What A Bear
Enviro-Bear 2000: Operation: Hibernation is a chaotic experience, as you can see from the screenshot. You're a bear preparing for hibernation. As you crash through the woods in your camper, things like pinecones, fish, berries, and unruly animals end up inside the car. Some of these you can eat; others get in your way and it would probably behoove you to toss them out the passenger-side window. The catch is that your interactions with this physics-based game occur with only your right paw, which means that efforts to exert any kind of control over the bear, his car and the environment are pretty much futile. You can't quite steer while driving (unless you use an object to weigh down the pedal, which seems beside the point, since something else will inevitably go wrong); you have to deal with each of the many distractions in your car before you can really map out your trip; and your path is rife with obstacles. Eventually you'll probably give up, floor it, and see where chance takes you. In doing so, I crashed through a bush in reverse and ended up with two very belligerent skunk/hedgehogs crawling all over my windshield and face. It's a fun diversion that also speaks to the absurdity of rational, goal-oriented thinking. Your attempts to perform well are rarely as interesting as when you yield to the mess of the wild.
The game, designed for TIGSource's Cockpit Compo, reminded me of another rough-edged game: Mark Essen's Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist. Unlike Enviro-Bear, Essen's games screen in white-walled galleries. Says Essen, "You can play World of Warcraft for days, and you don't leave with
anything. Play mine, and you'll leave with horrible memories, maybe." The controls in Randy Balma are purposely challenging -- for example, in the game's first segment, you have to drive a school bus in the correct direction on a freeway for a time, but your steering mechanisms change on you randomly and you constantly end up in multi-car pile-ups from which you have to extricate yourself (using luck, mainly). This trick is called "cunningly frustrating." What makes Essen's games appeal to the art world while Enviro-Bear is disposable? Is it Essen's knowledge of avant-garde cinema? For me, the frustration in Randy Balma and Enviro-Bear feels pretty alike -- it's an illusion of directive that is constantly disrupted by your own incompetence in the world.
My guess is that the art-world cred is really about Essen's visual themes. Unlike Enviro-Bear's crude, furious but still fuzzy and lovable bear, Randy Balma is full of painful, potentially seizure-inducing hues, disembodied baby's heads, allusions to insemination and psychosis, and an ominous soundtrack that culminates in a full-out breakcore freakout. It's a "brutal" experience, which might be considered transgressive in relation to normal, wish-fulfilling games. The art world loves perceived transgression. But I'd argue that the repetitious, heartless likes of Mega Man have been offering videogame brutality for decades. With a game like Randy Balma we have colorful flashing and atonal sounds that function as cues toward an avant-garde practice; we have provocative imagery and writing that function as signifiers of Content. See, there's content here -- nourishing, culturally valuable content -- in Randy Balma, where Enviro-Bear only has sticks and stones (and pinecones, and flopping fish).
(This isn't intended as a knock against Essen, who is a gamer and also draws a line between games he makes for galleries and those he makes for the outside world.)
Content -- here, situated as meaningful antagonism -- is supposed to give you something valuable to take away from a game. Unlike WoW players, Essen says, Randy Balma players are given a gift. I think this is misguided. A meaningful encounter with a piece of art work occurs while you're engaged with it; standing in front of a painting, or sitting in the cinema. Playing the game. And as Gus puts it, there's a "power of aesthetic" that makes things resonate. Yet both these games have a sort of anti-aesthetic -- Enviro-Bear's MS Paint tableau; Randy Balma's primitivist pixel art -- and neither is more important than the corresponding anti-gameplay. Which actively works to make your encounter with the game a difficult one.
For me, lack of control is good for a laugh, and good for philosophy. It's most effective when, as in Enviro-Bear, it's taken as is, rather than passing for something more meaningful. But I'm past the outright-antagonism technique in film and video art, and I'd like for games to avoid that phase. Games, of all mediums, should seduce -- that is, appeal to your senses and instincts on a level that intensifies and surpasses, rather than shies away from, WoW-esque compulsion. That's making the experience last, the hard way.