Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Survive, Mola Mola! No, wait, don't-!

In its little retro-blue text box, my mola mola screams about how scary the sea turtle is. The screen fades white, my gut slowly turning with it as I wait to see whether this will be the adventure that kills my largest-yet pet. Before the clunky software delivers its verdict, though, I'm already twisting in another direction. If this fish dies, I'll probably have enough game points to buy the last new food from the shop...

For those who've missed it, Survive! Mola Mola is an iOS/Android idle game from Select Button. It mainly concerns the wondrous ocean sunfish (in case you can't guess from my header, I've added the ridiculous, oversized fish-head to my list of favourite animals). Ostensibly, it's a Tamagotchi – feed your digital pet, and occasionally it dies. The longer it lives, the larger it grows, achieving new ranks including Mola King, possibly the best piece of visual design I've ever seen.

Seriously, look at this guy.
But there's another side to this, because it's also a cookie-clicker phone game and so has to have some stuff in it that you can unlock. So it does; you can unlock new foods, new 'food levels' that make food spawn faster, and new adventures (once-hourly set-pieces with a cute graphic and some text, like the 'greet a sea turtle' one described above). These are bought with an in-game currency that you can also pay for.

Thing is, the quickest way to earn currency is to die. There are small rewards for completing missions and reaching ranks, but the bulk of the points come from your rank at death. High-scoring death is worth as much as ten times any other points dividend in the game. To cap that off, most of the game's obvious entertainment value (discounting my inability to keep a straight face when looking at mola king) comes from the quirky explanations of each death.

If you've seen but not played Mola Mola, this is what you'll have seen. The 'Sudden Death! Cause: Sea Turtle Was Too Scary' tweets. The scary turtle is perhaps the most infamously strange, but exemplifies the tone. They're quirky, cute and fun, well-matched to the game's retro feel, and enticing to collect.

I know, I know, it's starting to sound like I might be talking about (whisper it) ludonarrative dissonance. Putting aside the well-established criticisms of that term, though, it's not clear that it applies here. After all, what's the narrative? It's true that there's a vague sequence of discovery moving through the game but it's not much of a story per se.

I think a better term is Heather Alexandra's idea of 'ludic pressure' (see also), defined as "the application of a force by the game on the player, as expressed through the mechanics, intended to elicit an emotional response." Mola Mola's tamagotchi mechanics push me to want the fish to survive; the currency and humorously morbid death-collecting push me in the opposite direction. The net effect is the hanging sensation just below my diaphragm, the swallow half-caught in my throat as I wait for the randomiser to deliver.

This gets closer to the essence of the sensation, at least. But let's look a bit closer at these pressures. On the one hand, the pressure to have your mola mola die clearly fits the bill – arbitrary and abstract as the currency mechanic is, it's a clear and immanent component of the game. But what mechanics power the pressure in the other direction?

I'm not sure they're mechanics in Mola Mola at all. And while the art and text are cute, I don't think they explain the gut response of wanting my fish to survive. That pressure, I think, comes from other games, other mechanics. It comes from my first tamagotchi, probably 15+ years ago, and the numerous other tamagotchis I've had since, and every other virtual pets game I've played/seen/heard of in that time. It's an expectation grounded in a much broader experience of the genre.

The best piece of evidence I can offer is that this second force, call it an interludic (as opposed to an intraludic) pressure, has faded as I've grown more familiar with this specific game. I don't get that pulled-in-two-directions lurch anymore when the screen whites out. It's just 'dammit, fish, die so I can buy that giant clam!'

Maybe this sounds like a specious concept. I think it's quite important, though, to recognise that mechanics have at least as much intertextual significance as any other element of a game. Our earliest experiences of a given game are coloured by our familiarity with its mechanic set and interface. These things can shape our whole understanding of the context we're inserting ourselves into.

Remember Test Chamber 16, the first level with the turrets in Portal? How disorienting it was to face a combat situation in a first-person shooter where your gun wasn't a weapon? I found it utterly panic-striking, but the level itself isn't that hazardous. One of Portal's greatest strengths is its smooth tutorial arc, and Test Chamber 16 is a perfect example of that, carefully feeding you just enough difficulty at each encounter to keep you at the edge of safety but never over it.

Right near the end of the level, you open a door – that you're more or less forced to stand in front of – to reveal a turret pointed right at you. In a standard fps, this would be a simple reflex test. Even replaying it for this article, I almost tried to shoot the turret... with my portal gun.

That twitch reflex, and the gut lurch that followed it as I realised no, I have to dodge, are the product of a force exerted on me by the mechanics of a game – just not the one I was playing. Many shooters have conspired to train my reaction. Someone who didn't know the genre would still, doubtless, feel a stab of anxiety at that moment, but without any frustrated expectation of empowerment through reflex.

If (intra)ludic pressure is a force exerted on the player by the mechanics (ludic elements) of a game, then interludic pressure may be useful as a way to analyse influences on the player derived from their experience of other titles. We could distinguish further, between specific and generic interludic pressures or between those deployed deliberately for subversion and those that designers subconsciously rely on, but these are questions for another time.

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