p0nd: Are you talking to me?

UPDATE: The site apparently was “crushed by the internet”. Here are two mirrors:  Mirror 1, and Mirror 2.

As some of you will know I’m part-way into making a mod for Half Life 2 that will probably fall into the category of being an art-mod, an off-shoot of the art-game genre. My aims are to explore the meaning of ludology in the videogame environment by shifting the rules, in the narrative context of dreams and memories. There is no doubt this is “arty-farty” and I have no desire to hide that fact but nor do I think my approach to design, or my view of games is the correct view. In fact my game is more or less about how there is no such thing as “correct”.

What I want to talk about today is a particular game that I think is offering a polemic against established and alternative design methods instead of offering itself as the views of the designer. It cannot offer itself as such because the designer seems to have created the game as a commentary that does not offer a counter-argument. In fact, it comes close to making a point, but retreats from this in such a brutal manner that you have to question the real intentions of the game at all. The game is p0nd.

*There will be spoilers in the following paragraphs, so if you haven’t already – take 5 mins to play the game here*

A flash game by the Peanut Gallery, p0nd (the 0 probably a pisstake of thatgamecompany’s fl0w) is a game in which a man leaves his house supposedly to enjoy the great outdoors beyond his cabin. It hints suggestively at having a genuine point to make since the principal mechanic is breathing. It is suggested that in real life you breathe at the same time as the avatar – whose breathing you control with the space bar. By breathing he absorbs “orbs” in the world that simultaneously aid his progress and enrich the scene with extra elements such as shafts of light, or crude animated animals.

Looking at the art style I perhaps should have been cautious. The scenery and avatar could have been endearing, but the cartoon animals you summon with successful breaths do not add to the supposed beauty of your surrounds as they are so horribly out of place.

If you fail to make it though all the screens leading up to the eponymous pond then a quote appears on screen that implies failure, and the possibility of more content beyond, and without a smirk puts you back at the title screen. This fact made the ending both more and less interesting.

The ending of the game (four screens into it) puts you on the edge of the pond, greeted by a large number of orbs to breathe in. As soon as you begin, then, you are surprised to find that a large kraken emerges from the pond. The sky turns red, the music changes to a something not out of place in a Mortal Kombat game, which is handy since you and kraken are given Mortal Kombat introductions, and you are encouraged by a flashing icon to “breathe” by mashing the spacebar faster than the damage you are taking. I beat this phase of the fight, and died in the next, where I was meant to “hold” my breath.

I didn’t bother trying it again.

You know what annoys me about this game? It isn’t that it beat me (last thing I’d care about). It’s not that it sucked me in with the breathing mechanic, and then slapped me in the face when it parodied itself (and thus that design idea) so brutally (and thus mocking me for engaging with it). It was the harm this does to every other person who doesn’t care about art games that plays this and has the same experience. How will they feel? They probably won’t want to engage in another art game again.

Allow me to explain why this game is such a problem.

It’s not the story. A man leaves his house; gets killed by a kraken. I could talk about how uninteresting it was, or that the kraken wasn’t contextually believable in a small pond, but that’d be like squirting a water pistol into the Indian Ocean. And in one way I could argue for the game since it argues a point completely with its ludic elements, which is laudable. It’s just that that argument is hollow, and untenable based on the game as evidence.

To me p0nd is saying the following:

  • Games are meant to be relaxing, yet they put you in stressful situations.
  • Art games with simple mechanics are inane.
  • Art games that are not difficult or violent will never be as popular as hardcore games.
  • Art games with such mechanics should not be made. And you are stupid for playing them.

It does not matter what the makers intended to make from p0nd. The bottom line of it is they failed. The game plays like a practical joke, and unless that was the intention, they have failed to engage people in whatever arguments they were trying to. By having that intro text and even that failure text you are given the impression that the game is taking itself seriously, I suppose that’s the point of a practical joke, but unlike other satirical games such as You Have to Burn the Rope in which tone is established immediately, it weakens the impact that the game has overall.

What I find ironic in this situation is that a visit to their “About” section defines clearly and bluntly that they “respect” the player. In fact here is a quote;

“Peanut Gallery views our games as a means of communication between the game’s designers and its players.”

If this is true then it is a disrespectful conversation. You’re telling me I just don’t understand. You’re telling me I can’t possibly feel your pain because I am too stupid to comprehend what you’re going through.

The problem with the game is that it is like a petulant teenager writing a poem called “Adults fucking suck” without admitting they’re about two steps away from being one, and without actually providing any evidence, or a counter argument. The game, by putting “breathe” into that final section simply demonstrates that a mechanic that works in an art game wouldn’t work in a hardcore game. So? That’s hardly surprising. Here’s a newsflash: Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 would be completely disengaging as a rhythm action game. The game doesn’t explicitly demonstrate that hardcore games are any better, so what was the point? All game design is bad? You haven’t proven yourself any better because this game is awful too. Imagine it in another medium: A painting that is bad to demonstrate how bad bad paintings are. A pointless, pretentious, and narcissistic exercise.

Allow me to quote once again from their About section:

“Keeping with the spirit of respecting videogames, Peanut Gallery also strives to avoid the use of “game tropes” as fall-back solutions to common game problems. We aim to create “completely designed experiences,” or games that take into account all of the possible player interactions and have designed outcomes for them that retain the game world’s integrity and are satisfying to the player.”

In terms of p0nd they definitely did fall back on tropes. Not mechnical ones too much, except the button mash-submission scenario, but it was clearly intended to be a cross-between a boss-battle and fighting game scenario. I can’t see how they could have possible strayed further from this document.

If, in the comments, you are itching to write “You just don’t get it”, then go ahead, but here’s what I get: A designer is making a pretentious statement he hasn’t fully thought through, but hasn’t actually made a good game to prove he knows best, yet is making an incoherent attack on “bad” design, but ultimately – and most damningly – is condemning art games, and any kind of innovation by his actions which is reductive, and limiting to the art games community, and games in general. I can’t see how this approach is helpful in such a small community, surely we should be helping each other?

I’d be very happy for them to show me a good game, and tell us what we’re all doing wrong. I am aware they have other games, but I refuse to judge one game in the context of the collected output of a studio. There is absolutely no reason why that responsibilty should be mine, the whole point of a mission statement is that it applies across the board.

Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for Chronoludic updates click here)

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