'Bit.Trip Runner' and the Poetic Novelty of Casual Games

Bit.Trip Runner and other downloadable games are creating aesthetically novel experiences that defy the stereotype of the unoriginal casual game.

Over the past sixty years, poetry has developed a reputation among high school students for stodginess, complexity, and mechanical twists and turns that only the most hallowed of literary minds could hope to understand, much less care about. I have learned this not only from my own experiences as a high school student long, long ago but from my current students, who I teach in my life outside of blog writing. Poetry is boring and laden with an air of inaccessible mystery, they tell me. This, I tell them in return, is how much of the populace views World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. Video games, like poetry, are often inaccessible to the lay person unfamiliar with a sixteen-button controller. Their power and novelty are lost behind an iron curtain composed of technical skills and erudite understandings beyond the grasp of the outsider.

When I teach poetry, then, I try not to get caught up in the mechanics -- at least not at first. I try to imbue the reading of poetry with a sense of novelty, with the idea that these are not incomprehensible puzzles created by some Kafka-esque madman to drive fourteen year olds insane. More, they are bits of thought and feeling, slivers of experience and reflection, carefully arranged to create in the reader a sensation, to translate feelings from person to person. We watch YouTube videos and short scenes from My Neighbor Totoro and I ask them, is this not a poem as well? A small bit of emotion that is here to convey to you some undefined -- yet clearly felt -- experience.

As I play more and more "small" or "casual" games. I'm beginning to find the same sort of novelty and contained curious emotions so common in great poetry . I'm not talking about games like A Slow Year, Ian Bogost's collection of "game poems" created on Atari 2600 hardware (though they do get at the same idea). I'm thinking more of Geometry Wars, Flower, and most recently for me, the Bit.Trip series: games without long narratives that contain more or less one central aesthetic and that focus mostly on one feeling and convey it artfully. I'm thinking of games that give the sensation and the jolt of the new that surprise the player and create in the mind a feeling, however small, that lingers for days.

For me, like many other uptight video game curmudgeons, the term "casual games" does not have a positive connotation. But this negative association has always stemmed not from the casualness per se, but from the blatant lack of originality and flat-out bad craftsmanship that has come to characterize the genre, especially on the casual platform, the Wii. I think of Step Up, Carnival Games, the Kidz Sports series, Kinect Sports and all of the other games that have aped mostly the recent Nintendo software. Or I think of stressful puzzle games.

But there's nothing wrong or unoriginal about casualness itself. The best thing about Wii Sports was that it felt so damn fresh. It was original. It brought the shock of the new. And there are a ton of other games out there doing the same thing, just on a smaller and less blockbuster-friendly scale. Wario Ware, which I suspect will continue its life on home consoles as a downloadable series, made a full retail game solely out of the combination of hilarious novelty games. In this post, however, I want to highlight a smaller game, one piece in a series that hits the novelty nail on the head: Bit.Trip Runner.

Yes, yes, I know that this game and the series that it comes from has been out for years and that I'm late to the party. But in a way, I'm glad to have stumbled onto the game, rather than having played it at the height of its popularity. It's always refreshing to come upon a game almost by accident, only to find yourself hooked three hours later. This feeling, I fear, is disappearing as our access to news and information about every form of media increases exponentially. By the time that I play something, I've usually read at least three articles about it.

If you're not familiar with the Bit.Trip, it is a collection of short, 8-bit styled games available for 3DS, Wii, PC and Mac. The games have simple mechanics and revolve around the relationship between gameplay and music; push the right button at the right time and your actions will add to the jolly, trancy, chiptune soundtrack. Imagine 8-bit versions of Rez or Child of Eden without the pretension. Bit.Trip Beat plays a lot like a musical version of Pong, Bit.Trip Core involves a single screen in which the player can shoot four different laser lines to hit blocks that move in all directions across the screen, while in Bit.Trip Void, a black pixelated blob is controlled almost like a mouse cursor to suck in other black blobs. As each game progresses, the songs in the background get more complex and more congratulatory.

Bit.Trip Runer, to me, is the gem of the bunch. In this game, the series hero, Commander Video, runs across a moving horizontal screen avoiding objects. It functions like the stages in platforming games in which the avatar cannot stop moving forward. The player can jump, slide, and bounce off of springs to avoid obstacles. You can also press the left or right buttons to add notes to the song whenever you'd like, since these buttons are no longer needed for moving. Despite being fairly fast-paced, the game invites celebration and elation. Before each run, Commander Video plays air guitar and does a rock salute a-la Bill and Ted. If you die, the game automatically moves you to the beginning of the level so as not to break the rhythm of playing. It doesn't take itself too seriously, yet through the combination of music and game, it creates an exuberant flow that permeates the feeling of playing.

And mostly, the game feels fun and new, even though its basic premise is as old as Mario. It gives to the player the sensation of novelty, of jumping into someone else's world and playing around. I suspect that the game succeeds because of its attitude and its sense of immersion in a strange, surreal, and unexplained world. These aspects are created by the little touches -- the rock stance, the fairly useless ability to add your own dings to the soundtrack, the rainbow that flies from Captain Video's butt when you're on a particularly good streak. These elements come together to create a central node of novelty, of enjoyment in the strangeness in your own experience that I wish could come across more strongly for my poetry students. It's fantastic and new and completely creative, and it's part of gaming trend that I expect will continue and develop with time.

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