You Break It You Broke It

Having released You Say Jump I Say How High into the wild today, I was thinking about the nature of things being “broken” in games, given that that game naturally allows you to break it. Pick a speed high enough and you’ll go flying through walls without touching them, for instance. (Hilariously, there’s already a complaint that you can “win” the game by setting speed to 50,000 and hitting the right arrow key on each level – this is part of why players are awesome.) Anyway, the game is, in that sense, broken, or rather it’s breakable.

And in fact straight after finishing You Say Jump I started the next project, or kind of returned to it: a music game based on Epic Sax Guy. Called Epic Sax Game. Like You Say Jump it seems to have some properties of brokenness – in this case the nature of playing multiple sound files in flash – at some points it just seems to get utterly confused. But it only gets confused it you slam the keys willy nilly trying to mess things up. This raises the question of why we think we should be allowed to do that in games. Or, rather, why do we think we should be able to do that and have the game still not break?

Of course, this is all part of the inheritance of usability from traditional software design and development, and thus (as has been pointed out by smarter people than me, like Bill Gaver), the inheritance of work. In working, we expect efficiency, easy of use, and certainly stability. We assume these are qualities that all software should have, and yet they certainly aren’t qualities inherent to software and the development process, quite the opposite. Of course, it’s absurd to suggest that software/games should just be a mess of bugs and random crashes, but the notion of a kind of zero-tolerance, particularly in a creative medium like games, strikes me as rather limited and limiting.

In fact, I might argue that this relates to the idea of “technology as material” (read Tom Armitage’s great piece on that here). In striving to erase all signs of error or frailty in code/games, in one way we’re attempting to deny their material nature, as if we want to pretend they’re not made of anything, that they just spring into existence. In opposition to that, I find the idea of elements of games which are somewhat broken (without utterly breaking the experience) help to make them more “material”, and thus interesting in a particular kind of way.

If I was going to say there was anything “important” about what I was trying to do in making You Say Jump I Say How High it might be this relationship to technology/games as a material. In giving the player the ability not just to tweak physics variables for fun and entertainment, but also the potential to break the fabric of the (inner) game itself, I’d hope there’s a corresponding experience of the outer shell of the game, the substance it’s made of. It’s true that you can set the speed to 50,000 and hit the right arrow to complete every level.

But what does it mean?

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