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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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 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.)
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
The game gives you the chance to be Epic Sax Guy. What could be more epic? (Aside from roast turkey sandwiches, that is.)
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 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.
Further Reading and Watching
- John Brindle has recently done his own extensive analysis of the works of Pippin Barr. I mean he actually did some analysis instead of the lazy notes I've written here. I call this outsourcing.
- Pippin has delivered several presentations in which he's talked about his games. If you really want to listen to him drone on for 45 minutes, go to Vimeo right now. "I like to annoy people a little bit with my games." I'd file that in "understatements".
- Don't forget my video interview with Pippin posted a few weeks ago. It's only 20 minutes long and when Pippin gets boring I talk instead, so more fun that watching him on Vimeo. He says "Jesus" a lot.
Next week: Pippin Barr's interview for The Academics Are Coming series.