Less Efficient Means

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In The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Bernard Suits offers the following definition of a game:

[T]o play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.[i]

What does Suits mean by the favoring of “less efficient means“? Well, we could imagine a reductio ad absurdum version of any given game, in which players truly want nothing more than to achieve the game’s end goal. Suits offers this famous description of golf: “if my end were simply to get a ball into a number of holes in the ground, I would not be likely to use a golf club in order to achieve it, nor would I stand at a considerable distance from each hole.”[ii] Of course, the real goal of golf is not to get a ball into holes in the ground. The real goal of golf is to be good at … well, golfing. This leads Suits to his pithiest formulation: “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”[iii] Games aren’t really about their purported end goals. They are about consenting to manufactured inefficiencies, accepted as the constraints that make play possible.

One means of introducing “less efficient means” into the completion of a task is by using deliberately abstruse user-experience design. We see this in analog game design in classic party games like Twister or Operation. We see this in digital game design in the fumblecore genre, which I have written about before.

Today, I’ll be writing about two games, both of which harness deliberately inefficient control schemes as a key component of user experience: Affordable Space Adventures (KnapNok Games, 2015) and Duskers (Misfits Attic, 2016). Neither precisely qualifies as “fumblecore” (at least according to my own definition), as neither involves the control of a human body. Instead, both games task players with piloting spacefaring vessels, using a technologically-aided science-fiction setup to justify their cumbersome controls.

Despite this congruence in abstract terms, you’d be hard pressed to find two games more tonally divergent, which made pairing them together even more irresistible.

The evolution of the Wii U’s catalogue of games was fairly disastrous. In 2013, less than a year into its life cycle, publishers such as EA began to pull support for the console. Publishing games for it wasn’t worth the risk, given the losses they had incurred courting the console’s small install base. By the end of the console’s life, even those developers still making games for the console weren’t using its unique hardware in platform-specific ways. It was just too risky to create experience that couldn’t be ported to other platforms.

Even beyond the need to create games with multi-platform potential, it’s easy to see why developers weren’t particularly drawn to using the Wii U Gamepad’s touchscreen. Dual screen gaming is just plain awkward, and very few games outside of horror titles such as ZombiU (Ubisoft Montpellier, 2012) and Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water (Koei Tecmo, 2014)—both of which use the player’s fumbling with the hardware to ratchet up tension—found a way to use this awkwardness productively.

On both of these fronts, Affordable Space Adventures stands out. It is a game released relatively late in the Wii U’s life cycle (2015) that makes full use of its hardware quirks. Furthermore, it uses these quirks in service of something other than horror.

In Affordable Space Adventures, the player (or players—the game offers the option of three-player co-op, although I haven’t personally played it that way) pilots a real lemon of a spaceship, attempting to survive on a hostile planet that their junker craft is plainly ill-equipped for. The game plays this predicament for laughs: the game’s minimal background plot suggests a blithe new world of price-tiered space exploration, in which hapless middle-class would-be-explorers are routinely sent to their deaths when they foolishly believe the advertising claims of unscrupulous cut-rate ship manufacturers.

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In its user interface design, the game appropriately simulates the feeling of being in over one’s head. The ship’s controls are realistically complex, and the game seems to pride itself on how perversely inefficient they seem. (In something as simple as calling the control board the “heads-down display,” the developers show they’re well aware how ergonomically unsound it is for players to tear their eyes from the television to look at the touchscreen in their lap every few seconds.) In an additional mechanical wrinkle, the planet the player spends the game exploring is littered with the weapons technologies of a hostile race. These automated instruments of death react to different combinations of heat, sound, and electromagnetic disturbance, meaning that much of the game is a sort of stealth-puzzle experience, finding new and increasingly unconventional ways to switch between the ship’s various abilities on the fly, in order to safely navigate the game’s levels.

For instance, in the clip below, the hair-trigger sensors of the level’s numerous mines disallow propulsion via either the craft’s fuel or electrical engines. The only way to move forward is to modulate the craft’s gravity-compensators. By flipping between different settings, I can chart a kind of sine path forward, bumping and dragging against the angled walls of the chamber as needed to ensure that my momentum is set to the correct direction. It is a horribly inefficient manner of moving through the space, made all the worse by the fact that I needed to tap on very specific spots on the touchscreen, while also somehow keeping a close eye on where my craft was on the main screen. Trust me: it was difficult.

Affordable Space Adventures, as I mentioned above, is at least something of a comedy. Part the game’s humor is drawn from the fumblecore well, banking on the notion that games with inefficient and overly complicated control schemes are at least a little bit ridiculous. The sadism that pops up in the game’s UI dovetails nicely with the cavalierly cruel nature of its universe. If EVE Online (CCP Games, 2003–) is libertarian science fiction for Randian randos, Affordable Space Adventures is libertarian science fiction for the rest of us. In place of the high-stakes world of interstellar corporate warfare, Affordable Space Adventures imagines the mundane caveat emptor realities of a lawless frontier with nothing in the way of consumer protections. In space, no one can hear your sternly-worded customer review, or your go-nowhere class action lawsuit.

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I’m dwelling so much on the genre and emotional palette of Affordable Space Adventures as a way of drawing a maximum contrast with Duskers. Duskers is an anxiety-provoking strategic roguelite, filled with moments of pulse-pounding horror … which also happens to be about piloting spacefaring vessels using somewhat abstruse controls.

In Duskers, you patrol an eerily abandoned universe, salvaging what you can from derelict spacecraft using a fleet of small drones. From the main map screen, you control the flight path of your main vessel, but once you dock on the airlock of a derelict ship, you take remote control of 1–4 drones, each with their own abilities, working in concert. These derelicts are not safe: their rusty old airlocks are prone to radiation leaks, and there are mysterious hostile organisms roaming their abandoned cabins, as well. Although “you” are safely ensconced in your craft at all times, your drones are vulnerable, and losing even one of them can set off a chain reaction of disastrous unintended consequences.

 

Oh, and also, Duskers is a keyboard-only game, and your drones are controlled via a command line interface.

Well … not all the time. Duskers is a bit of a hybrid, and you have the option of directly controlling one drone at a time. The console, with its blinking cursor, is always there, though, and the command line is always an option. Sometimes, it’s the best option, allowing you to strategize from a remove. The game’s “schematic” view of the ship map, when paired with the motion tracker upgrade of a given drone, can be an especially thrilling and empowering experience. From a remove, you can open and close doors on the ship, carefully funneling monsters from room to room until you safely flush them out an airlock, in scenes that recall the tension and sweaty professionalism of the first Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). In the series of screenshots below, for instance, I successfully lure an unseen horror out of the unmarked room at the top of the screen, down into room r5, before successfully trapping it in r4, all by looking at a map and strategically closing door.

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Not everything can be done from such a clinical remove, however. Duskers‘ real moments of tension are when you pilot an individual drone. Here, direct control of the drone via your keyboard’s arrow keys must coexist with the command line, as tasks such as door opening or arming weapons can only happen via typing. The results can be a harried mess—a high-stakes typing game where you’re constantly hoping that panic doesn’t impede your ability to accurately hit keys.

In the clip below, after a minutes-long attempt to lure hidden monsters out of r10 (with its paranoia-inducing “inconclusive” motion tracker results) down into r7 and then safely into the “holding pen” of r4, I thought that I had finally emptied r10 of its hazards. This assessment proves to be terribly premature, however. In the clip, the patience of my long-game trapping endeavor suddenly gives way to a panicky up-close encounter:

As I said above, the tonal and generic divergence between Affordable Space Adventures and Duskers—as similar, in certain aspects, as they may seem on paper—made pairing them together in a post irresistible. Mechanics aren’t destinyAffordable Space Adventures and Duskers are both built off of control schemes that plunge the depths of inefficiency. Furthermore, both games use these inefficient control schemes to tighten the player-avatar relation, to get us to feel uniquely connected with the hapless spacefarers that these games cast us as. Beyond this, though, their affective palettes have little in common. Affordable Space Adventures invites us to find amusement in its dystopian frontier, to gawk at this world of inefficient technologies and casual disregard for human life much as we would the world of Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985). Duskers, meanwhile, wants to keep us afraid and anxious, forever worrying about the dwindling fuel left in our spaceship’s tank, and what might be behind the next door in this derelict.

To understand their divergences, we need to look elsewhere: to color scheme and sound design, to the consequences of failure (Duskers makes you live with every lost drone, Affordable Space Adventures plops you just seconds before wherever your spacecraft last blew up), and to the overall time and commitment the games’ respective structure implies (Affordable Space Adventures is a linear set of self-contained levels, Duskers is a procedurally-generated roguelite where poor decisions can stymie progress hours later, and eventually doom your playthrough). But even when accounting for these vast differences, it’s still important to keep in mind the kernel of similarity in there. Doing so reminds us that ingredients can take on new and surprising dimensions when placed in different combinations.

[i]. Suits, Bernard. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1978. Pg 34.

[ii]. Ibid, 23.

[iii]. Ibid, 41.

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