Flirting with Excess

by tommy.rousse

or

LAZA KNITEZ!! as Carpentry, Pt. I

“In the first place, it is clear that vertigo cannot be associated with regulated rivalry, which immediately dilutes it.  The paralysis it provokes, like the blind fury it causes in other cases, is a strict negation of controlled effort.  It destroys the conditions that define agôn, i.e. the efficacious resort to skill, power, and calculation, and self-control; respect for rules; the desire to test oneself under conditions of equality; prior submission to the decision of a referee; an obligation, agreed to in advance, to circumscribe the conflict within set limits, etc.  Nothing is left.”

—Roger Caillois, “Forbidden Relationships”
Les Jeux et les Hommes 1

LAZA KNITEZ!! doesn’t exactly scream “philosophical.”  It is, to be clear, a game about four ultranoble warriorz locked in eternal combat in the distant, absolutely radical, technofuture.  It was inspired by arcade classics like Joust, and in making it we accepted a minimalism that was consistent with our resources and experience. While LAZA KNITEZ!! seems like a fairly simple game, its free rotation of non-vector art, its pixel-perfect collision and its wacky pentatonic high-fidelity audio are far beyond the capacity of the early 80s games it mimics, and if we had really tried to replicate the medium itself in time-period hardware (as Ian Bogost does in A Slow Year), rather than a broader idea of the genre, the game as it exists would be essentially impossible.  We didn’t make LAZA KNITEZ!! to be kitschy or retro: the loose constraints of the 80s multiplayer arcade genre fit well with what we could do and what we had to do it with.  In six weeks, we knew we couldn’t make something that brought more to the game than the inherent pleasures of other players, so we spent our time-budget on making a tight, gleeful platform for player interaction, namely involving splattering pixel blood and guts of fellow players throughout the lazaverse.

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One of the motivations of our design was to explore the forbidden relationship discussed above, and to see if it might be not just theoretically possible but actually fun. High-level LAZA KNITEZ!! gameplay and especially the little-understood “craziness” modifier within the launch menu took Caillois’ forbidden relationship of agôn and ilinx as a design goal.  In its standard mode, the base-speed of the game increases with each kill, with victory set at first player to achieve {5 x # of players} kills. 2 In craziness mode, the speed factor is set by input from a microphone pointed at players, and the maximum and minimum speeds of the game (and pitches of the lazaz) open up to a much wider range.  With a sort of shocking regularity, players walk up to the cabinet and start shouting in the ecstasy of triumph and the ignominious groans of defeat: their yells, motivated by bursts of intense emotion, spawn a sharp jump in the playspeed, making the game more difficult to control and more dangerous for the players’ knitez, which loops back into cries and boasts.  It’s not long before the game is careening along at an incredible speed, knitez dissolving into blurs of color and a fine mist of pixelated blood.

Of course, the craziness mode of LAZA KNITEZ!! relies on an environment in which it is sonically dominant & which human voices aren’t drowned out— when housed in the mighty warhorse that is the Buttfighter arcade cabinet and given permission to let loose with the 8 in. subwoofer and surprisingly loud speakers on a conference floor, it works great.  But put us in a barroom or a dancefloor blasting dubstep3 and the game kind of transcends any traditional agonistic competition.  It’s turned up as fast as it can go the entire time.  The screen shakes constantly, explosions cover most of the screen, and games are over in a few minutes that seem like hours.  The competitive justice of agôn, overwhelmed by the sensual overload of ilinx, is partially replaced by the aloof fairness of aleatory chance.  One of the most intense gaming sessions of my life was an ultraspeed LAZA KNITEZ!! match with Simon Gustafsson, later crowned mightiest LAZA KNITE in the universe at Nordic Game, that left me physically dazed.

Through the process of making and modifying LAZA KNITEZ!! and watching players adopt and ultimately transcend my own play, I began to think more seriously about Caillois’ play-elements and a reconciliation between his division of paidia (free-wheeling anarchic play) and ludus (regimented rule-based play).  Caillois’ regimented rules-based play in ludus and the need for perfect balance in agôn are closely aligned, while ilinx has a natural affinity for the unregimented, embodied and system-less joys of paidia.  The paidia/ludus divide is played out in slightly different variations in some uses of play/game, W. Keating’s athletics/sportsmanship, or DeKoven’s well-played game v. David Sirlin’s playing to win— play theorists new and old, analog and digital, recognize the tension between games that instrumentally rationalize play in the name of victory (Huizinga in particular dedicates the majority of his study to the core competitiveness of multiplayer games) and games that exist for mutual, cooperative hedonistic maximization (a kind of ludic utilitarianism best represented by the New Games Foundation).  I think Doug Wilson’s writings on B.U.T.T.O.N. suggest an affinity between self-effacing games (basically a parody of ludus) and Caillois’ ilinx.

We wanted to avoid a purely agonistic game; as Caillois says, the perfectly balanced game relying only upon the player makes the victory particularly important, and defeat particularly personal.  By de-emphasizing skills like aiming and planning ahead, and putting an emphasis on managing a chaotic game-state, LAZA KNITEZ!! keeps the contest from being a fateful judgment on the player’s skill and self-worth.

While teaching the same material to IT University of Copenhagen game students as a teaching assistant for Espen Aarseth’s Foundations of Play and Games course, I realized that Caillois already describes a combination of ilinx and agônthe games of competitive disorientation (choking, spinning, “daring” each other into dangerous feats) which he dubs “ascetic games” and ignores Huizinga’s description of competitive (and fatal) drinking games in the court of Alexander the Great.  I started thinking more about taking away the negative normative judgment that Caillois applies to ascetic games and taking a more serious look at games of competitive excess.  That line of inquiry resulted in my presentation on “Excessive Play” as part of the Dark Play panel with Miguel Sicart, Jesper Juul, and Mathias Fuchs at Rutger’s Extending Play conference and the publication of “The Handbook of Excessive Games, Vol. 0″.  It was the process of designing and revising LAZA KNITEZ!! that was the core intellectual work of pushing back against Caillois’ “forbidden combination”— my experience has been very different from my friend Doug Wilson, who writes on B.U.T.T.O.N.:

I would like to stress that the game should not be viewed as an “experiment” or a research prototype. Developed as a project with the Copenhagen Game Collective, B.U.T.T.O.N. was not designed in an academic context. It is the product of a particular social milieu and reflects a particular set of agendas. I do not consider my design work as a “method,” because for me the term carries with it some unwelcome institutional baggage. When I am “in the moment” of design, it is crucial that my practice not be instrumentalized towards a context external to the collective. As such, I view the “research” component of my work as the theoretical reflection contained in this article – a kind of literature-grounded creator’s statement, written in a university context. My aim here is to provide an evocative conceptual framework that will inspire us to think about digital game design in a different way.

On Self-Effacing Games and Unachievements 

LAZA KNITEZ!! began in a very academic context: our “budget” was the 15 credits a piece that we were earning for Miguel Sicart’s Game Design course.  Coming into ITU, I never really imagined making a video game even managed to be fun, much less a game that has gone as improbably far as LAZA KNITEZ!!  But beginning design with several previous academic engagements with play theorists like Huizinga and Caillois profoundly influenced what areas of play I explored as we developed LAZA KNITEZ!!  It helped tremendously that my academic influence was mediated by three other developers working on the game, and a common commitment to putting gameplay first.

The second part of this essay will deals with Ian Bogost’s writings on carpentry and the relationship between game studies and game design practice, as part of an independent project at IT University of Copenhagen under the supervision of Mark Nelson.

cmykbar

  1. I keep the French title, rather than M. Barash’s translated “Man, Play & Games,” which  obscures the fact that Caillois is writing in a  language that does not distinguish between play and games as English does.
  2. By making the maximum speed of the game greater with each additional player, LAZA KNITEZ!! purposely reinforces the social interaction that makes games more intense with more players.
  3. I am still amazed that this happens on a regular enough basis for this to be a noted problem.