GIRP: uncomfortable interfaces to games

08 April 2011 | 2 comments

GIRP

I’ve been playing GIRP almost daily since I sent it around the office last week.

It’s a great little game about climbing a wall: both tough and rewarding. Like Bennett Foddy’s previous game, QWOP, it takes a reasonable simple real-world activity – in this case, climbing – and then maps it to a frustratingly challenging control scheme.

It’s a better game than QWOP, I think. It’s quite clear from the first play of QWOP that it’s very difficult, and even more frustrating: how can running be this difficult? That is, of course the game: you have to run, and running is difficult – albeit in a reasonably interesting way. But the difficulty wall hits you immediately, and never really goes away.

I have run about a metre in QWOP.

GIRP, by contrast, immediately feels possible. You can make headway on the wall quite fast, but soon you discover that it’s going to take a spidery kind of finger yoga to get all the way to the top. Instead of making the controls frustrating in their obtuseness, GIRP becomes frustrating owing to the physical strain of dancing around the keyboard, tapping the shift key with your pinkie to clamber up the wall. And swearing at the little bird.

GIRP is a game about exertion that requires – at the small, metaphorical scale – the player to exert themselves. Its interface is deliberately designed to be uncomfortable.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about this week: games that deliberately make the player uncomfortable through nothing more than their interface. Often, that means forcing them to use said interface in an unusual way.

Painstation

I’m not really talking about games like PainStation – a game of Pong where each point conceded delivers a short, sharp whip from a wire. That’s an interface being used in exactly the manner intended – to deliver pain. There’s no affordance being exploited; it’s been designed from the ground up for pain.

This also isn’t about chronic discomfort, which is often as much down to the gamer in question. So, similarly, I’m not really talking about incidents such as the terrible case of Nintendo Claw I got from a tense Z-trigger finger after long Goldeneye sessions.

I’m interested in games that make that act of playing them – on devices designed for comfort – uncomfortable.

The Typing of the Dead

As GIRP demonstrates, keyboards are great for inducing discomfort. There are way more buttons to ask the player to wrestle with, for starters. So, although it’s a typing tutor, and one that’s ultimately meant to making typing more comfortable in the long term, I’d definitely lump the wonderful Typing of the Dead into this collection. It’s not about typing in any useful way: it’s typing turned into challenge, full of absurd sentences, and single letters to be stabbed at to fend off bats.

Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain, like GIRP, often the strain or discomfort suffered by the player characters in its QTE-style QTE input, slowly demanding them to hold down increasing numbers of joypad inputs. A more subtle approach than just demanding button-mashing, and one of the nicest ideas in that game.

Track and Field

One of QWOP’s most obvious ancestors is Konami’s Track & Field: in the arcade, it was blessed with a pair of buttons to be hammered alternately to run. On the home computer, that became a waggle of the joystick left and right, and many a Konix Speedking bit the dust at the furious demands of that waggle. Many a wrist no doubt came to harm as a result, similarly. Track & Field is not a bad game; just an old one. It’s the canonical point of reference for the waggling/hammering interaction, and, perhaps unfortunately, set a trend for “hammer buttons to run/swim/perform aerobic exercise” that is now perhaps too long-engrained. Still: an early example of matching physical exertion to in-game exertion.

Chase goose

Track & Field’s most absurd successor might be Chase Goose. To begin with, the combination of hammering left and right to run, whilst hitting random keys to jump, feels like the bastard child of Canabalt and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. As the game progresses – and you really must play it to find out what happens – it becomes increasingly absurd, provoking either laughter or fury depending on your mood when you begin playing. The ridiculousness of its control scheme creeps up on you. Which is, I suppose, part of the joke.

Desert Bus

But, if there was a grand prize for player discomfort, I still think I’d have to hand it to Desert Bus, one of the many minigames found in the unreleased 1995 Sega CD title Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors. Rather than complex controller inputs, or fragile wrists, Penn & Teller’s game hits the player for massive damage in an obvious weakspot: their arse.

If you’re not familiar with Desert Bus: it requires the player to drive a bus from Tuscon to Las Vegas, without crashing, in real time. This takes eight hours, and cannot be paused. It cannot also be left unsupervised: the bus pulls to one side, and so must be manually corrected all the time. A successful trip is rewarded with a single point.

Desert Bus is not a good game, because it’s a game that hates the player, and seeks only to abuse them. But it is thorough in its abuse, making it not only quantitative – one measly point for all that! – but physical. And for that reason, it ends up on my list.

I’m not sure what to make of this train of thought just yet, but it’s something I’m going to store away the back of my mind. Interfaces afford discomfort and unintentional interactions as much as they allow players to use them as intended. That’s something, as game designers, we can take advantage of.

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