Flappy Bird Syndrome

I don’t really need to explain what Flappy Bird is. Even if you’re living under the same rock I was until two weeks ago, a quick google search will pull up thousands of people weighing in on whether or not it’s a good game. If you haven’t played it yet, it’s been pulled from the market.

Not that it matters.

I understand the futility, or even the counter-productive nature of writing a 3000-word piece on how Flappy Bird isn’t newsworthy, thereby contributing to the amount of garbage that has been written about garbage.

But really, Flappy Bird is not a watermark for original design, original art, depth, difficulty, or shelf life. The fact that people are making it out to be this addicting, fury-inducing gem that you will regret putting on your phone because you will never be able to put it down… is… it’s not infuriating. It’s just a sign that there’s no science or logical to how word-of-mouth will create pop culture out of all the noise on the Internet. It’s a sign that what becomes “viral” to the point of being newsworthy is largely through a series of accidents and a culture of groupthink.

Because I’ve played Flappy Bird before. I would say, in some form or another, using other graphical skins and with a slightly different set of controls, it’s a game as old as Flash. Hell, it might go back further. For all I know, there were similar games on Colecovision or something.

I’m not just upset that the game that launched a thousand news segments is a simple concept, because there is often brilliance in simplicity. What’s baffling is that it is the same game that has been made, and remade, and re-posted, and re-skinned, and even had online leaderboards countless times before. I have had enough practice in playing it before that, in spite of the prevailing notion that you have to play it until you become one with the universe before you can get your first point, I got my silver medal within a few games.

Yes, it was fun enough to play a few games. Yes, it was a smart move programming a version for mobile phones and getting it accepted into app stores. But the fact that its success came from some guy mentioning it on Reddit and a ton of people giving it upvotes, and all it is is another version of that one game that has been done and redone for over a decade, calls back something I talked about in my first entry to this blog:

These days, the mechanisms that create buzz for art are bizarre, and I don’t understand them.

If I had been the first person to discover Flappy Bird, I would have played a few games, earned my silver medal, shrugged, and deleted the app without thinking to share it with anybody else. If I were the first person to view that post on Reddit, with Flappy Bird listed among a handful of other apps, it would not have stood out to me. I wouldn’t have called it balls hard, or addicting, or infuriating. I would have thought it was entirely forgettable. But obviously, I don’t have an eye for pop culture phenomena.

So people flipped their shit over a mediocre game, and it generated so much publicity that the amount of ad revenue the creator was making became public knowledge and made his life more difficult than he wanted, and it wasn’t worth $50k a day to him anymore. This created a void in the “another helicopter game clone, but one that features a dopey bird and Super Mario pipes” market, so immediately people gutted the code, re-skinned it, flooded the market with games that play exactly like Flappy Bird, and now this is a thing:

http://www.avclub.com/article/sesame-street-apes-the-most-frustrating-mobile-gam-201137

You know, I actually have some respect for Dong, pulling out after the game blew up and complicated his life. You see so many people-turned-memes squeezing every cent out of their accidental, inexplicable fame, but he just said, “What is this shit? Peace out, guys.” He’s not trying to label himself a pioneer in the mobile game industry or anything, and he’d rather live his life outside of the limelight.

Meanwhile there are some incredible indie games out there that didn’t reach the Flappy Bird/Candy Crush/Angry Birds (also completely derivative and inexplicably famous by way of viral marketing, by the way) level of fame, even if they generated enough buzz for me to hear about them.

It’s not just games, either. Rebecca Black is now a household name. Twilight inexplicably exploded out of the rather narrow teenage girl audience it deserved and somehow created a market for a “supernatural teen romance” shelf at Barnes and Noble (if you think I’m joking, I don’t think that section is in every store in the chain, but I have seen it). Big Bang Theory is the unfunniest, most unrelatable shit I have ever seen, but the lead actor has earned three fucking Emmies. And while I don’t feel like the sort of person who hangs out at art museums enough to really get what makes super-famous modern art worthy of being super-famous modern art, somehow visual art culture decided that a completely black canvas made enough of a statement that it deserved to be on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

And no, the fact that its being there was memorable enough for me to still be talking about it is not evidence that it qualifies as art, because it could have just as easily been a mixing bowl or a houseplant. What put it in the gallery was that people cum all over themselves while having the “But is it art?” argument, and the people who noticed it and decided to have that “What is art? Baby don’t hurt me” conversation are a far more important part of what becomes famous than the art itself. Which makes that completely black painting a perfect analogue to all the other complete bullshit that doesn’t deserve the attention it gets.

So what’s my role in all this? If what gets to be popular in the world of books and movies and TV and video games and visual arts is all crap, what am I going to do about it?

Well, I’m trying to do two things:

1. I’m writing my own book. The possibility of the story becoming an archetype for an entire genre or getting inducted into the annuls of literary history is low, but it’s the story I want to tell in the style I want to tell it in, and it’s being written on my terms. I hope at least a handful of people read it and connect with it on a level more deep than simple entertainment. It’s not as easy as I’d like it to be to write a book to my own standards, but it’s the major goal of my life at this point. The major goal.

2. Every time somebody recommends me something that should never, ever have seen the light of day, let alone international fame, I recommend something I think is a better example of whatever medium it’s in.

The first one is a much slower process, so I can’t really present my finished book at the end of this blog post and say, “See? This is art.” But art isn’t created in the absence of other art. I read. I listen to music. I watch TV. I play video games. I get ideas from good and bad examples of art, and I have a chronic inability not to critique the good and the bad of every type of art I consume on a regular basis.

So, instead, I’m going to recommend some alternatives to Flappy Bird.

For the most part, I still don’t “get” mobile games. I have deleted all but three games from my phone after a week because they just weren’t worth playing long term, or worth keeping on my phone as a reminder that I should go through them again. Mobile games are, by and large, the junk food of the video game industry, and while there is a place in the world for junk food, it’s never worth the praise it garners.

(I don’t think the Doritos Locos tacos were worth the attention they got, either. Call me when they powder a taco shell with cocaine)

My three exceptions to the “App? More like crapp!” attitude I’ve developed after plenty of downloading and discarding:

1. Alter Ego

Honestly, this isn’t a new game itself. It’s been on the Internet for a surprisingly long time for free, with a very non-intrusive request for donations, and was formatted for iPhone/Android about 4 1/2 years ago.

It’s very text-intensive, so you’d have to be in the mood for what’s basically a choose-your-own-adventure novel that takes you through a couple hundred life events and has you decide how you react to the world around you, each decision subtly influencing the type of person you are becoming and what kinds of feats you are capable of later in life. For example, if you choose to lose your temper to get your way a whole lot, you’re not going to be able to pull a 180 and choose to be calm just because it’s the best way to get what you want later. If you have a calmness rating of 15%, the game’s going to call you on your shit and tell you that this is not who you are.

If you’re unsure whether this will be your jam, you’re in luck, because it’s still available for free online. In fact, it doesn’t use Flash or anything, so I guess you could open up your browser and still play it on your phone if you either want to test drive before putting down the $5, or if you’re just cheap, don’t care about the developer, and can’t justify paying for something that’s available for free.

Link to the web version, which in turn has links to both phone platforms; app stores: http://www.playalterego.com/

2. Little Inferno

If you accept the idea that video games are a type of art like paintings and sculptures and books and movies, then you’d still have to qualify this as concept art. The goal of Little Inferno is to burn things. When you burn things, you are given money, which you then use to buy more things to burn. These burned things give you a tiny extra return on investment, so you slowly build up a cache of cash with which to buy more expensive things to burn.

Once you burn everything in your catalog… you are given the option to purchase a new catalog of things to burn. The cycle continues. But before you can buy that next catalog, there is one other goal you have to meet. See, the game has different combinations of items you have to burn together. You aren’t told what these combinations are outright, but each combo gives you a name to clue you into what items might be involved. They range from mundane (“Someone Else’s Combo” = Someone Else’s Credit Card + Someone Else’s Family Photo) to the sort where you’re digging through five catalogs because you know two for sure, but it’s one of those fucking triple combos, and it’s not just going to give it to you (“Midlife Crisis Combo” = booze + cigarettes + anti-depression meds).

The combos are probably the closest thing to traditional gameplay the game offers. Other characters send you letters that kinda dance around the game’s cryptic themes and build a setting and characters without actually telling much of a story.

The drive to play is this odd mix of curiosity and compulsion: curiosity in seeing where the game is going with its kinda post-apocalyptic, anti-consumerism milieu; compulsion in partaking of the oddly addicting act the game’s narrative subtly criticizes, the skills-not-required act of burning everything by swiping it with your finger on your phone’s touch screen.

While it’s not too subtle about calling itself and other games a waste of time, the developers cared enough about nuance not to go the “the moral of the story is…” route. And yet… even after playing through the game and completely getting the message that I had just wasted a chunk of my life, I went back for seconds.

Don’t worry; I doubt I ruined any surprises by telling you how moody the game is.

http://tomorrowcorporation.com/littleinferno

3. My Singing Monsters

I know. It’s free-to-play. I know. This is one of those free-to-play games that paid a lot of money to be featured in ads within other free-to-play games. I know. It’s the sort of game where you manage plots of land and build some sort of empire where you make a ton of money, and you can buy play money with real money, and you can get certain advantages by clicking an in-game button that turns your Facebook page into one more advertisement for stupid fucking free-to-play games, and just like stupid fucking Candy Crush, your stupid fucking friends can help you advance through the game more quickly by taking some sort of action that increases the developers’ revenue by, like, lighting some torch on one of your islands or some dumb shit.

But it’s the one I enjoy!

Actually, what makes it different from almost every other game in this nauseatingly widespread genre of games is that all the monsters you buy and breed contribute to the in-game music, so while you start off in complete silence, working your way up to a rather eerily empty drum beat within the first couple minutes, quickly getting up to three instruments before the ten minute mark, eventually (after a rather significant time investment, working a little bit at a time, being told X monster is going to hatch in another 42 hours, so just go live your life and chill for the next couple days before coming back for more, unless you have money to blow on rebelling against the saying “patience is a virtue”), after a couple months getting all nineteen monsters on the first island. The first of eight islands.

It works because, while it’s not really a creative process to follow in-game instructions, and it’s not hard to figure out how to breed whatever monsters you don’t have yet, if you appreciate music, it’s pretty satisfying, if not compelling, to put the effort into building your drum beat into a full orchestra (with um… somebody playing the dubstep, if that’s a thing).

Or, you know, you could just check out the music on Youtube, but then you’re missing the experience of feeling like you earned it.

http://www.mysingingmonsters.com/home/

I think If you’re the type to appreciate video games that require a longer time investment than your typical app fare (not the World of Warcraft sort of timesink, but a longer investment as in, the type of game where you need to get to the end of a level or find a save point) and you’re on your phone right now, find yourself a computer. I really think these are the sort of games that deserve the level of fame unimaginative, derivative “Flappy Bert” type games are getting. The majority of the planet apparently wants something they can experience in full within five seconds, but if you want a richer experience, I’ve got two recommendations that I never see enough praise for.

(although neither of these offers any sort of social commentary or tells a story about human experience, they are both excellent games)

1. Eversion

I always want people to play this game without any expectations, but the pre-title screen splashes offer the foreboding H.P. Lovecraft line, “sounds – possibly musical – heard in the night from other worlds or realms.” It was part of a Halloween contest to develop a game inspired by the competitors’ choices from a compilation of writing prompts H.P. Lovecraft penned. So obviously freaky shit is going to go down at some point, but the game starts off more saccharine sweet than goddamn Super Mario 64’s “Come to the castle! I made you cake!” introduction.

I offer no further analysis than that it is a 2D platformer. It is free. Go download it. If you enjoyed it, get like me and put $5 for the more polished Steam version.

http://zarat.us/tra/eversion/

2. Treasure Adventure Game

Metroidvania. The world does not have enough Metroidvania games. The world will never have enough Metroidvania games. And this is better than some of the actual Metroid and nonlinear Castlevania games that inspired the subgenre to become its own subgenre.

It is a Game where you go on an Adventure in search of Treasure. It is called Treasure Adventure Game.

You slowly build up your inventory, finding and purchasing items that allow you to explore more and more of the world. You go on quests to solve the problems of the world’s inhabitants. You fight bosses. You sail from island to island on a ship. It’s somewhere between Zelda II and Zelda: Wind Waker. I wish it didn’t start as slow as it does, because the second half of the game is ridiculous and amazing, and it’s hard to sell a game where you have to invest more than a few minutes before it gets really good.

All the same, it is free, and the developer has simply left a link next to the download that says, “Please download.”

The entire game was done by one guy: programmer, art director, writer, music composer, genius. For Christ’s sake, somebody throw money at this man.

This is the sort of game that is famous among people who follow indie games, which is kinda like being the coolest kid on your street. It deserves better than that.

http://www.robitstudios.com/treasure-adventure-game/

Yes, I have a bit of an obsession with promoting the sorts of material that suits my taste, but that will never because widely popular at the level I want it to be. I understand that a lot of the time, when people are in the mood for a video game, a CD, a movie, or a TV show, they’re looking for something to help them unwind, not something layered and intelligent and worth having an in-depth discussion about.

But the latter category’s my jam, and while I know the world is not actually getting stupider with each generation, and that carefully crafted video games and intelligent books and deep movies and witty, character-driven TV shows are never going to go extinct, I think the world is short-changing itself every time it picks something quick and easy over something worth remembering.

I think it’s worth promoting the creative types who put their time and talents into creating this sort of work.

Fuck Flappy Bird.

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