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Game play

 

Text by Oliver Payne

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Defining what we mean by a “video game” is pointless, so instead let’s consider some activities that may be operational when a video game is taking place. Interactive computer software. Audience participation. Decision-making. Receiving and managing symbols, references and iconography. Tension and pressure. Cathartic release. Human hands manipulating ergonomic hardware. Human senses interacting with code. Meaning through mechanics. Procedural rhetoric.

A video game is made up of art, noise and logic. The art and noise is everything you see and hear, and the logic is the behaviour ascribed to them. It is the logic, the least obviously “arty” part, that most effectively communicates feeling in a game.

Feeling is communicated through feedback. Push a button – something happens. Art does not typically provide feedback in this manner. A sculpture or a painting is similar to, say, a potato in this regard.

A screenshot is both a single frame of a video game and a document of somebody’s experience of that game. This differs from a freezeframe of a video work in several ways, one of which being that we watch a video but play a game, similarly to how we play an instrument. What sounds can I get out of this thing?

 

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Take a look at a screenshot of CRUST SHMUP (2023), an anarcho, arcade, crust punk shoot-em-up inspired by Napalm Death’s debut album, SCUM (1987). CRUST SHMUP is all feeling. The logic makes it feel like SCUM; the game’s art and noise make it look and sound like SCUM. CRUST SHMUP is a scratchy black-and-white world like an over-photocopied gig poster. Backgrounds are short, looping, bleak and brutal. The player ship shoots missiles that look like anarchy symbols. Devastatingly furious and impossibly intense blast beats, a drum fill typical of certain genres of punk and metal, roar over a chaotic, sprawling barrage of circle-A, peace-punk projectiles that demolish everything in your path. Your enemies are approaching police, CCTV, CEOs, oil barrels, BP, Shell, petrol pumps, newspapers and politicians.

However, in an inversion of the genre conventions of the shoot-em-up, CRUST SHMUP rewards players with an extra life for not firing their weapon and clearing stages instead through dodging, hiding and evading enemies in any way they can. On most occasions, this requires the player to do virtually nothing, which is far easier than actively engaging with the enemy and reaps a greater reward. Incentivised pacifism.

So, in a not immediately obvious way, your bullets contribute towards your overall health. Ammunition is a finite resource. Spaff all your bullets up the wall and you’re not likely to make it too far.

 

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The images and sound the player receives in CRUST SHMUP (or almost any game for that matter) are dictated by the rules imposed upon the player. By this, I mean that the player advances through the game following the results of their actions within the framework of the game’s logic. Skill or dexterity is not necessarily the primary requirement, but rather an understanding of the rules and systems in place and an ability to work within and around them to progress most effectively. What does this game want me to do, and what can I actually do?

The mechanics and the rules of the game are borrowed from the conditions under which crust punk and grindcore would have been made in England in the mid-1980s. Having the player only receive reloads, power-ups and extra lives at the beginning of each stage is like living and surviving on the dole, trying to make your benefits last until the next giro. The idea of the player being routinely and systematically rewarded based on their conditions is heightened by the pressure on the player to continually assess whether to use all their resources in one go or “budget” to make them last.

The logic (the rules made with computer code) is the most important part of the sensory feedback we get from the art (computer graphics) and the noise (music, SFX, sound design). But the art and noise are what we use to talk about the feelings that we get from the logic. They are the components of the game that we are most consciously engaging within the moment-to-moment gameplay. The condensation of art and noise to an overwhelming sludge reflects the totalising logic of the crust punk’s battle against the social world. All of this is processed by the player in the same way life is processed, through feeling. The Game Over screen of CRUST SHMUP reminds the player of a deeper inquiry beyond that of the zeroes and ones of code. “YOU SUFFER,” the text reads against a grinding guitar drone, “BUT WHY?”  ◉

 

 

 

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