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Persuasive Games: Video Game Pranks

March 18, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Pranks like situations and flash mobs first amuse, or distract, or disturb just like any other gag. But they also dig down into the very conventions of their subjects, laying them bare in mockery and derision. Dada pranks art to uncover its affectations. Television parodies like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report prank broadcast shows to undermine those show's pretenses.

Some games attempt to do something similar to the very conventions of gameplay. One is Myfanwy Ashmore's Mario Battle No. 1, a hack of the Super Mario Bros. NES cartridge in which all platforms, enemies, and objects have been removed, resulting in an empty expanse with no goals and no challenges. When time runs out, Mario dies.

By laying the architecture of the game bare, Mario Battle No. 1 invites the player to ask deeper questions in their absence: where do the Goombas come from? Do they serve Bowser willingly?

But Mario Battle No. 1 is more art object than video game prank; it is not really playable as a game, at least in the same way The Daily Show is viewable as television. A better example of a game convention prank is Syobon Action, a Japanese platformer also known in the West as Cat-Mario or simply "Mario from Hell."

The game is playable, challenging, and enjoyable, but it is constructed in a way that defies every expectation of Mario-style platform conventions.

In Syobon Action, the floor sometimes falls away unexpectedly. An invisible coin-box appears as the player attempts to jump a chasm, hurtling him down into it instead.

A bullet fires from an unseen source off-screen just in time to knock the player from the most direct trajectory across an obstacle. Hidden blocks trap the player if he doesn't take a counter-intuitive path. Spikes randomly extrude from some surfaces after the player steps on them.

The genius of the game -- and what makes it a prank -- is that it systematically disrupts every expected convention of 2D platform gameplay. Instead of making many approaches to a problem work equally, the game demands that the player undertake bizarre and arbitrary routes. It punishes rather than rewards collection.

In addition to coins and power-ups, enemies sometimes pop out of question-mark blocks.The rules change: sometimes a mushroom acts as a power-up, other times it turns the player into a robot that crashes through the floor and dies. The game takes control away from the player and uses carefully timed trickery to make decisions that would be reasonable in the original game require complete rethinking.

For example, the game preserves the end-level flagpole characteristic to Super Mario Bros, but in perverse distortion. Just as the player jumps off the ledge toward the flagpole, a long projectile streaks across the screen; the only way to avoid it is to backtrack onto the ledge again to jump over it.

After successfully mounting the flagpole, the game takes control of the player character and moves it toward the castle, just as in Super Mario Bros. But a carefully timed enemy falls from the sky, colliding with and killing the player. Success comes only when the player jumps over the flagpole, avoids the resulting enemy, and then backtracks to complete the level.

Complex pranks like the jelly stapler, the foil-wrapped office, and the unconventional platformer are amusing when witnessed and annoying when experienced. But they are also political. By mocking the rules we don't otherwise question, they possess carnivalesque qualities; they allow us to suspend our ordinary lives and to look at them from a different perspective.

It's possible to pass Syobon Action off on a friend as a legitimate Mario clone, only to laugh uproariously when things start to go wrong. This is the garlic-flavored gum usage of the game. But it's also possible to let Syobon Action prank you willingly, as a player, to stop and reflect on the conventions of platform play that have become so familiar that they seem second nature.

Like Tim's stapler gag mocks the values of office productivity, Syobon Action indicts the specialized language of video game geekery. This is the Dadaist usage of the game.

Tomorrow's Gamepranks

As video games expand in influence and application, the opportunity to prank friends, coworkers, housemates, and family members in video game form will surely increase. But part of the momentum required to carry out a prank is in its customization.

Parking Wars is a commercial effort, funded by A&E as an advergame to promote a television series of the same name. But Syobon Action is an independent title, a curiosity produced for its own sake and at great effort. The future of video game pranks relies on a number of literacies that are not yet well-developed. Video game pranksters must have the know-how to make games and to integrate prankish ideas into them. 

Despite current trends toward "user-generated" games based on templates and wizards, a much deeper fluency with game conventions, tools, and craft will be required for video game pranks to become a going concern. They are commercially inviable in large part, but socially meaningful, worth the effort even if they disappear, like the Jell-O that melts when Gareth retrieves his stapler.



Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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Tony Dormanesh
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Although unreleased, Penn & Teller's game, Smoke and Mirrors would've been a great example of a prank video game. It was basically a collection of prank games. One game on there was a 2 player shooting game that 1 person would always win, and secret button combinations would let you switch who wins (in case your friend makes you switch controllers).

Another game included was the 'infamous' Desert Bus mini-game, which was basically a prank on anyone who played it. You drive a bus (that constantly veers a little to one side) from Tuscon to Vegas. The bus goes at a constant speed and takes 8 hours to get to Vegas. When you get there, you get 1 point and turn around having to do the entire drive again. Hilarious.

Ian Bogost
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Yup, that's another great example. I've talked about Desert Bus in a previous column, but it's a clear match for this type of game too.

Frederico Brinca
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As a video game prankster, I thought I could shed some light on the subject from the other side of the mirror.

Creating pranks with the hope of making people think a little about video games while being entertained, we always wonder if one aspect is not hiding the other. The prank and the game mechanism it plays on go hand in hand, and the more accepted, the more conventional the mechanism is, the more direct and efficient the comical effect of the prank is. The problem is that some conventions seem to be imprinted so deeply in our gamer's mind, so natural, so invisible that, even with a prank to underline them, people seem to hardly go a step further and question them. Currently we let our 'sabotages' speak for themselves and we keep our confidence in the pranks' ability to convey a message, but we are considering adding notes to share and discuss what we are trying to do, should this confidence waver.

Michael McHale
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Who can forget the "insanity" moments in Eternal Darkness? That is a great example of a game pulling pranks on the player.

Joe Stites
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Good natured pranks are a way to inject some humor and variety into a game.

I once had an NPC that would teleport players to good dungeons, but his text warned them that he was "just learning" and he had a randomized chance of shooting a player all over the map. (He was an ongoing theme in the MMO, not the brightest wizard around).

Another time we introduced a magic ring that changed attributes--not always good. Strangely, players would enjoy the prank if it was done in the proper spirit (never too harsh and with an inkling of what was to come--those are the best!).

Glenn McMath
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Having just played Eternal Darkness, that's the first thing I thought of when I read this article. Another similar example is the Psycho Mantis fight in Metal Gear Solid.

As for the future of pranks in games, I'd like to see them target people who pirate games. Perhaps if any members of a team have any downtime they could add a prank to a version which they could then proliferate via torrents and P2P networks (sort of like those fake versions of mp3s that record companies put out for a while). If cleverly done, those versions could work as a demo of the game and maybe encourage people to buy the real version.