Four months later?! Sure, No More Sweden 2009 happened all the way back in July, but after my most recent lecture on abusive game design, I realized I had forgotten to blog about R-Type 3.141592653589793238469 (also known as “R-Type almost pi”). Well, here we go. Better late than never, right?
As I wrote back in July, a variety of cool game prototypes were created at the event. But of all the games, our standout favorite was definitely R-Type almost pi, developed by Nifflas and Nurykabe. The other attendees seemed to agree, as the game was awarded both “Most Efficient Subliminal Message” and “Best Experience.”
If you haven’t tried the game yet, go do so now so that I don’t spoil it for you. Then, read on after the jump.
“R-Type almost pi” is a perfect example of what Miguel Sicart and I call “abusive game design” – a design attitude in which the designer intentionally aims to antagonize the players. The defining characteristic of an abusive game is that the player feels like they are playing directly against the human creator, rather than the game system. An abusive game is a battle of wits and willpower between designer and player!
There’s a whole Foucaultian take on this too (think: “productive power relations”), but I’ll spare you the critical theory for now.
Many such games “abuse” the players through tantalizingly difficult gameplay. Kaizo Mario and I Wanna Be The Guy stand as two particularly humorous examples. But, as I talk about in my lectures on the topic, there exist many other possible modalities of abusive design – some of which deserve more attention!
“R-Type almost pi” uses one of my personal favorite modalities – lying to the player. But unlike many other “parody games,” which tend to rely on one easily understandable twist, “R-Type almost pi” relies on a whole series of small lies.
For example, the game fires a bunch of WarioWare style commands that the player must perform – from pressing one key, to pressing a whole sequence of keys that require near-impossible finger contortions, to quickly solving a Chess puzzle. The joke, of course, is that the vast majority of these commands ultimately have no effect.
Actually, some of the commands have a negative effect. Particularly humorous is the instruction to press “Alt + F4” – the Windows shortcut for closing applications.
Given the fast pace of the gameplay and the visual density of the HUD, it’s difficult to tell whether or not you’re actions have any effect. In this sense, “R-Type almost pi” calls attention to how opaque the logic behind procedural systems can be. And given the stressful atmosphere of the game, the player might not even have time (at least initially) to ask themselves these questions; no time to think, just do what the game tells you.
This play on player agency and illusion of agency is hardly hidden; in the forums, Nifflas explains: “The messages are stuff like ‘Eat food or you may die’, ‘Breathe air’. That way, there’s no way you can say the messages didn’t work!”
Cleverly, Nifflas and Nurykabe also throw in a few “real” instructions. For example, it is true that the player must keep pressing the “a” and “s” keys. However, there isn’t actually any rhythm detection, and all the textual feedback (e.g. “Bad,” “Faster,” “More sexy please!”) is, of course, random. The key here is that all the visual and audio feedback (e.g. the sound when you successfully carry out one of the commands) tricks you into believing that your actions have an effect on the system.
Like Nifflas’ other projects, there are just so many small details that elevate the game above the typical one-trick pony concept-art game. The “statistics” screen and UI messaging in the ending, for example, is a riot. Even the very title of the game is abusive, as one of the digits is “wrong” as compared to the value of pi. Indeed, in only the second response to the game, one of the forum posters takes the trouble to point this out, unaware that they are playing right into the joke (Nifflas’ response, by the way, is priceless).
Reading through the forums, you can sense all the fun that Nifflas and Nurykabe must have had relishing the players’ confusion. Even better, some of the players themselves get into the spirit of the game and start posting lies about additional levels and secret codes. In this way, the forum acts as a kind of second-order form of abusive game design; the poor readers who haven’t quite caught onto the joke get tricked by their fellow players. In a certain sense, you could say that this collusion between designer and other players is an inherent dynamic that emerges from all abusive games; the actual fun of the game lies in watching other people suffer through the experience.
“R-Type almost pi” also works because of all the expectations that come with a Nifflas game. Knytt, for example, is legendary for its quiet and beautiful audiovisual landscapes. For this reason, Nifflas is one of the last people I would have pegged for an abusive game designer. Yet on second thought, we shouldn’t forget that Knytt itself also tries to subvert player expectations. As I recently argued in my lecture on games and art, Knytt raises some tricky questions as to how we can reconcile art practices with traditional design methodologies. As a game about loneliness, Knytt teases us with melody fragments and characters we can’t interact with. For the action-oriented gamer, this lonely atmosphere might be dismissed as boring. But, as with “R-Type almost pi,” Knytt demands that the player adopts a very different mindset towards play itself.
(Knytt, by the way, is one of our very favorite games here at Copenhagen Game Collective. If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should!)
Postlude: after No More Sweden, Nifflas and Nurykabe accompanied us back to Copenhagen, to hang out for a few days! We had a great time, and we hope both of them come back to visit soon. Nifflas even let us try a build of Night Game, which is just fantastic. Check out the trailer. We’re very much looking forward to the official release!