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Mixing up design

June 8, 2009

romch2bI was in elation when the indie game ROM CHECK FAIL came to my attention. The premise of the title is basically mixing a dozen of classic game titles together and through a series of randomly generated mash-ups we have a mini-game. Think of it as WarioWare, Inc. but more schizophrenic and nostalgic. Like most remixes, what we have is a creation of the new from the old. I’ve talked before about remediation by transitioning through familiar mediums in order to understand newer ones. What we have here is something in between by remediating older properties in the guise to create a creatively new one.

You would expect that remix culture would already be popularized in videogames by now. The medium has a long history of using remediation and reconstituting game mechanics for all of its games. It is not difficult to read a preview or review that often refers to previous games that are borrowed whether it is gameplay mechanics, artistic aesthetic, or narrative constructs. But we have seen little in regards to the same sort of remix one would find in music or even the relationship between experimental film and “found footage.”

ROM CHECK FAIL may integrate code and assets in the most casual way using the conceit of a failed game rom, but is a start of a process I would like to see more independent game designers to utilize. The small game is not just an exercise in aesthetics but also invokes as well as comments on many of the issues one finds in retrogaming as well as even in the mini-game today. While upon an initial playthrough and subsequent quick loss is the impression that ROM CHECK FAIL is shallow. The main mechanic is destroying an enemy to progress and not dying. But there is much more to what is considered surface value.

The game relies on two things, familiarity with retro game mechanics and cultural value. When the player sees Mario, Pac-Man, an Asteroid spaceship, a space invader, or any of the other assets used in ROM CHECK FAIL the player is already aware of how these avatars are controlled. There is recognition on how to attack, move, or jump. What the game does is place familiar avatar mechanics with familiar environments with familiar NPCs. But the random generation of mash-ups requires reveals that little has changed in the realm for arcade games. Like the nods to classic Nintendo mini-games in WarioWare, instead of understanding the game being referenced, ROM CHECK FAIL relies on not only recognizing multiple titles but also the foundation of arcade game mechanics and the lucidness of assets to design.

But there is also an understanding of genre. One can recognize that a mini-game will be a platformer, a shooter, or adventure by camera angle and characters in the aesthetic. It also places a cultural value in the games highlighted in the remix because of their popularization their mechanics are assumed and recognizable. More importantly, however, is that it places a value in game culture. Specifically nodding to the homebrew community and the arcade community.

At its core, ROM CHECK FAIL isn’t a mini-game collection but feels more like an arcade game. This may be because it primarily uses arcade titles but one can find more evidence in the way the game is structured. There are no goals, there is no narrative, and there is no end in sight. The player is expected to progress mainly by the incentive of score and progression. While the blogger community often spends ample time discusses narrative gaming as a compulsion to player, an entire era of gaming has had little commentary or research on. Arcade gaming and player interest in the genre relies more on player psychology. Similarly to multiplayer games, there is also an element of community but on a more paradoxical isolated level. In fact, one can trace the design of multiplayer communities, rewards, and even griefing to arcades arguably more than other gaming practices.

And there is finally the cultural value is places on the homebrew community as well as other subversive communities such as the speedrun players. The entire conceit of ROM CHECK FAIL is based off two things: gaming bugs and hacking. Though there is contention on the validity of speedrunners for games, Tool-Assisted videos of speedruns often use exploits and bugs to cut corners in speedruns through games. Gaming exploits have since evolved into cheat codes or game secrets. ROM CHECK FAIL revels in bugs not only as its conceit but also even part of its gameplay. Though not a game surrounded around the idea of a bug the game itself utilizes bugs to define mechanics and progression.

As a remix or mash-up, there is no avoiding its roots to the homebrew scene. Not only in the meta-sense in that it is an independent game but also its exploitation and borrowing of game assets from these classic titles. Ideologically, it follows the hip-hop philosophy of reconstituting, homage, and remediation. Like the best disc jockey or producer, the developers of Fishie Fishie and Polychromatic Funk Monkey have created a game with the compassion for its references but also the creation of the new. It is something that indie programmers and coders should consider as an artistic option available for creating games when they do not have the artistic chops to provide a glass over their design mechanics.

Remix culture like videogames are a relatively new medium and artistic endeavor. Not surprisingly, because of its lenience towards intellectual property and association with piracy remix culture has become redefined as participatory culture, which includes fan fiction, media sharing, and so forth. Because of these connotations, it has become highly political in the Third World in creating and distributing ideological artistic works. And with videogame piracy being an important if not contentious issue in the Third World, I would hope that homebrew, hacking, and remix will become a positive consequence in adding to the conversation of games as art.

Jet Set Radio, need I say more? There needs to be more Hip-Hop in games.

Jet Set Radio, need I say more? There needs to be more Hip-Hop in games.

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