Tag Archives: game

The electro-mechanical sublime

I visited the quite amazing Museum of Pinball in Paris last weekend. It was a revelation.

The pinball machine (‘Flipper’ in France) represents some kind of high point in pre-digital coffee bar thrills. The genius of cramming so much potential ecstasy/kinetic joy into a case the size of a kitchen table. A crazy-noisy-beautiful thing. A cafe owner could buy or make a calculation and rent by the month and that would bring a joint to life. The pinball business model created a short-lived crucible of electro-mechanical innovation and creativity. Pinball was where it was at for the decades before Space Invaders, and those machines were intense: each one was a kind of unhinged son-et-lumiere right there in the corner of your favourite bar. Listen to this:

The appeal of a pinball table is direct and unarguable. You stand connected at the pelvis to a machine that’s shimmying and rocking with trapped energy. A table-top atom smasher. Multiple mechanisms hidden in there, all making their presence felt – tipping, tightening, tripping, spinning, colliding – in rattling, ringing release. And it is all about tension and release – the physical, finger-tip appeal of the spring and the stressed steel strip and the ready-to-trip (will it trip? Will it?) analogue trip-switch. The whole thing is tightly-wound, like a Loony Toons watch about to explode. The anticipation is unbelievably intense.

And there’s the intoxicating, stammering clanging of all those too-loud-too-loud bells – the racket that couldn’t help but dominate your bar or youth club’s soundworld, like an anti-social, de-tuned one-man band or a broken, over-amplified harpsichord. For a bar owner, signing the rental contract for a Flipper was sure going to change the vibe, whatever kind of establishment you ran. Bring you up to date, stamp your place MODERN, jumping, alive.

Pinball machine artwork is bright, back-lit, screen-printed commercial art from unpretentious upstairs commercial art studios. It’s naive art. Frozen for essentially the whole life of the form (until its decline in the 80s) in a hazy inter-war no-place populated by boxers, gangsters, cowboys, strongmen, secretaries, lounge lizards, hostesses, airmen: figures of quotidian glamour – and not a licensed character among them.

Disney, Warners, the comics, the pulps, the big radio shows of the era – they had no presence here. The imagery is all bargain-basement, generic pop cult figuration. Probably because the attraction of pinball is really all physical. No Donald Duck or Rita Hayworth or The Green Hornet could possibly have made a teenager drool more over the new Gottlieb as it was wheeled in from the kerb.

See if you can get your head around this, though: before 1947 pinball was a pure game of chance, a spectator sport. You fired your steel ball into the arena with all the finesse you could muster and then you just stood there, watching as it bounced down the table to the drain (OK, you might palm the lip of the machine or even lift it up and drop it – if the owner wasn’t looking – but that was the extent of your control). Pinball machines until this time, you see, had no flippers. THEY HAD NO FLIPPERS.

Flippers arrived with the Gottlieb Humpty Dumpty in 1947 and, because they were simple and low-powered you needed eight flippers to provide enough oomph to send a heavy steel ball all the way back to the top of the table. And the arrival of these little mechanical bats must have been a shock to the system, must have changed the game forever. And what, exactly, could the attraction of a flipperless pinball table have been anyway? Like a Norton Commando with no wheels or a Gibson Les Paul with no strings. No idea!

The stinging inevitability of failure is the driving force, of course. You can’t beat a pinball table, you can only defer the end. Your score clangs to a new high but in the end your last ball arcs between the flippers like a guided weapon. It’s a lesson in acceptance. It descends. Nothing can save you now. And that’s when you realise, those flippers are ultimately ridiculous: not weapons, not even bats, just a lot of futile, flapping. Pinball’s like life.

Games that disappear

godfinger

You can’t play Godfinger any more. It’s gone. ngmoco, the developer, removed the game (plus a couple of others) from app stores during February – and it’ll stop working all together at the end of this month. The raw economics of mobile gaming. But what happens to games that are packaged as apps when they’re discontinued? Looks like they disappear completely, as Jared Nelson points out on TouchArcade. No shoebox of carts under the bed, no stack of dusty DVDs, no folder of neglected binaries. Gone. Absent from the record.

The closed nature of mobile platforms means you can’t capture a binary for the archives and, unless the Library of Congress has an archiving scheme I don’t know about, this piece of intellectual labour will be removed from the record for good come April, leaving a tiny but perceptible hole in the timeline. This isn’t even a DRM story. It’s just about the mechanics of distributing entertainment in the app era. Is it important? Should we just accept it: the ruthless logic of 21st Century digital creation? Or are we going to be freaking out in fifty years when we realise we’ve built a one-way conveyor-belt to oblivion for digital work and we’re all going “what were they actually DOING back in the early twenty-first Century? They seem to have left no trace.”

A blocky morality tale

The story goes like this: my twelve year-old son Oliver builds a spectacular tower in Minecraft (Olly is a Minecraft ninja and runs his own server). Then, an anti-social twerp demolishes the whole thing. This kind of large-scale vandalism is called ‘griefing’ in Minecraft and is frowned upon (terrific explanation on the Minecraft wiki).

Unfortunately for said twerp, though, the rozzers are on hand: a Minecraft admin is online and sees the whole thing. Dishing out the kind of blocky summary justice that’s only possible in a kind of blocky virtual world, the admin incarcerates our twerp in a special Minecraft jail built for the purpose (for how long I’m not sure).

Here’s the best bit. Oliver visits our twerp in his very public nick (there’s some blocky banter), captures a video of his visit, adds informative captions and a soundtrack (Jailhouse Rock, what else?) and publishes it on YouTube. I’m so proud (I’ll have a word about his spelling of of ‘griefer’, though).

Of course, I find myself wondering if I should encourage this kind of naming and shaming but, since this is essentially an extension of Minecraft’s in-game sanction and since it doesn’t seem to be possible to reconstruct the twerp’s real identity from the video (and since he is a troll), I’m OK with it. Gamer justice: tough but fair.