Games Interactive 2: Terminology

The English language is unusual for having two unrelated words for “play” and “game”. Compare Spanish jugar/juego, German spielen/Spiel, Russian играть/игру. The seminal ludology text Les jeux et les hommes is usually rendered in English as “Man, Play, and Games”, using two words to express the full extent of what Caillois means by jeux. The very idea that playing and games are two separate concepts seems to only make sense to people whose native language supports that notion, and perhaps not even them, if they think about it. From the right perspective, games seem like a subset of play, comprising play that uses fixed rules.

Games Magazine goes against this by generalizing “game” to the point where it may even be a superset of play — crosswords and cryptograms and similar puzzles are leisure activities, sure, but I hesitate to categorize them as play. You don’t play a cryptogram, you solve it. (Solitaire Hangman is kind of a special case here.) But the two volumes of Games Interactive don’t hesitate to call them “games”, asking you to “Select Games” from the main menu and such. I call them “puzzles”, but the word “puzzle” is largely avoided in the games themselves, and when it is used, it’s to refer to an individual unit within a multi-part “game” like a Battleships set; crosswords, which are served up one at a time, are never called “puzzles”. The one big exception is the “Visual Puzzles” category in Games Interactive 2, which seems like a mistake. The first Games Interactive called the category just “Visual”.

It’s almost as if they’re using the word “game” not in its customary sense, but as a translation of “jeux“. I mean, Caillois did specifically give crosswords as an example in Les jeux et les hommes. But then, he also mentioned dancing, and that seems over-broad even for the magazine.

The strange part is that, while I’m reluctant to classify traditional print puzzles as games, I have no problem regarding Games Interactive and its sequel, which are composed of traditional print puzzles, as games. I suppose part of it is that they were packaged and sold as a games. But also, they’re not very different from other familiar puzzle games, and the interactivity is a big factor. The ability to place your battleship pieces arbitrarily and experimentally and delete them without consequence or erasure marks when they don’t pan out, or to try out different letter mappings in your cryptogram and let the computer instantly show you the consequences, or to click on parts of a picture in a visual puzzle and be instantly told whether each click was right: these things change how you engage with the puzzles, making it more, well, playful. There are puzzle types here — chiefly Logic and Visual one-offs — that don’t support playful interactivity, instead essentially just giving you a question and prompting you for an answer. Those are the least successful puzzles here, barring bugs. As for the rest, even if you don’t play the puzzles per se, at least you play with them. And that’s a distinction I’d be surprised to see in any language other than English.

Brainpipe

Plunge!While I’m talking about AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, I might as well pull out its cousin, Digital Eel’s Brainpipe: A Plunge to Unhumanity (which, for some reason, my brain insists on resubtitling Brainpipe: A Thrashing Parity Bit of the Mind). It’s another game in the flying-unstoppably-forward genre, like Space Harrier and the Death Star trench run in any Star Wars game, but unlike those, and like AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, you don’t shoot at stuff. The action is all about dodging things at high velocity.

Actually, it’s not quite a game about flying forward unstoppably. You can stop briefly; holding down a button lets you take a moment to reorient yourself and/or heal up after a crash. (Like in a lot of recent first-person shooters, you heal very quickly; death only comes if you have several crashes in rapid succession.) Release the button and you’re immediately back to normal speed. The stopping power is somewhat elastic, and you stretch back into normal speed if you keep the button held down. In effect, you’re using up your stop energy. It takes a little while to build up again, and until it does, you can’t stop as effectively. It’s a strange and unnatural-feeling mechanic.

But strange and unnatural-feeling is exactly what the authors want. The high concept here is essentially that this is a videogame designed by aliens. In fact, it’s implied to be an alien mind-alteration device, its trippy visuals and disorienting sound design having a permanent effect on the player’s brain. The various levels (all essentially the same thing at increasing difficulty) have names that are slightly-altered terms from neuroanatomy (Nasal Ganglia, Psynaptic Gap, etc), and the end of each level has a glyph that, if you collect it, tells you that you have “achieved” some mental state: the first is Awareness, which makes it seem like this is going to be a quest for enlightenment, but it’s followed up by things like Dissonance and Confusion. One of the levels grants you Transhumanity, which looks promising, but the next grants you Subhumanity. Well, no one ever said that changing your brain was ultimately going to be positive. You’re the one who wanted to do this, man. At the end of level 10, in a moment like the end of that Death Star trench run, you have one chance to nab the Unhumanity glyph or wind up in a coma. If you get it, you get to choose your new alien form, from a list of pictures taken from previous Digital Eel games (mostly from their mini-space-opera Weird Worlds).

The UI design has some alien touches. The numbers in the score display morph from digit to digit instead of flipping instantly — and since you score points just for moving forward, this means that the ones place never looks quite like a number. The health bar is not a health bar but a health sphincter: there’s a circular reticle that shows you where you’re aiming, and as you lose health, the reticle’s iris turns red and dilates. There’s eye imagery in the menus outside of the game as well — every button is an eye that pivots to look at the cursor, which means that you need to touch an eye to play the game, or even to quit it. Alternately, you could see the player as a one-eyed monster in the euphemistic sense, trying to penetrate the deepest reaches of a tube. Couple that with the alien mind alteration bit and it’s even oogier.

The one thing I like the best about this game is the sound design. The various obstacles have associated sound effects that bend in pitch Doppler-wise as they zoom to the rear. On top of that, there’s a constantly shifting array of background noises — elevator music, snatches of conversation that you can’t quite make out, TARDIS dematerialization sounds, the manic bonus music from Mr. Do. None of which ever last for more than ten seconds at a time. It produces a sense of dizziness, like that produced by hyperventilation or anaesthesia — a sense that you’re not currently fit to understand what’s going on around you. If there was any doubt that Caillois’ ilinx could be produced by a videogame, Brainpipe should settle it.

Brainpipe‘s linearity, short length, and focus on a single play style makes it seem a lot like a coin-op arcade game, as do the glowy colors. In fact, I’d kind of like to see an arcade cabinet for this game, preferably with a bunch of teenagers crowded around it in a dingy and disreputable arcade, next to the Polybius machine.

Caillois and the Road to Dino 4D

Before I put on a trenchcoat and fight some conspiracies, another interlude. Today I was in the vicinity of one of those motion simulator rides — that is, a movie screen and chairs that tilt up and down and sometimes things that blow air at you to simulate the rushing of wind. I had never tried such a thing before, and since they had a dinosaur-themed show, I felt that I had to try it in the name of further research. Emily Short posted about her experiences with rides of this sort at a theme park a few months back, but I get the impression that the theme-park strain of ride is higher-budget than the urban tourist-trap variety.

I actually experienced two “rides” using the same hardware. The first was an exaggerated log ride down a river in the mountains, essentially just a virtualized roller coaster; the second was more narrative, sending the audience on a perilous journey to Dino Island to airlift out the last remaining male tyrannosaurus before the island explodes. (This is definitely a medium aimed at children, and so, to comply with current mores, dinosaurs aren’t things to be shot like they were in Dino Crisis. After all, if we can keep gun violence out of children’s media, kids will learn that it’s a grown-up thing, to be looked forward to, just like binge drinking.) I honestly thought the straightforwardness of the log ride worked better: it let me experience the physical sensations without worrying about why things were happening or what it meant for the mission. Both were preceded by a cheesy mock-serious intro that put me in mind of Saturday morning TV. That’s about what I was expecting from the experience, I suppose: cheesiness and gimmickry. And at some point, I realized: These rides are a close relative of the 90s FMV game.

Seriously, both forms are essentially movies made novel by technological gimmickry (which, in turn, is expected to make the audience forgiving). Once we recognize this kinship, it’s reasonable to speculate that the producers recognized it first — that the motion simulation ride and the FMV game were regarded by their makers as filling the same niche, despite the gamers’ expectation that the latter fill a quite different niche, that of game. Which raises interesting questions: Did “siliwood” even understand that games play a different role in the gamer’s life than theme park rides? Do the captains of the industry understand it even now? And if they don’t… are they wrong?

To change tracks abruptly, I recently read Man, Play, and Games by Roger Caillois. I honestly don’t recommend it — although it’s part of the canon of ludology, it doesn’t really have much to say that’s relevant to the subject. Apart from an appendix about lottery systems, it mainly just makes unsupported generalizations about games, which are then used as a launching point for the real subject, unsupported generalizations about society. Some of the assertions are even blatantly false — for example, when he says that games heavily based on agon (struggle) and alea (chance) never have, and indeed in principle cannot have, a strong element of mimicry 1Some translations apparently use “mimesis” here. It’s unclear to me which word was used in the original French, given that Caillois deliberately avoids taking his terms from just one language. I use “mimcry” here because “mimesis” has other connotations in the IF community. (assuming alternate roles). We can’t blame him for not predicting Dungeons & Dragons, but it seems bone-headed of him to call it impossible, especially since a little implicit mimicry had been part of hobby wargaming for decades.

The main thing of value Caillois provides us with is his conception of, and terminology for, the principles that, according to him, underlie all play. There are four, three of which we’ve just seen: agon, alea, and mimicry. The fourth is ilinx, or vertigo: pleasure in physical loss of control. It’s at this point that the student of games balks, but in fact he’s not really talking about games here. He’s talking about play, a much broader category, stretching from the undirected frolicking of children to crossword puzzles to dancing — even, if you want to really stretch it (and Caillois does), to theatrical productions. Ilinx is present in the play of children as they swing on swings or slide on slides or even just spin around and get dizzy; it plays a lesser role in the play of grown-ups, but is claimed to be behind the appeal of alcohol and other drugs. But there’s one place where ilinx is available to people of all ages: carnival rides.

Now, Caillois makes much of a supposed alliance of agon and alea, hostile to the mimicry/ilinx axis. I’ve already expressed some skepticism about this schema, but looking at the history of gimmick movies makes it temptingly plausible. For what is an interactive movie but a movie with elements of agon? And what is a motion simulator ride but a movie with elements of ilinx? To the extent that they fill the same niche — which they probably do in the ecology of Hollywood, if not in our hearts — the latter has supplanted the former. To Caillois, that’s a step backward. And for once, I’m inclined to agree with him. The interactive movie was an overhyped dumbing-down of gaming, an attempt to make the unruly new artform fit better into established production pipelines, but I can’t help but feel that it was also an experiment that never fulfilled its potential. The simulated motion ride bears a similar relationship to the actual motion ride (that is, the roller coaster and its ilk): it’s an inferior experience in a lot of ways, but I can imagine it becoming superior as the technology advances. But I don’t go on roller coasters regularly, 2Except in the sense that I take a bus through San Francisco to get to work. and I probably wouldn’t even if they were more available. And I think most people are with me there. That’s why we see them in special set-apart places like fairgrounds and amusement parks that people go to only occasionally.

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1. Some translations apparently use “mimesis” here. It’s unclear to me which word was used in the original French, given that Caillois deliberately avoids taking his terms from just one language. I use “mimcry” here because “mimesis” has other connotations in the IF community.
2. Except in the sense that I take a bus through San Francisco to get to work.