(You can get the ZiGGURAT soundtrack here.)
Just writing an action videogame review for people that write the best action videogame reviews makes me uneasy, and the fact that I am reviewing the action videogame that they made puts me in a funny place. If you read their work, and you play their game, you will understand much more about action videogames than I can hope to impart to you here, especially with so little sleep.
I can’t even tell you if I “like” this game or not. I’ve played it a lot. I played one finger style, two finger style. I’ve obliterated thousands of alien freaks. But do you “like” your Aikido sensei, even though he flattens your sorry ass, with perfect style, with perfect efficiency, utterly without visible effort? The idea that you must choose between loving a challenge and hating it is absurd. That’s what a challenge is, emotionally: narcissism and self-hatred, fear and courage, anger and calm.
And so, what follows is a review that is not about action videogames, nor about my feelings. It is simply (some of) my thoughts about this French New Wave action videogame fan art called ZiGGURAT.
Cinema in the 1950s and 1960s was a lot like the AAA game industry is today: big, formulaic projects with big budgets, afraid to push the boundaries and explore new places. Frustrated, French film critics took matters into their own hands, using cheap, portable devices to create their own independent films, championing their own values and desires. These films lacked traditional Hollywood production values, like elaborate sets or laboriously re-recorded dialogue. Instead they focused on telling more believable stories, or with experiments in cinematography.
When I was at university, there were no game design programs, so I made up my own hybrid degree, equal parts computer science, liberal arts and film (thus, the preceding paragraph). During an upper-level film theory course, my professor was waxing poetical on the thrill and charm of slapstick/stunt-pioneer and film director Buster Keaton. There’s a charisma and energy and sacrifice to his performance that demands our attention and our love.
I raised my hand, tentatively, and wondered aloud if Jackie Chan might not be our modern-day counterpart, displaying much of the same charisma, energy and sacrifice, though lacking the critical distance and silent, black-and-white presentation. (I didn’t realize, at this time, that Chan’s work with Sammo Hung in the 80s was actually directly inspired by Buster Keaton’s films.) She dismissed this possibility completely, and continued on to the next topic.
This interaction, likely exaggerated to mythic proportions in my unreliable memory, is still a great disappointment to me. To find classical beauty in cheap entertainment, an artifact of an alien culture, the product of sacrifice and enthusiasm, is one of the great pleasures in life. Really appreciating Jackie Chan is like really appreciating that one taco truck that is only by your work on Thursdays and you don’t even know exactly what you’re eating but you know it’s special.
I feel like the implication here, in this artificial application of the construct of “taste” to slapstick cinema, is that because Jackie Chan was inspired by Buster Keaton, that automatically and permanently establishes their hierarchical relationship. But all art is fan art. Did you know Jules Verne wrote a novel-length fan-fic sequel to Edgar Allen Poe’s only full length novel? All art is fan art. The best fan art is synthetic; a heady cocktail of all the most wonderful things a Paul-Randian collector of an artist can find.
If ZiGGURAT is French New Wave action videogame fan art, who or what is ZiGGURAT‘s Buster Keaton? There’s no single, direct source, of course. ZiGGURAT is good, synthetic fan art. ZiGGURAT‘s Buster Keaton (and zen aikido soul) for me are one and the same thing: the friction of crowd control.
Why do we care how the ground feels under our feet when we run? Why does it matter that the table tennis paddle is balanced, and the grip has just the right type of varnish? Why do we care about the minute surface deviations on the slate-felt top of the billiards table? Why do we want to use the heavy poker chips and the nice, new deck of cards?
Friction is the manifestation of the union between tactile aesthetic pleasure and a reliable but challenging game environment. The best friction is not just in the union of these things but the glowing intersection, the vaguely suggestive pointy ellipse at the center of the venn diagram.
So how does that translate to videogames? Obviously, there is the controller, though lately our controller just the same flat, slightly sticky plate of glass which displays our game (WE LIVE IN THE FUTURE). But perhaps less obviously there is the computer simulation of the game itself, which the thoughtful designer has carefully tuned and balanced to have just the right amount of friction in just the right places, like an improbable sculpture whose forms lie about their respective centers of gravity, or an arch of ancient sandstone boulders precarious balanced against the desert wind.
ZiGGURAT is rife with friction. All of everything in it is friction everywhere. All the time. Everything slides, bounces, charges, falls, or shakes, including you, the human holding the iThingy. Nothing moves in a straight line, nothing happens without effort. And you are beset on all sides by The Endless Horde.
Most action games are really about The Endless Horde, even if you are marching solemnly through samey streets for hours. The environment in which you are punching and kicking is just there to say “Hey man, you’re doing alright. You got past those guys! You’re making progress! We should be friends.” ZiGGURAT disposes of this unnecessary ornamentation, leaving only The Endless Horde to populate the literal wasteland left behind when Game Environments were removed from the Earth forever.
Conquering The Endless Horde, then, is the inevitable goal of the action game. The method through which players achieve this mastery is through crowd control. Great action games tend to have PERFECT crowd control. Shinji Mikami’s GOD HAND has PERFECT crowd control. Treasure’s ASTRO BOY: OMEGA FACTOR has PERFECT crowd control. Sega’s STREETS OF RAGE 2 has PERFECT crowd control. Vlambeer’s SUPER CRATE BOX has PERFECT crowd control. Even Matt Leahcock’s board game PANDEMIC has pretty good crowd control.
Crowd control is a really pure expression of game design in the best sense. It’s about giving the player a few simple tools, and then burdening them with an unmanageable swarm of problems. It’s about chaos management, and prioritization, and making hard (if virtual) decisions about what to do next. It’s about taking the whole system of your actual life and shrinking it down into something you can get better at this afternoon. It’s about taking our hallowed risk-reward mechanics and compressing them, demanding you to make a simultaneous sacrifice and commitment each second. It’s exhilarating and numbing at the same time.
There is a 10,000 word version of this review, somewhere, in some alternate dimension maybe. Some pseudo-version of me isn’t swamped with work and overwhelmed by a swarm of barely-manageable commitments. Some version of me is playing ZiGGURAT all the time, only on my phone, instead of with movie studios and friends and family and real life. That version of me has room for the challenge of ZiGGURAT and the challenge of an appropriately verbose ABDN review.
The 10,000 word version of this review talks about how the tutorial for the game tells you how Angry Birds is for idiots, even though it doesn’t. The tutorial also quickly and efficiently explains how to touch the screen to do things, but not how to play, because you can’t tell someone how to play this game. You have to play it to learn that.
Then maybe there’s a tangent about the literal friction of the iPhone screen, and how sometimes you love it and sometimes you hate it (because it’s a challenge). Maybe this tangent has a tangent about a design axis with precision on one end and familiarity on the other and is that even a real axis?
Then 3,000 words, minimum, dedicated to parabolas, and everything they’ve given videogames. Then, a heartfelt salute to simple scenarios, great atmosphere, and terrific music.
So while I can’t really tell you if I “like” this French New Wave action videogame fan art, I can tell you that I regret not having the time to dedicate 10,000 words to it. Make of that what you will.