Simulating Simulations

It’s certainly fun to design brand new games, but one thing I learned this past year is that it can be equally fun to design around existing games – to recontextualize them in new settings and with new control schemes.

In this post, I want to write about two physical installations I worked on in 2011. Both installations are based around well-known Flash games by Bennett Foddy. In particular, I want to talk about the rich comedic opportunities that reside in simulating simulations.

 

Mega-GIRP

I’ve written about Bennett’s work before (see here, here). He’s one of my very favorite designers! Games like QWOP and GIRP are some of the downright funniest game I’ve ever played. In fact, I was so inspired by GIRP that I wondered how one might show the game in public – say, in a party or gallery setting like Babycastles.

GIRP has often been described as “Twister for your fingers.” I wondered: what if GIRP was actually just Twister… like, for your full body?

At IGF 2011, we had shown our party game B.U.T.T.O.N. on a USB dance pad. That got me thinking: what if GIRP too were to be played on dance pads? You’d need at least 27 buttons – one for each English letter, and one for the game’s “flex” command. The solution, of course, was to combine four dance pads into a 2×2 arrangement, as a kind of “controller qua floor.” Four dance pads offer 32 large-sized buttons – more than enough for GIRP.

With some technical help from our friend Brandon Boyer, I built the installation with Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren and debuted it at our Arcade Boat 2011 exhibition. We used a simple USB hub to handle all the dance pad inputs. We taped giant letter print-outs to each button, then “laminated” them with clear packing tape. We also taped together the four pads. Finally, we used Joy2Key to handle the pad input as keyboard input.

The installation played far better that I could have anticipated! Yes, it was goddamn hard, but it was certainly very possible to play (and fun!). Nifflas even managed to make it halfway up the mountain! Craning up your neck to see the screen, searching for your next button, and stretching out your limbs awkwardly all seem very much in the “fuck you” spirit of Bennett’s game. The installation also seems to support different play styles. Some people play solo, while others choose to work together, co-op style.

Perhaps most satisfyingly, the installation was fun to watch – certainly more so than watching someone play using a traditional keyboard. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite amusing to watch someone flail about on four dance pads. Showing games in public settings can be a challenge, but as my Mega-GIRP experiment demonstrates, we can make existing videogames more audience-friendly if we’re creative about how we show them.

 

Mega-GIRP at Babycastles. Photo by Ida C. Benedetto/Babycastles.

 

I was able to run Mega-GIRP a second time this past September, at my “F%!K THE SCREEN” exhibition at Babycastles. We added some extra touches that made the installation even zanier. For starters, we hung the projector from a makeshift swing (thanks, Jared!) that rocked ever so slightly in front of the circulation vents. This made the whole experience feel doubly woozy and precarious. In addition, I mounted a stuffed animal seagull onto a long pole and used it to harass players (shoving it in their face) when their on-screen avatar confronted the game’s infamous seagull. It was delectably annoying.

Why all these extra details? Were we trying to replicate the experience of climbing a mountain, in a kind of primitive virtual reality simulator? Not exactly. My goal was far less ambitious, and also sillier. I wanted to simulate the experience of GIRP the game, with all its annoyances and contrivances. Arguably, what Mega-GIRP does is use physicality to distill the essence of being the GIRP guy, not the experience of being a mountain climber.

 

Robo-QWOP

Emboldened by my Mega-GIRP experiment, I started thinking about what other installations I could build. Over a summertime picnic dinner with my ITU colleagues Rilla Khaled and Pippin Barr, we got to talking about Bennet’s QWOP. That summer, I had been spending a lot of time developing my Unimove API for the PlayStation Move controller. Slowly, it became clear to us how we could play QWOP using a few Move controllers.

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, we decided to call the installation Robo-QWOP:

 

My collaborator Pippin, doin’ his best Robo-QWOP. Rilla is there in the background.

 

Here’s how it works: using some Velcro “sheaths” that Rilla made, we strap four Move controllers to the player’s legs, one to each calf and one to each thigh. In the original game, there are four keys which the player has to press in order to control four leg muscles. In Robo-QWOP, the idea is that if a Move controller is ever tilted horizontally enough (i.e. from bending the leg), the installation “presses” the key of the corresponding leg muscle. The player can press any button to restart the game after losing.

(As for the underlying technology: I use the Move’s accelerometer data to code a basic tilt sensor. Then I call the right OSX system functions to “spoof” the appropriate keyboard input to another process – in this case, the Flash window running in the foreground. My own program, which listens for and translates the Move inputs, runs in the background).

In essence, this means that you can play QWOP by simply walking – well, a kind of absurd Monty Python styled walk, if I can even use the verb “to walk” here.

Unlike Mega-GIRP before it, however, Robo-QWOP is a little too hard. My personal best is a pathetic 5 meters. That said, QWOP itself is a notoriously difficult game, and I’m not so much better at the original game. I wonder how a real veteran would fare.

Still, the installations is good for a few chuckles. More than anything, there’s a glorious stupidity in trying to play QWOP with one’s actual legs. It’s as if the installation misunderstands the whole joke behind Bennett’s purposefully reductive game.

 

Simulating Simulations

Reflecting on Mega-GIRP and Robo-QWOP, I would say that both installations thrive off the same comedic device – that of simulating simulations back out into the real world. It’s like a game of Telephone, but for entire sports (in this case, mountain climbing and sprinting) instead of spoken messages. In translating sports videogames back out into the physical world – “unsimulating” them, perhaps? – the installations end up mangling something very essential along the way. And boy, are there some good laughs in that!

(Somewhere in the afterlife, Jean Baudrillard is smiling. Or is he crying…?)

We did want Mega-GIRP and Robo-QWOP to be “immersive” in some sense, but the two installations are funny precisely because they try way too hard to simulate their respective referents. In both cases, it’s important that the immersiveness be self-ironic, as if lampooning physical game controllers and the very idea of virtual reality.

And here’s where I get a little ideological: in a community so focused on simulation (e.g. realistic graphics or physics) and so fixated on game “systems,” it’s feels like breath of fresh air (at least to me) to turn those simulations against themselves, so to speak – to transmute traditional computer game play into public spectacle and slapstick comedy.

But mostly, I watch players – sometimes, myself! – making total fools out of themselves, and I know that somewhere out there, Bennett Foddy is having himself a good laugh at those players, and with them as well. And that makes me laugh too.

 

ADDENDUM:

For more video clips of Mega-GIRP and Robo-QWOP, there are some nice bits in Ida’s raw footage of our “F%!K THE SCREEN” exhibition at Babycastles:

 

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