Thrills and Skills

As we all know, I’m in love with the Skate series of video games because, as I’ve gone on about at length, it operates at a great level with player skill. Specifically, your avatar (the skateboarder) can technically do all of the available moves from the very beginning. The question is whether you, the player can pull them off. And the answer is that you can’t until you build up your ability over time. You need personal skill, physical skill, in order to do the amazing things that can be done.

The major upshot of this, I think, is that in Skate we can take great pleasure in our accomplishments. They’re hard earned and we understand that each well executed movement is because of us.

Recently, I’ve had the deep pleasure of playing two related games which take the Skate concept of requiring skill to interesting new levels. Both games are by a guy called Dr. Bennett Foddy (it’s currently blowing my mind he’s an academic, unless that’s all a hoax). The first game I played, which is actually Foddy’s most recent, is GIRP, a rock-climbing simulation (as seen in the screenshot to the side). The basic premise is that you hold down a key and your dude reaches for the corresponding grip on a rock-face. If you let go, he lets go. If he’s not holding anything, he falls off the wall. That’s about it, other than the ability to “flex” and thus have the guy pull himself up on any handholds he’s holding. The objective is to make your way up the wall – you really need to play this game to appreciate what that entails.

GIRP is a brilliant game of skill. You start off flailing ridiculously, often unable to get anywhere at all. But gradually you adjust to the basic mechanic (much like rock-climbing) of choosing appropriate grips to reach for next, and making your guy pull himself up at the right moment so that he can reach distant grips and so on. The purity and simplicity of the simulation (holding onto something, pulling upward) leads to a real feeling of control and achievement (though the avatar is very ragdolly and can jerk around pretty crazily). It also leads to higher levels of skill being attainable. My current favourite moment was when I realised I could swap handholds by reaching above my current handhold with my free hand, then letting go of the hold, only to catch it again with the reaching hand. Swapping hands is often very useful, so this isn’t just a piece of flair but a genuine rock-climbing building-block that emerges from the simple gameplay. I’m sure there’s more, too, that I haven’t figured out – I can’t even get to the top.

The other game I’ve taken for a spin a few times now is the earlier game QWOP, which takes simulation to a brilliantly absurd extreme. In the game you control a sprinter, but instead of the usual fantasy of running crazily fast, you have to individually control the runner’s calves and thighs in each leg. As you might expect, having this level of control means that you basically just fall down repeatedly as you try to make the guy run. Foddy has made this helplessness the explicit point of the game, in opposition to the usual power fantasies we usually get. Thus, the skill you’re trying to learn is something insanely simple in theory, but something that feels unattainable as you start playing. Playing the game, it’s the first time I’ve felt so excited by managing to take a single step.

Then I fell down.

But then I got up again.

31 March 2011
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