Why, ZORBA? Why?

Since I’m done with ZORBA now I thought I’d write a couple of quick words on why I made it in the first place, you know, for posterity. The next game beckons (with its infuriating request for the use of a physics engine for no great reason) and I should write something about ZORBA before it gets lost in the mists of time.

In terms of its “creation myth”, the game came up because Rilla and I were in Venice for the Venice Biennale, cultured souls that we are. We were walking through the Piazza San Marco and, as there usually are, there were bands playing in a couple of the (crazy expensive) restaurants. A huge number of tourists were grouped around one particular band, which started to play the song from Zorba the Greek as we passed. Naturally, no one can resist listening to that song once it gets going, because it’s pretty addictive stuff.

When we left, we started talking about how great a Dance Dance Revolution style game of the Zorba song would be. We diverged rather quickly, though, in terms of what would be great and interesting about such a game. Naturally, I was most interested in a perverse kind of reading of the song. Specifically, I became attached to the idea that in many video games it’s effectively the case that the AI is only pretending you can beat it. A computer dancing (digitally) to the Zorba song obviously doesn’t have to make a single mistake. And so I immediately wanted a game where you dance to the song against a computer and, as it becomes impossibly fast and beyond your capacity, the computer just keeps right on dancing without a care in the world. It plays on ideas of what “skill” is, what’s “fair” from an AI opponent, and so on. Amusing.

When we got home I was making other games, but the Zorba game was on my mind often and I eventually decided to make it. In researching the game I was particularly enamoured of the scene at the end of the actual movie Zorba the Greek where Zorba and the guy have this kind of emotional coming together over the dance. Zorba says, right near the very end of the movie, “I never loved a man more than you”. The whole thing is really charming and quite affecting, I think. Perverse attitude number two arrived with this observation: the fact that the movie version of the Zorba dance is so much about friendship and coming together (linking arms etc.) meant that the game version should turn the dance into a head to head competition with winners and losers. (And given perverse attitude number one, the player would always be losing to Zorba.)

That gave the game its two core elements. The mechanical part was about fairness and the notion of computer skill, and the aesthetic part was about a kind of reappropriation and negation of the aesthetics of the movie. Boom, we have a game. There’s a whole extra story where, after getting the basics of the game done, I spent at least another week or two obsessively adding multiplayer modes, but fortunately I edited it back down to the original concept before releasing it. Dodged a bullet, I think, as the message was no longer really coming through in the more complex version.

Anyway, that’s the basic story of Z_ORBA_. Tune in next week etc.

9 November 2011
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