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Unplayable Games

Tetris HD

There’s been much hubbub of late around Tetris HD, a Flash version of Tetris in which the screen is so large and the pieces so small that it takes around fifteen minutes of concerted play to make a single line. Are we witnessing the birth of ludic irony, or is an unplayable game just clever satire in game’s clothing?

Anyone who’s played a game released in tandem with a major Hollywood movie knows that unplayable games are released all the time. These games, however, don’t aim to be unplayable; it’s bad design that makes them so. They’re normally unplayable because they’re either way too easy or way too hard, the controls are poorly laid out, the gameplay is perfunctory, or, in the case of many, because there is no gameplay—the “games” are actually user-navigable movie previews, narrative in a game vacuum. But Tetris HD is different. It was designed to be unplayable. You can certainly play it, but the experience is neither enjoyable nor gamish.

I’ve seen similar unplayability in games before. Eddo Stern and Mark Allen’s Tekken Torture Tournament uses a modified console to deliver “bracing but non-lethal” shocks to players of Tekken when their characters sustain damage. Both electrified Tekken and Tetris HD riff on existing games. Their principal meaning derives from this association. While you could technically play them, their practical unplayability is the point, they are ideas, a commentary on games and our impulse to play them. You’re not really supposed to play Tetris HD. You’re supposed to try for a second and shake your head in amusement. It is, at the risk of sounding graduate student-y, a meta-game.

Which is not the case with New York Defender, a Flash game in which the player mans an anti-aircraft gun and is quickly overwhelmed by increasingly large numbers of airplanes bent on crashing into famous New York City landmarks. New York Defender is designed to be playable, fun even, but only very briefly—it quickly becomes impossible and there is no win condition. Plenty of games (pinball for instance) are extremely difficult to beat but because New York Defender is impossible, the outcome is predetermined, and the game is in that sense un-“playable.” Much of New York Defender‘s irony rests on the player’s perseverance in the face of certain destruction. Though it too derives its meaning from outside itself, New York Defender doesn’t sacrifice its gamishness to communicate it. It’s eminently playable, and it’s the polyvalence and simultaneity of the desire to play and the disgust that play produces—the uneasy union of gamishness and idea—that really exploits the full potential of ludic irony.

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