Electron Dance
31Jul/12Off

Raising the Barr

This is the eleventh article in the series The Academics Are Coming.

I've been wanting to write about the games of Pippin Barr for some time especially as his games are an acquired taste. If you play one, you might raise your eyebrows and think "so what?" That's a valid response. I'm not going to chastise you for having such unclean thoughts. But it helps to play more than one and get a sense of what Pippin is doing with these masochistic toys.

Unfortunately every time I have got myself ready to write the definitive piece on the works of Barr, he pumped out a new game. Not wanting to be yesterday's fashion before hitting the catwalk, I would always postpone the article until I found some time to fiddle with and digest his latest creation. Pippin has been making games for over a year now. I think it's about time I wrote something about his games.

So today I'm just going to spit out some random thoughts about some random games from his portfolio. I'm not going to dwell on minor details like his game blurbs using too many exclamation marks! But there are spoilers ahead! Although I've marked out Spoilersville for each if you want to give them a go first! And they don't take long! Sometimes no longer than a few seconds before you close your browser in disgust!

GuruQuest

What can I tell you about Pippin's approach to game design? Here's part of a conversation we had regarding his very first game, GuruQuest.

HM: “Which, all things considered, depresses me. This isn’t wisdom, it’s Xeroxed emptiness. I hate the guru. Strange game. The only way to win is not to play.”

Pippin Barr: “To the extent that ends up as a commentary on pop-gurudom and the fake nature of enlightenment… well, never thought down that path very far to be honest, I just though the mechanic was cute.”

So, Pippin is into the cute mechanics first and, generally, any deep meaning gets coloured in later. Maybe this is slightly unfair but I don't care because as a game developer, Pippin has not been terribly fair to his players. When Pippin says "Jump!", his players respond "WTF WHY ARE YOU WHIPPING ME". If you follow Pippin's blog, you can observe in real-time Pippin having these grand epiphanies (perhaps, epippinies) when he sees something more interesting going on than just the original joke.

Anyway, GuruQuest hasn't quite got the same jazz juice going on as what followed and you're certainly not going to go running to your friends shouting GAMING'S CITIZEN KANE. But it's interesting just to see how Pippin the Barr cut his game developer teeth.

GuruQuest screenshot

Spoilersville: There's a guru in the game who fronts an ELIZA engine. It’s apparently up to you whether to engage with the guru or not: but in games, if only one choice is interesting, then it’s no choice at all. You can walk twenty miles to the west if you want. You can also out-guru the guru but it's not incredibly satisfying. Apparently, you can read too much into the cute mechanics.

Let There Be Smite!

Let There Be Smite! is the point at which Pippin Barr figured out what kind of games he wanted to make. That is, a little joke made out of somewhat frustrating mechanics. That faint noise you can hear in the distance? That’s Pippin laughing. At you.

Let There Be Smite! screenshot

Spoilersville: In the game, you are God. You get to forgive or punish those who sin. It’s all very genteel and a nice cup of English tea to start with but pretty soon you are overwhelmed with sins to respond to. The game advises that if you get into trouble, there’s always the PANIC button. I hit the button and was shocked to learn it rebooted the world, killing everybody to start anew. Yikes.

Safety Instructions

I’ll be honest, Safety Instructions is merely okay in my book but it does showcase Pippin’s perverse imagination. I mean, you’ve seen him in my video interview right? He’s well-spoken with a hint of Peter Parker about him. Then you look at his games and realise his alter-ego is Venom.

Safety Instructions places a typing tutor in the context of flight safety instructions. It is full of death sequences so don't even think about playing it on a plane. The cabin crew may wrestle your laptop to the ground.

Safety Instructions screenshot

Spoilersville: This is a typing tutor from Hell. Make just one mistake and your avatar buys the farm. If you’re victorious on all three difficulties it will give you special access to “Nightmare Mode”. I’m pretty sure I could conquer it, but my hands would have bled for a week. (Pippin revealed in the video interview that he can beat Nightmare Mode after I implied it was impossible. I retorted that it’s not the sort of thing I’d admit in public.)

The Artist Is Present

And this is where we find ourselves in an alternate universe. This strange game, set in MoMA, which is extremely frustrating and in no way enjoyable, catapulted Pippin Barr into the mainstream spotlight: look here in Slate and The Huffington Post. This has to do with it’s subject matter, based on Marina Abramović’s performance artwork “The Artist is Present”.

The Artist Is Present screenshot

Spoilersville: Have you heard of Desert Bus? In that game, the player gets to drive a bus in real-time from Tucson to Las Vegas. It takes eight hours. The bus veers to the right and thus constantly needs correction; end up off the road and the bus gets towed back to the start. This clearly isn’t anyone’s idea of fun.

The Artist is Present is Desert Bus set in a museum. You have to wait in line to participate in Abramović’s The Artist is Present. Actually the first hurdle is getting in to the museum as the in-game MoMA is closed whenever the real MoMA is closed. For a year I never saw inside MoMA.

I imagine most players never last more than a few minutes with it; a minority will have waited until they’ve advanced one space in the queue. There are rumours that a swami in South India has completed the game.

Trolley Problem

Trolley Problem is Pippin Barr's implementation of a classic ethics experiment. Each variation of the experiment involves a runaway train trolley which is going to kill some people. You, as the subject of the experiment, are asked what you would do if you had the ability to divert the trolley - both outcomes will result in lives being lost, but your intervention will determine who dies. (Alonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist has an interesting take on the experiment, particularly as he prefers ethics to focus on everyday scenarios which have far greater impact on our lives.)

Trolley Problem screenshot

Spoilersville: Pippin wanted to make Trolley Problem a stripped-down, no frills affair - and that's exactly what he did. There appears to be nothing to say about the game. Except there is.

It would go like this. I'd decide to throw the switch and change the course of the trolley and some people died. And then the game would confirm this for me like so: "You pulled the switch. Okay." I didn't read it as a confirmation, but as a value judgement. "Ohhh....kay."

I found that uncomfortable.

Epic Sax Game

Epic Sax Game is based on the Epic Sax Guy meme. I honestly didn't know anything about this before I played the game so thank you Pippin for broadening my horizons. Ethics, memes - what next?

The game gives you the chance to be Epic Sax Guy. What could be more epic? (Aside from roast turkey sandwiches, that is.)

Epic Sax Game screenshot

Spoilersville: Can I spoil anything? Sure I can. So Epic Sax Game is split into five modes. The first is just your basic "keep up with the notes" challenge and you have to play the music as well as you can; this is effectively a tutorial mode. The second mode is in the recording studio where you have to do the music from memory. That was the point when Pippin made me laugh. And that's when I gave up playing to win and started playing for fun.

Pippin said that it was about musical performance but, actually, I think he's still just laughing at us.

PONGS

PONGS is a proper game with score and everything. I know, I was shocked too! I didn't play PONGS when it came out and had to be cajoled into playing it when I visited Pippin in April.

The game offers 36 variations of the original Pong. On one hand, this has been done before. Pippin, the 1970s want their game idea back - take a look at the Atari 2600 Video Olympics (1978) which my family had hours and hours of fun with. On the other, many of Pippin's variations could not be implemented in 1978 and some of the jokes here, written in game mechanics, are priceless.

Grab a friend and try out some of these. You will chuckle.

But it's also a reminder that Pong is still a fun game. After all this time, playing variations of Pong in plain black and white, with rectangular bats and a square ball - is still fun.

Pong, you see, is GAMING'S CITIZEN KANE. It has stood the test of time and moved players to both tears and laughter.

PONGS screenshot (menu)

Further Reading and Watching

Next week: Pippin Barr's interview for The Academics Are Coming series.

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Comments (11) Trackbacks (1)
  1. I think there’s more to Pippin Barr’s games than “sadistic pranks”. I don’t think the point is actually to annoy players, make them mad, bored, or whatever. The way I see it, Pippin Barr likes to toy with game ideas that deal with some sort of experience/interaction that is past “fun”. Traditional games are meant to make the player have fun. Pippin Barr’s games are meant to make the player experience something else, and this “something else” is different for each game, though I understand you might group them under the label “masochism” because very few of them are fun in the traditional sense.

    I’m guessing Pippin’s taste for design is to an extent guided by some curiosity about how players would react to certain mechanics – and honestly, I don’t think it’s a sadistic curiosity. The good about his games is that the answers are often insightful both to him and the players. “Oh… so I’m playing this”. As players on Pippin’s games, we’re often caught off-guard not really knowing how to deal with these unusual mechanics, and we’re forced to think a little and go beyond auto-pilot-player-mode. I believe that’s how Pippin Barr’s games succeed.

  2. You’re totally right, Nicolau.

    See, I was going to write something smarter about them. But the trouble was this post was scheduled between two interviews with Pippin (Cat’s Away video and next week’s academic-themed interview), so it seemed like it was going over ground that was better dealt with in the interviews. Further, it seems that John Brindle got the bug to write something clever about them after the Cat’s Away video, which he cites during the opening of his essay.

    I found the article on the verge of being shelved again – two interviews and cleverwords from the mighty Brindle to contend with? I chose a different tack to just pass out my raw initial impressions, hoping it might encourage others to have a dabble with his games.

    Next week’s interview is going to cover a lot of the themes you are looking for. I think you’ll like it; it’s one of the longer interviews of the series.

  3. I’m surprised that this piece hasn’t generated more discussion (so far). There is a lot to talk about Pippin’s games. And “I haven’t played them yet” is not a valid excuse, since you can play 80% of his games in under 30 minutes (not each, all of them).

    I’m curious about next week!

  4. There have been a good 200 hits on this post and it’s pot luck whether you get comments or not; I wasn’t expecting some of the earlier pieces this year to generate so much debate (e.g. Less Cause, More Effect). Perhaps I should have added an audience question “What do you think of Pippin’s games?” And maybe I undersold them with the masochism angle!

    I maintain, though, that his games are an acquired taste. You have to be in the right (open) frame of mind to appreciate what they are and playing more than one helps get that frame of mind. His last public release (he’s completed two games since which we can’t get access to until later in the year) was War Game and that didn’t work so well even with his established audience. Someone even dropped by his blog to throw around some shit about that one.

    (I was actually wondering if the shift in tone on this Raising the Barr post has been too much. Back in the first year of Electron Dance I used to write a lot more like this – tongue wedged in cheek – and the rest of the academic series has been much more “formal”. You even commented that you thought Electron Dance’s style was changing back when A Theoretical War was getting started. Perhaps this piece doesn’t fit the rest of the series so well.)

  5. Well, there is definitely a huge change in tone, as this piece seems like a plain presentation of Pippin Barr’s work, with not much reading-into, which is what you do best imo.

  6. In that case, on Tuesday 21 August I am going to examine a little game called Polymorphous Perversity.

  7. Nice terse piece, given that Barr’s work is large and contains multitudes. Because of this & the interview, I finally went back and cleared “nightmare mode” in Safety Instructions and must report that the ending is, somehow, worth the pain.

  8. @Richard:
    I’ll just have to take your word on it. Delightful dark humor, though.

    Perhaps Pippin’s work could be viewed as “failure is fun” through both the playing and/or creating of games.

  9. Thanks Richard. I, too, will probably just take your word for it. I like your tie avatar. Your Cart Life alter-ego made a big thing about wearing a tie to life, it seems fitting.

    @Beam: It is also difficult to “shoe horn” Pippin’s work into a pithy phrase. Even though I throw around the masochistic thing here, it’s not true across the board. PONGS has plenty of playability, I Say Jump You Say How High is effectively a workable puzzle platformer and upcoming Kicker is an interactive fiction simulation of American Football. None of these are really about failure/masochism. Pippin would probably just say “curious games” and be done with it. Personally, I’m not letting him get away with it. =)

  10. I was referring more to the volume of his work more than the works themselves. Some of them we’ll fail a lot at, or some of them won’t work on us as Pippin intended. It’s not that it’s devoid of success on either side of that, but I definitely didn’t say that in the first place. Internet!

    I also forgot to congratulate you on “epippinies”. The toppest of all shelves to you.

  11. @Beam: Yes to everything you said =)