Angry Birds

Hardware failure has left me unable to continue in Prince of Persia for the nonce, so in the meanwhile, let’s find out what the big deal is with Angry Birds. I’ve had access to iOS devices for a while, but I haven’t really tried to play games on them, even though they’re dirt cheap compared to most PC and console stuff. I suppose I still somehow regard them as some how less “real” than PC games, which is an irrational prejudice that I’ll have to play a few to overcome.

So, Angry Birds. The gameplay consists of catapulting projectiles (in the form of cartoon birds) at structures made of blocks of various materials (glass, wood, stone) that have enough of a 2D physics engine behind them for them to react convincingly to all kinds of impact, weight, and pressure. Most types of bird also have some special action that can be triggered once during their initial flight, such as speeding up or exploding. As in Peggle, you control the launch angle without a lot of feedback about what the effect will be, which gives the game a substantial luck factor. This creates partial reinforcement. Although some levels definitely have specific planned solutions in which you target a series of structural vulnerabilities, there’s always the possibility that you’ll win by a fluke if you just keep trying over and over. I can see this as contributing to the game’s popularity (just as it did in Peggle), but I understand that there are a bunch of Flash games based on the same mechanics that haven’t been such monumental commercial successes. I’m not really familiar with them, and presumably neither are most Angry Birds players, but most of what I’ve described so far seems unavoidable.

Whatever the virtues of the other castle-smashers, I’ll give Angry Birds this: it handles well. It’s very responsive to the touch and supports all the most-used touchscreen operations, including wipes to scroll the playfield back and forth and scrunching the screen to resize the view. And for that reason alone, it’s probably worth playing on its original target platform, even now that it’s been ported to PC.

All that said, I have to say that I’m taken aback by how mean-spirited the game feels. First off, the goal is to crush pigs to death. The pigs, located in and around the structures you’re smashing, are ugly green creatures, stylized into just heads, which roll around if nudged. They can’t fight back. They’re utterly helpless. When hurt but not hurt enough to pop, they develop bruises and black eyes. And your motivation for crushing them — well, the ostensible reason that the birds are so angry involves stolen eggs. Goodness knows if the specific pigs you’re smashing with bricks were involved in that at all; the birds certainly don’t seem to care. But that really isn’t important; it only comes up in a cutscene once every 21 levels, and besides, it’s only the motivation within the fiction. The motivation for the player is what’s in front of you all the time: the pigs are ugly and disgusting, and they laugh at you. If you fail a level (by using up all your birds without murdering all the pigs), the survivors smile snaggle-toothed grins and guffaw piggishly. If you fail to fail, you get raucous and triumphant avian laughter from your own side. That’s the game’s mindset: the only options are to laugh at or be laughed at, to dominate or be dominated. Life is mean.

Furthermore, the birds, who are presented as being capable of emotion (or one emotion, anyway), are deliberately reducing themselves to nothing more than weapons, things to be used, and used up. I’ve seen it posited before that the birds are terrorists: they are, after all, killing their victims (not enemies, as I hope I’ve made clear, but victims) by flying into buildings. I’ve seen that suggested jocularly, but I didn’t realize until I played just how close to the surface it is. The birds are making suicide attacks: shortly after a bird comes to rest, it goes poof. As I mentioned above, there’s one type that explodes on command, which makes it specifically a suicide bomber. They even make use of their offspring this way: there’s one type of bird whose special ability is to drop an egg, which falls straight down and explodes (while the bird itself, having no other purpose than to give birth to a weapon, collapses into a flaccid husk and perishes). Remember that the birds’ whole casus belli was to protect their eggs. Either that was just a pretext, or something has gone very wrong in the execution of this war.

The real hallmark of mean-spiritedness, though, is that when it presents cruelty and dehumanization, it expects you to respond with laughter. But there are definitely people who respond to that, and they’re probably underserved by the game industry in general. So I expect that this is part of its popularity. Although honestly I suspect that it’s sold as well as it has mostly just through a positive feedback loop, with people buying it simply because it’s at the top of the charts. Which, I have to admit, is more or less why I myself chose it above all the other iOS games I could have been playing during this interlude.