I haven’t played a game like BIT.TRIP CORE in a long time. It’s the kind of game that is so simple to describe, but with a description so inadequate: it’s easy to learn, but difficult to master. Moreover, what’s so hard about the game is what is usually so easy to us: our sense of spatial relationships. No other experience you have will be as enticingly anxious as hitting that disintegrating bit that results in a perception-frying challenge.
BIT.TRIP CORE is the second game in a series of six by Gaijin Games that takes a unique (and decidedly indie) approach to its status as a series. The games, all of which are available in the Nintendo Wii shop (with three of the series also available on PC/Mac), each tell the tale of a mysterious CommanderVideo as he[?] makes his[?] way through worlds that riff on generic conventions. RUNNER is a platform with speed akin to Sonic, BEAT is a horizontal scroller with Pong mechanics, and FATE is their take on a bullet hell game. Despite those trappings, they are all music rhythm games, and flashbacks to popular titles like Rock Band and Audio Surf are warranted. In many ways, CORE seems the most simplistic, since, when you glance at it, the structure brings to mind Simon Says and the five minutes of fun you had with it before being bored.
The visual style is appealing, but it’s the way the game challenges your sense of spatial relationships, while couching that unease in the decidedly human drive for rhythm, that makes it so compelling. The gameplay, which consists very basically of you hitting a directional key to hit corresponding bits as they shoot, float, and skip by, is simple in description and excruciating in execution. But that difficulty enables players to reach a state of fiero, that magical Italian word for “proud” that describes a feeling of synchronized excitement, energy, and enthusiasm for the activity at hand. Once your brain, your hands, and your senses reboot from being overwhelmed, they unite to put you in the zone, challenge you to maintain that increasingly fleeting feeling of contentment, of success, of mastery. The way the game goads you on towards success, and then rewards you with “challenges” that throw you right out of any feeling of competency, is fascinating. In giving you more of it, the game shows you how little you’ve learned, how your understanding and acclimation to the game is just as flimsy as your sense of perception: move your sense of control ninety degrees for even five seconds and your confidence and certainty of this world comes crumbling down.
But the most fascinating part of the game is how it exemplifies the flexibility and range of video games as a medium. Truth be told, a series like the BIT.TRIP one isn’t revolutionary; games like DDR and the Rock Band series have shown how successful music-rail games can be. But the way it synthesizes the pulsating soundtrack, high-res lo-fi graphics, and instinctive gameplay unifies it as an experience. If I so much as pause to look at the graphics, I lose my concentration, and the game punishes my lackadaisical impulse by reducing my experience of the game, collapsing the clashing sounds and intersecting colors into a monochromatic, monotonous doldrum.
Though this could be seen as an attempt to guide the player more forcefully towards the “correct” game play, I think it is more a by-product en route to the game’s insistence on denying the player that which s/he wants most: to actually know what is going on. I mentioned that there is some sort of CommanderVideo figure, but I have no clue what kind of a being it is. The world that I am maneuvered through looks, in the brief milliseconds that I can see solid shapes, like an unfinished Star Fox level. Numbers and shapes tick up and down in each corner of the screen, and watermarked in the center are words like “HYPER”, “MEGA”, and “NETHER” that do more to convey the current state of my existence than any fully-rendered world could. In my lust to learn the game’s rules, to attune myself to its world, I’m really asking myself to reject those things. To let go. To flow.
and watermarked in the center are words like “HYPER”, “MEGA”, and “NETHER” that do more to convey the current state of my existence than any fully-rendered world could. In my lust to learn the game’s rules, to attune myself to its world, I’m really asking myself to reject those things. To let go. To flow.
But this sense of unity, of disparate parts coming together seamlessly, aren’t only apparent when I play through the game. These factors are manifested in the kinds of people, the kinds of disciplines that come to mind when I play the game. True, for years game developers have employed people from such disparate domains as economics, music, and psychology, but in BIT.TRIP CORE I am struck by how each of those domains could have such a startlingly different experience of the game. As an English Major who focused on Modernism and Post-Modernism, I’m fascinated by the minimalism of the game world and its use of negation. But what does a sci-fi fan think of this world? Are they frustrated by its inability to tell a story? Even further away from my comfort zone, does a psychologist playing the game pause when they come across one of its challenge modes, acutely aware of the phenomena the game is tapping into? What does a musician think of the soundtrack, and the way the game integrates it into play? What if that musician despises synthesizers, how is their experience modulated by that fact?
By virtue of their complexity and status as a multi-disciplinary form of media, video games offer the greatest opportunity for unrelated people to come together around a common goal. More than books, movies, even theme park design, video games focus the mastery of many to provide a unified experience. Calling a game “good” or “bad”, or even assigning it a numerical score, works to collapse those dimensions of complexity in much the same way that CORE collapses its own world when you fail in it. It forces you to ignore how the work of many coalesces into something new and instead keys you in on a particular element or mechanic, and how it individually fails. To fail, to turn those parts into pieces and shatter that whole experience, reduces your own enjoyment and recognition of the game’s achievement. But by recognizing that whole, you can recognize that video games are capable of new ways of interaction and understanding. And that challenge to interact, to understand, necessarily brings with it new groups of people, with new perspectives.
It’s for that reason why I can’t understand why people who play video games are so overly attached to the term “gamer.” Specifically, I’m talking about the recent Kotaku article that blasts Nintendo for having ads where celebrities say things like, “I am not a gamer; I am a coin-collecting champion.” Besides being an overblown reaction to an attempt by Nintendo to reach a larger audience, what Schreier is really saying is that, well, there are some people who deserve the term “gamer” and others who don’t, and we better look down on those others. Though there certainly is cultural baggage in the way that the usage of “gamer” has changed over time, and been largely reclaimed positively, people who now use it as a badge of honor and exclude it from “casuals” are doing more damage to video games than casuals are.
Though there certainly is cultural baggage in the way that the usage of “gamer” has changed over time, and been largely reclaimed positively, people who now use it as a badge of honor and exclude it from “casuals” are doing more damage to video games than casuals are.
Like many methods of classification, the term “gamer” is largely meaningless, and I for one am glad that different sorts of people can conceptualize the interactivity they have with video games in various, and varied, ways. To not do this is to hold bitterly to an outdated conception of video games, and stall a medium that has all the momentum going forward. Further than that, however, it contributes to creating a culture that is exclusive, not inclusive. Subcultures may develop out of it (hell, they have), and that’s fine too, but regardless of what we call this activity we do, we all partake in the playing of games, and looking at that as a baseline can bring us together in innovative new ways.
One such new way was recently detailed by Bennett Foddy at IndieCade. Foddy, creator of the immensely frustrating/rewarding QWOP, discussed how the increasing ease of game control creates a vanilla experience (“the easy listening of video games”) for players. “When you’re suffering in a game, it makes failure matter,” he said resolutely, and I think it is at this point that BIT.TRIP CORE crystallizes for players. Foddy recognizes that stakes play a big role in why people take on challenges, and why they think they can surmount them. I may not have the expertise to analyze the use of counterpoint, rhythm, or even tempo in the game, or the intelligence to understand why the challenge that moves every button press ninety degrees to the right is so mind-boggling, but I feel unified with the disparate people who can through that taste of fiero, that flow state we just manage to get into and then hold on for as long as we can, despite sore shoulders and blistered fingers. In that state, at least for a little while, we understand each other perfectly because we’re struggling together.