Parallel Worlds

A look at where we place value.

By: Rowan Kaiser

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Life Reflections

The Addams Family pinball is the most popular pinball machine of all time. Do you remember The Addams Family film? I barely do, and I was the perfect age for it when it was released, even seeing it in theaters, I think, a rarity for me. But the idea that anything associated with it could be the most popular of anything? That seems bizarre to me. Part of it is luck, of course, The Addams Family managed to crest the wave of a 1990s pinball renaissance built on new technological developments. But part of it is design: The Addams Family pinball uses the show/film’s characters—particularly the dismembered ambulatory hand Thing—to make a more entertaining pinball machine.

I learned and saw this as I was playing The Addams Family machine at Ground Kontrol, and pinball/video game arcade in Portland, Oregon. My friend Dylan, who had invited me, was telling me about the machine and, occasionally, criticizing it. Far too often, it seemed, Addams Family would let the balls just fall down the middle, with nothing protecting the player. Even this relative pinball novice could see that this particular machine was especially “cheap” at sucking up quarters in this respect.

So what made Addams Family pinball so popular wasn’t necessarily that it was good—being especially harsh makes it seem like it’s more liable to be unpopular, or at least, a cult hit. The Dark Souls of pinball, maybe, but not the Call Of Duty of the medium. So that particular machine’s popularity seems to hinge as much on presentation—its story, its references external mythologies, its puppet hand technology, its sound, its display, all that combines to create the narrative it constructs over the course of playing it.

As I wandered around Ground Kontrol, I noticed that over half the machines were licensed. Star Trek: The Next Generation is the first one you see when you go upstairs to the pinball area, there nestled between Shrek and Lord Of The Rings. I also played The Simpsons, The Sopranos, and The Twilight Zone, to name a few. Even those that weren’t licensed still used straightforward, archetypal presentations, like whitewater rafting or boxing or alien invasions. Regardless of what it was, it became clear to me, both as someone deciding which pinball games I wanted to play, as well as a critic trying to step back and examine available evidence, that pinball games needed to have some kind of story attached.

This is ridiculous.

Okay, this is ridiculous according to some perceptions of how games are supposed to work.

Here’s what you do in pinball. You have two buttons to press, and they correspond the left and right flippers on a pinball machine. You can use those to make a ball hit things or go up ramps or whatever. If you’re feeling confident, you can try to push the machine in one direction or another so that the ball changes course ever so slightly. And that’s it.

You can hit the button to send the ball up a ramp to whack a rival. Or save the world from aliens. Or beat a Russian boxer. Or beat an Irish boxer. Or escape Mr. Burns. It doesn’t matter what the setting or the genre or the music or the animations are, in every case, you hit the same button in the same place at the right time and you win. The gameplay mechanics are totally detached from the setting or genre or story or whatever. But setting and genre and story have to exist. Forget ludonarrative dissonance, “ludo” and “narrative” and have taken out restraining orders against one another and decided to move to entirely different cities.

And I don’t care. I’m back at Ground Kontrol, for their New Year’s Party, with all the machines on free play. But I’m not playing the video games. I’m playing the pinball machines.

Here’s a funny thing about video games. First-person shooters that “everyone” knows people only play for the multiplayer don’t actually sell well without a single-player campaign. It doesn’t even necessarily matter if that campaign is good (remember Battlefield III’s harsh campaign reviews?), it only matters that it’s there.

It doesn’t take many pinball games to start seeing the parallels between that medium and video games—if they’re even different mediums at all. (The feeling I got watching Dylan get ten, twenty million points in a multi-player pinball game as I struggled to break 100k was not so different from the feeling I got seeing him beat me, and most everyone else, at Soul Calibur a decade prior, which surely must count for something.)

In both mediums you have a limited amount of interaction forms (pinball buttons, controller buttons). In both, you utilize those relatively limited interaction forms to interact with a wider variety of settings, to fulfill the nebulous, non-linear, even arbitrary demands of a story. And in both, that ridiculous-sounding premise actually kind of works.

This leads me to believe that we may be thinking about video games all wrong. The idea that story and gameplay should be harmonious seems to be a good goal. The idea that game mechanics should be varied. The idea that video games as a medium are stagnant unless they’re using new modes of interaction, either in interface or mechanics. Obviously pinball—an occasional fad, and one on the downturn now—doesn’t disprove all these concepts. But what it does do is make me question my assumptions.

After all, when you look at the massive variety of pinball game settings, any concept that game mechanic genre and game setting genre have any necessary connection seems questionable. And it should seem questionable. First-person shooters aren’t all heroic war movies or science fiction epics like Call Of Duty and Halo, they’re also comically genius puzzle games like Portal. Puzzle games aren’t all quirkfests or anti-septic and abstract, they’re also high fantasy role-playing games like Puzzle Quest. This goes on: tactics games from east Asia (Disgaea, Final Fantasy Tactics) are aesthetically cartoonish, take place in fantasy universes, and story-heavy, while western tactical games like Silent Storm or XCOM tend to be based more around real-world, fairly modern, gun-based weapons and tactics—but the structure and tactical considerations remain quite similar.

So on one hand you’ve got pinball machines trying to do Lord Of The Rings with an awesome (often busted) Balrog and Fellowship Multiball with two buttons attached to the side of a rattling machine, and on the other, first-person shooter games like Far Cry 2 or Spec Ops: The Line trying to do Apocalypse Now/Heart Of Darkness with a mouse and keyboard.

Here’s the thing: we—people engaging with storytelling of any kind—make meaning where it needs to exist, and we remove it where it doesn’t need to exist. A game that’s engaging enough with its mechanics doesn’t need a story, or its presentation can be largely ignored if it’s annoying. A game like Tetris may be famous for its music in some circles, but my version of Tetris is Tetris Classic, with its entirely different soundtrack.

While the critic in me can give gameplay-specific reasons for preferring Tetris Classic to NES or Gameboy Tetris, part of me remains pretty certain that that’s a rationalization after-the-fact. I find one more aesthetically appealing/more connected to my personal than the other, and develop a reason that makes that make sense. For all I know this is exactly the same reason I prefer the alien invasion pinball machine to the boxing match game. Maybe the ramp layout is better, maybe the flippers are more responsive, or maybe the boxing one is better and I’d end up preferring it given more time playing both. Or it could just be that I like science fiction more than sports.

My pinball experience hasn’t necessarily encouraged me to change my mind about video games. Ludonarrative consonance is still a goal worth striving for in many games. But not necessarily all games. I love LEGO Lord Of The Rings’ ridiculous combination of epic story, licensed mega-hit, toy marketing, and action/adventure gameplay, and I found it instantly compelling in a manner that Red Dead Redemption and Demon’s Souls failed to accomplish for me. Sometimes you just wanna clack a few flippers and get rewarded for your efforts. And everything else is just window dressing—critically important, entirely subjective window dressing.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Life Reflections

About the Author:
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq, Gameranx, and Unwinnable.

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    As soon as I read the first line I heard all the sound effects, the places I played it and a couple of strategies to rack up a decent score. Hadn’t even thought about the game in years.

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