Saturday, 8 February 2014

Flappy Bird's Discontinuation is a Bad Thing

Flappy Bird developer Dong Nyugen has announced on Twitter that he is taking down his game from the app store within the next 24 hours. For those of you who somehow don't know, Flappy Bird is a simple flight game where you tap the bird to levitate and avoid falling into pipes. That's it. It has attracted popularity due to its intense difficulty, and it has become a game that people love to hate. I won't get into the 'Casual iPhone gamers have been desensitised to the undemanding difficulty of Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja that when they face a game with actual challenge they start freaking out' argument, but instead, I will talk about how the removal of Flappy Bird is a bad thing, even if you or I didn't like the game (which I didn't).

Flappy Bird is an indie game. It was made on a small budget by one guy in Vietnam, so it's not exactly a Triple-A big-hitter in that regard. What I know for a fact is that there are so many more indie games deserved of popularity than Flappy Bird, and I'm pretty sure Dong Nyugen knows this too. See, Treyarch and Infinity Ward can deal with hate because there are hundreds of those guys working on a game, so singling out one person for the horribleness of COD: Ghosts is a challenging task. With Flappy Bird, all the hatred and the anger than spurted from the game was directed straight at one person. Think about that: immense popularity of a game, followed by widespread rage and screaming videos, 1-star reviews, and even death threats. Why did Flappy Bird get so popular? I have absolutely no idea; there are loads of games out there that are designed solely to excite the rage out of their player, so why has Flappy Bird launched to the top?

The discontinuation of Flappy Bird proves that the success of indie games depend on the mental well-being of their auteur. Indie games are mostly made by a small group of people or just one guy, whereas big-budget releases are made by hundreds of people. Those hundreds of people can pass the blame on to the next guy if someone asks why this part of the game is shoddy or broken, whereas if an Indie Game is bad, that goes straight to one person, and they can't dodge it how ever hard they try. It happened with Phil Fish; he made a Futurama reference and everyone thought he was being serious. He said that most modern Japanese games suck (which they do, I mean take a look at Skyward Sword and the recent Final Fantasy games), and the video game press were accusing him a racist and a douchebag. On top of that, people didn't like his game, so their criticism was directed at him directly in a volatile manner, along with all the other accusations of racism and douchebaggery thrown his way. You know what he did? He quit. He quit the games industry. He cancelled Fez II and isn't going to make another game.

What were the games journalists and raging internet keyboard warriors expecting Phil Fish to do when they were calling him a racist and a douchebag? Similarly, what are the screaming YouTubers and raging internet keyboard warriors expecting when they were barraging Flappy Bird with unadulterated hate? I have an answer: views. PewDiePie will get more views on his recent incessant screaming videos by incessantly screaming about the mild challenge of Flappy Bird. News websites will get more hits if they document the false racism of Phil Fish. What happens when another indie game developer decides to have a personality or to make an intentionally hard game? Will they be forced to quit too? Fortunately, Dong Nyugen will still be making games, but he will forever be branded 'The Flappy Bird guy' whenever he appears on an interview or makes a new game.

So yeah. If he actually is taking Flappy Bird down, this is a sad day for indie game developers.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Papers, Please: An Extensive Appraisal

With all these large development teams big-budgets spent on motion-capture, film-like cutscenes, top-notch voice actors and an elaborate script, a 2D pixel-art game about paperwork tells a better story than any other game this year. It has no voice acting, apart from the 4 separate sound clips of gurble used to indicate speech, it has no cinematic, 20 minute-long cutscenes that make you feel as if you're watching a movie instead of playing a game, the faces that you see past the desk and on the passports were seemingly made on MS Paint, and it was made by one guy. Let that sink it for a moment. One guy, with inexpensive tools and access to Steam Greenlight, told a deeper, more personal, intricate and well-structured story than any video game that came out in 2013. Maybe I'm giving it too much credit, because I like the indie game revolution and it's good to see such a humble game get huge amounts of credit (GOTY awards from Wired, The New Yorker, Ars Technica), but after playing the game a few times, I feel as if I can pin down what I felt was important and resonant about Papers, Please.
From what I've read from different players, the interpretation of Papers, Please different from player to player. Some say it's about a totalitarian government, some say it's about the struggles and emotional toll of a soul-crushingly depressing desk-job, and others think it's just a game about checking paperwork. All of those things are true, but for me, Papers, Please was about mainly power, moral choice and all of its consequences. Moral choice mechanics are handled so poorly in most games, with a binary 'Good' or 'Evil' option. It's what brought down Infamous for me. With these mechanics, it's not about doing what makes sense, or doing what you want, it's about doing whatever will get you the most points so you can get your next upgrade. It's an incredibly stupid mechanic which doesn't belong in any game, indie or big-budget. With Papers, Please, it's not about getting your upgrades, it's about doing the right thing. Your family is on the line here. If you follow the rules with extreme rigour and haste, you will feed your family, but along the way you run into a law-abiding citizen with a minor discrepancy, or a criminal with the correct paperwork, and you must decide between breaking the rules and doing the right thing, or abiding by the rules despite the moral injustice, but you and your family are fed, sheltered and well. What matters most to you?

A main point of criticism for the game was the the central gameplay mechanic was boring. You check paperwork, you either decline or approve their paperwork. It seems boring, but that's not really what is at the centre of the game. The gameplay is intentionally soul-crushingly tedious, to emphasise the bleak and hopeless atmosphere of the game, but it becomes bleaker and less hopeful when your day is interrupted by a terrorist attack, or when someone curses at you for not letting them through, or when that annoying printing sound points out that you've forgotten to check all the discrepancies that no normal human being would really look for or care about; it all takes a toll on you. At the end of the day, you get your paycheck, and here lies even more emotional tolls. All of your money goes to feed your family and maintain their well-being. We can all relate to a family here. We're not using this money for a greater cause, like craft anti-alien weapons or save the world, we're simply working to feed our family. It's certainly relatable if nothing else, and it's what engrosses us; you instantly care about providing and maintaining a family system. 

The thing is, your wife and son and mother in law and uncle don't have a name, or a face, or a personality of any kind. It simply says their title, and their state of well-being. Could this be an allusion to the middle-class underachievers in a dead-end job working like a clockwork orange to provide for a family that they don't talk to with no hope or variety in their life? Could the inspector be Lester Burnham or a similar character?  Could be, but when taking on the role of a border-patrol inspector, you have the choice to overthrow the totalitarian government you are victim to by way of a rebel group requiring your help to let the right people in (with the wrong paperwork) and the bad people out (with the right paperwork), potentially putting some excitement and fulfilment in your life. Or not. You can carry on with your routine like the bloody coward you are. 

It's been 6 months since its release, and over a month since it was awarded numerous Game of the Year awards, but it still remains distinct in my memory. A game about paperwork manages to stick with me longer than The Last of Us and certainly Beyond: Two Souls, and in traditional game terms, it shouldn't be traditionally fun or engaging, let alone artistically resonant and a hallmark of game design. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say that Papers, Please gets to me more than Telltale's Walking Dead. 'How so?', you may ask, to which I answer, 'Play the god-damn game. It's beautifully bleak, soul-crushing, depressing and claustrophobic, but suprising, morally-questioning, often-hilarious and thought-provoking'. Eat that, Triple-A games industry.