Last week’s micro-critique took a lot more time than I expected it to. I’ve been behind on pretty much everything in my life since devoting most of my spring break to launching my Patreon page, starting my own web hosting, and re-watching The Wire. So, this week I’m digging up a critique I outlined forever ago, in the interest of keeping it short and not missing this week’s promised post.
I’ll be talking about a minimalistic mobile game: Pancake, by Philipp Stollenmayer. It’s free on the iOS App Store, and Google Play for Android devices. I recommend you play it for at least 5 or 10 minutes. I also reference Flappy Bird, which isn’t available anymore, although so many clones are that you could pretty trivially learn to make it yourself.
A well-muscled, disembodied arm holds a frying pan in a field of emptiness. An egg appears, cracks open, and a pancake flops out. This is a game about nihilism.
When you press the screen, the arm flexes, raising the pan and launching the pancake into the air. The pan is perfectly flat, with no sides to help you catch your very slippery breakfast item. The large 0 increases every time you can flip the pancake without dropping it into the great nothing. Flipping it once or twice with a single throw is not so bad. The game also offers achievements for flipping it three and four times at once. I’ve proven to myself that the third flip is possible, but I’m not convinced about the fourth.
Lose the pancake and your floating number resets to 0. There is no insulting “game over” or rewarding “high score,” just a new pancake and a blank slate. Beat your previous best score, and this happens:
A tattoo needle flies in from nowhere and quickly, violently scribbles your score on the flipping arm. That’s all the acknowledgement you’ll get.
Once you start to have longer games (you’ll keep failing quickly at first) you might notice your pancake getting ever so slightly darker as it sits on the pan:
Hilariously, no sound of cooking accompanies this visual transition. Everything in this universe is disconnected and strange. If minimalism is the technique of stripping everything extraneous to convey the essential feelings of a scene, this is minimalism taken too far for comedic effect, stripping essential aspects of the experience of cooking pancakes to leave us with something much stranger and more barren.
Nihilism is the idea that everything is meaningless and life is a series of situations and choices without any connection to a greater whole or “grand scheme of things.” It’s not a bad thing! Lots of (or, arguably, all) games are like small-scale nihilist worlds. What is your hard-earned victory worth when evaluated in terms of the real world? Unless you’re playing Foldit the answer is usually, “not much.” But you still had fun. (Or something.)
Take Flappy Bird. All you’re really doing when you play is holding a block of metal and plastic in your hand, tapping it repetitively. I’m not bashing on Flappy Bird, or any other game, for that matter. Games like Flappy Bird are about building the ability to survive inside challenging systems that require great, endless precision in the face of ultimate futility. Little mistakes can have huge costs. Isn’t that what life is? You’re learning how to live with some of the most fundamental frustrations of being alive.
Pancake is the same one-button nihilism of Flappy Bird by way of flipping a pancake with a tractor, or an emaciated arm whose owner (?) should probably eat something instead of just flipping, flipping, flipping the damn pancake.
It’s the little details
The takeaway, then, is that nihilism and ridiculous perseverance are feelings and ideas we are especially well-equipped to confront in video games. They don’t need to be in every game, and if they don’t interest you, then take the rest of this piece as a list of things to avoid. We’re going to talk about what makes Pancake a superbly nihilistic game.
No sense of progress
It’s very possible when playing Flappy Bird to feel as if you’re really going somewhere. Decades of platformers have practically hard-wired our brains to salivate at the concept of moving from left to right. We barely need a better reason to devote ourselves to that pursuit.
Is there anything inherent to flipping a pancake that satisfies a similar urge? Probably not. But then, cooking is important. Do we feel progress in that sense? One has to flip their pancakes to get them evenly cooked. It’s everyone’s empowerment fantasy to make a perfect pancake. However the game denies us progress even in this sense: you can refuse to ever flip the pan. Just hold the pancake there forever. You won’t score a single point but your pancake will be just as evenly burnt as any master flipper’s. So why bother flipping? You have to answer that question for yourself.
What meaningless world would be complete without uncontrollable, unpredictable chaos? Not this one. By using a more complex physics system than Flappy Bird, Pancake opens the door to all kinds of new, hilarious mistakes the player can make. It also opens the door to a higher level of mastery. You’ll start to identify patterns and techniques. When the pancake lands too far to the right edge of your pan, you know exactly how to pop it just a bit to the left. Even though you’ll never stop messing up the execution and ending in failure.
Small, defiant freedoms
One of the best aspects of nihilist philosophy is the liberation that comes from feeling truly without a purpose. “Nothing matters. I might as well (take a five-hour nap/prank call my cousins/dance in my underwear/ask someone on a spontaneous date/all of the above).” Freedom isn’t limitless, it’s still bound by the laws of physics and the more rigid systems of human society. In the context of Pancake, you’ll never do anything but tap, or not tap. A good nihilist will see deeper to the many great possibilities:
- See how far you can flip the your pancake into the infinite abyss
- Spin it like crazy then launch it waaaaaaay out there
- Sit there and watch your pancake turn darker and darker as the universe creeps closer and closer towards heat death
Like I pointed out with Trick Shot, having a physics system invites the player to find their own playfulness in your game. The more intricacies of the system, the more the player can find, which is why the set of alternate playstyles I outlined here is so small and unappealing. You want to find the right balance between overwhelming, boring freedom, and stifling limits that shut your player down.
- Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus
- Christian Donlan: My daughter’s going to learn vital life skills from Spelunky
- Extra Credits: Degamification
- Major Bueno: Pan Man