The ‘broken’ game. A commonplace phrase of games journalism. It sounds both childish (“it’s broken, Mummy!”) and strict (the idea that difference is a fault – a fault that causes the game to be useless).
What is broken in a ‘broken’ game? Usually the controls, it seems. Which is a fair complaint; if the player can’t manoeuvre the player character properly and if this causes progression through the game to be very difficult or impossible, then the player might feel that the game can’t be played and is therefore broken. But ‘broken’ is also used to describe videogames that use control systems that the player is unfamiliar with, along with other potential frustrations arising from narrative, dialogue, style, etc. What is central though, is that if a game can’t be beaten then it’s broken.
Snatches from other media: “… for he has always been like that, even as a child, during games: not exactly serious, but so committed to the game that, in the midst of battle, he would be overcome by a sort of stupor at the moment he should have won, when he had outmanoeuvred everyone else, and would find himself beaten when he was the real victor. He would then walk off on his own, apparently quite pleased and, leaning against a tree, gaze into space.” (Philippe Sollers, The Park) Once we’ve topped the leader board, what next? A zen-like contemplation? A hazy high? Post-orgasmic depression? When we set all meaning to the simplicity of winning/losing, is it surprising that we feel extreme frustration when we fail and listless when we succeed?
If the fixed videogame is where everything works towards facilitating competition, the broken videogame might be where competition doesn’t work. It would be a perversion of videogames to play for nothing, not even for the vanity of score or completion. To play with playing itself.
Film and fiction have central conflict theory and the three-act structure, music verse/chorus/verse and the orchestra. Videogames have the technobabble of ‘broken’, as if the videogame is a circuit that won’t work if all the plot points aren’t connected or if the controls are unusual. Getting frustrated with the movie/novel/song/game is always thought of as bad.
But frustration is a necessary part of learning and flirts with satisfaction. “If we want to talk of a right to pursue happiness there needs to be a prior right, as it were, to feel frustration; to be able to bear and to bear with a sense of what is lacking in one’s life. And not simply because frustration makes satisfaction possible in the way that hunger can make a meal delicious. But because frustration and satisfaction do not only or always have a logical, a causal, a pragmatic relationship with one another.” (Adam Phillips)
To pervert the dominant logic of videogames – whether as players or designers – is to allow for videogames to spread out, to gloop over even more areas of life. It’s already happened and happening, of course. Videogames took us by the hand and ran at an exhilarating speed, ran to places we’d never thought of, places from which everything looks different. This speed was like the speed of childhood, when an hour feels like an unbearably long time to wait, when everything changes in a year and every year. Now the speed is that of late adolescence, when everything is painful and boring at the same time, when everything matters, a time when suddenly you realise what and where you are and question that realisation at the same time.
So what we might need is videogames of a particular type of difficulty and frustration; not difficult in the sense of precise, learned-by-rote movements, but difficult for being outside of what we expect, frustrating for not being fixed. The common dismissal of difference as a mistake is the largest obstacle to this. A perversion of winning and pianola performances opens the way for weird, wrong, broken videogames.