February 17, 2009

Innovation in 2009: You Have To Get The Joke

The Independent Games Festival, founded in 1998 by Think Services to "encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers," has unearthed some of the most notable games in recent memory. Braid, Jonathan Blow's time-manipulation platformer, Everyday Shooter, the compilation of musical shoot-em-ups from Queasy Games, and World of Goo, the physics-based puzzler from 2D Boy, all won the IGF Design Innovation award (in 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively), and are now among the top rated and most popular games of their platforms. Hence, this year's list of nominees for said award was a natural springboard for my search for the future leaders of the industry. While I had not heard of four of the five finalists, I recognized one, Kian Bashiri's satirical You Have To Burn The Rope, from my previous web crawls. In the game, after navigating a short tunnel filled with detailed instructions about what lies ahead, the player reaches a chamber with a gigantic (albeit harmless) boss. The only way to defeat this "Grinning Colossus" is to burn the rope above his head, as pictured below. The entire game plays in less than a minute, followed by a three minute credits sequence involving screenshots from the perilous journey set to a song (reminiscent of Jonathan Coulton's Still Alive from Portal, another IGF notable, but this one a student showcase winner, previously titled Narbacular Drop) touting the player's heroic bravery. Unlike its Design Innovation award predecessors, YHTBTR will never be popular in any commercial way due to its length and lack of any real gameplay; indeed, some users are furious that it took even five minutes of their time. However, Bashiri strives to innovate not by introducing new, unique features, but rather by holding up a mirror to the rest of the industry and pointing out some flaws in current game design practices.

In perhaps its most overt criticism, You Have To Burn The Rope asserts that games have gotten too challenging for the average player; in fact, the text: "Computer games are getting so hard these days..." displays directly under the game in the browser window. There have always been challenging games (see Rare's Battletoads, considered by Game Trailers to be the most difficult game of all time), but with interactive media's expanding demographic, the Ninja Gaiden's of the world are left exclusively to the hardest of the hardcore, and the gaming public at large demands more accessible experiences. Not only games, but consoles themselves inherently exclude a large audience, as a controller with fifteen buttons and two joysticks intimidates someone who has not touched a d-pad since the age of the NES (see left). The entrance of the Wii in 2006 largely introduced the casual market to consoles because of the Wiimote's freeform input system. Players could suddenly pick up a controller and swing their arm as if they were wielding a tennis racquet, as an avatar mimics their movements. However, most games that successfully use the Wii's control system in an intuitive way are little more than prototypes, and those rare few, like Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, that appropriately integrate these mechanics into a full game are too long for the casual gamer.

Thus, the PC remains the most popular medium for gaming, and sites like Yahoo! Games and Pogo dominate this space. Through these portals, players enjoy variants on classics, such as Mahjong Safari and Fashion Solitaire presented by Lifetime Television Channel. One particular Pogo offering stood out to me: a game with a title almost as self-referential as You Have To Burn The Rope called Everyone Wins Bingo. In an interview with IndieGames, Bashiri says that while YHTBTR is partly a comment on how difficult games have become, "it's also a subtle reference to how some games are kind of patronizing toward the player, like too easy." Henrik NÃ¥mark's credit song, "Now You're a Hero" showers the main character with praise for doing nothing but what the title plainly explains to do. Similarly, the particle effects in Everyone Wins Bingo lavishly celebrate accomplishments that are completely mundane, because after all, in this version of bingo, everyone wins. Braid's Jonathan Blow argues in a feature with Gamasutra that casual games are not the only offenders in this regard. He admonishes triple A titles like God of War and Fable II for reducing challenge, the element that makes interactivity unique, in order to advance the linear story, the component in which films, literature, and other mediums specialize. While storytelling is an undeniably important ingredient, "if we eventually become no interaction and all story," says Blow, "then we're just a bad movie, right?"

When games strictly adhere to a linear narrative, they also eliminate choice, because in order to follow a set script, certain events must occur. As a result, designers must insert "false choices" or the illusion of interactivity. Although the player feels like he makes a decision, in reality there is only one option: the one that leads to the next juncture in the story. To satirize this phenomenon, Bashiri implemented a useless weapon and multiple paths that both lead to the inevitable moment where the rope is burned. "Both the ability to throw axes and the option to go up the left or the right set of staircases are examples of false choices," he explained to Gamasutra on Thursday. "They give you the illusion of interactivity, but of course they don't matter at all."

Critics of You Have To Burn The Rope assert that because the developers spent only 10 hours creating the game, it is not worthy of consideration. Angry bloggers post comments like, "this game is stupid" and "this is the easiest game ever." Incidentally, they stumbled upon one of the central themes: games with false choices and limited interactivity are pointless. While YHTBTR, like any form of satire, simplifies the problem, it sparks a relevant, meaningful dialogue, and calls out fundamental game design flaws through a less-than-a-minute-long interactive experience. Perhaps the fact that it received a fair amount of non-gaming media attention helped YHTBTR get nominated, but it truely is deserving based on its own merits. You Have To Burn The Rope is certainly unlike any past IGF Design Innovation award recipient, but that very fact affirms its position among the finalists.

1 comment:

  1. Growing up as a kid, I remember one of the most exciting times of my day was playing Nintendo NES with my dad. I recall my dad being equally if not more enthusiastic about playing video games as I was. The relative simplicity of a 4 button controller and 2-D graphics made it easy for my dad (a product of the 50's) to be able to successfully interact with a child born into the digital era. I also remember the apocalyptic day (somewhere around 5th or 6th grade) when my dad came home with a Nintendo64 machine. My dads excitement was overwhelming, but as the machine was turn on I watched as his look of joy quickly seemed to evolve into sheer terror and confusion. SuperMario64: with its fancy 3-D graphics, sophisticated controls, multiple camera angles, and complex plot was destroying my father's moral and interest in video games as a whole. From that point on, video game nights with my dad weren't the same ever again. My father just wasn't as enthusiastic about playing a game that he had no idea how to do successfully, and his 10 year old son was much better at. I cant exactly blame him, but this cataclysmic event still resonates with me today.

    With video game platforms like X-Box360 getting more and more complex, I'm beginning to feel the same video game anxiety that my dad felt 10 years ago. With that being said, I think it's excellent that a game like YHTBTR is getting praise in the industry for its mockery of what has happened to video games today. I find that hearing gamers' instant reactions to YHTBTR are especially amusing considering that most of them completely overlooked the message that the game was conveying. I played the game myself, and found it completely foolish. But given the social commentary that you presented, I completely understand the relevance of the game.

    I appreciate you mentioning the significance of NintendoWii attempting to bring back the simplistic nature of video games. However I would argue that there might have been too long of a time gap from when video games were elementary in the early 90's, and now. Many generations of gamers have been lost in the fog of dual joysticks and complex user manuals. I also feel like those generations of gamers that have managed to endure through the years are probably past the point of no return. I for one can't imagine playing a game like Pong or WiiMario anymore. The thought of it almost feels like gaming regression. I think this notion probably has a lot to do with certain gamers overlooking the intentions of YHTBTR.

    What I found to be most interesting about this post is your mentioning of critics protesting YHTBTR for the fact that it only took 10 hours to develop. For some reason I get a chuckle out of hearing that a group of game developers that sat and slaved over creating a complex, over-accomplished adventure saga tailored to only the most elite of the gaming community are bitter about their loss to YHTBTR. After reading this post, that which I am most great full for is not my on-par comprehension of video game consoles, but rather the safety of knowing that there is someone like Kian Bashiri that understands the sensitive state that the video game world is in today.


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