I always win because I have a joypad with auto-fire switches,” says Spacewalk. “The difference being,” jokes Eagle0600, “that you can keep on winning forever.”

LPAGP is playing with the idea of games as masochism, with the perverse instinct that led a teenage me to bash his head against the brick-wall of famously frustrating PS2 driving game Stuntman until he’d finally broken right the way through. It is asking what it means to ‘win’: define it as a state in a system and you see that, functionally speaking, it is difficult to distinguish from other states; define it as an aesthetic message, a ‘YOU WIN’ prompt, and it doesn’t look like winning at all. But it is also illustrating something funny and paradoxical about why we play games: it is not the actual winning that enchants us, but the idea of a win, the process of reaching towards a win – and this process is engaging enough that we are willing to count our failures instead just to give ourselves something to do.

Other games seem to make comments on specific trends in gaming. All's Well That Ends Well is an absurdist critique of modern difficulty levels and respawning mechanics in which the player must spawn and respawn her way through an impossible storm of enemies. It’s quickly clear that victory is certain as long as you bother to move rightward (“keep on keeping on”). You have no power to hurt the enemies and no way to avoid them, so it looks as if the odds are stacked against you. But you have instant respawning to even the score, and in this sense, the odds are actually and simply exactly as they should be when your abilities are taken into account. That is to say, like most action games, what the fiction depicts as an ‘impossible mission’ is actually a mission perfectly calibrated to your impossible skills. All’s Well just sharpens that to a razor point by making progress without death literally impossible, and making death the most minor possible inconvenience. It is a game predicated on constant failure which calls into question the meaning of failure in any game with a perpetual, low-stakes respawn - from military manshoots to retro-modern platformers like Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV.

In this sense it’s similar to You Say Jump I Say How High, a platformer where the player can change the game’s physics variables, lowering the gravity or supercharging their mass. This apparently godly power does not actually give the player much of a privilege, as getting through its levels means adjusting, revising, and bug-fixing your own version of the game rules. It’s a bit like a developer throwing down her tools and crying “fine! See how YOU like designing the game! It’s not easy!” (an alternate title was Not My Problem); setting the parameters correctly to make things winnable (let alone fun) is a challenge in itself. Most amusingly, it actually just leads to a very conventional puzzle game. You have a set of abilities which have advantages and disadvantages, and through trial and error you must apply them to a series of interesting challenges. With the same mechanic, it demonstrates how incomplete the power of the game designer is, and how transient and illusory the power of a player.

By comparison, All’s Well, the earlier game, seems like an obvious idea, almost crass, but its twisted aesthetics do a good job of putting the boot in to the likes of Medal of Honour, Modern Warfare and Homefront. Each play is introduced by a garbled, clich├ęd action movie pitch with randomized enemy and character names. The structure, the trope, is always identical (“you are a brave x but now you must defeat y”); the specifics so unimportant as to be frequently absurd (from “asteroids” and “missiles” through “Moby Dicks” to “a surge of love” and “a logjam” – a literal storm of logs). Sometimes, you and your enemies are exactly the same (except instead of being the same dull soldier you are the same “delicious pear”). Every time you die, your avatar falls to the mountains below and tumbles down their slopes with mockingly realistic ‘physics’ (what use is the verisimilitude of ragdolling bodies, the game seems to ask, when the context they loll and flop in has nothing to do with reality?).

Ironically, All’s Well has more record of real failure than any of the games it parodies. As you move rightwards and die to proceed, your corpses stick around, piling up three deep at the bottom of the screen. You see how many times you’ve had to die to get where you are just by glancing down. And if anything, you make less of an impact on your enemies than in any other game: they fly from right to left in thick formations, and when you hit one, you leave an empty hole in their ranks – but that hole speeds leftwards and disappears within moments. It’s a neat little sight gag on their sheer infinitude. Bizarrely, then, a game satirising the asymmetrical consequences applied to players versus NPCs cuts it both ways: there are different ways in which both have more or more permanent consequences than the other. All’s Well manages to satirise a way of doing things while simultaneously seeming to do better (in a limited sense); it has its cake and eats it.

In a blog post after the release of The Artist Is PresentBarr tentatively defined his work via his wife Rilla) as 'curious games': curious about games, asking questions, “poking around a subject”. The Artist was a kind of deadpan exercise in curious realism: its iconic graphics, simple mechanics, real-time queuing system and spiritual fidelity to the work of art that it concerns asked what kind of ‘realism’ developers should or could aspire to. Graphics that look like real life? Mechanics that play out like real life? Boredom as boring as real life? Faithful adherence to an artistic truth about real life? Justified sceptical air quotes around ‘real life’? Around ‘game’? The label betrays the academic roots of Barr’s work: he wants to clarify questions, in the manner of a philosopher, and ask what developers and critics should really be asking.

It’s therefore apt to think of Barr’s games as ludic thought experiments (he tells Electron Dance that he often starts a game because he gets a bizarre idea that just has to be tried out). More specifically, since they are also ‘curious’ in the sense of ‘odd’, they are playable versions of what John Holbo on the political philosophy blog Crooked Timber called 'Occam's Phaser' - the tendency of analytical philosophers to invent really bizarre scenarios (Holbo focuses on one involving a ray gun and people thrown down wells). The intent of these scenarios is to create a situation novel enough and yet faceless enough not to tempt intuitive answers based on social familiarity and make us think instead of abstract principles. Barr’s games are absurd abstractions of game design principles, formal exercises in very silly hats.

(Of course, perhaps they actually function as Daniel Dennett’s ‘intuition pumps’ – covertly encoding values while pretending to formal questioning!)

Just so, many of his most interesting experiments – just as interesting as those which use new and bizarre mechanics – are those which explore the meaning of familiar ones by playing with their context. One such game is actually based on a famous thought experiment. In Trolley Problem, you play through a sequence of moral choices in which pulling a lever will save one set of people from certain death but condemn some others instead. The Problem itself was conceived to clarify thinking about what constitutes an immoral act, what constitutes an omission, and what is actually happening, ethically speaking, when we make an instrumental calculation with human lives. The difference is that unlike a moral choice in Mass Effect or Dragon Age, no weeping relatives or political changes depend on your decision. It is Mass Effect with no effect. In blogging about the game, Barr said he wanted to emulate the blankness and neutrality of the thought experiment by removing consequence and feedback, so when you make your choice, all you get is a white screen and black text that says: “You chose to pull the switch. Okay.” For this reason it may actually have the purest moral choices in any videogame.

By this omission, it shows that the problem with moral choices in games is twofold. On the one hand, if there is any ludic or instrumental feedback to your choices – rewards or punishments, power-ups or debuffs, even simply ‘separate but equal’ abilities – any feedback which changes your future options – you turn a dilemma about morality into one about morality versus advantage. You bring in new motivations for the player to consider and change the game substantially. Bioshock tried to use this problem and make a game about what you’re willing to do for your own survival, but dropped the ball when it miscalibrated its feedback and made murdering children barely more profitable than leaving them alone (rather like in real life, where it really isn’t worth the effort). Red Dead Redemption is another clumsy example, where the main reward for being bad is a shitty horse. On the other hand, if there is only aesthetic feedback – a cut-scene showing the consequences of your actions – the choice becomes consequential. It automatically plays into the utilitarian worldview that the Trolley Problem is intended to critique by directing your attention away from the meaning of your actions and towards their consequences. The player may now make choices because she likes a certain character or wants to see a certain ending.

And yet by omitting all this, it makes the choices seem kind of meaningless – trivial, in programmer-speak. Any meaning they possess is given by the player, but without aesthetic cues to care, empathise or consider, it is difficult to find any in oneself to give them. What I referred to in the last paragraph as ‘problems’ are really ‘considerations’ – things developers should think about when they’re trying to make games with moral choices. But would it be a problem if Trolley Problem showed that moral choices in games are essentially false, that they are either instrumental choices dressed up in aesthetics meaningless choices dressed up in meaning? On the other hand – the third, Vortigaunt-style chest hand, by this point – Trolley Problem has some of the most intense consequences in any videogame. It saves your cookies so that once you play it once you can never reverse your choices; I now log on only to a non-judgemental message about how I sacrificed my girlfriend to save three strangers. By stripping away everything except choice and consequence it invites us to think about the arrangement of choice and consequence in other games.

On the other hand is Hot Coffee, a game that is deliberately over-contextualised. To a porno soundtrack of bitty boppy smooth jazz and salacious instructions like “I like my coffee really creamy”, the player taps buttons and holds keys to make a cup of coffee. That’s all – just a cup of coffee. It’s reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century pisstake A Sentimental Journey, which sets up a tension between innocent misunderstanding and deliberate innuendo and then strenuously, furiously, beautifully refuses to let its playfully erotic wave function collapse into either. Hot Coffee ain’t quite in the same league (no hard feelings, I hope), but its joke depends on the same dynamic. Part of that joke is that all that makes this ‘sexy’ is the context. Ludically, it is not a very good simulation of sex, although there is some superficial correspondence: ‘hitting the right spots’, patiently waiting, sheer dogged physical persistence at a rhythmic and complicated motion (we’ve all been there). Barr wrote that the game ended up being male-centric in that its metaphors were obvious and “non-subtle”. But sex is not a test, or shouldn’t be. Instead, the question is: if silly music and overheated dialogue is all that makes this ‘sexy’, then GTA’s version was surely the same: fairly non-sexual game dressed up (fully clothed!) in latex boots and a cowboy hat.

But the most interesting example of Barr playing with context may be Epic Sax Game, a game that lets you be that saxophone-playing loon from the Moldovan entry to the 2010 Eurovision contest. Like so many of Barr’s games, ESG reaches down to grasp at a very deep component of basic game grammar: taking the same action, learning it, learning to make it work for you, and then repeating it in different situations. This quality, common to the texture of most videogames, is one thing that links our medium with music and poetry – meaningful variations and reproductions of a repeated set of structures. The parallel made me want to learn an instrument more than anything else ever has, to repeat the process that I knew from games could be so very rewarding. I wanted to progress beyond ‘learn and repeat’ to ‘know the basics by heart and thereby improvise creatively’.

Music, of course, is much harder (or is it merely that it requires a different literacy?), and most people (me included) find ESG bastard-hard. But the meaning of the same basic skill goes through several revisions based on the kind of feedback you receive and corresponding to different levels of ‘performance’. There is the forgiving, ‘awesome’ inner voice Epic Sax Guy himself in practice mode. Then there’s the not unkind but firm and pernickety studio director in recording mode. There’s the no-feedback zone of the no-pressure jam, and finally the ‘epic’ context of Eurovision, where falling out of step or being in step with the bombastic performance is feedback enough (and you get graded at the end). This is not to mention the perpetually repeating endurance test and comic feedback comments of the Youtube stage. We are offered the meat and bone of play- a skill we learn and perform – and a choice of reasons to use it– mastery – feedback – process – fun – or just to be ‘epic’ – all filtered through this absurd meme.

It’s always fun to play through the output of a single designer and see how coherent and focused it is. Pippin Barr’s work plays and replays the same tropes: formal experimentation; absurd humour; an affinity for paradox; taking the logic of games that already exist and coming at them from oblique, challenging angles, and taking trends to their extremes, daring you to play. They explore the conventions and possibilities of design, but their deceptive simplicity, their thought-experiment abstraction, tends to shield a complex ambiguity where problem and counter-problem chase each other around. These ‘curious games’ produce tensions that refuse to resolve, wave functions that won’t collapse – and they should inspire curiosity too in those who play them. They’re good questions.

1 comment:

  1. I often find that I enjoy reading Pippin Barr's blog just as much as I enjoy playing his games. His writing style really mirrors that ponderous, absurd, half-joking, half-earnest form that his games take on. One of my favorites is Epic Sax Game. I love how that game takes an internet meme and asks you to experience it through all of these different, murky lenses. It makes you consider what it's like to become the protagonist of a meme, which is confusing and amusing to think about.

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