Spelunkoetry: What are the Best Words? What is their Best Order?

Here we must diverge from the poetic definition a bit. In poetry the ‘best words’ will carry with them the perfect literal and metaphoric meaning for their specific situation, the perfect emotional resonance through implications or cultural baggage from the word’s use history, as well as encompassing the perfect sound, cadence and metre. While still a factor in Spelunky’s epigrams, the latter factors about the words’ phonology matter less here.

This seems the best place for the ‘this is all subjective’ disclaimer. Language is a slippery fish. Consider yourself disclaimed. Continue reading

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Super Mario 64 and Freedom, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

 

What I only realised recently is how the game teaches you that you don’t have to play the stars in order on the very first level. Right at the beginning of the game you have no choice. You must tackle star one on level one -‘Big Bob-omb on the Summit’.

After being dropped in you’re taught how to read/speak to things. This is the only thing the game forcibly teaches you, as it is the only thing it can’t teach you through reading or speaking to things, all of which is optional. The game encourages you just learned on a friendly, fuchsia explosive (remember, this is Mario), but you don’t have to.

If you do elect to, he/she/it confirms what would probably be your natural inclination based on the star’s name: to head to the top of the level’s only hill, where the personable pink ordinance tells you an important bad-guy is waiting.

Your path to this moustachioed munition however takes you right past a caged star in plain sight, guarded by a huge Chained Chomp (a massive, vicious metal ball with teeth and eyes, for those unfamiliar) whose chain is held in place by a wooden stake hammered into the ground.

You know you can ground-pound (If you read the manual. This is the 90s.), and that post looks awful stomp-able. But surely, it wouldn’t let you get that star this early… would it? Dodging the chomp, probably taking a few hits and retreating to get some health-giving coins [insert satirical comment on US health system/future of the NHS], you eventually land the three required butt-slams to drive the thing completely into the ground, freeing the chomp. Liberated, the beast galumphs in happiness, smashing the cage before bounding away to freedom. You grab the star, and upon re-entering the level discover that it was actually the sixth (of six). The blinkers are off.

Continue reading

So-Bad-It’s-Good and Video Games, Part Two

In part one we discussed why really bad media can sometimes be enjoyable and why watching Let’s Plays of bad games ticks many of the same boxes as watching a good-bad film, without the frustrations that would come with actually playing a bad game. Now we’ll consider whether playing is even necessary at all to get the heart of the good-bad experience.

So for cheap, short, throwaway games it might be worth experiencing the badness for yourself, we concluded. For longer, more expensive examples, perhaps not. But there are actually theories that seeing or playing a good-bad game/film are not even necessary for participation in the phenomenon of it:

The social aspect […] is really key. I think, if we’re being honest, they’re not so much movies to be watched as they are movies to be known about, to be shared, and to share in the complete disbelief of. Watching is not the primary experience […]; celebrating is.” – Mike Rugnetta, PBS Idea channel.

In gaming the Zelda games on the Phillips CDi are the perfect example of this: they are hugely ‘popular’ yet being rare, expensive games on a rare, expensive and temperamental console almost no-one has played them; most people’s exposure to them was first through YouTube poop and then through reviewers like the Angry Video Game Nerd and PeanutButterGamer. Furthermore every youtuber who does play them usually comments that the controls and design choices mean that they are no fun at all to play.

Emulation may fix some of the control issues, but this itself presents two problems: Firstly, you are not experiencing the ‘true badness’ that made the games legendary in the first place; and secondly the design issues (lamp oil and rope requiring rupee farming, darkness, enemies too short to stab) are still bad enough to make everything between the hilarious cut-scenes you’re probably playing it for a painful experience.

Hence, it could be argued it is the viewer – either of a review, a Let’s Play or the cut-scenes in isolation – who is getting the best experience.

The idea of good-bads to be ‘celebrated’ rather than watched/played brings us on to ‘manufactured’ examples, things designed to hit those notes of silliness on purpose. In movies, this is Sharknado, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus and the like. By some reports, Sharknado did better on twitter than it did on television. People were so enthralled with the idea they skipped watching and went straight to celebrating.

However, the movie itself is by The Asylum, who also produced the aforementioned Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus and Snakes on a Train. They are competent cheesemongers who know what they’re doing, and their productions lack the necessary grand pathos of a Birdemic or a Sonic ’06.

In video games we have Goat Simulator. Every physics glitch short of game-breaking has been diligently not fixed, and some (the way the goat climbs ladders) it’s hard to believe were not put in on purpose. What’s more it has reasonable controls, is quite cheap, and everything is pretty much instantly accessible. Thus it sidesteps most of the issues that put people off true good-bad games.

On his first impressions video, John ‘Totalbiscuit’ Bain commented that the game—amusingly buggy by intent and highly focused on emergent interactions—seemed more designed for Let’s Players  than a general audience. Indeed, the Game Grumps and PewDiePie have both played Goat Simulator multiple times, nearly always garnering many more views than their average. Though still apt, this criticism seems addressed somewhat by the update adding a much larger second map and multiplayer functionality, though these things of course benefit the Let’s Players as well as the general ones.

As of August 2014 Goat Simulator has “almost 1 million” sales. This is a hell of a lot. It has been proven that Let’s Plays increase sales so it was a shrewd move by the developer to make a game so perfect for them, as this will have shifted a lot of copies. Still, PewDiePie’s first Goat Simulator video has over 9 million views (he averages around 3-5 million), some subsequent ones have over 6, 7 and 8 million views respectively. It seems Bain was right on at least some level, many more people would rather watch the game than play it.

Perhaps, if we go by the above Ideas Channel quote, this is all that’s necessary. A Let’s Play or even a 20 minute ‘review’ are enough to show us the game’s most egregious aspects.

Whether good-bad games (for playing) will ever take off is a question that’s hard to give a sweeping answer to. There are too many variables; the situation will be different for each game. Yahtzee (him from the beginning of part one) said of Ride to Hell: Retribution “It’s bad. It’s explosively apocalyptically bad and you should totally buy it. I’m serious; you have to see this shit […] this could be our Plan 9 from Outer Space.” though he does admit at one point that ‘adorably bad’ sometimes starts to stray into testing the patience. Ride to Hell (metascore 13-19) is £8 on Steam, less if it’s on sale.

I sure as hell don’t know if it’s worth the time, money and frustration. But maybe it doesn’t need to be when it gives sixty-six thousand results on YouTube, and every video on the first page has over a hundred thousand views…

Image: Coffee Stain Studios

Can So-Bad-It’s-Good Work for Games?

Realistically, everyone knows that its infamous reputation is the only reason this game is on Steam and the blurb should have read ‘Roll up, roll up, everyone come and see the freak.’” – Critic Yahtzee Croshaw.

So John Romero’s notorious ‘misstep’ (to put it politely) Daikatana is now on Steam. Which leads us to ask, can what has for a long time worked for movies work for games? Can ‘bad’ games be enjoyable?

Certainly, we enjoy watching others suffer these games. Since the Angry Video Game Nerd began it, watching people talk about bad (or sometimes just downright weird) games for ten to twenty minutes is now so popular a genre that multiple practitioners make their living from it, even discounting Let’s Players.

But playing them, perhaps less so. One key factor is time. A movie takes a couple of hours to watch. Even short games are usually longer than this. How long before the mistakes stop being funny and become painful?

How then do we explain Game Grumps Sonic ’06 play-through being both their most popular series and clocking in at over 20 hours total run-time (longer than it would take to play through many games yourself)?

So-bad-it’s-good relies on the gap between what something is trying to be and what it actually is: the bad acting, writing, and general oddity (tux football?) of intended tragedy The Room for example. This is also why comedies are rarely so-bad-they’re-good, a failed joke is just either sad or painful. Movie 43 isn’t so bad it’s good, it’s so bad somebody should be prosecuted.

Of course, being bad is not enough alone; it is also how often and how passionately often a movie is intriguingly bad.

Further, if no-one cares, we don’t care. A good-bad must have delusions of not necessarily grandeur but at least competence, relevance or importance. It must, in short, be earnest. This heartfelt earnestness makes just how hard the thing fails a little tragic, and the schadenfreude resulting from this has in some cases been enough to spawn cult followings and packed screenings.

At least he isn’t folding his arms

Sonic The Hedgehog 2006 certainly fits the ‘ambitions of grandeur’ requirement. The grandiose CG opening and closing cut-scenes, the ambitious multi-character gameplay, the epic scale of the final boss – and fails to deliver on all but the last. Is all this enough to keep us engaged for the whole game?

It is if someone else plays it. Sonic 06 certainly has enough badness spread throughout it: whether it’s the next act in the fate-of-the-world drama about an awakening god of destruction that is its plot being played out by short, big-headed furries; bizarre NPC quests that contrast that story’s tone; questionable vehicle sections, physics powers or level design; Sonic 06 keeps delivering.

But games are active, and so are their frustrations. Watching rather than playing glosses over anything unpleasant. The Grumps’ pain is not ours, in fact we enjoy it. We don’t have to deal with awful controls, poorly explained mechanics or having to repeat the same sections over and over, sometimes because of unfair deaths. While the run time of the Grumps’ Sonic 06 is over 20 hours, they often fast-forwarded when they were stuck and skipped some bits entirely, things the player would not be able to do. What would be repetitive for the player is less so for the viewer as the commentary changes, unlike the gameplay. Badness that may raise a brief chuckle for the lone player provides multiple laughs as it is disbelieved, discussed and mocked.

Besides time two other factors limit the entertainment value of bad games for the player – cost and effort. Is it really worth slogging through hours of poor controls and difficulty spikes to experience for yourself the few entertainingly laughable bits when you could just watch them? In the case of Sonic 06 – is it worth £12 (around $20), the price at Cex and seemingly on eBay too, to do this?

Sometimes this is less of an issue. With its 79p price tag (frequently on sale for under 20p) Bad Rats almost invites you to see for yourself just how bad it is. In rare cases like this, good-bad perhaps can work for the player: most of Bad Rats’ badness is evident right from the start (or shortly after) – they player has to invest little time or money to experience it.

But do good-bad games even need to be played, or do they reach the same potential as good-bad films just by watching?

Continued in Part Two.

Image from sonicgifs tumblr. Copyright Sega I assume.

The Dead and an Island

Writing critically about zombies is starting to become almost as ubiquitous as the damn things themselves. I recently saw an episode of PBS Idea Channel entitled ‘Why Do We Love Zombies?‘, which explained how the monster in vogue at any point reflects society’s fears – so in paranoid Cold War America you had alien invaders; some, like pod-people, which looked like us and lived among us but weren’t us; and in post-Hiroshima Japan you had the giant radiation-mutated Godzilla levelling cities. The proposal regarding zombies was that the horde symbolises a world beyond human control, and that further they represent a sort of technophobia – zombies are not evil, they are just doing the only thing they know – carrying out their programming if you will – without regard to morality, much like a computer. In many zombie films, survivors rely not on technology or infrastructure to maintain themselves but simple, often handmade machines.

                This is nothing new of course. I studied Robinson Crusoe at university and it and the ‘Robinsonade’ genre it spawned would seem to represent a retreat from technology and infrastructure similar to that which Idea Channel posits in their video. Furthermore the video then states that “The classic zombie apocalypse survival plan is to go to an island where natural resources are plentiful. You get away from the zombies but you also get away from technology and from… everything. You return to a simpler time.” Seeing any similarity?

                But why zombies particularly? Many types of apocalypse could cause this regression to rustic simplicity. KokadaRC, a top commenter on the Idea Channel video at the time I watched it, suggests that once the prevalence of zombies specifically is over a ‘wasteland’ genre might emerge for post-apocalyptic survival works. But for the meantime, as game critic Yahtzee Croshaw puts it: “Honestly at this point you people just won’t be able to cope if civilisation ends any other way, will you? If the fucking Daleks invade or the entire world gets covered in carnivorous jam you’ll have to make papier-mâché zombie facsimiles just to get through the day.”

                The technophobia aspect may be a part of the appeal of the shamblers, but I believe it is not specific enough to zombie apocalypses to be the sole reason. There are other reasons that could contribute, such as the fact that zombies, like Hollywood Nazis, are human shaped and yet morally ok to slaughter, but this is not my theory.

                I lied about Robinson Crusoe earlier. What I was citing was what most people think of when they think about the Robinsonade genre. But I had to write an essay on it, and my research highlighted something. Crusoe is completely reliant on technology. Shortly after he is shipwrecked he finds the site of the wreck and makes multiple dives to retrieve supplies, including iron tools and a number of guns. He is further bolstered later by a hurricane blowing further supplies from the ship back to shore and then again, some years later, by another shipwreck. It is these guns that allow Crusoe to hunt in the early years, before he starts farming goats, and later to defend himself against cannibals and mutineers. Further, while Crusoe may rhapsodize about how much time and effort it takes to make something he could just buy at home (a table, pots) and how much more he appreciates it for his hard work, he would not be able to make these things, nor do much of his farming, without the iron tools that are the culmination of his society’s technology and infrastructure.

                Similarly, though a zombie apocalypse might strip away the iPhones and the bleeding edge of technology many of the standard survivor tools – guns, cars, chainsaws, crossbows, medicine etc. – could not be manufactured by the survivors themselves. Like Crusoe, the apocalypse may represent a level of technological regression but it does not take us all the way back to ‘Man vs nature/undead’. In retrospect I realise this was not really Idea Channel’s argument, and that in fitting so much information into five minutes some subtleties are lost. Both Crusoe and zombie survivors are aided by thousands of years of technological advancement, but it is only the most recent developments the latter is a reaction against.

                Still, I would argue that overpopulation is just as much behind the love of zombies. In the West, many of us are taught that we are special snowflakes, but it’s hard to reconcile this belief with the fact that there are seven billion of us; a number that’s hard to even comprehend. Then, when we leave education at whatever level it hits us hard that there are literally thousands of people who could do the same job as us, some even in different countries – we do not matter. An apocalypse solves this problem twofold: firstly it reduces society to a level where, due to the sheer drop in numbers, every individual matters; secondly, to be a survivor in the first place, whether through luck, providence, or your own preparedness – you are special. So far, so applicable to every type of Armageddon. What gives zombie apocalypses the advantage is that it recasts all those who aren’t us, who aren’t special enough to be us – the other – as shambling grotesqueries we can cathartically obliterate. That’ll teach ‘em for threatening our entitled sense of self!

                Any similarities to Crusoe? Well, at the time it was written the mercantile class was expanding. Previously the nobility had been special and the peasants had been a faceless, unimportant mass. But now there was a new, educated, ‘middle’ class who clearly viewed themselves as special, and this class was growing. At home Robinson was just another merchant’s son. On his island, he is master, ‘governor’ and ‘king’.

                As I have written, I have realised I cannot refute the Idea Channel argument as fully as I first intended. Though still the culmination of thousands of year’s technological advancement, there is a great difference between guns and cars and crossbows – ‘analogue’ technologies quite easy to understand – and the cryptic computer technologies that seem to operate without human agency. Rather, let this article be seen as highlighting an interesting parallel between the first English novel and a current trend in fiction, as well as my thoughts on the source of their popularity.

-Inspiration for this article comes from a top commenter on the aforementioned PBS Idea Channel video, Grahame Turner, who said: “My argument for a while has been that zombies represent our fear of conformity, of becoming part of a faceless horse and creating to be relevant because of looking our individuality. I can definitely see both arguments, even see them both working.” [sic.]

                It has also occurred to me that some of the arguments here are quite similar to and probably inspired by Croshaw’s articles on zombies, both of which are worth reading: 

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/extra-punctuation/8387-Why-We-Love-Zombies

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/extra-punctuation/9542-The-Growth-of-the-Zombie-Myth